Category Archives: Graduate School

Chiseling out a dissertation topic

John Fea poses a question well worth considering: “Must an applicant to a Ph.D program have a fully-formed dissertation idea in mind when they apply for admission?  I am not referring to a general field of study or even a particular topic within that field of study, I am referring to an actual dissertation topic.”

Never having served on any graduate admission committees, I can’t say whether a locked-in dissertation idea is a credit or a debit on an application.  But in terms of going through the process once you’ve been admitted to a program, I can share my experience, for whatever it’s worth.

As I’ve said before, I think the hiatus I took between finishing my master’s and starting a doctoral program has made my Ph.D. experience a lot more enjoyable.  Now that I’m in the dissertation stage, I’m even more glad to have had the benefit of that extra time reading and sharpening my research interests.

But I also think a certain malleability is necessary.  Your graduate coursework is all about initiation into a guild.  You’re learning what historians do, and how other historians have framed questions and figured out ways to answer them.  If that doesn’t have an impact on how you frame and answer your questions, then what’s the point of doing coursework?

When I started my doctoral work, I knew I wanted to study Appalachian settlers’ involvement in the American Revolution.  I was interested in the centripetal forces that pulled them into the Revolution and the centrifugal forces that pushed them to its margins.  I had a topic, and I had some questions I wanted to answer.  But I wasn’t yet framing those questions precisely, and I didn’t have a clear plan of attack for finding answers to them.  That came later, with a lot of guidance from my adviser, conversations with other professors, and engaging with a lot of historiography in seminars.

You know that movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, where Charlton Heston plays Michelangelo?  There’s a scene near the beginning of the film where these guys are dragging a massive block of marble into Rome.  When Michelangelo sees it, he says, “Look!  Moses…here in the marble.  Moses down from Sinai.  God’s anger in his eyes.”

I think one of the things that makes a good doctoral adviser is the ability to look at a student’s interests the way Michelangelo looked at that block of marble.  Somewhere in there is a viable research project that can contribute something to the field.  You might not be able to see it yet.  But a good adviser (and the other members of your committee) will be able to discern its outlines, and will help you figure out where to apply the chisel.

By Jörg Bittner Unna [CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons

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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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The abject dread of putting words on paper

I’m at that point where it’s time to take the notes and outlines I’ve generated for my dissertation and start putting readable text on paper.  I should be psyched, but I’m terrified.  It’s like jumping off a cliff using a bungee cord made of dental floss.

Up until now, my dissertation has existed only in my own head, and as long it stays there, it can remain the platonic ideal of everything I want it to be.  But once I actualize it, it’ll never live up to that ideal.  It will only be as good as my own shortcomings as a researcher and writer allow.  The longer I delay putting words on paper, the longer I can avoid the dismay of realizing how far short of the ideal it’ll fall.

That’s always been the single greatest obstacle to my productivity.  The same fear of actualizing a project plagues me whenever I try to write something.  After I finished my master’s thesis, I could’ve turned it into a couple of scholarly articles in a matter of months, since the research and writing was more or less done.  But it literally took me years to send one of the chapters off for publication.  It didn’t take years to do the revisions, mind you, but to muster up the gumption to sit down and see it through.  I had the same experience trying to turn a seminar paper into an article draft this past summer…and again this past week, while trying to figure out how to articulate this dilemma for the blog post you’re now reading.  A good third of the posts I start to write for this blog end up in the trash bin for that same reason.

Lyman C. Draper, via Wikimedia Commons

This is one reason I’ve always felt a kind of kinship with nineteenth-century antiquarian Lyman Draper.  Like me, Draper was fascinated by the early frontier.  Also like me, he had a special affinity for the King’s Mountain; the only book he saw through to publication was a history of the battle.  He accumulated enough material, however, to write a shelf full of books on pioneers and frontier battles.  In fact, he conceived a number of book-length projects over the years: biographies of Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, a volume of “border forays,” collected sketches of prominent frontiersmen, and so on.

But he couldn’t bring any of them to completion.  Even the one book he managed to get published was plagued by delays.  Draper set out to write his King’s Mountain study at the instigation of colleagues who wanted him to get it out in time for the battle’s centennial.  He missed it by a year, in spite of his publisher’s incessant pleas to hurry things along.  He just couldn’t stop tweaking, double-checking, and accumulating more and more data.

Historians have attributed Draper’s lack of publications to a number of factors.  First and foremost, he was a collector and aggregator, happiest when he was transcribing manuscripts and interviewing pioneers and their descendants.  He was also an obsessive fact-checker who insisted on verifying every obscure scrap of local tradition he came across.  Finally, he had a streak of hypochondria a mile wide, and his repeated bouts with illnesses both real and imaginary interrupted his workflow.

But I think part of the problem was simple anxiety of the same sort that paralyzes me when I try to write out a piece of research.  The problem wasn’t that Draper had a poor work ethic.  He approached the task of chronicling frontier history with an almost religious zeal.  And I suspect it was that very zeal that helped do him in.  He knew he was sitting on a goldmine of material, and I think he feared that when he set pen to paper the results wouldn’t do his sources justice.  It was easier to go on collecting, and to let the platonic ideal of his book projects live on in his head and in his notes, where they could remain unsullied.  And, to be honest, Draper was a much better aggregator than a writer; his King’s Mountain book is more valuable for the material contained therein than as a work of historical literature.

Draper is one of my personal heroes, but he also serves as something of a cautionary tale.  For as long as I can remember—for much longer than I’ve wanted to be a historian, in fact—I’ve wanted to find things out and then write books about them.  But I’ve idealized the process of research and writing to such an extent that actually doing it paralyzes me to the point of inaction.

Being in grad school has helped, since I’m accountable to people who don’t hesitate to kick me in the pants when I’m not generating drafts.  And I feel better knowing I have access to professional mentors who can critique my work before I send it off for publication.  Once they tell me it’s up to snuff, I can let go of some of my own nagging feelings that it’s inadequate.

They say a pretty good project that’s completed is better than an outstanding one left undone.  And as far as one’s CV is concerned, I’m sure that’s true.  The hard part is internalizing that fact enough to put it into action.

And on that note, I need to get back to work.

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Headed to the archives

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be engaged in some archival work this summer, thanks to the generosity of a couple of funding sources.  The David Library of the American Revolution has awarded me a residential fellowship, so I’ll be headed up to Pennsylvania soon to pore over their incredible microfilm collection.  (Hope I can muster the discipline to get my research done while being in striking distance of so many Rev War sites.)

I was also fortunate to receive an Archie K. Davis Fellowship from the North Caroliniana Society, which will give me an opportunity to examine Revolutionary War records in the Old North State.  I’m very grateful to both the DLAR and the NCS for these research funds; I wouldn’t be able to access materials critical to my dissertation without this support.

Oh, and if you’d like to read a short description of my project and look over my CV, you can now do so at the UT Department of History’s website.

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I’m officially ABD

Well, I took my written comps a week ago and passed my orals today.  All I have to do now is write that dissertation, defend it, get a job, make full professor, retire, and die.

This is going to sound weird, but I think I’m more relieved right now than I will be when I actually finish my degree.  I mean, I’ve spent a long time learning to grapple with other historians’ work, basically listening in on the conversations that scholars have been having.  Passing comps means you’ve listened in long enough and you’re ready to join a conversation yourself, or perhaps even start your own.

Heck, I get to spend the next few semesters getting paid to do original research on a topic that fascinates me.  How awesome will that be?

My first order of business, though, is some leisure reading.  I’ve got a waist-high stack of books I’ve been yearning to dig into for months.  Rev War books, dinosaur books, religion books, narrative history…all the stuff I love to read but haven’t had much time for lately.  I’ve even compiled a bucket list of classic comics and graphic novels that I’m going to get started on; there are two volumes of post-Crisis Superman stories headed my way as we speak.  I’ve always wanted to read straight through Herodotus and Thucydides, too, so maybe I can knock out one of those over the holiday break.  Might even be able to squeeze in a couple of those thrillers Crichton wrote under a pseudonym.

I’ll get to all that, just as soon as I take a nice, long nap.  Or two.

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On the advantages of being a (somewhat) older grad student

A few days ago #firstsevenjobs was a trending topic on Twitter.  It prompted an interesting conversation among some historians about the diverse paths people have pursued before grad school, and the pros and cons of entering a graduate program later in life vs. the “traditional” route of going straight through from college to Ph.D.

This is actually a subject on which I can speak with a certain degree of authority, because I’ve experienced grad school as both a traditional student in my early twenties and as an older student hitting the books again after a hiatus.  I was more or less fresh out of college (but for a year’s employment) when I did my M.A., but I worked in public history and picked up adjunct gigs for a while before heading back for my Ph.D.  Granted, I’m not that much older than a “traditional” graduate student, but I’m not exactly a spring chicken, either.  My baseline movie version of Batman is still Michael Keaton.

So which was harder, being a younger or older grad student in history?  Personally, I’ve found the Ph.D. experience to be less stressful, even though I’ve had a higher class load as a doctoral student than I ever did while working on my M.A.  And the decisive factor has been the time I had to simmer after finishing my master’s degree.  I’ve read more, I’ve thought about my interests more, and I have a much better idea about how to integrate those interests into the historiography and contextualize them than I did in my early twenties.  It’s made a world of difference.

I’ve also had more time to develop my skills as a communicator and writer.  Practice is everything when it comes to sharpening your prose, and being older means you’ve had more time to practice.

Some people say that you don’t have as much capacity to do coursework and absorb information after you get older, but my experience has been the opposite.  A graduate education in history isn’t really about learning new “facts.”  What counts is breadth, depth, and maturity of thinking, not how many terms you can memorize in a night of cramming.  It’s a form of learning that favors perspective more than plasticity.

Now, all this comes with two important caveats.  First, I’m an older student, but I’m also a bachelor.  That means I can’t speak to the difficulty of balancing grad school with family responsibilities, which would be an issue a lot of older grad students have to deal with.

Second, the age difference between my younger classmates and I isn’t substantial enough to be generational, so the issue of being so much older than my peers that I have nothing in common with them is not something I’ve had to deal with.  But I can say that there are a few students in my department who are old enough to have adult children, and age differences haven’t kept any of us from becoming a very close-knit group.  The common experience of going through the program more or less overrides whatever distinctions of age, background, and religion we have.

The upshot is that if you ask me if it’s hard going back for a terminal degree after ten, fifteen, or twenty years out of the classroom, I’d say this: Grad school is tough on anybody, but the nature of the historical discipline is such that being long in the tooth can actually give you a bit of an edge.

All this is assuming, of course, that you’ve put some of those years out of the classroom to good use.  Your age in and of itself is less important than your mastery of content, the perceptiveness of your conclusions, and the willingness to work hard.  And that’s true whether you’re a retiree or Doogie Howser.

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The best of the best from my seminar reading lists

Well, my coursework is done, so from here on out it’s just comps and the dissertation.  I’ve still got quite a lot of reading to do between now and the end of the road, of course, but the end of classes means one chapter in my career as a graduate student is over.

As one of my professors remarked this past semester, grad school gives you the opportunity to be exposed to more books than you’ll ever be able to read again in such a short period of time.  With that in mind, I thought it might be fun to look back over the books I’ve been assigned to read and select one exceptionally good title from each course.  Think of this post as…

THE FIRST AND LAST

LYNCH AWARDS FOR OUTSTANDING BOOKS FROM

MY GRADUATE COURSE REQUIRED READING LISTS

A few preliminary remarks are in order before we get rolling.  I’m only including reading seminars in American history.  That means no books from research seminars, foundational courses in theory and methodology, more practical-driven courses (such as classes on teaching the world history survey or professionalization), and courses in world or European history.  I read many fine works in these classes, but since American history is my thing, I’m going to stick with the stuff I know best.

I should also add that I’m only including required texts from these courses, so books I read for purposes of presenting an individual report or for a historiographic paper aren’t eligible for inclusion.  Maybe I’ll do another round someday and pick up all those loose ends.

Now, without further ado, here are my picks.  We’ll start with the courses I took way back when as an M.A. student.

Topics in Early American History.  This was the first graduate course I ever took.  Competition in this category was especially stiff, since my professor had us read many of the classics in the field.  But if I had to pick the one book from the required reading that was most exceptional, I’d probably go with Edmund S. Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom.  Morgan addresses the great paradox of American history: How did a slave society come to enshrine freedom and equality as its most important ideals?  It turns out not to be such a paradox after all.

Topics in American Military History.  It’s hard for me to be impartial when it comes to Charles Royster’s A Revolutionary People at War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783.  It’s long been one of my all-time favorite works of historical scholarship, so it was probably bound to be my top pick among all the books I read for my military history class.  Royster asks and answers many of the most important questions the Continental Army’s existence implies about the Revolution.

Topics in Modern American History.  William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West is one of the most well researched and elegantly presented history books I’ve ever read.  You wouldn’t expect an examination of the relationship between geography, the commodification of resources, and urbanization would be this engrossing.

Civil War and Reconstruction.  I got quite a bit out of The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience, by Emory M. Thomas.  Thomas argues that the Civil War didn’t just separate the North and the South, but also wrought an internal revolution within the South itself.  Ironically, a war fought to preserve a particular way of life proved to be a powerful agent of change.

Jeffersonian America.  Gordon Wood’s The Radicalism of the American Revolution was a very close runner-up to beat Edmund Morgan’s book in my first category.  Fortunately, it popped up again on the required reading list for this course, so I can give it the props it deserves.  Wood explains what was so revolutionary about the Revolution, an event that turned the hierarchical, organic world of colonial America into a society we might recognize as much closer to our own.

History of American Religion.  Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt is a model of historical argumentation.  She demonstrates how radical evangelism posed a formidable challenge to the early South’s familial, masculine, and racial ideals.  In order to win over southern planters, evangelical preachers had to adapt.  Those adaptations created the evangelicalism that many people associate with the region today.

That covers my M.A. courses.  Moving on to my doctoral coursework…

U.S. and the World.  I think I can speak for everybody who took this class when I say that Kate Brown’s Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters is both enlightening and hard to put down.  With vivid, elegant prose, Brown tells the parallel stories of two Cold War communities—one in the U.S., the other in the Soviet Union.  Both communities were built for one purpose: the production of plutonium.  In each case, the inhabitants enjoyed a level of prosperity much greater than that of their neighbors.  But both the people in these communities and those who lived downwind and downstream from them paid a fearsome price for this high standard of living.

Native American History.  William Cronon makes the list again for his now-classic Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England.  It’s one of the foundational works of environmental history, and also one of the very best.  The European conquest of the New World marked a transformation in the ways America’s inhabitants interacted with the physical environment.  I think every aspiring historian should read this book as an example of how to present and sustain a clear, forceful, and persuasive argument.

Early America and the Atlantic.  Another modern classic: Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America.  This book has the distinction of appearing on the required reading lists of more courses than any other title I’ve been assigned in grad school; it’s been assigned in three of my classes.  That ought to tell you something about what a worthwhile investment it is for anybody interested in early America, slavery, and the history of race.

Independent Study on the American Revolution.  Lots of good books to choose from here, too, but I think my favorite is Michael McDonnell’s The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia.  The Revolution wasn’t a unifying experience for the Old Dominion.  Far from it.  In fact, mobilization exposed the rifts between gentry, middling farmers, and the lower sort.  The need for manpower forced Virginia’s elites to make concessions to middling whites, and bred resentment among those poorer men who bore the burden of filling the ranks.  I love this book for McDonnell’s thorough research and the care with which he reconstructs the relationship between waging war and the political order.

Gender as a Category of Analysis in American History.  So before the 1960s, homosexuals were so far back in the closet they were essentially invisible, right?  Wrong.  In Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, George Chauncey uncovers an American gay culture that was both active and visible decades before Stonewall.  What I found most remarkable about this book, however, was not so much the fact that Chauncey has discovered a lost world, but the detail with which he reconstructs it.  Even if you’re not interested in LGBT history, you should read this book to admire the array of sources Chauncey employs to resurrect a slice of the past many Americans have forgotten.

Classic and Contemporary Readings in African American History.  The standout title from this class, at least for me, is Steven Deyle’s Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life.  When we hear the phrase “slave trade,” most of us think of the traffic in human bodies between Africa and the Americas.  It’s easy to forget how ubiquitous the internal trade was before the Civil War, and how profoundly it shaped the course of American history.  Deyle puts the domestic slave trade back at the center of the story where it belongs with research that is downright awe-inspiring in breadth.

By selecting only one book from each class, I’ve left out a lot of fantastic stuff, but I think these titles are the cream of the crop.  If you’re a fellow grad student, maybe you’ll see something here that will help you out.  And if you’re neither a student nor a historian, I encourage you to dive in anyway, so you can enjoy some of the best the discipline has to offer.

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