Tag Archives: Dissertation

Dissertation Check-In #1

I opened a new scrivener file for my dissertation and started writing on December 28, 2019. In the two months that have elapsed since that day, I have done a lot of reading and a lot of drafting– 50 pages worth actually.

If it seems like I’m writing like a madwoman, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Writing is my primary vehicle for processing the world so I write a lot and often.
  2. I write fast. If I have an idea, I can lay down 1,000 words in under an hour.
  3. I don’t self-edit as I write. I word vomit and edit later.
  4. I am not working this semester. At my school, if you TA or are a teaching fellow, you’re off the semester you are not working.
  5. I have written something that can serve as a basis for each chapter, intro and conclusion, whether it be a conference or seminar paper, or an article draft. (Protip: before I started writing, I gathered all my relevant writing into a document so I would have my ideas all in one place. That document was 150 pages.)

To point number five, I’ve tested out a lot of these ideas, worked them out, but I’m excited to get to spend some time molding them on paper and synthesizing them even further.

Also, in terms of actual writing time, I don’t spend that much time writing. Every week, I give myself a writing goal word count. Typically, the minimum is 1,250 words (or 250 words on average every week day) and the maximum is 2,500 (or 500 words on average every week day). I try to be very flexible with myself, so it doesn’t matter how the words come out. If I write 1,250 words or more one day, I consider my work done for the week unless I have a stroke of inspiration, I rarely write more. Usually, though, I spend about an hour three days out of the week working on my word count goal.

That said, if I’m only writing a few hours a week, what am I doing the rest of the time? Reading. I spend a lot of time reading, rereading, reviewing, and researching. I’m taking notes and sketching and outlining. Admittedly, I do other things, too: I go to meetings for my various jobs around campus and with my advisor, I do conferences, go to lectures. And of course, I spend some time freelance writing, pitching and drafting and editing essays.

But I’ve got a rhythm for the time being: Monday through Friday, I am in Williamsburg, writing in my apartment or at the local coffeehouse. Every day that I write, I also move. So I try to make it to a yoga class (or Body Combat on Wednesdays), every day that I spend sedentary working. On Friday, I stop working, no matter where I am on the spectrum of my word count, and I drive home to Suffolk and spend the weekend with my folks. We do nothing happily and we go to church on Sundays. I sometimes make things, like mini canvases with custom quotes, for people. I take a break. And then on Monday, I drive back to Williamsburg and start my week over again.

All of my pages have gone off to my dissertation advisor and I’ve since gotten edits and comments back. However, sometime last week, I realized I was going really hard on the dissertation, even with all of my scheduling and breaks. So I took last week (which incidentally happened to be my birthday week) off. Tomorrow, Monday March 2, I am going to comb through my advisor’s comments a little more carefully and spend a week or two adjusting and reworking based on her thoughts. I will spend the last two weeks of March hopefully drafting about 20 new pages of work.

My goal, ultimately, is to have a sizeable chunk of this project drafted this year. I expect most of my work will come in the editing process. Writing, simply put, isn’t the hard part for me. Editing to get it where it needs to be is the beast I have to conquer.

In any case, I think I’ve made good progress over the last two months. I have a system that works for me and an advisor who is supportive, present and forthcoming with feedback. I do like being in this space: I love that it’s just me and my writing. It’s what I love, just getting carried away by ideas, and right now I can do that with minimal interruption.

It’s kind of nice.

Will it stay that way? Only time will tell.

Writing (and Defending) A Prospectus

In my Ph.D. program, after successfully completing your comprehensive exams, you then produce a prospectus. The prospectus is, in many ways, a speculative document. Think of it as a proposal for the dissertation: you are creating something that outlines the main research questions, the methodology, the existing literature, and your proposed intervention, while also giving your committee a sense of your timeline to completion. A prospectus is multi-faceted and multi-functional, thereby making it one of the most difficult genres of writing.

To start writing my prospectus, the first thing I did was check my handbook to see what the parameters and expectations were. These were the instructions given:

“The prospectus will give a full description of the inquiry to be undertaken. It will identify an issue or problem, explain how this bears upon or intervenes in a particular field of scholarship, relate the topic to previous and on-going works, detail the several parts of the project and show their interrelations, name the key primary sources, outline the principle methods, and suggest a timetable for completion. Such a prospectus should run between 3500 and 5000 words (approximately 14-20 pages) and should include as a supplement a bibliography of the principal primary and secondary sources.”

 

Next, I broke this up into sections that I knew I needed to answer:

  • Description of the inquiry
  • Identify an issue or problem
  • Explain how this intervenes in a field of scholarship
  • Relate the topic to previous or on-going works
  • Detail the parts of the project
  • Name the sources
  • Methodology
  • Timetable to completion

After I had the barebones structure, I reached out to a few trusted colleagues who were ahead of me in the same program, hoping to see their prospecti. I asked for and received about three prospecti to examine. Looking at their documents gave me a sense of how to structure my own.

Admittedly, I did something a little unconventional in terms of writing my first draft. The week after my oral comprehensive exam, I did a week long writing retreat sponsored by William & Mary Libraries, and spent five entire days just writing. I simply worked on drafting responses to each of the sections, and took advantage of being in the library to help build my bibliography and source material. By that Friday, I had a 20 page outline for what would eventually become my prospectus.

Following the retreat, with the exception of adding a section about the creative component I wanted to produce, I left it alone for almost the entire summer, coming back to it just before the start of the fall semester. Being able to leave it was a Godsend because I was able to reapproach my questions and methodology with fresh eyes and new ideas. I spent about two weeks stitching together my blocks of text, smoothing them out, connecting them more seamlessly until the document flowed as a cohesive unit.

Once I was happy with the way it read, I started to send it out to my chairs. Both offered substantive content and structural edits, which I took to heart and used to make my prospectus stronger.

After making the appropriate edits, I emailed the professors who would serve as my committee for my Prospectus Colloquium. In many programs, the defense of the prospectus is a much bigger deal than it is in mine. For some, one is not considered a candidate or “All But Dissertation” (ABD) until successful completion of the prospectus defense. In my program, we don’t even consider the colloquium “a defense;” it’s much more of a conversation about the project, a low key way to offer feedback that should propel you forward and help mold your path further.

Indeed, my colloquium was just that. Everyone was pleased with my proposed project, my methodology, my conversation with theorists, my proposed research and the creative component. They offered a few suggestions of note which would help me structure my chapters and overall narrative. Despite the project being “innovative” and “trail-blazing,” one of my chairs had very valid concerns about my work being legible in a way that would secure me a job.

I’m not sure I allayed her fears when I informed her that I’m not worried about being legible to older, white folks on search committees. My work is for Black girls that were and are like me. As long as I’m writing for them, I’m walking in my purpose and that is all I can ask for. Like I told my mother after the colloquium, I’m at a point where I’m no longer super concerned about landing a job in the Academy after I finish the Ph.D. I have so many skills and passions that something will turn up for me. That said, I have never been one who believed in simply waiting for things to fall in my lap. You must stay sharp and prepared so when opportunity comes knocking, you are ready. For me, that means getting my work out there in a variety of ways so that when the right opportunity comes, I can take it.

For the time being, I need to consider my next steps, which includes making an obnoxious, color-coded outline for my dissertation; pasting a timeline (also color-coded) to my bathroom mirror; creating a dissertation hashtag; and opening a new file in Scrivener. So that’s what I’m doing this weekend.

I’m ready to begin in earnest.


If you are a graduate student in American Studies or a related field, and need help formulating your prospectus, I am happy to send mine along. Just reach out via email or DM and say a little about who you are, what your project is and how you think seeing my prospectus could help you along.

“Double Consciousness” Recap: “What Makes Up a Black Girl?”

“Stamped with a magic so spiritual that angels and colonizers alike wanna get like us.”

The long-awaited webseries, Black Enough, which premiered on Sunday, begins with a question: “What makes up a Black girl?” As the narrator lists the many things which she believes may make up a Black girl, we are treated to visual texture. The movement, the 16 mm film and the substance (which might be a tangible representation of Black Girl Magic) juxtaposed with the spoken poetry inform the viewer that this experience will require engagement and critical reflection.

After all, when was the last time you wondered what makes up a Black girl? For me, it’s a daily ritual, akin to a prayer, to daydream about the magic from which we are created. I find wonder in our quotidian experiences, like focusing on the details of the protagonist, Amaya’s (Tiffany Gordon), college dorm room, getting to know her, and learning her uniqueness. While she’s at peace in her own space, we begin to see her fractures: Amaya is unsure of herself around Lena, her friend from home; at least somewhat interested in making friends with her white roommate who has no home training; and searching for something.

When we see Amaya later in the episode watching a Brownskinned_Barbie (Brandi Jaray Mcleain) YouTube video, attempting to do her hair, viewers understand that she is reaching for this idea of Black Girl Perfection. There is a desire, however slight, to be like Brownskinned_Barbie– pretty, cool, and popular with 4a curls that act right after a single spritz of water. But more than that, Brownskinned_Barbie represents a crucial piece of Amaya’s identity struggle: her hair. Maybe Brownskinned_Barbie is not perfect, but she knows how to make her hair shiny, defined and moisturized– a Black Girl Superpower Trifecta I have yet to perfect. Amaya begins to connect her identity as a Black girl to the appearance of her hair, believing that her hair and her soul need to be in alignment. (For more Black women writing about hair as an extension of self and self-expression, see Tanisha C. Ford’s work, particularly the chapter “Jheri Curl” in Dressed in Dreams.)

Her self-doubt spirals even deeper as she sits in on the first Black Student Union, led by the seemingly perfect Vaughn (Branika Scott). Vaughn’s “welcome speech,” which details the history of the BSU at Weston and finishes with a poetic embrace of all her “brothers and sisters of the Diaspora,” unsettles Amaya. Only when Vaughn chuckles and says, “You’re already Black so you meet all the requirements, right?” does Amaya leave, feeling as though she did not meet the requirements.

The experience prompts her to create the recipe for a “Black Girl Magic Potion” on her mirror, as she tries to find the secret to a supposedly inherent alchemy we are said to possess. One of the last scenes of this episode is of Amaya circling “Go Natural” on her Potion/list, foreshadowing challenges to come.

Amaya’s story and the poetic narration are woven together with interviews with Black women and girls who reflect on their own experiences with our magic, including words from Hanna Watson, Stephanie Crumpton and myself. Altogether– the poetry both spoken and visual, the story, the interviews, the texture of the 16 mm film with the digital– creates a quilt of different pieces of art that are woven together to create a cohesive story, that wraps you in warmth. The warmth is the result of feeling seen and understood as beautiful. Black Enough leaves you feeling whole, and you, the viewer, want that for Amaya, too.


Further Reading:

Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion, Tanisha C. Ford

The Souls of Black Folks, W. E. B. Du Bois

More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are (No Matter What They Say), Elaine Welteroth

Hair,” Elizabeth Acevedo

why you cannot touch my hair,” Eve Ewing


Feature image courtesy of Jeremy Rodney Hall