Dissertation Work, December Update

On Thursday, I wrapped up what has been a marathon semester of dissertation work. From September 1st to December 8th, I created outlines for two chapters, wrote both chapters, and did an initial revision on each. And I managed to do this while teaching Museums & Crisis, presenting at ASA, curating a new exhibit for the Barry Art Museum (more on that next year), and getting married. I haven’t been this productive since before the pandemic.

Room with a view. Brandon took this candid picture of me working on the initial revisions for Chapter 4, as he thought you’d all enjoy a picture of me in action. Image: a woman at a desk working on a laptop computer.

I made these revisions over a period of two weeks, with one week dedicated to each chapter. I started the process by meeting with my advisor, who pointed out each chapter’s strengths and weaknesses t after reading through them. My initial revisions for both chapters consisted of going through the text and making my arguments more explicit by cutting out repetitive sections and using more assertive language. In a lot of instances, I wasn’t sure where a particular example or case study would fit, so I mentioned it in multiple places with the understanding that I’d go back and keep whichever one fit the overall text best. In other instances, I used a lot of examples to illustrate a point when I only needed one or two examples. Other times I’d buried the burgeoning argument under passive language because I wasn’t sure of my exact point.

The biggest difference with these initial revisions compared to other chapters is that I went through both of these line-by-line, word-for-word. With Chapters 1 and 2, I’ve stuck to big strokes when it comes to revising by either moving passages around or cutting out paragraphs. But it makes sense that I would take a more detailed approach for these two because I’ve been researching the CACP for a longer period than the case studies in my other chapters and am more familiar with the materials. Additionally, since I had pasted sections from previous conference papers, chapters, and other texts, I needed to go through them with a finer-tooth comb to make sure their arguments, tone, and style matched one another. This was especially the case with Chapter 4, at least half of which was written from previous materials.

Both chapters will need another significant revision, but it’s also been exciting to work on them because it’s becoming easier to discern the interventions I’m making. I’m beginning to see the position I’m taking within the documents, and how my interpretation builds on the scholarship of others while also offering something new beyond “say, isn’t this cool?” Even if the arguments aren’t fully formed yet, I’ve gotten a clearer sense of where I’m going, and seeing my ideas start to emerge in the text in a more complete form is reassuring.

I had an especially exciting moment while working on Chapter 3. While perusing the Holger Cahill papers earlier this summer, I came across a series of letters between Cahill and Stanton MacDonald-Wright, an artist who served as the state FAP Director for southern California, and best known today as a co-founder of the abstract movement Synchromism. The letters discuss a proposal for affiliating an independent art center in Ojai with the FAP, and the backlash the two administrators experienced from local opponents. Their correspondence makes out the Ojai community to be prudish and close-minded, disinterested in the FAP’s services because of its federal associations. I found the letters relatively late in my research, so I didn’t have time to look into them further before the semester started. I included the incident in Chapter 3 with the understanding that I might cut it later, but my advisor encouraged me to look into it and see if I could find anything from the community’s perspective. After spending a morning on Newspapers.com, I not only knew the name of the man who led the resistance to FAP, but found an editorial from him explaining exactly why he opposed the affiliation. Not surprisingly, perhaps, he offered a different picture, mentioning the instability of the FAP itself in light of diminished funding and the minimal returns the Center would get in exchange for raising more money. In addition, he resented the intervention of the FAP, arguing that they’d managed to open an art center on their own and didn’t need to go on welfare. His editorial echoes common anti-state sentiments, but it also adds nuance to what had previously been a one-sided conversation within the archival record. In my future research, I hope to bring similar nuance to my other case studies.

For now though, I’m setting aside Chapters 3 and 4. My goal was to get them written and do one revision before the end of the semester, and I’ve accomplished both. With final projects waiting to be graded, I won’t have much time to do any dissertation work before the holidays, so I’m going to take a break after several months of continuous, sustained work. When I come back in January, I’ll be starting the New Year with Chapter 5, which brings new opportunities for research and exploration.

I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished this year. After spending much of 2021 in a state of delay due to closed archives, I’ve completed two important on-site research visits, drafted three of my five chapters, and did initial revisions on all three. I feel like I’m finally moving again, and can’t wait to see where my research takes me next year.

That’s next year though. For now, I’m focusing on grading and enjoying the holidays.

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