Putting the “Pro” in Procrastination

I get this a lot. Why isn’t my dissertation done already? What is taking so long?

Mostly I get this from people who have Ph.D.’s already. I’m wondering if the process of writing a dissertation is a lot like giving birth: you forget about the pain and selectively remember only the end result? Or are these folks from disciplines that require less of their Ph.D. students? Or am I making this harder than it needs to be? (Or, just as likely, are they passing judgment from their mighty perch?)

So here’s what’s going on. I’m writing a dissertation that looks at the 19th century cultural landscapes of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, from the points of view of Americans, Mexicans, and native peoples. That’s a jargony way of saying that I’m curious about how people viewed and shaped their environments, and if people from different backgrounds and cultures used similar materials and methods to shape and adapt to the desert environments or if the different backgrounds were apparent in different ways of seeing the landscapes. It’s really complex and requires a lot of research and analysis. And not just research I can do online or locally because I’m using a wide variety of sources. I’m looking at photographs, drawings, sketches, and maps to see how people depicted their surroundings. I’m looking at things people wrote about their surroundings and how their writing, sketches, and maps changed over time.

But here’s the major sticking point with my data: my Mexican sources. So first I had to learn Spanish, and then I was ready to dive in. I talked to people who had done research in Mexico and it sounded like it was going to be an easy task. From all appearances, the collections I need should be in the Secretary of Foreign Relations Archives, accessible to international researchers. Only when I dug a little deeper did I discover that the stuff I wanted to see was managed by the National Department of Defense, and it would be a lengthy and difficult process to obtain access as a foreigner. Letters from foreign consulates, hanging around for approval, and then the time it would take to sift through the materials. It could take months! And I didn’t have the funds. I came in as runner up for a major research fellowship, and I hadn’t come up with a Plan B to fund my research. After spending four years working for $10,000 a year, it’s a little hard to come up with savings to offset the cost of living, nevermind international travel and research. It’s also awfully hard to be simultaneously without pay AND spending lots of money. Somehow the math just didn’t add up. So I work full-time while I try to figure things out.

And here’s the real hold-up: I need it to be good. I have really high standards, and I want it to not just be good, but to be kick-ass. I already have a publisher who approached me about it (if I ever get it finished). I’ve gotten amazing positive feedback from what I’ve presented at conferences and several bigwigs in my subject have asked for copies of my work. There’s a lot riding on it, and that’s a lot of pressure. My department needs me to finish, I need me to finish, my bank account needs me to finish, and I find myself stumped, staring at the laptop. I’m not just looking for something brilliant to say — I’m also looking for the right way to say it.

My Master’s degree is in Public History, which is a lot of things (that I won’t go into here), but what I took away from it is a methodology. It’s the sharing of scholarly & academic work in an approachable, jargon-free way. Whether it’s in writing (what I do), teaching, public service, museums or archives, public history expands the audience for historical and anthropological research, opening it up to a discussion, a dialogue. Public history opens up the topic for discussion. It’s a concept that seems simple now. With developments like web 2.0, nowadays people just get that learning takes place when people share information in a dynamic environment that encourages debate, fosters multiple points of view, and enables end-users to come to their own conclusions. But 30+ years ago when public history appeared, that wasn’t the case. “Knowledge” got passed down through authoritative lectures that presented the “Facts” and exhibits that explained “what happened.” But then something happened. (Actually a lot of things happened, but I’ll leave that for another post.) And we got the “new” history and anthropology, These disciplines began to value subjectivity, shift authority, and question how we know what we know and what it all means. What does this have to do with my dissertation? A lot. For me, it’s not enough to just write what I’ve learned about my topic. It’s essential that I write in a manner that makes the topic approachable, frames my subject within history and anthropology without assuming my readers know anything about either subject (nevermind the intersection of the two). I want to prove to myself as much as anyone else that a dissertation can be great writing.

So for a lot of reasons it’s hard for me to get solid momentum on the dissertation. Outside of working full-time, I’m supposed to be able to go to the library for research, travel to look at other archives’ holdings, take the time to analyze the data I collect, and then turn my stream-of-consciousness disorganized scribbles into something resembling processed thoughts, and then edit it into good writing. I’ve got a long road ahead of me.

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