Day 910: The Home Stretch, AKA Revisions

My apologies, dear readers. I remember at least 3 occasions during February when I said to myself, “I should try to post about this!” but then failed to find the time or energy to do so. Thus, now that it’s March, I will attempt to look back and describe what I’ve gone through since January.

At first, I stuck to the schedule. I started with revisions for Chapter 1, on the Nicholas brothers. I very quickly found myself overwhelmed with this task. I had no idea how to even begin to address all of the comments I received, even after I methodically went through them and made a task list. As February dawned and I was still treading water with the first chapter, I decided to switch gears and begin work on Chapter 2 revisions.

But, I soon realized that some of the shared problems with both the first and second chapters might reasonably solved by the introduction, so when I was still only a handful of pages into my Gene Kelly revisions, I switched gears again and started to write the introduction, which I hadn’t even really outlined yet but I did have plenty of notes to guide me. Surprisingly, it was easier to write than I had anticipated, so it (thankfully) only took about a week. But then, with less than a week before my deadline, I was left with a still-unfinished attempt at a Chapter 1 revision and a barely-touched Chapter 2, which I discovered too late was a complete disaster.

I probably should have known that Chapter 2 would be such a mess. It was the first chapter I wrote, one which I started writing two whole years ago and hadn’t really looked back at since then. Of course, it became the basis for my writing sample, which I used in job applications, but the 25-page version was much tighter and more polished than the full chapter, and the changes I made for the writing sample did not translate to improvements of the chapter version nearly as often as I had thought they would. And, after spending so much time tightening up my best chapter, it became very clear just how bad my worst was in comparison—almost no argument to be found at all! I discovered that the argument had been more pronounced in my head and in my descriptions of the project elsewhere, but largely fell away in the chapter itself.

chocolat-3

One of my tasks during Chapter 2 revisions was to add images, such as this one in which Gene Kelly literally dissolves into a drawing of black dancer Raphaël Padilla (Toulouse-Lautrec’s Chocolat) during An American in Paris (1951).

Meanwhile, our department’s recruitment weekend fast approached, and it entailed a series of events with many moving parts and details to coordinate—most of which was my job. I was also asked to serve as the representative graduate student scholar of my department and give a talk on the second day of the weekend, so it was crucial that I submit the intro and chapter revisions before all of this hit.

…but I didn’t quite make it. I submitted the ~185 pages 2 days too late, and with insufficient attention to the final section of Chapter 2, which was the worst part. This meant I did a subpar job preparing the talk, which itself was a version of the final section of Chapter 1.

All of this is a long way of saying that REVISIONS ARE THE HARDEST PART. This has taken me completely by surprise. I thought they would be so much easier than writing but I was very, very mistaken. I really should have anticipated this, though; one thing I have long known about myself is that I’m not very good at editing my own work. Once I’ve written something, I have a very hard time envisioning it otherwise. Editing for me has always been a slow and painful process, so I’m not sure why I thought that editing of a more dramatic sort (thus the term “revisions”) would be somehow less difficult. I suppose part of the reason is that preparing my materials for the job market in the Fall had really helped me to conceptualize the full project more clearly, so I felt more equipped to “fix” all the problems and reshape them to fit my newly coherent vision than I actually was.

I am still anticipating feedback from my chair in about 2 weeks, and I must admit I am newly terrified that he will inform me I’m not ready to defend yet after all. I know that I personally still don’t feel like it’s “there” yet, and this is frustrating because I’ve put in so many hundreds of hours at this point. In fact, this feeling is oddly reminiscent of the one I expressed way back at the beginning of this process, in November 2014, when I still wasn’t even quite sure how I was going to structure this dissertation yet (or what the case studies were). To quote my old self, “it’s an odd place to be: on the precipice of my potential, able to sense it but not able to actually see it yet.” Back then I couldn’t even see the shape of the thing I wanted to write—now, I definitely have the shape, but the contents don’t feel appropriately interconnected, coherent, and smoothed out. I can visualize, conceptualize, and imagine what the best version of my dissertation would look and sound like, but I am really struggling to get it to take shape.

I am blessed with great vision despite years of straining my eyes, but I think the appropriate metaphor for this experience is the difference between looking at a vision test before and after glasses. I can make out the general shapes of those letters (and chapters and sections and paragraphs) but I can’t actually distinguish them well enough to read them. But at the same time, I know what letters I should be able to see there, because I’m very familiar with this chart.

This is a scary place to be when your official manuscript has to be submitted to your committee in exactly 4 weeks.

So, for now, I’m trying to tackle revisions on Chapter 3 (Elvis). I have notes to self for re-revising certain parts of the other two chapters, especially Chapter 2, which still needs at least another week of work…but as I begin to go through comments on this final chapter, I’m terrified that Elvis is going to turn out to need even more help than Gene and that I’m not going to be able to turn in good—one might say, defensible—work at the end of the month because I won’t have time to fix everything well enough.

I must admit, I did not expect these final weeks to be nearly so frightening. I thought for sure I’d have it all together by now, that I’d feel better about my 3 years of work on this huge project. Instead, I’m really quite disappointed in my poor execution of good ideas.

Well, readers, I may not post again until after I theoretically submit at the end of the month, so wish me luck! I’ll try to check in again before the defense.

 

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

I admit: sometimes progress is slow not because you don’t have enough time to write but because you don’t have enough confidence to write.

My latest chapter is currently about 8 pages long, and it’s been stuck there for well over a week now. The winter term is over and my students haven’t yet turned in their final projects so I’m trying to take advantage of the blissful gap between the two. I’ve sat down and tried to write, gotten stuck, made outlines and lists of topics to cover, jotted down small ideas to incorporate later, scoured the web for more primary materials, conducted an email exchange with the NYPL, and found a research travel grant to apply for. But I’m still stuck.

My problem, I think, is fear. I’m once again in that dark space where I imagine most writers land at one point or another: writer’s block. I know generally what I want to say, and if pushed I could even articulate what my intervention is. But I just can’t make it happen! Part of the problem is that good old trifecta I wrote about back in November of 2014: the fear of my work being Obvious, Unimportant, Unoriginal. I am referring more to other scholars for this chapter, and one in particular has said some very similar things about the Nicholas Brothers. In fact, the more I re-read her work, the more it begins to feel like all of my major claims are entirely unoriginal! They have begun to sound like only slight rearrangements of what this other scholar has already made quite clear! And when I do find small claims of my own that I can’t find proof of elsewhere, they sound so obvious or unimportant compared to the bigger claims that feel unoriginal! So it is here that I have trapped myself.

b4e

I’m not even a Spongebob fan, but this is definitely me right now.

 

I know in my heart of hearts that even if this chapter does say roughly the same thing this other scholar said, I am probably paying more attention to medium specificity than her because she is a dance scholar and I am theoretically a scholar of “screens”…and I am putting this analysis in conversation with my other case studies, whereas her entire monograph is an academic biography of just the Nicholases…but that feels dissatisfying. One of my mentors described my current state as a case of “the blahs,” and that definitely registers as accurate. She suggested sitting with them and in them in order to work through and past them but oh how unproductive this makes me feel!

Right now, this dissertation seems interminable…and I’m not even half done yet. A year and a half into the process and not even half done?!? Yeeeesh.

Day 500! Time Management Fails; Starting 2nd Chapter

While I’ve been remiss in posting for a full three months this time, I was fortunate to remember about my little ol’ dissertation blog JUST IN TIME for DAY 500!  (Although, because I’m a night owl, this won’t actually be posted until the wee hours of day 501 but SHHHH—And yes, I know the reference that comes to mind…I’ve never seen 500 Days of Summer, but something tells me the first 500 days of dissertation writing are 100% less interesting than that movie). So, where am I in the process? Well, I wrote zer0 (DOS-D) words last quarter, and squeezed in maybe 4 days of research, broadly conceived, from September to December. (Which is to say, the hopes and dreams I wrote about in October all came to naught.)

Now, you might be asking yourself, “What does ‘research, broadly conceived’ even mean?” The research I managed to conduct over the entirety of my extremely busy Fall quarter includes:

  • A search for and downloading of variously rare videos of the Nicholas Brothers dancing on film and television (complete with accurate file labeling!, which is harder than you might think with rare media objects)

    1935-fayard_harold_nicholas

    Harold & Fayard Nicholas in AN ALL-COLORED VAUDEVILLE SHOW (1935)

  • Some re-reading through key portions of Constance Valis Hill’s excellent dance-bio of the Nicholas Brothers, Brotherhood in Rhythm (and methodically cross-referencing my own knowledge of the brothers’ dance media with the list Hill provides in the back of her book, being careful to distinguish between what I deem the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ but similarly titled documentaries on them)
  • Attending a special screening+discussion of The Littlest Rebel (1935, featuring tap dancing by both Bill Robinson and little Shirley Temple), hosted by two of my mentors
  • A little revising of Chapter 2, including reshaping its opening anecdote and attempting to clarify its core argument, especially with an eye to its transition out of Chapter 1 (which hadn’t been written yet)

Annnnd that’s about it. How is this excessively low level of productivity over the course of 4 months even possible for someone who spends 3-4 (usually 4) days per week on campus AND who works most of every weekend? One word: Teaching. At this juncture in my experience as a baby academic, I honestly cannot comprehend how early career professors manage to teach 2+ courses per term AND publish articles AND work on their book AND serve on various committees AND attend conferences. I just flipped to an early week of November in my planner, and it involved a guest lecture, 15 student meetings, 2 summer course proposals drafted+submitted, a meeting to discuss previously submitted written reflections on positionality & power with my colleagues in our campus’ Teaching Certificate Program, reading and attending 2 lectures for the course I was Lead TA for, a meeting with the professor and fellow TAs for that course, and teaching 2 discussion sections. Now, bearing in mind that many of these obligations required the dreaded invisible labor of “prep time,” and that I also had other life obligations like attending colleagues’ presentation of their current projects, exercising, cooking and eating the odd meal with my partner, and of course laundry (which I find I’ve now mentioned at least 3 times in this blog about my dissertation…), it’s not entirely surprising that I didn’t get to my DOS-D at all that week. …or most weeks.

All of this being said, it’s simply a scholar’s reality that there is always too much to do in too little time. So, even as I successfully did a lot of non-dissy things last quarter, I still have to consider it an overall time management failure. I had to learn the hard way that teaching will eat up as much time as you let it. I managed many of the same responsibilities a few years ago when I also had a full courseload, so it must be the case that I managed my time a little better back then (although I distinctly remember sleeping much less, having no time to devote to a relationship, and eating 90% microwaved and otherwise prepackaged food).

Thus, one of my “resolutions” for this year, or at least this quarter, is to give over less time to teaching. It hasn’t worked particularly well so far, but I’ve also already put in more DOS-D work in the last week that I did all last quarter! I have:

  • Finished re-reading and re-annotating Brotherhood in Rhythm
  • Read several chapters of Jean & Marshall Stearns’ Jazz Dance, specifically tracking the essence of jazz dance develop through its prehistories in minstrelsy
  • FINALLY WROTE WORDS for my second chapter (Chapter 1) in the form of an introductory paragraph
  • Started my outline for the chapter
  • Jotted some basic notes about the current state of my anticipated central argument for the chapter

I’m now getting to the point, however, where I feel the need to start planning another visit to the archives…I want to get a stronger sense of the brothers’ choreographic process, and also of their reception, in order to parallel the depth of access I managed for myself in the previous chapter on Gene Kelly. We’ll see if I can find the time and funding to achieve such a visit…until then, I’ll have to depend on the various digital archives I can access online (mostly newspapers). I also need to keep in mind the fact that I told too much of a basic chronological (hi)story in my last chapter–I don’t want to make that mistake again, so I’m going to need to make sure my argument is more present and powerful in my writing this time around. I’m already feeling apprehensive about that, because I worry that my argument is too simple to really carry the weight of the whole history…but that’s a problem for later, I suppose.

In short, Day 500 finds me at the beginning of writing my 2nd chapter, emerging ever so slightly from a long bout of poor time management. And now, onwards~

Obvious; Unimportant; Unoriginal

In the two weeks since my first major breakthrough on the DOS-D, I’ve had to switch gears somewhat and focus on the conference talk I’ll be giving at the joint Society of Dance History Scholars/Congress of Research on Dance annual conference in Iowa City this month.  My topic is the Dance Company Film (the first term I’ve coined, I believe) and I’m using the Ruth Page Collection from the Chicago Film Archives as my case study.

As of today, I’ve gotten about 7 pages together for it.  My average length for a conference paper is about 10, so I’m most of the way there but I’ve reached that point–one I reach often with short pieces like this–where everything I’m saying feels obvious.  You can’t take on too much with a 20-30 minute conference talk, especially if you’re using clips, and I usually do.  But as a result, given that I’m mainly thinking about the very big, very complex claims of my DOS-D lately, this little conference talk feels like it’s saying nothing at all, which is one of my greatest fears about my work in general.

In fact, I think the trifecta of fears for most of us humanities scholars is that our work is either obvious, unimportant, or unoriginal.  I know I’ve been through this entire cycle in the past week alone, and will go through it many times again.  For example, regarding my work’s importance: I’m very interested in technology, new media, and the Internet–topics which are undeniably “important” to think about–so studying old and sometimes obscure things can be difficult to justify to myself.  Why put so much effort into understanding the presentation of masculinity in midcentury dance on screen when the key problem today seems to be performances of gender in relation to gaming, coding, technophilia and technophobia?  It can be hard to remember that understanding contemporary problems is always aided by understanding older, only tangentially related problems, and that the building up of knowledge need not be as linear or utilitarian as the current market-driven neoliberal zeitgeist would have me believe.

As for originality, I don’t think I know any young scholars who haven’t experienced the overwhelming panic that accompanies accidental discovery of the article/dissertation/book that “already said EXACTLY what I’m saying.”  It’s already happened to me a couple of times in the past few months, but the wisdom of others indicates that even when it seems like their ideas are exactly like yours, you’ll probably end up saying it differently anyway because you’re probably coming at things from a somewhat different angle/perspective/background.

A still from a film currently entitled "B & H Dupe" (to be catalogued, Ruth Page Collection, Chicago Film Archives)

A still from a film currently entitled “B & H Dupe” (to be catalogued, Ruth Page Collection, Chicago Film Archives)

It’s unfortunate that I’ve had to cut the Ruth Page chapter from my dissertation since I’m doing so much work on it lately, but perhaps this means I’ll be able to turn it into a strong article for publication sooner rather than later.  And once I’ve finished drafting the talk, I’ll be able to focus squarely on restructuring my DOS-D in a way befitting my narrower topic.  I really want to avoid a boring person-per-chapter or decade-per-chapter approach, but I don’t completely trust my ability to come up with a more nuanced, synthetic organization before writing a bunch of it.

…which leads me to my biggest current frustration.  I was just telling a close friend and colleague that I’m in a strange, liminal place as a scholar right now: I feel like I ‘know better’ than much of what I read (that is to say, I have viable critiques and can imagine more interesting arguments to make or more compelling presentations of the material I go through) yet I feel unable to express the smart stuff floating around in my brain.  As I said to my colleague, I’m afraid I’m never going to become the caliber of scholar I want myself to be.  Now, this is silly–I’m just now embarking on my dissertation so of course I have a ton of developing left to do.  But, nonetheless, it’s an odd place to be: on the precipice of my potential, able to sense it but not able to actually see it yet.

I’m hoping that forcing myself to come up with a structure I can live with in the next 10 days (before I leave for the midwest, the conference, and check-in meetings with my advisors) will assuage this somewhat, for the time being.  So I guess now I need to figure out the most effective way to force this brilliant structure out of myself.  I think it will involve a little inspirational reading of texts I’d like to emulate (like Murray Forman’s One Night on TV is Worth Weeks at the Paramount: Popular Music on Early Television) and maybe some light archival fishing to point me in some direction or other…