Presley Loving You

Image Dependency Issues

Well everyone, I’ve completed my second Dissertation Bootcamp. It was a rough one, because I came down with a pretty nasty cold at the dawn of the 2-week period and battled it throughout the duration. The good news is: in spite of my illness and some bitter cold temperatures during my commute to campus every morning, I wrote about 34 pages during bootcamp! I am therefore roughly half done with my Elvis chapter. The bad news is: I have become image-dependent.

I assume this is a pretty rare problem for most writers, who don’t necessarily plan to include a whole slew of illustrations with their book-length work for adult readers. In my case, one of the pieces of feedback I received on my first chapter was that images would really help readers to visualize and process some of the very specifically visual arguments I am making regarding dance, costuming, and bodily comportment. Thus, my second chapter included 48 figures (all diptychs) over the course of its 76.5 pages (before endnotes). Even then, I was worried that this might amount to too many images–one certainly doesn’t want the images to overshadow or distract from the actual text. The final file size for the chapter was so large that I had to share it with readers via Google Docs rather than email. The jury’s still out on what my readers think about the image issue, but the file size problem alone really should have given me pause when adding images to this final chapter. Unfortunately, I somehow already have 36 figures in about 45 pages of text. Surely this is too many, but with Elvis I struggle to accurately describe his movements because they are rarely comprised of formal, recognizable dance steps. Thus, I find myself relying on images for all of my descriptive segments.

Presley Loving You

Elvis busts out one of his signature moves toward the end of LOVING YOU (1957)–while sporting a Canadian tuxedo!

Even though I know I can easily go back and delete images when I’m revising, I’m worried that my constant use of images to illustrate my points means that the writing itself is far weaker and less nuanced. I already have the tendency, as a writer, to assume that I’ve made my point when I haven’t quite done so on paper (the point is always thoroughly made in my head!), so something tells me that the presence of images is only exacerbating this tendency.

There’s also the issue of readers’ preexisting knowledge. Unlike the Nicholas Brothers or Gene Kelly, Presley was not a formally trained dancer, nor was dancing his primary entertainment form. So most readers think of him first and foremost as a rock ‘n’ roll singer, not dancer. As a result, I feel more compelled to constantly ‘prove’ that Elvis is dancing as I develop my argument about him, partially to reassure readers that he belongs in this dissertation, but also to reassure them that my argument about his dancing is, in fact, different from the familiar and much-rehearsed argument that he appropriated black music…though it is clearly related. On this register, it feels almost as if I am still at least somewhat worried about being “Obvious, Unimportant, Unoriginal,” a fear I discussed on this blog waaaay back in November of 2014 (over 2 years ago now!). Some things never change, I suppose.

A reasonable solution to this problem would be to restrict myself to 1 or 2 figures per 5 pages of writing, forcing myself to choose my images more wisely and write “better” prose. But it feels like this will slow me down at a time when I need to be writing quite quickly in order to meet all of my deadlines, self imposed or otherwise. Thus, I think I’m going to just continue working whatever way is easiest and hope that future me, in revisions mode, will still approve of the plan to move faster rather than more responsibly forward. With luck, it will be easier to revise when I’ve achieved a bit of distance from this specific chapter and have begun to approach the dissertation as a whole body of work.

ed-sullivan-show-10-28-56-18

What better way to demonstrate Elvis’s use of eyeliner than with a screenshot? (from The Ed Sullivan Show, November 1956)

 

Well, with this problem noted, I guess I should simply get back to it and push forward. I still want to have this final chapter completed by early January, and I’d say I’m definitely only about halfway through Presley’s screen career. So, there’s much left to do!

Happy Holidays, everyone! I wish you all a less work-heavy winter than mine.

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Day 822: Crunch Time

Dear readers, I am here to report that my Fall quarter didn’t exactly elapse as I had planned it (again). Job applications took more time and energy than anticipated, and I spent just about all of November traveling for a conference and archival research. So here I am, in December, with only 8 pages of my final dissertation chapter written. WELLP.

The good news is, I’ve watched all Elvis materials from 1956-1961. What remains is 1962-1968, with the comeback special. The other good news is, I start my second dissertation bootcamp tomorrow.

The bad news is, even if I draft a solid 30ish pages during bootcamp, I’m going to have to do a LOT of work over the holidays. This is obviously unfortunate, but I’m lucky to have a supportive family who’s prepared to see very little of me and serve me meals while I’m hunched over my laptop.

I’m in the midst of finalizing my defense date with my committee, but it’s looking like it will be in mid-April. Thus, I am definitely entering CRUNCH TIME. This chapter has to be done by mid-January, in order for me to have enough time to revise all three body chapters and then properly frame them in an intro and conclusion. It’s going to be tight, and an intense last few months, but my university moved up its filing deadline this year so there’s not really any other option if I want to graduate this spring…and as I mentioned in my previous post, I’m out of funding, so I basically have to.

I must admit, I am generally overwhelmed by the amount of work I am facing in the next few months. Some days, it feels insurmountable. I anticipate having to completely cut out any semblance of a social life; I’ve already been neglecting my friends lately, and that’s only going to get worse as my drop-dead deadline looms and my desperation increases. But, like so much of the seemingly-insurmountable work I’ve faced over the course of graduate school, it MUST get done, so it simply will.

But lately I’ve been pondering: What will I do if I fail the defense? Will I have the mental and emotional fortitude to scrape together some sort of temp work or minimum wage jobs for a year while I try to completely rewrite this behemoth and then go through the whole harrowing defense again? I’m not sure. It seems ridiculous to give up on the PhD at the very last minute, but I am human and I have my limits. Graduate school has already been the most difficult period of my life, and a large part of me just wants it to be over, regardless of how it ends. It’s best not to dwell on the ‘what if?,’ I know…but the anxiety remains even when I don’t think about it.

Anyway, for now I simply need to hunker down. Focus, think, produce. Be a robot. Here goes~~~

On Reaching Third Base: The Final Chapter

Before you ask–no, the title of this post was not meant to bring back middle school memories of the baseball metaphors you used to describe sexual exploration. But it probably did anyway. I’m still going to keep the metaphor, though, because if graduate school as a whole is a marathon, then the dissertation is a baseball game you have to play while you’re running the second half of the marathon. In this mixed metaphor, coming up with your dissertation prospectus is the one moment you get to stop running, stand at the plate, and plan your swinging strategy. The outcome of that prospectus swing then determines just how fast and how far you’ll be able to run for the rest of the marathon. You’ve got to round all three bases and hit the home plate in order to be able to access the finish line of the marathon, but the timing here affects what you face beyond the finish line.

Are you lost? Good, as are we all. I’ve heard a lot of conflicting advice over the years regarding the best way to approach the dissertation as a project (in the humanities–it’s a different beast in the social sciences and especially in STEM). Some say it should be 3-4 longish chapters (so, in the range of 50-70 pages each); others say it should be 4-6 shorter chapters (in the range of 30-45 pages each). Some say you should complete the whole thing in 2-3 years (so, at breakneck speeds); others say you should take a solid 4-6 years (to do a really thorough job with it). Each of these approaches (and many other variations) supposedly has a variously direct or indirect relationships to one’s likelihood of securing a postdoctoral fellowship or a tenure-track professorship. But in all honesty, I don’t think anybody knows what they’re talking about. This advice always comes from a perspective whose supporting data has a severely limited sample size–mentors gather the outcomes of their own career paths (and service on search committees), that of their friends and colleagues, and perhaps their past students/mentees, and boil this down into prescriptive advice. But the experience of a dozen or so people is not indicative of a highly dynamic job market.

All of this is to say  that, while there might be wrong ways to ‘do the dissertation,’ there is certainly no one right way. I have written my DOS-D in something akin to the fast lane–I’m entering my third year working on the project, and I’m beginning my third and final chapter. (Yes, I submitted my honking, 80-page second chapter a couple weeks ago, on Day 739!). It’s hard to tell whether or not this has been an overall good decision for the quality of the project and for my chances on the job market; I only know that this is my year of “extended” funding, meaning I won’t be getting any more, and that the adjuncting-for-cash market is pretty saturated in my field and current city. And unlike some PhD candidates (though I can’t imagine I am in the minority here), I do not have a well-paid partner or a bedroom in my parents’ house or a large enough “cushion” of additional funds and resources to depend on while I’m waiting in purgatory.

So here I am, embarking on my final chapter (and hoping to have it fully drafted by the dawn of 2017 in a little over 3 months). I’m really glad I saved Elvis Presley for last; he has by far the most colossal star text and fan base of my case studies, and my argument for this chapter is both the most obvious and the most seemingly ‘out of line’ with the assumptions generally made about dance-on-screen scholarship. I’ve also heard from friends and colleagues that the last chapter goes the fastest–by this point, you’ve figured out how to write dissertation chapters (both as a general skill and in terms of what tricks and strategies work best for you personally). So, while the first chapter took roughly 6 months to produce (though only 4 to actually write), and the second chapter took 8 months (thanks to teaching and other obligations), I’m pretty confident I can pump this one out in 3 months. The majority of my second chapter (almost half) was written during the two weeks of a dissertation bootcamp, and I’m planning on participating in another one this December, so I really do think this trajectory is feasible if I can get the first half-ish written by early December.

Fortunately, I have once again signed up to give a conference talk on the subject of my chapter. In November, I’ll be presenting “The Power of ‘The Pelvis’: How Elvis Presley Danced Race and Ideology” at the joint annual conference of the Society of Dance History Scholars and Congress of Research in Dance. I will focus less on the “screens” aspect of my work in this talk and more on “ideology” but I nevertheless believe this will jumpstart my last chapter, much as my Gene Kelly talk in March of 2015 did for my first chapter.

So far, I’ve watched a film and some TV episodes, read a few chapters from various books, and have made a plan for what else I need to view and read before I can start writing (ideally by October 1). I guess you could say I’m in the collecting phase–collecting texts and absorbing them in order to then spit out a great deal of analysis! To close, here’s a representative screen shot of Presley dancing on “The Frank Sinatra Timex Special: Welcome Home Elvis” in 1960, upon his return from 2 years of military service in Germany:

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This is from a low-quality kinescope–I’m looking for a better copy–but it’s always interesting to see those hips move sans the encumbrance of a guitar!

See you next time, readers! Happy Fall.

Day 653: “Halfway” Point

Today isn’t literally the chronological halfway point in my dissertation writing (it’s closer to the 2/3rds mark), but I’d say I’ve finally reached the halfway point of the writing itself (which includes 3 body chapters, an intro, and a conclusion) since I’m nearly done with the second of 3 chapters, and the intro/conclusion will each be a bit shorter. Though this second chapter took an inordinately long period of time, I won’t be teaching/TAing next year as I was all three quarters this year, so I hope/imagine/require next year to be a bit more productive, thereby allowing me to draft a third chapter AND my intro & conclusion…and revise the whole damn thing. But ANYWAY~

So here we are: it’s post-bootcamp check-in time, and I’m exhausted. Several of you have IRL-asked for my review of Dissertation Bootcamp, so consider this the more articulate version of whatever I babbled at you in my sleep-deprived, mentally overloaded state.

First, let me be clear: Dissertation Bootcamp (if your institution offers one) is absolutely worth it. Do it, take seriously and follow the rules, and be strict with yourself; you’ll be happy with the results.

As for the details: bootcamp is accurately titled; its accompanying connotations of pushing oneself to the limit in order to be better physically and mentally prepared for the challenges to follow are right on target. The bootcamp wore me out so thoroughly that I didn’t really feel up to the gym while in it, could barely muster the energy to do a load of laundry, and left some of my harder-to-clean dishes in the sink for the entire 2 weeks because the effort required seemed impossible to summon. I didn’t cook much, I didn’t sleep enough…those 2 weeks all fuse together into a single memory of sitting in a cold room drinking cheap tea, munching on a semi-gross granola bar, and forcing myself to keep typing out my analysis of yet another on-screen dance performance in the context of the Civil Rights Movement and persistent stereotypes/restrictions around the representation of black masculinity.

Carolina Blues 3

Pardon the super-blurry image capture, but this is pretty much the most Harold Nicholas was ever shown touching a woman onscreen (CAROLINA BLUES, 1944).

 

The coordinator of this particular bootcamp suggested to us that we might be preternaturally productive the first week due to the initial adrenaline rush, that the hardest point would be day 6/7 at the beginning of Week 2, and that we’d hit our stride toward the end. The level of productivity that last few days would be a more accurate indicator of what we should expect ourselves to be capable of when we continue our work going forward. This did not hold entirely true for me. While Monday and Tuesday of Week 2 were rough, Friday might have been the roughest. And while my productivity varied by day, mood, weather, subject matter, my average remained 3-4 pages per day both weeks, with my total output for the duration of bootcamp totaling 36 pages (including images/figures but excluding endnotes). I probably have 5-10 more pages to write for the chapter draft to be ‘complete,’ so I fell short of my goal but not by as much as I thought I would.

BUT, I wouldn’t necessarily say my experience is representative of most, so YMMV. I do think the extent to which you actually unplug and disconnect from everything else (that conference presentation you really should on, that syllabus you haven’t put together yet, those papers that really need to be graded like, yesterday) could affect your productivity, as I’ve found that dissertation writing (for me) is an incredibly immersive process. However, some people do best when they can task-switch, so knowing yourself and how you work is probably key here. I was also careful to enter bootcamp with mostly-writing left to do; if you’re still in the idea stage, research stage, outlining stage, etc., it will of course be harder to measure progress. I personally prefer to conduct all of that work at my own pace, allow for flights of fancy and tangents, etc. because you never know how these will shape your eventual product. I don’t think bootcamp would be the right environment for that kind of work, but again, YMMV.

I alluded to this in my last post, but the two best things about bootcamp were:

  1. Having an excuse to “say no” to EVERYTHING BUT YOUR DISSERTATION. It’s so, so rare for me to successfully push everything else (the needs of various people in my life, emails, chores and errands, upcoming deadlines, teaching, meetings, other writing projects, etc.) out of my sight, brain, and conscience for 4 hours. When I’m not multi-tasking on about 3 of those between the hours of 10am and 10pm, I generally feel guilty. Those of you who have been following this blog since at least the beginning of the 2015-2016 academic year know that one of my biggest struggles in dissertation writing has been attending to my many other obligations (most of which have been more immediately time-sensitive than the DOS-D) to the detriment of my dissertation writing needs. Bootcamp provides the structure and rules to not only allow but also require the exclusion of everything else from your headspace for the benefit of your dissertation. Many of my colleagues who are “alumni” of dissertation bootcamp thus try various strategies to replicate this sort of ascetic utopia for productive work on their dissertations, book projects, etc.
  2. Being forced to engage with your dissertation EVERY DAY. One of the worst results of having to juggle and often prioritize so many other obligations is that when I DO come back to my writing, I can’t remember where I was going or what I was saying or how I was approaching my subject-matter when I left off. Now, I frequently leave myself notes about what the argument will be or what will come next, but even those don’t always help me get back into the headspace of my dissertation. In fact, this is why I often need to work in several-hour chunks; the time spent simply trying to re-enter the world of my dissertation lessens when I spend more frequent time or longer, uninterrupted periods there. Bootcamp’s insistence that I sit down and work on my DOS-D every day of the week meant that I could minimize time wasted on re-situating myself.

Ok, this has been a long one but I hope it helped at least some of you consider if/when to participate in a bootcamp and how to mentally prepare for it. For what it’s worth, I’m planning to sign up for the winter bootcamp to be held at the end of Fall quarter, and due to weather/season it promises to be far more miserable than this one but hopefully just as productive.

I now have to prepare for a summer course I’m teaching, which starts in 2 days. It’s on The Hollywood Musical, though, so I’m hoping that the act of teaching this (entirely self-designed!) undergrad seminar will help me make connections and continue to clarify my arguments in the DOS-D. And, with luck, I’ll have time in the coming weeks to ACTUALLY finish this chapter draft and begin working on my third and final chapter on Elvis Presley!

(Writing) Under Pressure

Hiya, readers. I’m writing to record my progress now that I’m halfway through my first Dissertation Bootcamp. I’ve written 23.5 pages in the last 2 weeks, 18.5 of them at Bootcamp. It’s a difficult environment for me because 1) it starts at 9am sharp, which is too early for my brain to function properly; 2) it’s only got limited access to drinks and snacks (Keurig coffee, tea, and granola bars are provided; I’ve been bringing my own Cheez-its and strawberries); and 3) it’s a total pressure cooker. Which is to say, about 20 of us sit at tables all in a row, surrounded by books and papers and laptops, staring quietly at each in turn. People only really get up for more caffeine or a restroom break, and the room is basically silent for 4 hours. As someone who works best in cafés and sometimes bars (yes, really), I find the silence a bit deafening–thank goodness for headphones!

Still, simply being stuck in this place with my dissertation and no interruptions every day has been good for my productivity; I’ve averaged about 1 page per hour overall, which maybe isn’t amazing but at least it’s steady. I doubt I’ll reach my original goal of completing the chapter by the end of next week, but I’m definitely heading into the final third of it now. Interestingly, the main reason I probably won’t finish it is that my sustained daily practice has led me to make a lot of interesting connections, discoveries, and the like which have enriched my initial plans and structure for the chapter. So, it’s a good thing, really, because now the chapter will be more dynamic (I hope). Given this experience, I’m starting to understand why many people highly recommend trying to work on one’s dissertation every day even if only for half an hour. Keeping your brain in the game, as it were, seems to yield more creative and nuanced thinking–which seems obvious now that I write it down. Of course, making time every day is easier said than done.

I’ve also discovered that, as far as writing a humanities dissertation goes, I’m very lucky that my project moves even this fast. Many of my colleagues have to spend far more time than I do combing through archives, or translating old texts, or slowly working their way through very dense theory. Because my project is historical (not theoretical) but based largely in close readings (rather than the accumulation of many objects) of mostly-available texts, I avoid many of the difficulties of other kinds of projects. Part of my “good luck,” of course, is due to my distinctly bad luck in discovering that I am barred from accessing several of the archives of the major stars I’m writing about, so I was forced to make my project more about readings of media objects themselves rather than their contexts and the discourses that circulated around them. I think we often forget, when we think about the process of dissertation research, writing, and pacing overall, that one size fits very few–even within the humanities.

Well, that’s about all I have to say for now, so to spice up this wall of text a bit, here’s an awesome screenshot of the Nicholas Brothers in Orchestra Wives (1942):
Orchestra Wives 4