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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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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