A Year in the Life of a Dissertation

Brought to you by the letters W, M, S, and the number 336(ish).

Early last week, the Today show started running year-end retrospective segments, which freaked me out. While they scrolled through images from 2010, I had to remind myself that yes, the year was almost out. I hadn’t even begun to think about retrospective things, which is probably good since I’ve been feverishly trying to wrap up a lot of chapter revisions.

That’s when I decided that my take on 2010 retrospectives this year is dissertation-centric. After all, what was 2010 for me if not the Year of the Dissertation?

A year ago, the dissertation was not even half-baked yet. On January 1, 2010, I could honestly say that I had written Chapter 1, Chapter 2 (two versions of it), and Chapter 5. And I was pretty proud of those accomplishments.

In the winter and spring months of 2010, in between teaching assistantship duties, fellowship applications, department activities, and a conference at Brown University, I wrote two more chapters: Chapter 3 and Chapter 4. None of it, of course, went as fast or as smoothly as I would have liked. The piles of books around the house were ridiculous, my snacking habits atrocious, and yes, let’s face it, my cut-in-paste technique got a little obnoxious at times (even for me).

But by the end of May, there it was: Chapters 1 through 5, with an Intro, Conclusion, and Chapter 6 still pending. I was afraid of Chapter 6. Chapter 6 and I weren’t quite getting along in my mind yet, because I still couldn’t visualize it as well as I could see the others.

Of course, one of the lessons in the second half of the year was that it doesn’t matter how well I visualized something or not: odds were that I’d end up shredding it to pieces and finding another approach anyway.

In some ways, the spring of the dissertation was uneventful, particularly when compared with the rest of the year. I stressed over writing those two chapters. I went all over town interviewing veterans for the project and spent hours transcribing interviews. And somewhere along the way, the writing happened. I made progress.

Then came June, the month in which the dissertation and I went through a planned, yet temporary break up. This was probably a very good thing, and the reason for it was excellent: three weeks at West Point’s Summer Seminar in Military History. I wrote a lot about that this summer, and I still think about it a lot. In retrospect, that was probably one of the best experiences I could have had this year because my time in New York (and the surrounding areas) forced me to reexamine many things related to both the dissertation and my professional life.

Plus, I met a ton of interesting people and spent some time being social. It can’t always be just you and the dissertation, you know.

Then there was July. July, the month where Chapter 6 and I went at it for 10 insane days before I threw a draft at my advisor, even though I knew as soon as I printed it out that it didn’t work. And even that was okay. Me, my advisor, and Chapter 6 – we all made it through that crappy period, mostly because in the process of tripping things up so badly I seem to have figured out how it really needed to go.

And then: August and September, the months of the revisions. For two solid months I attacked each chapter in order, thoroughly, methodically. I buckled down at the table for a set period of time every day and wrote. And thought. But mostly, wrote. I worked into weekends and evenings on some chapters. I lived, breathed, ate, and slept my dissertation.

By late September, Chapters 1 through 6 had received the first major round of revisions. I wrote the conclusion (which I kinda loved). I agonized over the introduction draft (which I still kinda hate). I deposited the ENTIRE VERSION of Dissertation 2.0 into my advisor’s mailbox on October 1 and let it all just be for awhile.

But it was still the year of the dissertation, after all, so October and November included some more oral history interviews, a small archival trip, and “other” work that I think still helped with the dissertation, such as job applications and letting my brain process things subconsciously. Then, the Friday before Thanksgiving, the advisor and I got together and went through Version 2.0 together.

That was roughly six weeks ago. In the time since, I’ve looked at oodles of books. I’ve reworked countless passages and gotten frustrated over different elements of the project. Then there are days like today, when I finally found my voice in a particular chapter and found new evidence that no one’s ever written about before and got to use it.

I still haven’t touched the Introduction, Chapter 3, or the Conclusion (which needs new attention in light of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell). On the other hand, I’ve reconceptualized and revised Chapters 1 and 4 and made other edits for Chapters 2, 5, and 6.  On the final day of 2010, I’ll send these revisions off to a committee member who’s graciously offered to read the whole thing. I have other readers offering their feedback to each chapter, too.

It’s not done yet, but it’s close. So close. Which means 2011 is going to be awesome.

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