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!

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Tactile Arguments

It’s been nearly a month since my last post so I figure I should check in.  I have two conference talks to give later this month, so those are becoming my primary focus going forward.  The good news: one of them is based on a dissertation chapter, so working on that talk = working on my DOS-D.  (The chapter in question is the Gene Kelly chapter–ergo this post’s primary image from The Pirate).  The bad news: the other talk has nothing to do with my dissertation.  That’s how it goes, though.  Not everything can be about this giant (future) tome looming over my head.

These conferences aside, I’ve spent the majority of the past month on three tasks:

  1. A thorough, annotated reading of Constance Valis Hill’s Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History up through the 1960s.  Many of Hill’s arguments are useful points of entry for my chapter on Gene Kelly.
  2. Watching a lotttt of Gene Kelly films.  I’m viewing as many as possible, and in chronological order, so that I have a general sense of how his onscreen dance style and presence morphed over the course of his career.  I’m flagging some for rewatches.  One of them is The Pirate (1948), which features not only Gene Kelly, but also the Nicholas Brothers.

    Gene Kelly joining the Nicholas brothers in one of their signature acrobatic dance sequences (from The Pirate)

    Gene Kelly joining the Nicholas brothers in one of their signature acrobatic dance sequences (from The Pirate).

  3. Getting my arguments out.  This has been tricky–I tend to get half-baked ideas at random moments, refuse to write them down because they’re only half-baked, and then regret it when I suddenly feel like I have no ideas at all.  It’s one thing to take notes on specific scenes in a film or a specific claim by another scholar; it’s another thing altogether to formulate, clarify, and articulate my own overarching arguments.  In short, I’m starting to have a lot of supporting thoughts but not enough main points.  SO, I’m trying to make my arguments tactile.  How so, you might ask?  Using index cards!
    Index cards = tactile arguments!  (Pay no attention to the box of Girl Scout cookies...)

    Index cards = tactile arguments! (Pay no attention to the box of Girl Scout cookies in the corner…)

    On one side of a card, I’ll write a keyword or three, and on the other side I’ll write a first draft of a sentence stating one of my general arguments for the chapter.  By writing them out instead of typing them into a document, I’m sidestepping the anxiety that comes with actually writing my dissertation, which I still feel a bit unprepared to do.  Hopefully, between these cards and the conference paper I’m putting together, I’ll have the guts to actually write the chapter in April, May, and June.

My cohort and I have been arranging monthly virtual meetings to check in on each other’s progress, and this has been helpful.  We troubleshoot each other’s problems, exchange archive stories, offer feedback on writing, etc.  It has been heartening to see that my colleagues are in roughly the same place I am: we’re all working on outlining or writing our first chapter, and about half of us still have research to wrap up before we can begin writing in earnest.  It still astounds me that every part of the process takes so much time!  Everything moved so much faster during coursework, but making long-term plans helps with the sense of interminability.

The X factor in all of my future DOS-D plans is my archive visits.  I’ve been contacting two archives via phone/email/in person but still haven’t made much headway on accessing what I need from them, which is worrisome.  When I return in April, I’ll also be ready to view the television episodes housed at various LA institutions, so hopefully that will be a little easier to arrange.

Well, onward!