Dissertation Work, May Update

Two Lines of Work

Last month I finished the initial drafting of Chapter 5. As of now, all five chapters of my dissertation as outlined in my prospectus exist, albeit in need of additional research and revision. To keep from losing momentum, I’ve started looking ahead to the coming year by scheduling new research trips and working out a preliminary revision schedule.

I’ve also been preparing for the revision process itself. After taking a week off to rest and recuperate from the semester’s work, I’ve spent the past month working on two parallel tasks. One is technical in nature, the other conceptual, but both will be critical to the revision process. Let’s take a look!

The Trees: Revisiting the Roswell Archive

The first task I’ve been working on is updating my files on the Roswell Museum archive. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I organize my archival photographs and notes in Tropy, grouping my documents by their home repository. In February, I added substantially to my Roswell photographs when I revisited their archive. I added these new photos to Tropy immediately, but since I was in the midst of working on Chapter 5, I decided to delay labeling them. My reasoning was that I knew this would take several days and I didn’t want to lose my momentum on the VMFA Artmobile. With that chapter drafted though, I’ve been going back through Tropy and updating my new photos by listing their title, author, and location within the archive, details that will be critical for my footnotes later.

I’ve photographed thousands of archival documents since starting the dissertation, and organizing them in programs like Tropy makes all the difference between being able to cite something and having no idea where I found it. Image: an open laptop with a photo of an archival text document.

I still need to read through these new documents and take notes on them, but that’s a task for later this summer. Right now my goal is to get these documents adequately labeled so that when I’m revising later on, I’ll cite them correctly. In terms of research, this work definitely falls on the technical or maintenance side rather than the interpretive one, and I won’t deny it’s pretty tedious stuff. Completing this work now though, when I’m not focused on writing, will save me grief in the future when I’m concentrating on dissertation content.

The Forest: Reading the Dissertation

If the work I’ve been doing on the Roswell Museum archive concerns the technical details of the dissertation, my other major task focuses on the bigger picture. Last week I read through all five of my dissertation chapters, taking notes on each in terms of argument, strengths, weaknesses, and next steps regarding research and revision. If the Halleran Fellowship application got me thinking about the overall dissertation in terms of completion timelines, last week was all about assessing the project as a whole rather than a collection of individual chapters.

As I read each chapter, I journaled my impressions of them, which will in turn inform my revision process. Image: a journal open to two pages filled with hand-written notes.

Reading through the dissertation proved an illuminating exercise. Not surprisingly, the writing is unpolished and needs work, but I prioritized content over mechanics. In terms of ideas, the individual chapters were both more and less disorganized than I thought. They were repetitious and overall contained way too many case studies or examples, but I could see the arguments in each of them. What’s more, I could trace a core argument about outreach exhibitions and community involvement across all five chapters. Considering I’ve written these chapters over two years without rereading any of them after their initial drafting and revision, the consistency of the argument surprised me, and tells me that I’ve been moving on the right track.

That said, they could connect to one another better. They overlap in terms of theme, but still feel like individual, standalone essays rather than connected parts of a larger argument. Yet as I read through my chapters, I began to see ways to better connect them and to bring out their shared qualities, both within each chapter and in the introduction and conclusion. Rather than come away feeling discouraged, I concluded the week with a clearer sense of how to approach the next stage of research and revision.

Summer Work I: Research

The summer is quickly shaping up to be a busy one in terms of the dissertation. The Halleran Fellowship stipulates that you not hold outside employment, but given my ongoing part-time role with the Barry Art Museum, I worked out a compromise with the Dean. I’ll work with the museum in the fall and spring semesters, but I will take the summer off completely to focus on the dissertation. For the first time since November 2020 then, I won’t have any commitments beyond my dissertation work.

I plan on using that extra time to complete any outstanding research trips. I’m currently working on plans to consult some archival documents at the New York Public Library. They’ve got some old yearbooks and literary magazines from some of the high schools the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions visited, and I want to see whether they mention the shows in any capacity. I also intend to revisit the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions files at the Met to cover any folders I didn’t get to finish last time. After years of delays, I also plan to finally visit the WPA files at the National Archives branch in College Park. Now that I’ve had the chance to visit several local archives, I want to see how their documents compare with what I’ve already seen.

Summer Work II: Writing

I also plan to start the revision process by writing the introduction and conclusion. It might seem counterintuitive to write the introduction after the chapters, but I suspected that the argument I had drafted in the prospectus would change as I got into the actual research. Rather than write an introduction and shoehorn my research to fit it, I decided to write the chapters first and then create an introduction that reflected their actual content. The introduction will also play a critical role in the revision process by clearly articulating my overarching argument. In introducing my topic and each of my chapters, I’m now essentially writing myself a framework for the whole dissertation, one that will guide the revision process.

I’ve got a lot of work ahead in the coming year, but rather than feel overwhelmed, I’m excited. After two years of ongoing research, reflection, and writing, I’m finally starting to see the dissertation come together as a whole. I’m looking forward to seeing that process come to fruition.

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