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.
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…