Monthly Archives: October 2017

Two lessons I’ve learned about writing a dissertation

In the past few days I’ve learned two things about writing a dissertation.  The first lesson is something I had to stumble across on my own; the second I got from somebody else.

By Marco Verch (Notizblock mit Stiften) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I always had this notion that research and writing were two distinct stages in any project like this, with the writing coming after most of the research was finished.  I’d spend a long time accumulating evidence, and then I’d sit down, sort it all out, and turn it into finished prose.  I’d still have some material to consult while working on early drafts, of course, but I thought I’d have the bulk of it done by the time I started stringing words together.

It hasn’t played out that way.  Writing itself—at least when you’re dealing with a project of this sort—is a process of discovery.  You can’t finish your research before starting to write, because your sense of what material you need will develop as you write.

Right now, for instance, I’m writing a foundational chapter on the meanings of eighteenth-century manhood, both in the English colonies in general and on the Appalachian frontier in particular.  Manhood was closely bound up with ownership of land.  I knew this when I started writing, and I’d acquired some good material on the links between land and manliness.  But once the writing commenced, it became apparent that I needed to explore these ties in more depth, and to do more digging into the historiography of land ownership.

Being OCD, I don’t like the idea of trying to compose text around ideas I haven’t fully fleshed out yet.  It feels a bit like trying to put a puzzle together while looking through a keyhole.  But finding out that I have no choice in the matter—that I can’t have the ideas fully fleshed out until I start assembling them—has been liberating.  It’s eased some of my anxieties about doing historical research and writing.  Since I can’t plan out the whole route ahead of time, I might as well go ahead and start putting one foot in front of the other.

The other lesson is something Christina Snyder told a group of us grad students yesterday during her visit to campus: “A page a day is a dissertation in a year.”  That came as a revelation.  Another assumption I had about a substantial writing project is that you should do it in big chunks.  When I sit down at the keyboard and can’t produce anything more than a couple hundred words, it’s discouraging.  But sometimes productivity means something less like an avalanche and more like the steady drip-drip-drip of mineral-rich water that creates stalagmites.

One step at a time, and if you can’t see the whole route, you can at least see where to plant your foot next.  That’s what it boils down to.

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Filed under Graduate School, Research and Writing

Age of Revolutions is rolling out a series on Native Americans

If you don’t already follow the Age of Revolutions blog, keep an eye out for a series of posts they’re rolling out over the next seven weeks.  Each piece looks at a dimension of the Native American experience in the American Revolution.  The contributors include some of my favorite historians, so I was doubly honored and excited when AoR’s editors invited me to join in.

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Christina Snyder will discuss ‘Great Crossings’ at UTK

This year’s Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture at the University of Tennessee looks to be pretty interesting.  Christina Snyder will deliver a talk based on her book Great Crossings: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in the Age of Jackson.

Snyder is McCabe Greer Professor of History at Penn State.  Her first book, Slavery in Indian Country, is well worth your time; I’d recommend it to anybody trying to sort out the history of captivity and race in early America.  Here’s some additional info on her talk:

Her lecture will examine how United States imperialism during the era of Indian Removal reshaped the geography of the freedom—or lack, thereof—of certain Americans and how it brought conflicting ideologies of race and slavery into contact with one another. The talk also will explore the strategies that people of color developed to navigate the shifting landscape.

Snyder’s book uses as a case study Great Crossings, an experimental community in Kentucky where America’s diverse peoples intersected and shared new visions of the continent’s future. The town got its name the previous century, when bison habitually crossed Elkhorn Creek at that shallow spot. By the 19th century, the bison had disappeared, but Great Crossings became a different kind of meeting ground, home to the first federal Indian school and a famous interracial family.

The lecture is at 5:00 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 23, in room 103 of the Howard Baker Center.  It’s free and open to the public.

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A call to action on Blair Mountain

Quick: Name the biggest armed uprising in U.S. history since the Civil War.  Now name the largest labor uprising in America.  If you answered both questions with “Battle of Blair Mountain,” give yourself a pat on the back.

Adding Blair Mountain to the National Register of Historic Places is a no-brainer.  Indeed, it was on the list until a judge decided to permit its withdrawal under circumstances that were—to put it mildly—rather shady.

Right now, we have a chance to help put Blair Mountain back on the registry were it belongs.  Between now and Oct. 26 you can email the keeper of the registry and let them know that this is a situation that needs to be rectified.  Drop them a line at Blair_mt_comments@nps.gov.

It will only take you a few minutes, but it’ll help save an indispensable part of American and Appalachian history.  This is one of the most imperiled historic sites in the country; it’s under imminent threat from coal companies who want to blast it to smithereens.  (No, seriously, they want to take the site of one of the biggest armed uprisings in the nation and blow it up.)

And if you’d like more information on what you can do to help and why the site is so important, check out Friends of Blair Mountain.

Fighting the Battle of Blair Mt. By Charleston Gazette [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Filed under Appalachian History, Historic Preservation