The Final Countdown

Time is short, readers, so I’ll keep it brief.

I received a final round of comments from my chair on the Intro + revised chapters 1 & 2. We still weren’t seeing eye to eye on a few things so we had a two-hour meeting to iron it all out. During that meeting, he confirmed my defense date, so I reserved the room and confirmed with the whole committee: I am defending on April 19. ~shudder~

My deadline to submit the complete manuscript is a single week away and let me tell you, I’m working 12 to 15-hour days right now to make it happen.

The timing is once again unfortunate, because the major national conference for my field is occurring right now in my own city, and I’m going to be missing the entire thing (except for the reception I organized) because I really, really need to do my best and most thorough work right now. Oh well.

It’s so close I can almost taste it…see you on the other side!

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Tying it all together: Elvis Presley met Harold Nicholas in Paris during January of 1960

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.

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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.

 

Day 870: The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Well readers, I finally did it: I finished drafting the body chapters of the DOS-D. At around 3am on day 868.

The Elvis chapter ended up a little over 86 pages long (before notes), including 75 figures. I still believe there are too many images, but I’m going to deal with that later, when I start revising the chapter. For now, I’m grateful to have (barely) made it through. That last day was very rough; I had promised the chapter to my chair by January 18 but kept hitting walls when it came to dealing with Viva Las Vegas and beyond, let alone concluding the chapter. So, I spent January 18 not eating but working constantly, which meant that I only missed the deadline by about 3 hours.

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Elvis dancing for Ann-Margret in Viva Las Vegas (1964), for which I struggled to find a good angle of analysis.

It took me a few days to recuperate, but here I am on the other side of it. Now it’s time to switch mental gears and shape the project as a whole: revisions. Luckily for me, all three members of my committee have read through and given me detailed feedback on each chapter as I’ve written them, so I will have a lot of guidance through my revision process. I know that I need to do more secondary reading/citation for the “cultural context” parts of the chapters, and clarify my central argument. This means more sign-posting and better conclusions to my major examples and sections. I anticipate needing to print out the full chapters for myself, spread them out on the floor, and edit by hand. I need to be able to see the flow of the thing. My apologies in advance to the trees who had to die for me to achieve this; I promise to recycle it all when I’m done. Speaking of promises…

I have promised a draft of my Introduction alongside revised versions of Chapters 1 & 2 to my chair by February 22. Thus, I gave myself mini-deadlines to reach that goal:

  • Complete Ch. 1 revisions (Nicholas Brothers) by Jan. 30
  • Complete Ch. 2 revisions (Gene Kelly) by Feb 8
  • Use the 2 weeks between Feb 8 & Feb 22 to write the Intro

I expect to receive feedback on Elvis around Feb 22, and feedback on the Intro + revisions by St. Patrick’s day. I am due to submit the entire manuscript to my committee on March 29.

AHHHHH, it’s all so much. But I’m told this is just how the ‘final push’ tends to go. It’s a lot, but I can do it—I have to. March 29 really isn’t so far away…less than 10 weeks. Just 67 days. I have a lot of ground to cover, but I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

This might mean that I check in here more often or less often; I’m not sure yet. But for now, the end is in sight and I just have to put my blinders on and charge forth!

Coming Up Short and Moving On Anyway

Pardon my extended absence, fair readers. I’ve just returned from a very busy three weeks in Germany, and am suddenly confronted with the meeting-heavy craziness of Fall Quarter.

As you may recall from my last post: bootcamp got me within 10 pages of the finish line on my second chapter, but then teaching took over my life, and then moving…and then a trip to Germany. Now, part of my purpose in Germany was to track down and watch a copy of the 1955 film Musik im Blut, which features a performance by the Nicholas brothers. Unfortunately, all I was able to find in various archives was a single program for the film. This was a pretty major letdown for me, as I’ve been quite committed to uncovering more about the brothers’ foreign films–these more obscure films currently represent a major gap in the literature on the Nicholases.

This is a good lesson, I suppose, in letting go of your plans for a chapter when the reality of the archive just doesn’t support those plans. You might say this is why scientists offer hypotheses instead of outright arguments, because sometimes you just can’t prove what you thought you could. As a humanist, I sometimes find the gaps in the archive a difficult reality to face, but all scholars are forced to confront it now and then. Still, a large part of me really wants to keep searching for this elusive text…if I just Google deep enough, find the right repository, comb through the right foreign eBay…

But alas, it is job season (another difficult reality to face!) so I can’t stall on this chapter any longer: I plan to write those last few Nicholas brothers pages over the next few days and send the completed chapter off to my committee sans compelling analysis of a rare German film because I really need my committee to be able to say that they’ve seen 2 of 3 body chapters and that I’m on track to defend in May.

AND SO, as a gesture of my moving on, I spent part of my flight back from Germany embarking on research for my Elvis Presley chapter: I watched and took notes on Love Me Tender (1956).

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At a schoolhouse raising, Elvis’ Clint throws his guitar behind his back to give his female audience a full view of his crotch as he rises up on his toes.

For a film set in 1865, Elvis’s hips are awfully busy when he starts singing–whether for his character’s mother or a crowd of teenage girls. I look forward to describing his gyrations with colorful adjectives!

But before I can really start on the Presley chapter, I’ve got to finish up my first round of job applications! And so, I take my leave for now, but I will check in again in a week or so, I hope…

(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):
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Day 633: Getting Back in the Saddle

It’s been a little over 2 months since my last post, when I was in a dark place with my dissertation. I have more or less made my way out of the darkness since then, as I’m currently at 25 pages for my second chapter. This isn’t wonderful, but it’s also not nothing–it’s nearly the halfway point! I promised myself I’d be at the halfway point by June 6. Why June 6, you ask?

Well, there’s a nifty little program at my university called “Dissertation Bootcamp” that occurs 3 or 4 times a year. It’s a 2-week commitment, 9am-1pm, and you have to put down a $50 cash deposit as motivation to show up and work (which is returned at the end if you’re a good little dissertator). I’ve heard great things about it, so I’m hoping it will be as productive a time for me as it has been for others, especially because I’m teaching a fast-paced summer course right afterwards so I don’t envision having a lot of time to work on my DOS-D during that time. My official goal is to finish the chapter by the time I arrive in Germany mid-August (for a humanities institute).

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The Nicholas Brothers wearing cute crop tops for the “Cha Cha” number in the German film Bonjour Kathrin (1956)

 

Reflecting on the past 9 months and my very slow writing, I’d say my experience with this chapter overall has been something of a roller coaster; I go through spurts of productivity, confidence, and genuine excitement about my arguments…surrounded by long stretches of boredom, sluggishness, writer’s block, and lack of faith in its importance. I oddly didn’t experience this as much with my first chapter, though it’s objectively no more interesting or revolutionary. I wonder if the main problem is just burnout?

In the next week or so, I’ll be wrapping up my very last quarter as a teaching assistant–this is my 9th and final course as a TA and it’s coming at the end of my 5th year of graduate school. Just writing this makes me feel exhausted, so maybe it really is burnout. I am lucky to have been granted a 6th year of funding by my university, so I plan to complete the dissertation and defend in roughly one year’s time (without that funding, I’d have to seek other means of survival and thus it would take twice as long to finish). This timeline seems fairly reasonable to me; the first chapter took 6 months to create (conceive, research, outline) but only 3 months to write, and this second chapter is taking about 9 months but with consistent interruptions by other obligations like teaching etc. So, the third and final chapter can probably be completed by January 2017 (including one more Bootcamp), leaving me several months to write the intro & conclusion, revise, and defend before the filing deadline (May 5). Phew!

This is a lot to wrap my brain around, because it feels like it was just a few short months ago that I started my DOS-D (and this blog). But in reality, I’m going to be hitting the job market in the fall and telling all the search committees that I plan to defend in the spring (because it’s true!).

And so, in the immortal words of Yul Brynner as Pharaoh Ramses II in The Ten Commandments (1956): So let it be written; so let it be done.

Slow & Steady Wins…An Eventual Book Deal?

Well, this time it’s been a somewhat respectable month since my last post. Since then, I’ve written about 6 pages. That’s not terrible, but it’s also not very good. Reflecting on my process for my first chapter draft, the first few pages definitely went the slowest–things sped up once I got to actual analysis rather than introductory framing. So let’s hope that holds true now, as well!

I’ve found that each time I sit down with the DOS-D (which I’ve learned never to do unless I have at least 3 uninterrupted hours ahead of me), I only manage to crank out about 1.5 pages before I’m completely exhausted. Part of this slowness is due to my meticulous citations & endnotes, which I insist on completing at the time of creation because I’ve heard horror stories about what happens when one leaves too many dissertation citations for “later.” Yesterday, for example, I found myself in a 15-minute endnote black hole while writing an aside-with-citation about the politics of historically black neighborhoods in old northern cities like Philadelphia. What does this have to do with my DOS-D, you may ask? Well, in trying to explain the Nicholas Brothers’ relative privilege within the black community, I point out how, in both Philadelphia and then New York City, their parents were able to move the family into the “wealthy” parts of black neighborhoods. This is easier to explain re: Harlem than it is re: Philadelphia…thus the endnote black hole.

All of this is to say that I am, by all measures, moving “slow and steady” now. This is much preferred to last quarter’s “slower and unsteady,” and I can only hope that moving a little more slowly now will help me out down the road when it’s time to (attempt to) convert this manuscript into a book manuscript. The one compliment from one of my committee members I took most to heart on my previous chapter draft was that she found the prose unusually clear for a first draft of a dissertation chapter. I’m hoping to maintain that advantage as I continue!

In any case, these 6 pages land me at the end of my first section, which is about the Nicholases’ early lives and entry into professional dancing (it’s short because little Harold was only 7 when they went pro!). I skimped on the literature review for now (my most dreaded part of everything I write) so I’ll have to come back to the opening and flesh it out somewhat, but it’s otherwise pretty thorough. I made some notes to myself at the end of my workday yesterday to prepare me for a final paragraph about the brothers’ ongoing contract at the Cotton Club in the 30s, but other than that, I’m ready to (finally) dive into the actual screens part of the chapter.

So, I will leave you today with a screenshot of the Nicholas Brothers in their 1932 screen debut, Pie, Pie Blackbird. This was a 10-ish minute Vitaphone short produced at the end of the Vitaphone era. It’s sort of a miracle that it still exists! And it’s really wonderful, I think, to see the brothers so young, just 2 years into their professional career, and still fresh imports to New York City.

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Harold (left) and Fayard (right) Nicholas in Pie, Pie Blackbird (1932)

Like An All-Colored Vaudeville Show (1935), which I posted a screen shot of in my last post, this film falls before the time period I focus on in my dissertation (roughly 1945-1965…which in actuality spans 1943-1968, I think) but it’s really very important pre-history.

 

Well, until next time, folks!