Category Archives: Graduate School

Dissertation Days (32): Increments

So, the pendulum has swung back the other way and, having taken another look at Chapter 3, I’m actually pretty happy with how it’s turned out. I’ve tweaked and tightened up some of the prose. It always feels good to see that something you’ve laboured on for so long isn’t as horrible as you’d been dreading. Of course, the adviser hasn’t seen it yet…

Today, I focused mainly on doing a verbal read-through of the chapter. I often find that forcing myself to read things aloud allows me to hear mistakes and awkwardness that my mind would automatically correct if I were reading it silently. It’s quite time-consuming, but overall I find it a very useful exercise, I have noticed that it really does help smooth out the prose problems that repeatedly crop up. It’s amazing how those tics continue to creep in despite your best efforts.

I’ve also been doing some compiling of the bibliography. While it’s always satisfying to see the number of sources you use (a big bibliography, in my mind, suggests the heft of your research), it’s also something of a pain in the ass to compile it, especially when you never seem to learn the value of keeping track of your sources as you are composing the chapter.

In terms of Chapter 4, most of today was spent doing some research. Sometimes, when I find myself running up against conceptual walls, I find it very helpful to take a breath and just do some research. This not only takes me away from the writing for a while–which can be very helpful–but also gives me more substance on which to base the composition of the chapter itself.

I did, however, manage to write some parts of the historical context section. A lot of this new material came out of this book I’m reading that compares the imperial programs of the American and British Empires. Once I return to working on this chapter exclusively, I’m going to ramp up the schedule so that I’m writing 1,500 words a day. That’s quite a lofty goal for me, but I really do want to bang this sucker out as soon as possible (without sacrificing quality, of course).

This weekend, I’m going to be taking a bit of a break, working mostly on the read-through of Chapter 3, re-watching Cleopatra and, believe it or not, the Novel. I’ll return to Dissertation Days on Monday.

Dissertation Days (28): Chipping Away

Today was a remarkably productive day, considering the fact that I just got back from traveling and that I had to take Beast for a vet visit. I managed to chip away at Chapter 3, getting rid of some extraneous sentences and other bits of fluff that were clogging up the works. I am still not as happy with the prose as I would like to be at this stage, but I’m also realistic enough to know that at some point you just have to move on. As one of my committee members always says, the best dissertation is a finished one.

Fortunately, I’ve been in an editing frame of mind lately–thanks to an editorial project I’m still interning for–so that has really helped to hone my instincts in terms of chopping out bits of Chapter 3 that aren’t necessary and finessing some of the clunkier bits of prose. Despite the challenges, it actually feels good to be at the point where taking stuff out is actually a good thing rather than an absolute pain.

Chapter 4 is also coming along much better than I had expected it would, given that I have a few key concepts that are forming the core of the chapter. The historical gaze has actually proven to be more central than I had realized, and it fits in pretty seamlessly with my dissertation’s emphasis on the unknowable and inexorable power of history. I’m still fleshing out the links between the various parts of the chapter and how they work together, but today for the first time it felt like I was really making some genuine progress.

To that end, I focused most of my writing energies today on the close reading portions. I’ll get back to the historical context soon, and I still have to figure out how exactly I’m going to work in a theoretical context, but it’ll get there.

Tomorrow, I need to make sure that I stay a little more focused than I did today. I sort of was writing all over the place, but I want to start writing enough in each section that it begins to fill out. That way, I’ll have a stronger sense of how each part will look when it’s fully developed. Now that it’s the final draft (hopefully), it’s time to get really serious about this.

Onward and upward friends. As the lady says, tomorrow is another day.

Dissertation Days (26): Labour Day

At long last, I’m settled down for a bit and back into something like a normal working schedule. As a result, today I managed to write 1000 (a grand!) words in Chapter 4, which is quite an accomplishment in my humble opinion.

Chapter 4 has, finally, begun to crystallize and become more focused. As those of you who have been following this account no doubt know, this is no small thing. It’s always frustrating when you feel like you know what you want to argue, but the actual articulation of those ideas in writing ends up eluding your abilities. That has happened quite a lot with this chapter, and it’s only recently, after more research on my part, that I’ve been able to wrangle my ideas. It’s not quite there yet, but I do think that I am on the path that will eventually see this chapter completed.

The hardest part, I think, will be fitting this chapter into the existing structure of the dissertation. That was also a big part of my problem in Chapter 3, but in that case I had a stronger idea of its role in the larger project. Still, I think that by holding onto the glimmers of intelligibility that I’ve managed to produce, I can manage to keep focused throughout the duration of this chapter’s composition.

Now, don’t think that I ignored Chapter 3 today. I went through 15 pages of the draft to check for consistency, coherence, and a bit of proofreading. I hope to make it all the way through that process this week, and next week I’ll make sure that the revised bibliography is compiled and ready for submission. I also managed to tidy up some of the language. Sometimes, I tend to use a very strangled sentence structure. I comfort myself with the thought that I’ve learned to recognize this and, if I can’t prevent it, at least I can fix them.

Tomorrow will be more of the same. If I keep up this 1,000 words a day pace, I should be able to churn out this fourth chapter by the end of the summer (if I’m really lucky, possibly even July). It finally feels like I’m making the progress that I need to keep the inspiration intact.

I have a good feeling about tomorrow. I’ll meet my goals, and I’ll be one step closer to finishing this chapter.

And that, my friends, is a good feeling.

Dissertation Days (25): A New Day, A New Chapter 4

In between the chaos of moving and travel (I’m about ready to set off for another round tomorrow), I managed to squeeze in a little work time today. Since I’d rather hit a wall with Chapter 4 as it was, I started a new version, one which really, consciously sets out to be the version I want to submit at the end of July.

To that end, I only managed to write 500 words today, but I’m pretty happy with them. I managed to bring together everything I wanted to argue in this chapter, in a way that’s more coherent than I’ve managed to attain so far. As I’ve said before, I want to focus on what I’m calling “imperial melancholia,” a yearning for a form of political stability that seems to always exist frustratingly out of reach, perpetually tantalizing with the possibility that it might be brought into fruition.

A lot of my thinking on this has been shaped by recent reading I’ve been doing on the role of spectacle in the way that film works, as well as my most recent reading research, a history of the Cleopatra icon by the British author Lucy Hughes-Hallett. Spectacle, to me, has always been frustratingly vaguely defined, and one of the things I hope to do in this chapter is to tease out the sort of meanings inherent in this oft-used cinematic expression. It is all part of my redemptive critique of the epic, my attempt to take it seriously as a means of engaging with the larger questions posed by modern (and ancient) history.

Once I return to my normal work schedule, I’m really hoping to get back into my old habit of writing 1,000 words a day, especially since I want to have a really strong draft of this ready for submission to the adviser by the end of July. If I can do that, and if I can get Chapter 3 and 4 approved by the very early Fall by pretty much everyone, I’ll feel like a great deal of pressure has been lifted off me. It’s a tall order, but I think I can do it.

I’ll be hitting the road for yet more traveling tomorrow and throughout the weekend into the early part of next week, so don’t expect any updates from me until then. After that, though, I should be able to get back into the swing of things.

Onward.

Dissertation Days (24): Chapter 4

So, today was the first day in quite a while that I didn’t work on Chapter 3 at all, but instead focused my energies on Chapter 4.

I have to say, all of that effort paid off. I managed to get 500 good words, and I think I am edging closer to a fully-fleshed argument. If you know how irritated I have been with this Chapter and how much I have struggled to put together a coherent argument that fits in with what I have been doing in the other chapters of the Dissertation, you no doubt know why this would be such a big deal.

As I mentioned yesterday, that essay from Tom Brown has proven to be extremely helpful in enabling me to make a compelling argument about these films. I have to say, the core of this chapter–the emphasis on empire–is a bit of a holdover from the very earliest concepts of this dissertation as a whole, but I do think that it has something in it that fits with how the project has taken shape.

If I’m being completely honest, this is the chapter that I’ve been dreading the most. I’ve done a lot of research, and there is still a lot to do, but I’m gradually clawing and groping my way toward a conclusive set of arguments.

While I’m still uncertain whether my set of claims about Anthony Mann’s Fall of the Roman Empire really make a substantial contribution to the understanding of the film, I do think that what I have to say about Cleopatra is useful. Like The Bible: In the Beginning, the film has suffered from a really extensive study from a film studies perspective, still less from a textured historicist analysis. That’s basically what I hope to provide in this chapter, since I believe that the film deserves more critical appreciation than it has largely achieved, either in mainstream of scholarly film criticism.

I’m getting ready for another bout of travel, so my updates will be rather sporadic. Sunday will probably be the next day that I get a chance to really work on the dissertation, but even so, I’m sure the project will not be far from my mind. It never really is.

Once I’m able to settle down for a bit (in about a week and a half), it’ll be a real crunch time.

I can do this.

I can.

Dissertation Days (23): Is this the End?

At the end of Quo Vadis, the delightfully queer Nero (played by Peter Ustinov) declaims: “Is this the end of Nero?”

I’ve now been led to ask: “Is this the end of Chapter 3?” Fortunately, I think that it just might be, or at the very least that I’m closer than I have been for a long time. I’ve pretty much finished with the third section (the one that discusses Quo Vadis), and now that leaves only the conclusion to really flesh out. Fortunately, I wrote the majority of that some time ago, so that shouldn’t take too long to finish.

Needless to say, I feel really good.

While there is some material that I want to reflect on more–there’s still a little bit of something that continues to elude my attempts to capture and put it on paper–I have come to accept that this isn’t the last version of this chapter that I will ever write. Indeed, it will probably go through several further iterations before that wonderful day when it finally sees the light of day as part of a book.

In Chapter 4 news, I think I have finally found the missing theoretical piece that has so far been eluding me. I’ve been reading an excellent book about spectacle in classic Hollywood (by Tom Brown), and his articulation of the vertical axis of spectacle vs. the horizontal one of narrative that I find really helpful.

It is in his essay on Gone with the Wind for the British film journal Screen, though, that I find to be especially useful, as he shows how the “historical gaze” mobilized by Scarlett enables her command a measure of agency denied many of the other characters.

As I work through Chapter 4, I think I am going to make the argument that the later epics of the midcentury cycle allow some characters a measure of Brown’s historical gaze, even as it denies it to others. It is the power of the spectacle that allows these characters to forge their own political destinies, to allow the film to remain suspended in a moment of profound, utopian potential, even as the inexorability of narrative ultimately brings ruin to these grandiose ambitions.

That’s what I’m thinking for the chapter now, though I hope to continue nuancing it based on historical context.

Time is ticking, and I have to tick with it.

(I don’t know what that means).

Dissertation Days (21): Roadblocks

I’ve reached that stage in Chapter 3 where I know that the end is in sight, but it’s precisely the nearness of accomplishment that proves more than a little debilitating. Still, it is precisely in those moments that one has to continue onward, pushing past the mental barricades to get to the rich intellectual material beneath.

I did manage to eke out some new material in Chapter 3, both by writing some new stuff and also by importing a paragraph from an earlier draft. The third section still needs a little development to fully cohere, and it’s going to take some doing to make sure that it fits together both internally and with the rest of the chapter, but I think that’s doable, so long as I don’t let myself get bogged down too much.

That being said, I do feel like I made some genuine progress today, and I’m setting Wednesday as the day that I would like to be done with the heavy lifting on this draft. That puts me at just about two months revision which, considering all that’s been going on–pet loss and illness, travel, family obligations–isn’t bad at all. I really do have to keep my momentum going if I want to defend by this coming spring (which I basically have to do regardless). So, any positive thoughts and encouragement y’all could send my way would be much appreciated.

In terms of Chapter 4, I wrote 500 words, mostly in two of my sections that deal with the films. Today, I focused mostly on Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire and John Huston’s The Bible: In the Beginning. At the moment, I’m trying to think through the utopian sensibility that these films express, even as they also acknowledge the rather dystopian realities of history.

Once I settle down again, I am going to need to rewatch both Fall and The Bible. It’s been a while since I’ve seen them, and I need to make sure that I have the type of detail that enables a textured film analysis. Given how much of a stickler I am for sound film criticism, I have to be extra careful to practice what I preach.

On tomorrow’s agenda: keep plodding away at Chapter 3 (as usual). Then it’s on to Chapter 4, and I think I have a rich vein of inquiry ready to be tapped.

Tomorrow is going to be great.

Dissertation Days (20): Inching Along

Today was a moderately productive Dissertation Day. I didn’t make a huge amount of progress in terms of new words in Chapter 3, but I have finally moved into the final section. I think that another day or two of hard work on that section should see it ready for submission. It’s quite a good feeling, actually. Since it’s not really due until I get back to Syracuse in the middle of June, that gives me plenty of time to finesse it a bit before submitting it.

The Boyfriend was actually looking over my shoulder, and he made an observation that was spot-on. I tend to use a lot of complex (some might even say convoluted) sentence constructions, and while this adds a certain je ne sais quoi to my writing, they can also make it hard to follow my reasoning. Needless to say, one of the things I’ll be focusing on from this point forward is making sure that I add a bit of variety to my sentences.

Of course, it goes without saying that I also excised a few of those damnable couplets, which make far too many appearances in the course of this chapter. I’m sure that their ubiquitous presence says something about the way I think, but at this point in the day I’m not equipped to say what that is.

In other dissertation news, I also managed to make some progress in Chapter 4. I have this particular version labeled as the one that I intend to submit to my Adviser, but I’ve been known to be a bit too optimistic when it comes to those particular aspirations. Still, I do think that the version of this chapter that has been emerging sporadically over the last few months will indeed be the one that I send, even though it requires a lot of work before it gets there.

Overall, I’m feeling pretty good about the progress I’ve been making. The end isn’t quite in sight yet, but it is definitely somewhere just over the horizon line. While May is almost over and I’ve got some traveling coming up, I have most of June and July to be truly productive.

Tomorrow, I plan on finishing up a big chunk of the end of Chapter 3, as well as continuing onward with Chapter 4. Any progress, now matter how small, is a reason for celebration in my book.

Good times ahead.

Dissertation Days (19): Weasel Words

Today, I worked a lot in Chapter 3, making sure that I cut out some of those pesky weasel words upon which I rely far too often. Words like “indeed,” “furthermore,” “as a result” are my bane, and I’ve been on the lookout for them as I work through these sections of the chapter. Removing them has really streamlined my prose.

I also deleted numerous other things that were basically written clutter. I do have a tendency to clog up the flow of my prose with extraneous bits and pieces that really don’t do much to advance the argument, and I am making a concerted effort to trim more of those out with each reading I do of this chapter. I’ve now reached the point where I’m taking stuff out, and this brings with it its own form of writing pleasure (particularly since there is a large part of the queer section that needs writing).

I also managed to get rid of more couplets (seriously, you would not believe how many of them appear throughout my writing). I have largely either cut out one of the pair or, alternatively, I have changed to a different grammatical construction (typically deleting one term and transforming it into a modifier for the other). I know that it’s another crutch, but it’s at least a bit of stylistic variety in my writing. I will say, though, that I have always tended to rely too much on adjectives, so I’m trying to focus more on using more verbs and nouns. As my adviser astutely pointed out some time ago, relying on those forms gives one’s writing a stronger, more active energy.

I also managed to get some of Chapter 4 done today, and I’m pretty happy with what I was able to produce. I not only worked on some of the theoretical section–admittedly not very much–but also on my close reading of Cleopatra. I think that will be my favourite part of the chapter, though I also want to make sure to give some love and attention to Anthony Mann’s The Fall of the Roman Empire. The real struggle there will be finding something to say that is a genuine contribution.

I’m afraid another hiatus is in the offing. I’m traveling again tomorrow and Friday, but I hope to return to the schedule on Saturday and Sunday. Hopefully next week will be even more productive.

Good times.

Dissertation Days (18): Increments

Well, I finally returned to the semi-normal writing schedule. Today, I mostly worked on a read-through of Chapter 3, finessing some of the prose that has been rather clunky. Of course, I made sure to clip out a few of those pesky couplets that are such a troubling part of my prose (gods I hate those fucking couplets). There are still a couple that have resisted all efforts to get rid of them, but I’ve been successful for the most part.

I managed to make it to page 20 of the draft, and I’m pretty happy with the way that this first section looks. I’ve had to really hard to make sure that the section has allusions to what happens later, so that it’s clear from the beginning how the context that I’m laying out relates to the parts that come later. I think, at least in a dissertation chapter, that you want to have a number of signposts so that your reader can keep the bigger picture in mind.

Tomorrow, I hope to get through another 20 pages, and then I should just about be ready to get back into that section on Nero’s queerness. I am really struggling to get that section to fit into what I’ve written before, but I’m confident that I can at last corral everything into a coherent whole.

I also managed to write 500 words of Chapter 4, almost entirely in the historical context section. Gradually filling that out allows me to clarify what it is that I’m trying to accomplish with the chapter as a whole. The conceptual framework is still a little hazy, but I’m inching closer to a coherent argument. If I can manage to eke out a draft, no matter how rudimentary, by the end of July I will be happy.

Tomorrow is definitely going to be a busy day. I’m going to try to keep up the momentum with Chapter 4, as I don’t want to lose sight of that. It’s very easy to let my wheels start spinning in the midst of the revisions on Chapter 3, with the result that I can’t really accomplish anything else. Now that the end of Chapter 3 is (I think) at last in sight, I should be able to resume concerted work on the final chapter. (Can I just say how glorious it is to write that final sentence).

Tomorrow is going to be a glorious day.