Research

Reading the Archive

Last week, I traveled to Duke University to conduct archival research for the second chapter of my dissertation, which investigates how the figure of the Chinese coolie and the history of the coolie trade could reconfigure the spatiotemporal dynamics of the construct “Asian America,” including questions around diaspora and memory. This chapter engages explicitly with Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda (1998), a novel that relates the story of a queer female coolie struggling to cope with a racist colonial system in nineteenth century Jamaica. In order to further contextualize my reading of the novel and to enhance my capacity to approach questions about the practice of archival research and knowledge production, I decided to visit the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The main collection I researched was the “Ballard’s Valley and Berry Hill Penn Plantation Records, 1766-1873,” which consists of account books, ledgers, and papers for a plantation in St. Mary’s Parish, Jamaica.

Working with the Ballard’s Valley records this summer was my first experience handling archival materials so it took me a while to get adjusted, but the staff at the Rubenstein Library was incredibly patient and helpful in terms of explaining the proper procedures and numerous do’s and don’ts for working with fragile documents.

One of the challenges I wasn’t prepared for was the difficult process of deciphering the handwritten letters between the plantation owners and managers. Since this correspondence, which documents the transition from slave to coolie labor on the plantation was the main reason for my visit, I realized that the bulk of my time in the archives would be spent training myself to read these letters, to try to make sense of what was actually written, but also to learn how to read between the lines and recognize what remains unaccounted for and unsaid.

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Events, Mentoring, Research

Some Reflections on the MFFC Dissertation Workshop

Before I offer my reflections, I want to thank both Roderick Ferguson (Professor of African American and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago) and Brent Edwards (Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University) for making room in their busy summer schedules to help facilitate the first Mentoring Future Faculty of Color (MFFC) dissertation workshop. Thanks also to Herman Bennett (Professor of History at the Graduate Center, CUNY) for helping us organize this event, and of course to the Office of Educational Opportunity and Diversity Programs (OEODP) and the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean (IRADAC) at the Graduate Center, CUNY for contributing the funds that made this workshop possible. Last but not least, I want to thank my co-conspirators in the Mentoring Future Faculty of Color project for dedicating their time and energy to planning this event and, more importantly, for agreeing to share pieces of their truly exciting work.

This dissertation workshop was a rare opportunity to participate in a critical conversation about our research with established scholars of color. Professor Ferguson and Professor Edwards engaged us in a discussion about what it means to frame and write a dissertation, asking tough but important questions about exigency, methodology, and text selection. The comments and suggestions I received on the opening pages of my first chapter will be a great resource as I move forward with writing (and revising) my work. It was a rewarding experience to be able to discuss my project among such a supportive group and to receive candid advice about framing my dissertation, especially as I begin to think about navigating the job market.

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Research

Revising the Dissertation Abstract

One of the most useful pieces of advice I received from my mentors is not only to focus on writing my dissertation, but to write about it (often). This practice of constantly framing and reframing my project has helped me keep track of my research questions and their exigency. It reminds me of why I do the work that I do and keeps me engaged in it. Plus, it never hurts to give yourself a bit of breathing room to reflect on what you have learned in the process of your research and to recognize what you have accomplished so far.

One of the reflecting experiments I engaged in recently was to revise my dissertation abstract to offer more grounding in terms of motive, methodology, and audience. You can check it out below:

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