Dissertation Work, June Update, Part I

Last month I didn’t have much to report on with the dissertation, but that’s changed since then. Over the next two weeks, I’ll share these updates, because why limit myself to one post when I can do two?

Cutting down and reorganizing Chapter 2 was my major dissertation task last month. Image: a laptop computer with a word processor on the screen.

In terms of writing, the main thing that I’ve been doing recently is redrafting chapter 2 after confronting the resistance I described in last month’s post. A lot of reworking has entailed cutting out excessive text, as the initial attempt hadn’t been edited in any form yet. Over the course of a week, I cut out about thirty pages of text, reducing the initial chapter from about seventy to forty pages. After that, I set about reorganizing the different sections, and this was the part that I knew would be more time-consuming. Cutting text is relatively easy once you detach yourself from it and stop seeing it as precious, but reorganizing it into a new structure? That takes more thought and deliberation.

But it turns out I had help in the form of one of my more recent pastimes. While I was painting the trim for all the rooms in the house last December, I got into the habit of listening to murder mysteries on audiobooks, as it helped make the hours of tedious work bearable. I’ve kept up the habit since then, listening to them while I do housework. I don’t view them as connected to my own research, they’re just something I listen to while doing boring chores.

Yet as I set about reorganizing Chapter 2, I found myself drawing on the murder mystery model to help think about the different parties involved in the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions. So, following that model, I set up the exhibitions as the murder victim, so to speak, briefly describing their history, their contents, etc. Then I spent the remaining sections discussing the parties involved in the exhibitions: the museum, the sites hosting the shows, and the audiences visiting them. For each, I discussed their motives for staging or hosting the shows, the metrics they used to measure that success, and the unexpected challenges or tensions that resulted.

Of course, being a dissertation about extension exhibitions rather than a fictional murder mystery, I didn’t follow the formula exactly. There’s no dramatic murder reveal at the end, after all, as I already know what “killed” the program was the suspension of the WPA and the financial support that went with it. I also don’t see any of the participants in the outreach exhibitions as antagonists per se, but instead as organizations and individuals with their own motives for supporting the shows. Some of these intersect, but others don’t, and that’s where all the interesting tensions begin to arise. Yet using the formula of the murder mystery helped me think through how to reorganize what was in all honesty a rather sprawling, rambling piece of text. Just as I’ve been listening to mysteries to make the tedium of housework more pleasant, applying that basic model to the chapter helped me get through the work of reorganizing it.

This isn’t to suggest that every I do has to tie back to the dissertation or to my research. My sketching doesn’t relate to outreach exhibitions, for instance. For the most part, I enjoy the books I listen to precisely because they don’t have anything to do with my work. After nearly burning out at the end of my Master’s program, I’ve learned the importance of not defining myself exclusively through work, and having other interests outside of my research. But sometimes looking to these other interests or hobbies can help you think of new ways to reframe your work because they’re different from what you normally do. Chances are, Chapter 2 and the rest of the dissertation will continue to change their organization as my research progresses, but for this stage, though, looking to the fiction I’ve been listening to has helped me get out of my head, so to speak.

But that’s not all I’ve been up to. Next week, I’ll share the second update: my long-awaited research trip to Minneapolis.

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