Dissertation writing (and writing, and writing)

One of the things that’s actually helpful about applying for funding to support me in my final year of dissertation writing is that it forces me to be reflective about the process of writing and take stock of where I am and where I still need to go. I just submitted what is likely my final application, my fifth since October, and I found myself adjusting my completion timeline yet again. As part of the application, most organizations require a timeline of the work you still need to do. I’ve used the same timeline for every application, organized by dissertation chapter, and tweaked it as time has gone on and I’ve actually checked some items off the list. But mostly, I’ve just kept pushing back the date that I’ll finish Chapter 2. My first version of this timeline, back in October, said that I would finish Chapter 2 in November. Now, here I am at the start of February and I just pushed the estimate to mid-February. Have I been kidding myself about how much work I still have to do?

Not exactly. My first estimate wasn’t wrong in terms of how many hours of work I would need to do to complete the chapter, but I wasn’t thinking about what other work I needed to do first to be able to write it. Back in October, I had just written Chapter 4 as an article in the month of September – it took me 30 days of pushing myself and full 8-hour days of just writing to go from a blank document to a submitted article because I was under a deadline. So I had an absolute minimum guide – if I do nothing but write, I can theoretically write any chapter in one month. But that’s just plain crazy. Writing isn’t just the time you spend clacking away at the keyboard, it’s also the time you take thinking about what you need to say, and it’s exhausting. There is such a thing as mental fatigue, and even at this stage of my career, when I write constantly, I cannot spend more than a few hours a day (maximum 4) writing and expect to keep up that pace. So I used that metric to estimate how much time I would need to write the rest of the chapters – Chapter 1 was finished, Chapters 2 and 3 were partial drafts, Chapter 4 would need to be expanded into an actual chapter from its article version, and Chapter 5 was the same deal (it just came out in the Haskins Society Journal). But I though of each of these as a separate task, and that just wasn’t accurate.

Up to October, I had been able to write the 3 chapters I already had some version of as individual essays. In fact, I was worried that my dissertation was going to be too disjointed – more a series of case studies than a cohesive argument. Chapter 5 was the first one I wrote and its original version was my entire dissertation in miniature. Chapter 1 explored a sort of side point that I had to get out of the way before I could dig into the meat of what I really wanted to talk about in Chapter 5. And Chapter 4 was an interesting but maybe only tangentially- or thematically-related point. Chapters 2 and 3 were the only chapters that had direct links to other chapters. And I didn’t realize before I really got into writing them that they are the actual meat of my dissertation, and they relate to EVERYTHING else. I thought that Chapter 2 was just a spillover from Chapter 1 and that Chapter 3 was just priming for Chapter 4. But that was definitely not the case, and as a result, I’m not so much writing each chapter individually as I am writing every chapter in tandem, so they’ll pretty much all be done at the same time.

Ok, I’ve reached the limit of the amount of time I can talk about this in vague terms and I need to give some specifics. So here’s the general spiel (aka a summary of my dissertation). My dissertation looks at how knowledge about science moved from the Arabic-literate world to the Latin-literate world through 12th-century Sicily in the form of texts, objects, and practices. It’s a response to what I think is an incorrect narrative, that says that the West had Arabic science revealed to it in the 12th century through a coordinated translation movement, and that as a result the West advanced rapidly, had the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, and left the Islamic world in the Middle Ages. If you’ve read this blog at all, you already know that I have a lot of problems with everything in this narrative – East/West divide, a progress-based narrative, knowledge as something that can concretely be owned, and the Scientific Revolution as the sum of all scientific advancement. The biggest problem I had with this story was that there is no evidence that there was a translation movement in southern Italy – we know there was one in Spain, mostly Toledo, but we have pretty much nothing from Italy. But it’s clear from how medieval Latin people wrote about science that around the 12th century they started to learn a lot of new things. So I decided to investigate all the ways that they could learn about science that weren’t just by reading scientific texts. What I found is that ideas about science traveled through the crafts people made and the goods they traded, and while they did still read about them, a lot of the time manuscripts were designed to work around a language barrier, by including diagrams and drawings that eased readers into their non-native languages. In this investigation, Chapter 1 shows the gap in the surviving manuscripts that indicates there was no translation movement; Chapter 2 looks at diagrams and other paratextual elements and their role in helping people learn science without being able to read it; Chapter 3 starts into how scientific concepts worked their way into everyday life by following the development of a trade language around spices out of medical encyclopedias; Chapter 4 tracks how spices inadvertently fueled 12th-century medical innovation as a result of the defunct Sicilian silk trade; and Chapter 5 homes in on the particular spice of copper (yes, copper was a spice) to see all the other ways that these substances could convey meaning, since copper was ubiquitous in medieval Sicily’s material culture.

Back to October. I had drafted Chapters 4 and 5 as articles, and I had finished Chapter 1. I had some new research on copper objects that I knew I needed to add to Chapter 5, and I needed more detail in Chapter 4, but otherwise, I felt these were pretty much done. Ok, I thought, Chapters 2 and 3. I just need to pound them out – explain diagrams in manuscripts, explain spices. Now, I knew Chapter 3 was a mess. I had started writing it back in Spring 2018 while I was pregnant, and it was three separate huge blocks of text without a thesis. But Chapter 2 was just all the stuff I couldn’t cover in Chapter 1 – hey, there wasn’t translation, but instead medieval guys drew all these diagrams and doodles. But then I realized that the main example I needed to talk about was a manuscript of Ptolemy (an ancient mathematician who became really significant to astronomy and cartography in the Middle Ages), and I knew (relatively) nothing about Ptolemy. So I went and researched Ptolemy. And then I started thinking about comparing my manuscript to other manuscripts in other languages. So I went and researched those. Finally I had the main analysis written. But I still didn’t have a real argument for the chapter – why did any of this matter? How did any of it relate to translation, or the rest of the dissertation? So I took a break and started trying to crack Chapter 3. I spent a week just organizing the writing I had already done. I ended up color coding each section, paragraph by paragraph (sometimes sentence by sentence), so I could make sense of what I’d already written. Something was coming together, but it needed to be completely overhauled. I wrote an outline for what I thought the chapter needed to be, and found an argument within what I’d already said. I started fleshing things out, inserting citations.

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Chapter 3 in all its color coded, notated glory.

And then I kept finding myself flipping back to Chapter 2. A note here or a clarification there. I started leaving both documents open. I would write a paragraph in Chapter 3 and then remember something I needed to add to Chapter 2. I would go back to my notes to look something up for Chapter 3 and find a reference that was relevant to Chapter 2. I was confused, these chapters had nothing to do with each other. I still didn’t even know how to explain why they were right next to each other. And yet I kept finding overlap or common features. And then finally I found the argument for chapter 2. I wrote the introduction for Chapter 3, trying to explain why I was talking about spices. Why I was switching gears to economic history after I had just spent two chapters talking about the mechanics of manuscripts. Here’s what I originally wrote to myself as a note on this topic:

connection to previous section: because the textual record is thin on explicit discussion of scientific knowledge in sicily, we can use other kinds of texts to find material evidence of that knowledge. in the same way that non-textual elements of manuscripts transmitted knowledge, objects were associated with science in particular ways that allowed them to carry knowledge. these objects were not one-off individual substances that had particular importance, but a range of materials that had many functions in many aspects of daily life.

But I had a glaring exception to what I had just said – there was explicit scientific discussion. There was an entire new body of medical literature coming out of Salerno at the same time as the spice trade I was following. I spent most of Chapter 1 talking about it! I was going to refer back to it repeatedly throughout Chapter 3. So what made this different? Why was I putting Salernitan medicine in a different category from scientific texts as a group? And then I realized something that should have been obvious to me and everyone else who has ever worked on this: they’re written in Latin. They’re not translated into Latin. They’re not Latin commentaries on Greek or Arabic texts. They’re Latin, full stop. That’s the big shift I need to be explaining. That’s the point of Chapter 2 – how did Salerno get to a place where it could write new scientific literature in Latin? That explained why I kept finding all these doodles in the margins or huge diagrams with text squeezed around them – Latin readers needed the diagrams to understand what they were looking at, because they couldn’t read the texts in their original language. Once they knew enough about the science, they could just write new texts about those topics in Latin, and make vague references to what came before in other languages without ever actually reading them. Translation was irrelevant.

So back in October, I was imagining a dissertation of essentially 3 separate essays split across 5 chapters. Meditations on the topic of translation. It wouldn’t be elegant, but I would finish it. Now, around December, I had a cohesive argument. I knew what the thread running through the chapters was. I started to see them as part of a whole. And so I couldn’t just pound out Chapter 2 and move on, because once I realized these connections, I kept having to write Chapters 2 and 3 in tandem. I’m still doing that. But I really do think I’m almost done. I’m not just writing to fill up space now. I have an argument, I know what I’m saying. Things are laid out, some of them just need more detail or citations (yes, I still put some citations in at the end, but hey, I’m getting better). So it’s probably time for another push. Write all day every day until I finish goddam Chapter 2. Then take a break, and come back to do the same thing to Chapter 3. Because while I was doing all of this, I gutted Chapter 4. And I have a deadline to meet.