Research

Reflections: From Dissertation to Book

It might be a bit early for me to write this post since I’m still working through my second chapter, but after Ken Wissoker, the Editorial Director of Duke University Press, visited our workshop last Tuesday, I wanted to share and reflect on his helpful insights and suggestions for thinking about the life my project will take on after the dissertation.

The differences between a dissertation and a book project:

One of the main distinctions is a question of audience. Whereas you often write your dissertation for a specific committee of scholars, your book project engages an entire field or set of discourses. You have to learn how to engage a broader critical audience who might not necessarily be as invested in your project in the same ways that your committee members are (for instance, in reading through every single chapter to the end).

Originality is key. While your project doesn’t have to be entirely new, there should be a clear sense of the unique contribution you are making to a field (or, better yet, fields).

Your presentation of objects and evidence will have a different rhythm and weight. In other words, book readers might not necessarily be as patient as your dissertation readers. While a chapter in your dissertation can be devoted to a long, extended analysis of one or two literary texts, in a book this might turn into a few paragraphs. In sum: the book only presents enough evidence and analysis necessary to make your argument.

Your voice matters above all others in the book. While the dissertation is often a place for you to rehearse your knowledge of key critical and theoretical discourses, the book should announce your authority on a subject matter. For that reason, many citations from secondary sources will become footnotes in the book to make room for your own voice and arguments to shine!

Continue reading “Reflections: From Dissertation to Book”

Research

Strategies for Staying Focused on Dissertation Writing

As the semester begins to really hit its stride, I often find myself getting sidetracked from dissertation writing with student groups, fellowship applications, committee service, research, and day-to-day life. This post, which is yet another way of hitting pause on actual “dissertating,” will hopefully still be a productive form of self-accounting- a reminder that I do have strategies in place for staying focused and generating written material. It might even be useful to you, so here are some things that help me:

Devising a realistic writing schedule. I  have found that blocking out concrete blocks of time during your work week and treating those hours like classes that you simply cannot miss is a helpful way of staying on track. The “realistic” part of this strategy is also key- you need to take into account that certain days will be busier than others depending on your work and personal commitments, so maybe you can dedicate 4 hours on Wednesdays, but only 2 on Fridays. (Some people also establish a set number of pages or words to measure productivity- I’ve tried this in the past, but discovered that not meeting these quotas can cause even greater stress and anxiety. Instead, by counting hours rather than pages, at least I feel a sense of accomplishment for putting in the time).

Keeping a research journal. Mine is a small spiral notebook that I try to keep with me always so I can record random thoughts and sudden sparks of inspiration. This journal is also what I turn to when I hit a roadblock in my dissertation- I use it to free-write, brainstorm ideas, and reflect on the development of my project. It’s different from the book I use to write notes for class  because I really want it to be a space for thinking through my research.

Continue reading “Strategies for Staying Focused on Dissertation Writing”

Research

Writing about the Dissertation

As I prepare for dissertation workshops and fellowship applications in the fall, I am reminded of this important piece of mentoring advice:

Don’t just write your dissertation, but write about it and often.

Writing about your project can be frustrating, unnerving, and even painful, but I have found that it keeps me grounded- it forces me to think about the stakes of my work and reminds me of who I am speaking to, which can be incredibly energizing. In light of this, I have decided to share some of the writing “about” my  dissertation that Duncan Faherty (Associate Professor of English at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY)  invited us to complete for the American Studies dissertation workshop I am taking this fall. As always, it took me longer than expected to complete (and is of course far from perfect), but it did get me thinking about my project and the challenge of communicating it to others who might not be familiar with my topic or areas of research.

Continue reading “Writing about the Dissertation”

Research

Working with an Archive

Now that I have finished transcribing the letters I photographed from the “Ballards Valley and Berry Hill Penn Plantation Records, 1766-1873” at Duke University (see this post), one of the challenges I am facing is figuring out what to do with the archival research I have gathered. In other words, how do I incorporate this material into my project in a way that is more critically engaging than a simple “show-and-tell”?

Before actually working with the Ballards Valley records, I had intended to use the photographs and information I collected to provide context for and enhance an analysis of Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda (1998), a novel that describes the tensions between Asian coolies and freed Blacks in mid-nineteenth century Jamaica. But during those long hours in the archive, struggling to decipher and make sense of the handwritten correspondence between plantation managers and absentee owners in London, I became acutely aware of how desperately I was searching for traces of coolies in letters, account book entries, and ledger pages.

Continue reading “Working with an Archive”