Dissertation Progress: Week of April 13th

Like just about everyone else stuck inside during this lockdown, I’ve fallen into a sort of cabin fever malaise that’s made work pretty difficult. In that vein, I also haven’t felt much like writing blog essays, and I haven’t been inspired enough in the kitchen to post recipes. I do have some thoughts: the performance of struggle and poverty that I see from a lot of people who are doing just fine, all while delivery workers are carrying the rest of us on their backs; experiments in scarcity cooking in an effort to keep things interesting while seemingly arbitrary ingredients disappear from stores (goodbye, flour!); and, of course, my dissertation.

I had set myself a goal to have full drafts of all five chapters by May, and I’m pretty much there. In the last few weeks I’ve been working on Chapter 5, which is an expansion of my article on copper that one of these days will be out in the Haskins Society Journal. Expanding it has been one of my simpler writing tasks, since I’ve worked with this material for so long and in so many formats. In total, I’ve written: one article, two seminar papers, one MA thesis, and two conference papers on this same topic. It’s also the work that inspired the rest of my dissertation, and so I’ve ended up explaining it in every abstract, summary, and project proposal I’ve written over the last 2+ years. That made writing the introduction to the chapter very easy – it was one of those times that I could just open a document and type. I also had a relatively easy time organizing the material I’d already written, cutting things that no longer fit, and adding in the research I did last year. But because all of that work was about flow, I’ve had a hard time finishing the chapter, filling in all of the references and details that need slow, methodical work with constant consultation of other materials. I need to do a lot of mental preparation to get into that work mode, or my mind just goes numb and I can’t get anything done.

So I’m taking a break from Chapter 5 for now, even though it’s not technically done, and stepping back to think about my dissertation as a whole. I need to look at all the chapters together, see how they flow and whether there are any significant gaps or departures. I need to write my introduction and conclusion, now that I know what my argument is and what I’ve found. Those tasks are a lot more manageable in my current mindset, because I just need to read, react, and rant (the 3 Rs of dissertating). It should help that I’ve been collecting thoughts for my introduction and conclusion as I’ve written the chapters, so I already have a significant amount of writing for the introduction, and at least a general sense of where to go with the conclusion. I know, for instance, that my introduction needs to iron out some of the language and geography that I refer to in almost every chapter so that I don’t have to explain it every time and I can make it consistent. I know I need to address the big trends in the literature that I’m responding to. And I need to spell out my overarching argument. In the conclusion, I really just need to summarize the steps of the argument, and then deal with the implications of what I’ve argued. Conceptually, this isn’t that hard, since I’ve always known what my dissertation should add – I’m trying to change the narrative around the acquisition of so-called Islamic science in early-modern Europe. But it’s going to be a fine line to walk, because I’m not actually talking about early-modern Europe at all – it’s just what comes next after my dissertation ends.

My dissertation isn’t the only writing I’m working on. I also have another article in the publication process – the initial version of Chapters 3 and 4, which is about the relationship between the trade in textile dyes and medical knowledge in medieval Sicily. I just got a notice of a revise and resubmit from the Textile Museum Journal, which is good news – they like it enough that they want to publish it, but they have some major critiques that they want me to deal with before they do. The problem is that their critiques (really, critiques from anonymous reviewers) are extremely vague. They like the article and think it has something important to say, but they don’t agree with my thesis and think I should cut it. And I just have no idea how to do that. So now I’m waiting on further instructions that will tell me in more detail how they think I should get rid of my thesis but still keep the article about the same topic.

The other major thing on my mind is funding. I just received what should be my last paycheck from Columbia, with my lump stipend for the summer. I technically have one more semester of funding from them, but it’s tied to teaching, which I can’t do because I don’t live near campus anymore. I spent a lot of this past fall and winter applying to fellowships that will give me one final year of funding, and now it’s the season to hear the results. I ultimately applied to six organizations, and I’ve already been rejected by one. I’m anxious that I won’t get any. This is the absolute randomness of academic life. There’s no guarantee that I’ll get funding, and it’s not a reflection of the quality of my project. A lot depends on each individual funding organization and their selection committee and how they choose to prioritize their funds each year. Nothing is dire yet, but I’ll definitely have to do some thinking if I don’t get one of the fellowships I applied to.

Hopefully this writing will help me move forward. It’s easy to get stuck in the mud when you don’t have a lot of variety in your schedule, and especially when it feels like the world is standing still. Good luck to everyone else out there slogging through the muck right now.