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.

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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.

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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.

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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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