Finally in Print! — “Time Traveling with Care: On Female Coolies and Archival Speculations”

I received my copy of the June 2018 American Quarterly last week and I couldn’t be more thrilled to see my essay, “Time Traveling with Care: On Female Coolies and Archival Speculations,” in print at last in a journal that I’ve been following since I began my graduate studies. That it appears alongside the words of Kandice Chuh, Jodi Melamed, Douglas Ishii, and other scholars who have been vital mentors and interlocutors for my research over the years is all the more reason why I will hold this AQ issue close.

The essay itself has gone through numerous revisions, from its early beginnings as a term paper for Robert Reid-Pharr’s seminar on “African American/Africana Literature and Culture,” as an ASA conference presentation, and dissertation chapter, which is also to say that many people contributed their time, energy, and wisdom to supporting its realization in this current form. Any remaining shortcomings are of course mine but I wanted to share my acknowledgments again here to make visible the often unseen, unpaid labor that goes into the life of a publication like this:

This essay benefitted from the insights of many eyes. I would like to thank Kandice Chuh, Duncan Faherty, the members of my dissertation writing group, and my colleagues on the Committee on Globalization and Social Change at the Graduate Center, CUNY, for their generous feedback on earlier drafts. Many thanks also to Cathy N. Davidson, the two anonymous reviewers, and the Board of Managing Editors at American Quarterly for sharing the critical insights that helped me realize my vision for this piece in its final stages. Lastly, I want to thank my sister, Sharon Tran, for her unflagging support; the meditations on what it means to approach an archive with care in this essay are, in part, indebted to her always careful reading of my work.

There are many others who haven’t been mentioned here by name, including an entire class of students that I taught at Queens College who challenged and deepened my thinking about Patricia Powell’s The Pagoda more than I could have ever anticipated; their questions and energy animates this essay as well. I look forward too to the ways in which future readers will take up and give continued life to this work in the years to come.

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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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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.

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