Category Archives: Research

On Academic and Other Writing

I had hoped to post this this weekend, but a back injury waylaid my plans.  Funnily enough, after I spent almost the entire day Saturday finishing my dissertation proposal, I wanted to write more afterward. I felt like writing for me. What flowed through my fingers was not a great work fiction or anything particularly interesting, but it was liberating to put the thoughts and emotions that accompanied this accomplishment into words. They’re probably not what one would expect. They are certainly not what I thought I would write, which is why it was important to take the time…

I just finished my dissertation proposal, which is an enormous relief on the one hand. There were many times I didn’t think I would ever be done. I began calling it the never-ending task. On the other, I must confess I’m disappointed and disillusioned. I had wanted to finish it so much sooner, and if I’m honest, I feel like it robbed me of the life I had wanted while in Aix. (I’m glad I get to come back for another month to finish research in August and hope to make up for lost time then.) I don’t know what I could have done differently this spring and summer, but I still can’t shake the feelings of disappointment and discouragement.

I know it’s not my best writing sample.  I wrote it because I had to, not because I wanted to, and that makes an enormous difference. The writing is functional; it conveys what it’s supposed to, but it’s lifeless, flat – exactly how I felt when writing it. The only joy I found in the process was when the pieces began to come together (and that was mostly because of my research, not actually working on the proposal). At least I find the actual research, digging through dusty old manuscripts more engaging. I am excited to truly begin to research now – not just finding the documents I think will be useful but actually analyzing them and determining how the puzzle pieces fit together. I’m also apprehensive that it may not live up to my hopes, and I worry that I will find writing my dissertation the same soul-sucking process that the proposal has been. For me, writing without passion is not writing at all, much like life. I love writing, and if I do not love what I’m doing, then even though I’m putting words on a page, it cannot be writing.

I need something that will inspire me again, something that reignites my passion. Right now, I am just a jaded grad student who finds academic writing quite meaningless.  All too often it seems to devolve into intellectuals arguing over things that matter very little in the grand scheme of life. The proposal did inspire one thing – an almost daily existential crisis. I want to do something meaningful with my life and with my writing, but I’m at a loss for how to do either at the moment.

I believe that the projects that will build on my dissertation have potential. The purpose of one study in particular is not just to understand the past, but also to make a difference for people in the present.  Studies that may produce tangible and positive outcomes for people in present now inspire me more than purely intellectual pursuits. I have always wanted my work to matter more than just to a few scholars,  but it seems imperative now. While I think this is a good goal to have, I feel like I’ve lost an important part of me, the part of me that was curious, questing, hungry to learn more, which drove me to reach for my full potential. Perhaps I just need the opportunity to discuss interesting ideas with like-minded people to be re-inspired and to rediscover the mental gymnastics I used to enjoy so much.

I had planned to start my academic blog months ago, but life intervened. Maybe that will begin to inspire the intellectual in me again. However, it needs to be more than just a space where I can process what I’m learning; I want it to spark a wider conversation. Academia, especially disciplines such as history, where so much of our work is done in isolation can be quite lonely. Hopefully, launching the other and meeting more researchers at the archives will alleviate some of that. I need other people to bounce ideas around to maintain enthusiasm for what I’m doing, but after this past year, it is very difficult to put myself out there in academic writing – probably another reason my academic prose falls stillborn on the page. I’ve crawled into a protective shell, and I’m finding it difficult to crawl back out.

One thing I know with certainty: I am a writer at heart. It has always been my preferred method of self-expression. If I can find my heart in academic writing again, I will become the scholar I wanted to be from the beginning.

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Weary Warrior Returns Home

Tonight, I feel like a warrior. Not the knight in shining armor kind, but the kind who drags his tired, bruised body back to his tent to recuperate as much as possible before the battle begins the next day. However, my battle is not against people, or even something interesting like ideas or philosophies, but rather against an inanimate object without thought or feeling that scrambles my brain and makes me question my eyesight. What, you ask, provokes such a struggle and such weariness? A machine. Specifically a microfilm machine. And, I must add, poor handwriting, and blurry images of said poor handwriting.

And after a hard-fought battle, the day ended in a draw. I remained at my post, doing my duty until the final call, only breaking for a lunch half as long as usual. Today, no profound thoughts struck me as I squinted at the hieroglyphs that appeared to laugh at my attempts to form French words out of them. In the past, I have contemplated the metaphor of blurry words: how just when I bring one side of the screen into focus, the other becomes fuzzy, much like bringing certain priorities to the fore makes others fade into the background. I have considered how sitting in the microfilm cave develops perseverance for other activities, like running. And then I went off on a tangent on all the lessons I’ve learned from running…

Not today though. However, I did take a break to consider what I had found so far and how it fit into my larger project. Even though it was still a cognitive task, just getting out of the dark room, grabbing some water, and taking a moment to reflect woke me up enough to return to my station and finish the afternoon.  It wasn’t my strongest finish ever.  I walked out of the archives, bleary eyed, and fuzzy-headed, but I finished, nevertheless.

Tomorrow is a new day and a new battle; I will return to my post, energized by a morning run and armed with an optometrist’s number in my pocket.

Top Image: Wilhelm Lehmbruck, “Seated Youth (The Bowed Figure, The Friend, The Thinker, The Weary One, Tired Warrior).” 1916/17. Cast imitation Stone. Inv. No. SGP 28. 104 cm.

Last two images: Indiana University, “Chapter 2- Graduate Student Guide: Hardware, Software, and E-Nightmare.”

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Posted by on June 18, 2012 in Graduate School, Research


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Aix Marks the Spot

Making my way down the hill from my apartment, a scent struck me – pleasant and familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. Nevertheless, it made me think about my last stay in this city, all that had happened since, and my fears and anxieties about this trip. A funny thing happened though. As I looked out on the now-familiar sites, especially the mountains and the blossoming flowers and trees, those anxieties began to fall away, leaving behind them the excitement and joy I’ve been longing for.  God has answered my prayers, providing exactly what I needed when I needed it most. Thus began my day out and about in Aix.

I had been up for hours, reviewing which archival files would be most helpful for my research and figuring out where to begin in the archives today.  The first order of business though was to pick up my bus pass at the station, so I walked to the bus stop to take number 14 to the “gare routière” and waited … and waited.  Meanwhile two #9 buses passed me before I realized I could take one to within about 200 yards of where I needed to be. Feeling slightly foolish, I hopped on the third #9 bus without seeing a single #14 in the 15-20 minutes I waited.  After explaining clearly (or so I thought) that I needed a 30-day bus pass like the one I had previously (which I showed her), the woman at the counter, confused asked several questions.  I again explained what I needed, handed her my passport, and seeing that I was already in the system, she said something else, which I took to mean that the 30-day pass would only be good until April 30.  At that point, a woman behind me asked in perfect American English if I needed help.  Bless her kind heart! I did.  I explained in English what I needed, and after a brief exchange with the clerk, she clarified that it would be better to purchase my card and put 10 passes on it at a time until the end of the month.  Thanking her profusely, I paid the cashier for 10 passes on my new bus card, and walked back out into the sunshine, grateful that someone was there to translate and that I understood at least half of what was said.

It goes without saying that I often feel quite overwhelmed and under-prepared, so I am choosing to be thankful for what I do understand and that my comprehension of the language is coming back now that I’ve had some sleep.  At least I understand most of what I read, which proved quite helpful as I began my research at the archives today.I am also very grateful that I had the opportunity to come to Aix two years ago because it has made getting around the city and navigating my first day at the archives infinitely easier.  After I left the bus station, I stopped by the new Tourist center to pick up a new map, caught the #6 bus that I took everyday on my last visit and headed for the archives. Remembering the difficult introduction to the archives, I approached the building with a bit of trepidation, but registering as a ‘reader’ went so much more smoothly this time. The only thing I should have done differently was clarify that it was my second, not my first visit.  I didn’t realize that I needn’t have filled out the paperwork again until I brought it back up and the secretary looked up my information. Laughing at my mistake, I apologized, and she kindly wrote down my reader number and explained that I would have two free days and then would have to pay for a reader’s card.  She assigned me a desk and locker and made sure I understood that I could only bring in a pencil, loose leaf paper, my laptop, and a camera.  I assured her that I remembered and asked when I could apply for my annual reader’s card – tomorrow at 2:15. I have to say that I was rather pleased that I made it through our conversation, which was entirely in French, with only minimal confusion on my part.

And then I was off to the reading room, hoping I didn’t feel as ridiculous and as much of an imposter as I did last time.  I didn’t.  Within minutes, I was confidently walking to the anteroom, which houses the folders containing detailed information about the files I needed. Since I had reviewed much of the material in the morning, I had a pretty good idea where to start.  I had heard that the archives had digitized their information on Algeria, and a sign helpfully explained which inventories could be found online, which was pretty much everything I needed.  That means that my time at the archives can be spent with the documents and not figuring out which folders I need. Anyway, while I was making a note of this, an older gentleman stepped out of the reading room and looked at me as if I was familiar to him.  I racked my brain trying to determine whether or not I knew him, but I didn’t recognize him from anywhere. He came up and asked where I was from and what I was studying, so I explained that I was doing a comparative study of colonialism in the United States and French Algeria.  His face lit up as he said that he studied Algeria too and that he had been president of a French-American scholarly society.  As it turns out, he was born in Bâtna, Algeria and studies the province of Constantine(the same one that I have chosen to focus on)! I couldn’t believe my luck! I don’t really believe in coincidences, so I breathed a quick prayer of thanks and asked if he could write down his name for me.  He did more than that, giving me his email address, phone number, qualifications (Doctorates in law and history), and even excitedly introduced me to staff members at the archives.  I couldn’t have asked for a better start to my research endeavors.

La France painting by Alexandre Vuillemin, 1877

La France painting by Alexandre Vuillemin, 1877 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My time at the archives flew by, and before I knew it, it was time to pack up and head back to the apartment. A quick stop at the supermarket nearby on my way, and I arrived ‘home’ starving.  Since I woke up late, not having slept a wink the night before last, I didn’t get  my run in this morning, so I only ate a light dinner while I relaxed for a few minutes.  I couldn’t believe how much better my run felt tonight than last week’s runs.  I think a lot of it had to do with getting a good night’s sleep and the much drier air.  It is so much easier to breathe here than it was in England.  It also didn’t hurt that the first mile-plus was downhill, but even on the return, there was a spring in my step that wasn’t there last week. That definitely gives me hope that perhaps I will be able to get back in shape relatively quickly.  I already feel better eating lighter food, now that I have to make my own again.  It has been a long eight months of sitting and studying. Our bodies were not meant for such a lifestyle, at least mine wasn’t.

A wise Porky Pig knew when it was time to call it quits, and as he often said – That’s all folks! (At least for tonight.)

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Posted by on April 17, 2012 in Research, Travels


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A Return of Sorts

This week marks a return, several, in fact, but it has also been a time of stepping out of my comfort zone to try new things.  After finishing my last written exam this past week, I returned to my research, part-time at least, which meant a return to the Newberry Library.  I began working out again, but joined a class to learn something I’ve wanted to for some time but allowed busyness and fear to keep me away … until now!  And after falling into some bad eating habits during comp preparation and the exam itself, I’ve also returned to my normal, much healthier, diet.  In all of this, I feel like I’m returning to myself, but a slightly different version, one that has become more aware of my weaknesses and learned to overcome paralyzing fear, illness, and depression.  I’m taking time to let all of that sink in, to recognize the person I’ve become, and to allow that recognition to grow into self-confidence, something I let slip away this fall and winter.

Finally returning to the Newberry to work on dissertation research this week felt like such a victory after everything that has happened over the past six months.  It had been some time since I had been able to work on it at all, but this week, I traveled over the Allegheny Mountains and down the Ohio River with a land agent for the Ohio Company who founded the town of Marietta (Ohio) in 1788/89, examining his views of the settlers and Indians he met along the way, and sympathizing with his losing battle against June gnats.

(In another post, I will write in more detail about some of my processes for note-taking and keeping everything organized for those that may be interested.)

I have to admit that I’m rather proud of myself.  I love to learn, but I’m always nervous when trying something new because I’m such a perfectionist.  However, I have been wanting to learn one (or several) styles of martial arts, so tonight I went to my first Muay Thai kickboxing class.  It was a fundamentals class, and I was not the only newbie there, so I felt quite comfortable.  We began with conditioning, which reminded me how out of shape I’ve become! I kept up though and will definitely be in the gym more in between classes.  The instructors led us through basic kicks and punches and then had us pair off to practice simple sequences of blocks and strikes. I loved it and can’t wait to go back! There’s a class tomorrow that I’d like to attend, but I should probably wait to see how sore I’m going to be before I make that decision.

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Posted by on February 16, 2012 in Research, Self-Reflection


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Learning to Write – Again

This post is a follow-up to one I wrote way back in September. I am finally finishing the book I started then: Howard S. Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article.

Taking seriously Lynn Hunt’s argument in “How Writing Leads to Thinking,” I wanted to take a few minutes to summarize the process Becker suggests as one way to circumvent our anxieties as we begin to write a new article, paper, or book.  Doing so allows me to reflect on my own writing practice and how to improve it.  As Hunt notes, no one is born a writer; rather, each person must become one.

The following process for thinking through writing comes from chapter 3 in Becker, Writing for Social Scientists:

  • Instead of thinking about writing a first draft, think of it as a free-write.  Write everything that comes to mind as quickly as possible without consulting notes to see what ideas emerge and what connections can be made.  This piece of writing will be disorganized and repetitive, but that is okay.  It is not meant to be anything more than another set of notes.  This takes the pressure off because you don’t have to worry about the best way to introduce your argument (since you probably don’t know exactly what is yet), how to organize it, or about getting it “right.”
  • Then, write down each and every idea in your free-write on its own notecard.  Don’t toss any out!  Organize the notecards that seem to be related.  Do this quickly; trust your intuition.  Make a card to go on top of each pile that summarizes all the cards underneath.  If one or more don’t appear to fit, set them aside and create new piles with their own summary cards.
  • Organize the summary cards in any order that seems to make sense. There will be more than one that works but not many more.  Each way will emphasize a different aspect of your research.  You just need to decide which version matches your objective and motivation in writing.

I’m not sure how this process might work for a longer piece of writing, say a dissertation or a book.  Perhaps it would be helpful to follow the steps for the general argument first and then chapter by chapter. If anyone has tried this or another method for organizing their thoughts for a large project, please share your ideas in comments!

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Posted by on January 13, 2012 in Graduate School, Research



The Art of Constructing Houses & Articles

I have finally recovered from both my cold and the American Historical Association Conference.  However, I still have much more to do on my article.  It seems that the more I work on it, the more I research, and the more I revise, it seems that there is even more to do!  I realize that no essay or book is ever actually complete.  At some point, though, one must call it finished, submit it, and move on.  I’m not there yet, but I am hoping that by this time tomorrow, I’m one step closer.  At the moment, the article resembles a house that has been stripped of its siding and gutted of all but the studs inside, a process with which I am intimately acquainted. All the pieces are scattered in groups of “like” materials around me as I consider what I am missing and determine the best way to reassemble everything.  A timeline of the etymology of particular words and ideas central to my argument, as well as a concept map created two nights ago have become incredibly helpful blueprints for restructuring the essay.  The next step will be to decide the best way to use the historical evidence I’ve gathered in conjunction with my linguistic analysis.  … a task I shall leave for tomorrow and the following day.

Relearning to find joy in this process has certainly been interesting and has had more peaks and valleys than the Appalachians.  I still haven’t discovered what mix of factors lead to distraction-free days, in which I am thoroughly immersed and engrossed in my work, and what combinations of events, thoughts, and decisions contribute to my “ADD” days when I cannot focus and want to do anything but work on articles and academic reading.  Today was a very productive day.  I finished both my individual abstract and the panel summary for the upcoming American Studies Association conference, organized all of the materials relating to the conference, finally cleared out the dozens of unread mail messages from the past two months, caught up on reading I’d set aside for a “later” time, and even made enough food for several healthy meals this week.  I’ve been energized and excited about my studies and feel very positive about the results of my efforts today.  The only difference between today and yesterday was that I got a good night’s sleep, thanks to allergies and the subsequent dose of Benadryl. I’m sure there is more to it than that, but in until I figure out what else helps, sleep and serotonin-boosting exercise are an obvious place to start.  I’ve also found that thirty minutes of devotions, meditation, prayer, and journaling to be a great way to start the day.  It clears my head and reminds me of the world outside my problems and anxieties.

Tomorrow I am returning to the Newberry as a “daily reader,” rather than a “visiting scholar.” While the difference might seem minor, it isn’t.  As a visiting scholar, I had access to a study carrel – my own little retreat, where I could keep both my own and Newberry sources, where I could hang maps I constantly referenced, and where I could settle in comfortably while I researched.  Since I’m short, I brought in a little foot rest to take the strain of my hamstrings and piled (my own) thick books on the chair so I was at the right height to type at the immovable wooden desk.  Alas, my position as a “visiting researcher” lasted only a semester.  Despite the hard, ill-fitting chairs and desks and restricted hours to which I return, I am grateful to be able to remain in Chicago for two more months, especially since I changed my dissertation topic earlier this fall after realizing the source-base didn’t exist for my original idea.  Thank goodness for the sweaters and wrap I received for Christmas.  Now, I just need to find a really good (and thick!) chair cushion. 🙂

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Posted by on January 10, 2012 in Research, Self-Reflection


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Finding confidence and inspiration at an academic conference

It’s after three in the morning, and I should probably be in bed, but I need to take a few minutes to revel in the small sense of victory I feel tonight.  Progress is always uneven, so despite some of my early posts, I have still struggled with self-doubt, lack of confidence, and the lethargy that results from both.  I have had many things on my to-do list for weeks but couldn’t bring myself to face them.  Instead, I have often found myself trying to drown out the nagging voice reminding me of those many tasks and the other incessant voice whispering that it wouldn’t matter how hard I worked, that I would still fail.

But today was different. Despite the busyness of attending panels at the American Historical Association conference and trying to to think through the fogginess of a head cold, I managed to focus on research and my article for eight hours today. It’s impossible to pin today’s motivation and sense of purpose on any one thing, but I’m sure that the conference has played a role in inspiring me to continue working on my own research.

I can’t measure the value of my productive time in how many pages I wrote or the number of sources I examined.  The mere fact that I worked for so long without the distraction of music, talk radio, simultaneous tasks, or even the desire for any of those things felt like an enormous accomplishment.  What is more, I enjoyed every minute of that time.  There is still much more work to do on the essay, but the pieces are there.  All that remains is to fit them together.  I say “all that remains” as if it is as simple as following a recipe to bake a cake, but that would be quite inaccurate. Writing history is more akin to putting a large puzzle together with a jumble of pieces, some that fit, some that belong to other puzzles, and some that are needed but missing. In addition to the usual challenges of historical writing, this is one of the most difficult stages of the writing process for me because I tend to be very impatient.  As I’ve mentioned before, I became so accustomed to the “one and done” drafts of high school and college papers that rewriting and revising frustrates me to no end.  While this process might always be tedious, hopefully it will become routine and therefore less daunting.

On a related note, I worked up the courage to ask a question following a panel of presentations by leading scholars in my field.  This probably doesn’t seem like such a big deal, but it felt like it to me.  After academic presentations, there is generally a time for questions, and these questions should either push the scholars to think more deeply about their own work or enhance the general discussion.  This requires a certain knowledge of the secondary literature, and some familiarity with related primary sources is often helpful.  I can’t speak for professors, but I know that most grad students sense that this is one more measure by which they are judged, and the impression is accurate.  Those who ask insightful and helpful questions acquire greater intellectual capital, which translates into greater facility in forming their own panels, finding people to read and comment on their own work, and better letters of recommendation.  Of course, these things don’t rely solely on one’s comments and questions at seminars and conferences, but they are important, nonetheless.  After being told several months ago that I should be seen and not heard, like a child rather than a colleague, it has been difficult to work up the gumption to participate in discussions as I used to, so I consider today’s brief comment and question to be another achievement and small step forward in my journey.


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