Mentoring, Teaching

On Meaningful Dialogue and “Being-With”

Today I participated in my first dissertation group meeting of the semester. As always, the experience of being in it reminds me of the pleasures of intellectual collaboration, especially coming out of a long winter break punctuated by slow, torturous attempts to get myself to “really” write. Although today’s conversation centered around two specific (and super exciting) prospectuses, what I found most exhilarating about the discussion was the affective energy it generated, which felt something like José Muñoz’s sense of “being-with.”

This feeling of togetherness, I believe, comes from a shared stake in meaningful dialogue, making the conversation matter to the people’s whose work we engage, but also to ourselves- the questions that pique our curiosities and drive our research. The best discussions for me are the ones where I not only contribute something useful to push someone else’s thinking, but also where I am pushed and pulled in return. This post is an attempt to capture the ineffable quality of these kinds of dialogues, which happen all too infrequently. Here are a few of the things today’s conversation invited me to reflect on more deeply:

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Mentoring, Teaching

On Letter Writing

Writing letters is something I do a lot in my teaching and for the dissertation working groups I am involved in. I find that composing a letter allows me to really be in conversation with someone, whether it is explaining to a student how to craft a stronger argument and read more deeply into the text, or offering suggestions for a colleague’s chapter or article revision. I like giving others something concrete to hold on to when they return to their own writing to begin the difficult process of re-thinking and re-crafting. After all, so much gets lost, forgotten, or misremembered in verbal communication before we find the energy to reflect and revise. The form of a letter also helps me organize my thoughts; it forces me to think hard about what someone is trying to accomplish through their work. Writing out what I understand their paper or project to be doing gives me a chance to make sense of what is there, but also what needs to be added, elaborated on, or cut out and saved for another occasion.

Only recently have I begun to apply letter writing to the seminars and public lectures I attend. On one hand, I’m surprised that I did not think of this sooner, but on the other, I guess I’ve always thought that my letters should be for people to whom I’m qualified to give advice, mentorship and support. I have come to realize, however, that letter writing is about creating a common ground, a space for dialogue. Because I spent so much time this semester composing letters for the peers in my dissertation workshops and writing groups, I decided to experiment with this practice in seminar discussions where the people whose work I was reading and to whom I’d be writing would not necessarily be there to receive my letters.

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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.

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Reflections on the ARC Conference

Last Friday I had the pleasure of presenting at the Archival Research Conference, sponsored by the Advanced Research Collaborative at The Graduate Center, CUNY. It was a wonderful opportunity to share my experiences working in the archives at Duke University, which I have discussed here and here. I was on the panel, “Mining Alternative Geographies of Race and Labor,” chaired by Professor Herman Bennett from the History program.

My paper, “Traces of the Coolie: An Archival Encounter” was largely a reflective piece, showcasing some of the important letters and documents I was able to find in the “Ballard’s Valley and Berry Hill Penn Plantation Records, 1766-1873” that contained references to coolies and coolie labor. Presenting alongside supportive colleagues and to such a generous audience gave me the confidence to share my questions and concerns about the materials I came across in this collection and how I plan to incorporate them into my dissertation. Usually introducing work that is still “in progress” would be a daunting experience  for me, but I found it energizing to participate in a conversation about how we approach archival research, including how to negotiate the volume of the material we collect and how to grapple with what is missing or absent from the archive.

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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.

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