Day 197: First Day of Writing! (Discussion: First Conference Talk; First Chapter Outline)

It’s been more than a month between posts this time, but much has transpired!  I did a great deal of traveling for conferences, archives, and meetings with my DOS-D committee.  In the process, I came up with what I think is the first viable potential title for this beast:

The Flash, The Feet, The Pelvis: Dancing Race and Masculinity across Midcentury Film and TV

(Please, big bad Interwebs, don’t steal that from me.)  “The Flash” represents the Nicholas Brothers, who were often (mistakenly) understood as flash dancers–their acrobatics made them seem to fall in that category, but they were actually jazz tap dancers through and through.  “The Feet” represents Gene Kelly, who was often referred to as such by critics, especially when he was featured alongside Frank Sinatra in films (Sinatra was “The Voice” to his Feet).  And, perhaps most obviously, “The Pelvis” represents Elvis Presley, famous for his naughty hip gyrations on national television.  These four men are the core of my DOS-D chapters, so this seems a fitting first stab at a title.  Many of my colleagues seem to have already settled on their titles but I’m one of those people who can’t finalize a title until literally every other part of a writing project is done.  So the fact that I’ve thought of even one decent title means I’ve come a long way toward conceptualizing the larger work, which is great news since I’m about 6 months in now!

Now then, as I mentioned last post, I had two conference talks to give at the end of March and both went well.  It was a special relief, though, that the second one went well because it was the first time I’ve presented dissertation material to the (academic) public.  In my case, this was a close analysis of Gene Kelly’s 1958 Omnibus special “Dancing, A Man’s Game.”

At the beginning of the special, Kelly compares dancing to sports.

At the beginning of the special, Kelly compares dancing to sports.

There is a particular fear that comes with presenting initial iterations of your first major ideas–the ideas you’re going to be living with for the next decade (see my first post for more on this problem)–to your “peers,” which I’ve placed in scare quotes because “peers” at this juncture in a young scholar’s career almost invariably actually means older, wiser, published, and successful scholars in one’s field.  If, for example, I had received particularly critical or exasperating comments, if my presentation was not met with enthusiasm, if the experience had been negative in any way, I’d have no doubt felt terribly crushed and feared that these precious initial ideas are silly, ill-conceived, boring, or even Obvious; Unimportant; Unoriginal.  So I’m proud to report that two famous scholars seemed to thoroughly enjoy the talk (one even said as much), the entire audience (which thankfully consisted of more than 4 people) giggled at my little jokes, and the follow-up questions conveyed sincere interest and constructive commentary rather than annoyed disdain.  A couple people even approached me afterwards with compliments.  In all, I was very pleased and even more relieved.

Not too long after, I finally managed to churn out a coherent outline for Chapter 2 of my dissertation (which I just so happen to be writing first, as it’s the easiest to put together).  Tentatively titled “The Feet: The Marlon Brando of Dance,” the chapter tracks Gene Kelly’s career from film to television, thinking about the ways his dancing presented masculinity to the WWII and postwar public on these different screens and the ways in which this representation intersected with blackness in particular (and racial politics in general) during that period.  (See the featured photo of my last post for a clear visual example from The Pirate, in which Kelly dances with the Nicholas Brothers.)  I was, of course, quite afraid of presenting this outline to my DOS-D advisors because I honestly don’t know the first thing about outlining a 60+ page document.  Even as a PhD candidate, I’ve never written (and therefore never created a detailed outline for) an academic paper longer than about 25 or 30 pages.  (The obvious exceptions, here, are my two undergraduate honors theses, one of which was maybe 40 pages and the other of which was about 100.  But I think we can all agree that an undergraduate thesis hardly requires the level of academic rigor that might be expected of an advanced graduate student.)  The dissertation chapter, then, is a difficult creature to conceptualize in terms of its ebbs, flows, arguments, threads, examples, etc.  Fortunately, I’ve been given the thumbs-up to start writing the chapter as envisioned in my outline.  The only real warnings were:

  1. Don’t forget to include some form of literature review at the beginning, so as to map out the terrain of other scholarship I’ll be referring to throughout the chapter
  2. Since this dissertation is equally about film and television, make sure not to accidentally favor the former because the films are both more easily accessible to watch and more often discussed in that other scholarship mentioned above
  3. Consider your opening anecdote a “first draft” anecdote, because it’s difficult to gauge how appropriate an opening anecdote is until the whole chapter is drafted

In many ways, the dissertation chapter seems to be a gargantuan 3-5 page college essay (of which I’ve now graded hundreds).  What would be a paragraph in these essays is now an entire section; each substantive sentence in the section represents a paragraph or two.  This is a good way, I think, to avoid getting completely lost in a sea of my own prose.  Which is a good realization to have just now, because today I begin writing in earnest.  I’ve opened a new Word document, I’ve got my Scrivener project file open, my outline with annotations from those advisor meetings sits on the table beside my laptop.  After I publish this post, I shall embark on the long journey.  (I’ve promised both myself and my advisors that this chapter will be in “full draft” form by June 12 and ready for workshopping/edits by June 21).

And so, here goes everything!

Day 1: Greetings, Introductions, Beginnings

Hello Reader, and welcome to DOS-D.

This blog is in fact not about a heretofore unknown Disk Operating System from the ’90s, nor is it about the Department of Supernatural Defense–though you would perhaps have found those more interesting.  This blog is going to track my dissertation writing process, from its murky beginnings (now) to its very definitive end (a later time, in the future, at some point).  There will be videos and images, so that should be fun, and this should prove an interesting peek into the life of a young academic (especially for friends and family who remain a little mystified by my job description as a newly minted “PhD Candidate”).  There will also be a generous helping of my potentially crazy and probably contradictory thoughts as I try to process my research & writing–this will be less fun for you but hopefully helpful for me when I need to reflect on my choices.

Depending on how you came upon this blog, you may or may not know much about me and my project.  (Pretty sure there’s a widget or two in the righthand sidebar to help you out with the former).  In either case, you’ve no doubt gathered from the blog’s title that my work is concerned with dance on screen.  For the purposes of my dissertation, I am focusing specifically on the intersection of dance cultures with film and television cultures in the US during the middle decades of the 20th century.

A few weeks ago I successfully defended my dissertation prospectus, but my sage committee found it to be more like “a proposal for an entire career,” and suggested that I narrow down my focus.  So, after moving to a new city and attempting to clear my mind, I am launching into my first year of dissertation work in a confused state; I had a very clear plan before, but now I must reformulate it into something a little less ambitious, and I’m uncertain how I want this new version to look.

It’s a common adage in the humanities fields of academia that your dissertation is your plea for a tenure-track professorship (and thus has to be easily converted into an enticing first book manuscript), but I’ve also frequently been warned that I should be ready to “live with” my dissertation for at least a decade.  That is to say, between the research, the writing, the revising, the defending, the RE-revising, the book proposal, the job applications, the book manuscript, and the first several stand-alone courses taught, I’m going to be spending a whole lot of time with this topic for the next 10 years.  The prospectus I defended before my committee in September bore all this in mind; I worked on it for 4 months and felt confident, upon submission, that I could indeed live with that proposed baby for the next decade.  Now I have about a month to come up with a more streamlined, and thus more attractive, baby that I can love just as much.  And then I have 2-3 years to, uh, produce said baby.

So I sat down today and decided that I have no better way of figuring out the basic contours of my new DOS-D than launching myself into a few weeks of research.  I’ve gotta look at (some of) what there is–watch and re-watch old films and TV clips, read archival materials, re-visit key academic works on surrounding topics–in order to figure out how to structure what I have to say about it all.  I started with a clip of Gene Kelly being interviewed by Edward R. Murrow on a December 1958 episode of Person to Person, just days before Kelly’s Omnibus Christmas special “Dancing, A Man’s Game” aired on NBC.  A friend and colleague of mine recently happened upon a microfilm containing the transcript of the episode and generously sent it my way just this morning.

One thing that struck me about the interview was Kelly’s emphasis that the hardest part of the TV special for him was the fact of its TV-ness.  He says, while looking at his floorplans for the episode, “This is a new way to create dances for me because in this strange world of television–and it is strange to me having five or six cameras and one can’t get in the way of the other–but putting on a dance and talking about it is really the same thing.”  So, if we translate this into evidence of a mindset, Kelly is clearly used to working with a single camera for his Hollywood musicals (or none at all while on Broadway) and the only thing putting him at ease while juggling these many TV cameras is his professional knowledge of “putting on dances” because this knowledge, he supposes, will make it easy for him to talk his way through dance and present his argument that it’s not ‘sissy’ stuff, but “a man’s game.”

kelly person to person

A grainy copy of a copy of a copy of a copy of Kelly with his floorplans for “Dancing, A Man’s Game”

Then I decided to dive into some of the archival materials I’ve collected from eBay.  Several times during the 1950s and ’60s, Films in Review (the periodical released by The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures since 1950) cover images are stills from dance films, indicating that these films were found to be (at least visually) important at the time.  Reviews echoed Kelly’s concerns in the Person to Person interview in noting technological difficulties.  A 1956 review of Kelly’s Invitation to the Dance complains that, when Kelly dances with animated figures, the “difficult cinematic problems of trick photography and laboratory work…were not too smoothly solved” and that, as a result, “the combination of live and animated action is neither successful technically nor rewarding esthetically.”  A 1960 review of Can-Can makes immediate note that the “interesting things occur on the Todd-AO widescreen during the course of Can-Can‘s 120 minutes” (emphasis mine).


Dance, dance, dance!

Early drafts of my prospectus harped considerably on the role of dance in pushing the boundaries of technology, or highlighting recent innovations, or problematizing standard practices in film and television cultures.  By the final draft, this argument got watered down, and during my defense my committee and I focused almost exclusively on race and gender questions…..but I wonder if perhaps I should bring the technology angle back, if for no other reason than it certainly seemed to be a strong concern in dance on screen during the period in question.

Wellp, that concludes today’s thoughts.  Sorry this first post has been so long; now that introductions are out of the way, reading will probably be more manageable going forward.