It has been an honor for me to be a part of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) community this spring 2019 semester as the Winnemore Dissertation Fellow. The fellowship has directly supported me this semester as I wrote the draft of my second dissertation chapter, which I sent to my advisor in May upon completion. It was a privilege to have the opportunity to present my research to an audience of scholars at MITH in April and to receive immediate feedback on the project (the video can be accessed here). In the days following this talk, I was able to participate in a public discussion at MITH with Robert Sonderman, a retired Regional Curator for the National Park Service (NPS) who specializes in document and object storage for the NPS, moderated by Ricardo Punzalan and Mary Alexander (co-directors of the Museum Scholarship and Material Culture Program at the University of Maryland iSchool). Discussing my own research in both of these venues served as an opportunity for me to receive invaluable feedback on my own project, and also to contribute to a constructive dialogue. In this blog post, I will take the opportunity to discuss further what the Winnemore fellowship afforded my research, and I will attempt to use this post demystify the dissertation research and chapter writing process for dissertating PhD candidates by providing some productive suggestions that helped me to write this chapter, and that I hope will help future dissertating PhD students.
No one tells you how to write a dissertation, nor can they. Rather, it is a process of continual writing, feedback, and of course subsequent revision. Writing this chapter was an opportunity for me to integrate the lessons I learned from committee members’ remarks on my previous chapter. My project, which sits at the convergence of digital studies, critical information science, and cultural studies, engages with a wide scope—knowing what I wanted to argue at the beginning of the chapter was essential. Chapter writing takes twists and turns—in my previous chapter, when a fascinating informational trail led my attention, I quickly followed it. Yet, a chapter needs clear structure, and a cohesive core argument. A clear (roughly) 50-page chapter must tell a story in a transparent manner—in writing this chapter, controlling those urges to tunnel too far down any single rabbit hole was vital (as fascinating as each of those holes may be…) When writing this current chapter, I began with a regimented outline and schedule (much more so than in my first chapter)—this proved to be essential in my own writing process, which helped me adhere to a single argument. Becoming more self-aware of my own writing process—knowing what habits work, what my own limitations are, and what I can improve on immediately—helped me to make this my most productive dissertation-writing semester, by far. This structure materialized in the formation of my chapter: I divided my chapter into four clear sections from the outset. While I did change some supporting evidence for each of the four sections, I was sure to keep the overall argumentative approach of the chapter intact, which has helped me to write a coherent argument across a 50-page chapter, as opposed to the conference paper length (6-10 pages) or seminar paper length (20-25 pages) graduate students in my field typically prepare for. Writing four connected conference papers proved to be the better model for writing this chapter, advice imparted to me by a committee member. Without falling too deep into the specifics of my chapter, picking four major keywords to ground each section was one technique I adopted to structure my writing. In my case, the entire chapter focuses on programmable storage media, which I read as digital containers. The sections that connect this chapter revolved around four keywords that speak to the concept of ‘containment’—vectors, planes, systems, and circulation. (There was some controlled shift in these terms over the semester, though the ideas behind them remained intact). Each of these terms focused on selected examples of containment, which follow their own trajectory—from physical objects like punched cards and NAND flash memory to virtualized instantiations like Docker containers and containerization within larger cloud compute services. Having regular access to MITH developers like Ed Summers, who I was able to discuss technical concepts with and receive feedback from, substantially helped to deepen my analyses and accelerate the writing process.
In graduate school, time feels like an indulgence—at the dissertation phase, time to visit sites in the field, take notes, conduct interviews, read recent publications, and parse through this mountain of information is impractical without the temporal-freedom to do so. In my five years in my PhD program (and the preceding two years I spent in my MA program), this has been the sole semester I have been funded to support my research (in opposition to compensation for teaching or for working as a faculty research assistant, or RA), which I have been able to use to direct my full attention to my scholarship, an experience that I will remain endlessly grateful for. I decided that with this rare open chunk of time to devote fully to my dissertation, the best use of this time would be to maximize my attention on facilities at the center of my research, many of which are nearby and within the greater Washington, DC area. Moreover, it is the kind of deep dive into research that is near impossible to balance with typical teaching obligations of two courses per semester. Site visits, interviews, and archival research are among the most time intensive aspects of dissertation research, but I knew they would also be the most fruitful for me. So, I arranged site visits at the Library of Congress (Washington, DC), the Library of Congress offsite storage facility (Ft. Meade, MD), the Severn Library offsite storage facility here at the University of Maryland (College Park, MD), the Smithsonian Museum Support Center (Suitland, MD), an Amazon fulfillment center (Richmond, VA), and the Library of Congress National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC in Culpeper, VA). Moreover, I also conducted phone/skype discussions and recorded interviews remotely with scholars or representatives from the University of Pittsburgh, ReCAP (a major library consortium), and the NAVCC. Over the summer I have plans still to visit sites including ReCAP, the National Archives, and a second Amazon fulfillment center (another location, which is built around a different logistical system). Outside of these major discussions, I had conversations or email exchanges with many other individuals willing to make the time to speak with me about their work. As for almost all scholars and students, regular conference attendance is essential, and my experience at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference this spring further informed my chapter and served as an outlet to discuss my project in both formal and informal conversations. Scheduling as many of my essential visits as early as I could (at the beginning of the fellowship) was necessary, since finding a time that worked for everyone was often more logistically difficult than expected. Knowing that the work I did this semester would have been in a word, impossible, with a full-time graduate teaching schedule at the University of Maryland has made me value the research that has come out of this semester. The research has shaped the entirety of this chapter and it has provided me with a rich trove or research material I will continue to mine in the future. To manage my time, the resource the fellowship afforded me this semester, scheduling long-term (week by week for the semester) and short term (daily & weekly writing goals and reading deadlines), while consistently sticking to these strict, self-imposed deadlines served as a crucial mechanism of self-accountability.
Much of my own work attempts to speak to the hidden roles of containers as information storage objects and their placement within larger infrastructures—the containerization of information surrounds us, bundling together documents in boxes and binding together bits and bytes whirring on hard drives. In this same vein, I hope that this post helps to demystify the process of dissertation chapter writing. In the past four months I have written a full dissertation chapter (the second of four chapters)—writing this chapter and reflecting upon my experience has helped me come to a great many realizations about my own writing style, how to overcome perceived writing limitations, and putting these understandings into practice. My hope is that these humble suggestions will help out another dissertating PhD candidate and provide them with some support during a time that is often a rich time of learning from others, but when writing can feel very solitary. Yet, this is a position that most scholars have previously gone through, which deepened their understanding of their research projects, and helped formed the intellectual foundation of future job applications, book projects, and meaningful careers.
Many excellent resources exist, among those let me suggest Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day as a helpful, practical aid that is worth checking out from your local library. I would also like to thank everyone who made this possible: Trevor Muñoz, Purdom Lindblad, Ed Summers, Stephanie Sapienza, Raffaele Viglianti, Grace Babukiika, and Ricky Punzalan for their wonderful support at MITH and the iSchool. I would like to thank my entire committee for their support of my project for this fellowship, and I would like to thank the many librarians, archivists, faculty, and private industry workers who were willing to take the time out of their day to discuss my project and their professional insights to it.