Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The "Work of a Historian" and The Final Chapter

Off and on since the end of July, I've been working on the last chapter of my dissertation. Chronologically it's the first chapter of the diss, and its main purpose is to survey the kinds of texts that were concerned with my specific topic prior to the period that I focus on. Early on, I considered this my "easy" chapter because, you know, how hard could it be summarize this material? All I had to do was read it, present it in a logical, coherent, and somewhat interesting manner, and viola...a full draft version of my dissertation! Yeah, not so much how that works.

It wasn't the job market stuff the slowed me down. It wasn't the fact that I was organizing a symposium. It had nothing to do with being pregnant, and teaching didn't take up any more time than it usually does. No, the *chapter* slowed itself down! For the past couple of weeks, I've been feeling like my husband, a PhD candidate in history who researched for two years before drafting a chapter! Some of the primary texts I had to go through were 100-200 pages, and I did my best to read them thoroughly, taking notes all the while, and this was just a sampling from about 1600-1725. Out of the hundreds of texts that were published and deal directly with my topic, I'm discussing 24-30 of them in this chapter. After more than two months of work, however, I had a mere 5 pages of writing, an outline, and tons of notes.

Time to see the advisor.

Fortunately, she put everything in perspective by explaining that I was no longer doing the work of a literary critic, but rather "the work of a historian." Uh...okay. I guess that does make sense. But, I'm not a historian, so I was a bit unprepared for this *kind* of work, and I think this is why I was taken aback. She said I'm doing everything right by being thorough, taking notes, pulling only the most interesting examples of texts, etc., and all this made me feel warm and fuzzy (a rare feeling to get from my advisor).

I guess the thing I'm still not sure about is how I feel about doing this kind of work. Technically, it is literary history. On one hand, I love finding some of this stuff because it's just hilarious! The titles are a hoot, the ballads are ridiculous, and what these texts "say" about my topic hasn't really been touched by anyone in the field. On the other hand, this kind of work can feel tedious, unproductive, and down right boring at times. I'm thinking that's just part of the job, and one eventually gets used to it.

Anyway, the meeting helped me feel better because it helped me understand why this kind of chapter inherently takes longer than those that function primarily as literary criticism. I don't feel like a dissertation loser anymore, and I actually have lots of notes to use as a frame for the draft. Looking at the holiday schedule, the dates we'll be travelling, MLA time, etc., I have 17 solid working days in which to finish this chapter. I have 7 pages drafts, and I anticipate the chapter being around 35-45 pages. For now, I'll be happy with 30-something.

The goal: to write 2 pages per work day and submit the draft - come hell or high water - on December 22nd. This is feasible, yes? Only if I stop blogging and get to work :)

1 comment:

Dave M said...

One of the crucial stages for this kind of project is always the inventory.

The first is the descriptive overview of the primary texts, and the second is the summary of the present state of scholarly discussion.

This kind of immersion in the primary texts is always useful, even if it is time-consuming (and seemingly unproductive) because it allows you to work more independently (and critically) with the existing criticism. And yes, it is slow, but it tends to speed up as you learn what you're looking for.

Good luck, Dave Mazella, The Long 18th