It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything here; once I finished the Grad School Survival Guide I kind of ran out of steam (especially since I sat on the job market not moving for quite a while — writing a “how-to” guide on how to be a Ph.D. collecting unemployment, as I did in the spring of 2021, just didn’t seem all that enticing).
So, very quick life update: at the last moment–literally, I had made up my mind to pursue opportunities outside of academia if this didn’t work out–I found a full time position at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio (about 75 minutes away, which, in all honesty, isn’t a bad commute for the Greater Austin area).
I didn’t know OLLU was the kind of community I was looking for, but it turns out to be a pretty good fit for me: first off, I don’t have to move (the idea of living apart appealed to neither of us), but, secondly, as OLLU is a teaching institution, I can continue research and writing at my pace, but not with the pressure that comes with the tenure track at an R1–which was not something I particularly wanted to deal with.
My next article, which will be out in the spring in the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, sat in revision for 16 months (admittedly, I didn’t look at it for 15 of 16 of those months), but that’s how things are with COVID. I don’t need someone breathing down my neck about it.
Plus, people are nice at OLLU. We all say hi in the morning. And, even though the school is going through an enrollment crunch and budget issues like everywhere else, everyone seems pretty determined to make the most of it with what we have.
Plus, as the world history half of the history program, I have the opportunity to reimagine course offerings in line with the school’s identity as a majority Mexican-American campus as that aspect of the curriculum continues to be emphasized. I really am very lucky, in so many ways.
I was particularly fortunate because about six weeks after being offered the job, I found out that I’d been awarded a Fulbright US scholar grant … and OLLU let me take half of my first year off to do it. (Again, I am very lucky).
Which is why I find myself this morning in Cairo, drinking a cup of mint tea and typing furiously on my computer in my apartment that does not have a view of the Nile (it faces the wrong way and also it’s not actually on the Nile).
I’m back in the saddle, working on my book again. I’ve put out a couple of articles based on material from the dissertation, and the heavy critique on both is that they don’t have very many sources in Arabic, or from the Egyptian point of view. This is both fair and unsurprising; in 2016 when I was working on my dissertation I was unable to travel to Egypt, so I had to do nearly all of my work in the British National Archives.
I’d been intending for a while to try to get back here and acquire some of the sources I would need to revise the manuscript, and now I have the funding to do so. Life in Cairo has its difficulties (I stumbled into a tourist scam yesterday with eyes wide open and my pride is still a bit wounded), but it’s manageable.
In all honesty this isn’t the first post I’ve made about this research trip, but some of the posts will, by necessity, be password protected and written for a select group of friends, family, and colleagues until I leave Egypt. (And, remember, my book is about World War I, so, no, I don’t know anything about the mummies they just found. Stop asking me about mummies.)
So, it’s time to dust this thing off and see where it goes. Come along with me on this adventure!
You’re home from your research year. You’ve been all over the place, and have thousands of photocopies and scans and lots of great material!
So … uh, now what?
This column is going to be one of those ones where I tell you what I wish I had done, rather than emphasize what I did.
What I did was this: I came home, worked another month at my job, quit, went to Mexico for two weeks to visit in-laws for Christmas, came back and started prepping my first adjunct class at a university nearby (not the one where I was working on my Ph.D.). It was the following summer before I even started working with the material I’d brought home and I’ll be honest: my memory isn’t as good as I had hoped it was.
Here’s what I wish I’d done instead.
Don’t worry about writing yet.
We all have this fantasy that we’re going to get off the plane from research and immediately start writing our dissertations. Some of us probably set out for research with the expectation that we were going to get a bunch of stuff written while we were doing research.
In my experience, writing while doing research is minimal, and being able to compose those beautiful paragraphs right after research … let’s just say there’s a reason it takes a while.
In other words: if you’re sitting there thinking that you don’t know where to begin, you’re in the majority. Breathe.
Go through everything you collected
Unless you are an absolute superstar and heavily annotated every document you photocopies and scanned (in which case you don’t really need my advice), you probably did so-so on this.
Even if you did a decent job, you probably did what most of us do: your understanding of what you collected is based on which archive you got it from. Now, obviously you don’t want to forget this because it’s important information that you’ll need, but more than that you’ll want to know what everything you collected says.
In order to get excited about writing, you need to both simultaneously go through all of the stuff you collected in order to synthesize it, and gain a bird’s eye view in order to start seeing the linkages in the material. This sounds tedious (I won’t lie, it can be), but it can also get your brain cells firing up and ready to start composing text.
Here’s where you start.
Whether you use post-it notes, an Excel spreadsheet, the notes and keywords function in Zotero, or some other program and system (I would suggest doing it electronically rather than pen and paper as the search function is going to be a key factor in making this useful), start going through and giving your documents a closer read and collecting useful data.
I suggest that at a minimum you’ll want to track:
Names (sender, recipient, subject of the document, any other key personnel you think you might want to search for later)
Dates (the date it was authored at a minimum)
Title (if the document has one)
Subject matter — (this doesn’t have to be super detailed: “Letter from H.C. [High Commissioner] to Interior Ministry re: sale of onions in 1917” is fine.)
Connections (see below)
What I Need (see below)
If you have multi-document PDFs (for example: if you scanned a box or file that all has the same file number and you want to keep them all together), create internal bookmarks for each sub-component so that you can easily locate a document within the larger file. I’ve lost hours scrolling up and down looking for one-page memos lost within a 90 page PDF. You’ll thank yourself for this later.
As you do this, you’ll start to notice trends and connections between documents. This is where you’ll want to go back and add items to your “connections” category — whether it’s “compare to [document reference]” or noting that the other half of the story is contained in a file you found somewhere else, or whatever you need it to do.
I also kept a running note of What I Need–I used this for two purposes. First, I used it to write notes to myself to do a little research in areas that I just didn’t know very much about. If the document referred to an incident or event or person that I didn’t recognize but seemed important, I’d make a note.
I also used it to record articles or books I knew were out there or things I wanted to review (“I know Gallagher discusses this in her book — revisit.”).
The biggest and most important piece of advice I have is this: NEVER EVER TRUST YOURSELF IF YOU FIND YOURSELF SAYING “I’LL REMEMBER THIS.”
Write it down.
Starting the writing process
At some point–hopefully–in all of this, you’ll find yourself with a story you want to tell. Start telling it. Open up a word document, and write it out (don’t forget to cite things!)
At this point, don’t worry about linear writing — none of the chapters in my dissertation were written straight through from beginning to end. Start writing things down as they come to you, and as they interest you. It doesn’t matter if it’s not very good and you’ll never show your adviser — at this stage in the game, what you’ll want to get over is the oppression of the blank document staring back at you from your computer screen.
In the early stages you’ll have a bunch of paragraphs that don’t link together — that’s fine. You’ll have stories that have a beginning and a middle but no end, or an end with no beginning — that’s fine too.
Potters don’t throw a lump of clay down and create beautiful vases immediately — they do a lot of molding and shaping and sometimes if it sucks they smush the clay back into a lump and start over. Writing is the same way.
What you want in this beginning stage is to get a feel for what you have in your documentation and what stories you’re excited to tell right up front. Let the structure of the document form around it. Don’t worry about whether it’s what you set out to write at the beginning–that can all come later.
Believe me, you’ll get plenty of practice in the months to come!
Full confession: this isn’t the next entry I planned for the Grad School Survival Guide, but I had a bit of writer’s block and decided to just jump around to the next subtopic that inspired me. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to include this, but ultimately decided “what the hell.” Let me tell you about my research “year.”
I am a historian of Egypt, and I had planned to do most of my research in Egypt, maybe with a visit to the British National Archives (as I work on Egypt during the colonial period) and/or one or two collections in France. I applied for a Fulbright Scholars grant to spend 2016-17 doing research in Cairo, and was elated when, right at the end of the fall 2015 semester, I got word that my name had been forwarded to the Fulbright office in Cairo for approval.
So elated, in fact, that it didn’t occur to me to have a plan B.
Two months later, an Italian graduate student from Cambridge University named Giulio Regeni was found murdered in Cairo. Things moved very quickly from there. In mid-March, I got notice that the Fulbright program in Egypt was being canceled over security concerns. There was no consolation prize; no offer of funding if I decided to do research elsewhere–it was just gone.
I tried for a bit to figure out if I could somehow do research independently in Cairo when a friend delivered the bad news that the Egyptian National Archives hadn’t been granting research clearances to foreign scholars–she’d been there for six months and hadn’t gotten approval. Not only that, but she described the atmosphere in Egypt as “tense” and said that she’d pretty much kept to herself the entire time she was there.
This is when I realized that all of my Plans B had involved what to do if the Fulbright didn’t come through and I needed to figure out how else to fund research in Egypt. None of my Plans B involved the idea that Egypt would go offline entirely and that I would need to both come up with a funding plan and an alternate research site.
Emergency Plan B
London was a natural alternative work site: I knew there was material in the British National Archives as I’d been there before, so I began planning an independent, self-funded short (six-week) research trip for the fall of 2016. I also took a look at Geneva, where the League of Nations archives are housed (at the United Nations). I knew I wouldn’t need very long in Geneva–maybe a week or so.
My initial plan was to engage in a short trip up front and make a return trip–or additional trips–once I knew what I could gather in which place. I did this mainly because I had been planning for some time to step down from my full time job at the end of the year to facilitate research and writing, and I wanted to use up my vacation time — I figured if I wasn’t going to have a research stipend, I could at least still collect a paycheck while I was traveling. (I did have an insane amount of vacation time to use up.)
So, I used frequent flier miles to book a six week trip to London, and found a cheap ticket from London to Geneva sandwiched into the last ten days.
Do neither as I said nor did
So, let me explain what I did wrong.
I scheduled the week in Geneva at the end of the trip.
I know why I did it. I had already booked an AirBnB in London (nonrefundable) and a plane ticket to and from London using frequent flier miles. I would fly to Geneva on a Sunday afternoon, be there for the week, and then … for reasons I am still not sure of … I decided to spend the weekend and following Monday in Geneva, fly back to London on Monday night, and then home to Austin on Tuesday. I’m sure there was a reason I scheduled it this way, but I can’t remember what it was.
Here’s why this was a bad idea.
I know London. I’m like London. I’m comfortable in London. I have friends in London. At the time, I had a niece living in London, and my husband made plans to come over for a week to visit. English is also my first language, so communication was a non-issue.
I had none of this in Geneva. I’d never been to Switzerland. I didn’t know anyone in Switzerland. No one planned to come visit me. I can’t speak French (I can read French, and I was still foolish enough to think that this would somehow help me understand the spoken language. It didn’t.).
I had no idea how unbelievably expensive Geneva was. I mean, I thought London was expensive. I had no idea. Geneva is more expensive than Tokyo, y’all. More expensive than Oslo. It’s ridiculously expensive. I spent $30 on dinner my first night: an entree at a Chinese restaurant (the only place open near where I was staying; everything is closed on Sundays) and two 100 cL glasses of their cheapest red wine–I know the measurements because the glass had a line on the side to indicate how much to pour.
So what it comes down to is that I had a little over a month in London, living a nice life where I had a support network, knew where things were, knew how things operated, things were familiar and then, after a month of this, I flew to a city where I knew no one, had no idea how things worked, and everything was in French (except the TV stations in my apartment, which were all in German for some reason). And I knew I wasn’t going to be there long enough to really want to put a lot of effort into changing that … and it sucked.
Had I put Geneva at the beginning of the trip, when I was still fresh and excited, I would have had a different mindset entirely. Then, slightly tired, I could have gone to London and settled into my comfort zone much easier than I had it working in the reverse order.
Self care is not “silly”
The other mistake that I made is that I had worked myself very hard in London. I’m not saying this to brag, I’m saying it as a cautionary tale.
Six days a week I was at an archive doing work. Usually from about the time they opened in the morning until the time they closed. I was there for almost two weeks before I left the apartment to go somewhere other than an archive or the grocery store around the corner.
One day, there was a power failure at the British National Archives, and they sent everyone home. I used the chance to go to a larger grocery store and stock up, then went home and decided to take a nap … and found myself feeling guilty.
I’m paying to be here.
I’m wasting money not being productive.
I should call the archives and see if the power is back.
I did this for almost five weeks. I allowed myself one day off when my husband came over but otherwise he hung out with his niece during the day and we met up when I was done in the evening.
Hence, by the time I got to Switzerland, I was exhausted.
Unlike the flat I had rented in London that was well located to a main shopping street, I’d found a place near the UN in Geneva that wasn’t convenient to much of anything else. The nearest supermarket was a 20 minute walk (a bit far when carrying heavy things in plastic bags). It was also very cold at night, and the heat in the apartment I rented for the week had two settings: on (sauna) and off (freezer). I sleep better when it’s cold, but there weren’t enough blankets to use, and, even sleeping in a hoodie and sweatpants, I froze at night.
By my last day there, I was clearly getting sick. This almost certainly impacted my impression of Geneva – lest anyone wonder, I know the issue here was me.
The last day I spent in Switzerland was torture. I’d booked a late afternoon flight back to London in case I wanted to have the day to do more research, which I didn’t. I had rented a car for the weekend (I tell people that the most fun I had in Switzerland was the day I went to France), so after checking out of the flat I literally drove around looking for things to do all day while popping medicine for the cold I was clearly developing.
I went to Lausanne and realized I had no interest in walking around the old city when I discovered that it involved hills and more physical energy than I had to spend. I spent $20 on a sandwich and Coke (I said Switzerland is expensive). Then, I finally gave up and drove back to Geneva and turned the car in.
I spent three hours in the British Airways lounge at Geneva Airport. Flew back to London. Got to my overpriced and microscopic airport hotel room around 10 pm. Didn’t have dinner, but I wasn’t hungry. Turned around and went back to Heathrow at 6 am. Flew home to Texas. I know these things happened because somehow I made it home, but I have little memory of it.
I was sick for the next several days.
The point, dear readers…
The reason I wasn’t sure about posting this is that it does appear to be a long “my life sucks” post, which really isn’t what I wanted it to be.
So, here’s the thing. Self care is not “trivial.” Wanting to take a day off, or work five days a week instead of six or seven, is not only fine, it’s a matter of health.
If you don’t know anyone in town and your fellowship doesn’t give you a built in community, try meetup.org or one of the fancy apps the kids are using these days.
Go see a movie.
See what lectures are being given at a museum.
If you’re homesick and it makes you feel better, go to McDonald’s. No one has to know. (And it’s fun to see what they have in foreign McDonald’s.)
And most importantly: listen to your body.
If you need rest, rest.
If you just can’t, ask yourself what will happen if you don’t for a day.
Don’t be me. Don’t put so much energy into being productive that you forget to take care of yourself.
Okay, I’m back! Easing into the Grad School Survival Guide, I want to address questions that have come from a couple of friends and readers who have asked some variant of the following question:
I wrote a grant proposal to work in a collection, and I said I was going to work on topic x, but now that I’ve been out and about and am starting to construct my dissertation, I realize it’s really going to be more about topic y. What should I do when I get to the archive?
Bearing in mind that the hard sciences work in a completely different manner, and that I am speaking to your average humanities/social sciences person here, and also assuming the “change in topic” you’re worried about is more akin to “I wanted to look at the history of medicine, but I realized I’m doing more of a social history through a medical lens” than “I was doing British History, but I’ve switched more to botany,” you can probably relax.
The fact is that, especially at the level of completing a doctoral thesis, what you actually produce is almost certainly never what you set out to write (mine sure wasn’t. And the project that I proposed in my application to the history program is now so embarrassing I can’t even bring myself to describe it). This happens to everyone. In fact, you should probably be worried if this doesn’t happen to some degree.
Funders are looking for assurances that their money isn’t going to be wasted by someone who wants to look at a handful of documents one morning and then spend the rest of their “archival visit” hanging with friends in New York City. That’s why they ask about your overall project, its research goals, and want to see what you think you’re going to find in the collection before you even get there.
And this is an important step in the process — I mean, I did once read a grant proposal wherein the applicant proposed working with material in a language they had never studied and gave no indication of otherwise being able to understand.
However, if your project is well-described, you have a reasonably academic approach to your topic, and you’re clear about why the research is important to achieving your goals, you’ll at least be in the running. Applications will be ranked, and maybe you might not make the cut, but you’ll be on the list instead of in the “Write back and ask if this applicant is pulling our leg” pile.
When it comes to most smaller grants, like those given by organizations to facilitate research in their collections, I’ve never heard of a funder pulling out someone’s grant narrative and saying, “You said you were going to work on [very narrow subtopic x] but you didn’t address it here, and we were so looking forward to reading your book when it comes out in ten years and we’ve all switched jobs and/or retired.” (Sorry, was that too on the nose?)
Anyone who’s worked with doctoral students will understand that research projects mature and change. It’s the nature of the beast.
Having said all of the above: Rule number one is: when in doubt, ask before you undertake your trip or start spending the grant money. It’s always better all around to be up front and honest.
If you’ve read the fine print and are thinking you may have to hide the fact that your project has morphed, you should contact the grant officer and discuss your concerns. You never know when you may need to work with a particular collection or organization again, and there’s no faster way to burn bridges and get yourself (and possibly your department or institution) blacklisted than misspending grant money.
Well! Yesterday’s post on Planning a Research Year got a little bit of traction, which also gave me a bit of material to work with for a second part right away.
More than one Tweep made a comment about something I wrote that I hadn’t even thought twice about when I wrote it:
A word of warning on archivists saying they have nothing about your topic: my very first day at a new-to-me (large) archive the archivist told me straight up “you won’t find anything” when I explained my research topic. I stayed. They were wrong. Very, very wrong.
First off, let me explain what in the world I was thinking when I wrote this:
I had one archive tell me point blank that they had nothing useful for me — disappointing, but far less disappointing that it would have been had I spend time and money going out there to get the same answer.
This happened, and I have no reason to suspect the archivists were lying to me. That said, the reason I feel comfortable saying this is that the archive in question belongs to an organization that was founded during my research period, and seemed, from its website and catalog, to only hold the international organizational files, whereas what I really wanted was reports from the Egyptian branch.
Knowing this to be the case, I reached out by e-mail to ask if they had anything from my target dates pertaining to the eastern Mediterranean region, and they responded that they did not. It was the answer I somewhat expected, confirmed.
That said, Ms. Hawkins is absolutely correct, especially when it comes to larger archives. The archivists at smaller, specialized institution know their collections pretty well. However, at the U.S. or British (or French or so on) national archival collections, where the material is so vast and covers so much time and space temporally, the likelihood is that, unless they have specialized archivists covering your specific interest/time/place, you’ll be dealing with people who want to be helpful but may not necessarily have the familiarity to assist you with your specific search.
After she tweeted me, I immediately thought of a conversation I’d had at the help desk at the British National Archives, wherein I pointed out that I had correspondence from one side of a conversation, and asked where I might find the other half. The very well-meaning archivist thought for a second and then asked if I’d considered trying the Egyptian National Archives in Cairo, since colonial correspondence that was kept in former colonies usually got transferred to the national archives after independence.
She’s probably right. At the same time, travel to Egypt for research was impossible at the time, which is why I was in London in the first place, and not in Cairo.
In short, if your gut feeling is telling you that there might be something there that’s useful to you, especially if you’re still at the point where articulation of your project involves a lot of handwaving and drawing diagrams on napkins (guilty!), by all means follow your instinct.
For example, as someone whose project morphed from the history of epidemics to the social history of disease, I’d often have to clarify that I wasn’t looking for medical reports, which is what most people assumed I wanted. You are, ultimately, the judge of what constitutes “useful” in the context of your own research.
This is great! I’d add—1) try to learn the archival terminology in the language of your docs and the language of the country the archive’s in 2) touch base w anyone who has used the archives and get their up-to-date tips 3) find out about bribing/gifting customs.
The best advice is going to be from someone who has been there before.
Unfortunately, one of the best resources out there — the Archives Wiki that the American Historical Association used to run — has been taken down; a lot of it was out of date, but it did at least give a starting point on what to expect (helping a lot with number 2).
There was a short-lived project called World History Archives (I contributed several entries myself) but it seems to have been abandoned.
If you work on the Middle East or North Africa, Hazine is a good starting point.
The issue of <polite cough> “gifts” is one that you should be aware of. In smaller archives, in out of the way places, this is where having some recent local expertise is going to come in very handy.
I have heard, for example, stories about how flowers or the head curator’s favorite sweets from a particular bakery will start things off on a good note.
Remember that in a lot of places, the people who work at archives are going to be poorly paid public servants, and you’re asking them to do things for you. I don’t like using the word “bribe” here because it has such a negative connotation (if ‘gift giving’ becomes a daily practice, then we can call it bribery). Think of it as a token of your appreciation, expressed in advance.
I never got into the Egyptian National Archives to put any of that advice to practice, but in the days when I used to run study abroad programs in Egypt, my first visit on arrival in Cairo was usually to the supermarket near my hotel to pick up provisions–one of which was always a carton of Marlboro Red cigarettes. Each morning, I’d toss a few packs into my backpack and use them to earn the loyalty of our assigned tour guard, or help the door keeper at an out of the way museum suddenly remember where he left the key, and various and sundry things like that. (Cash can be so gauche to hand off in a crowd.)
Also…and this is key, especially for Americans who are seen as brash and rude…remember to start every conversation with a smile, a “Good morning. How are you?” before getting into what you need.
Every new person you talk to is a new person — a simple statement, really, but remember that even though you’ve told the same story sixteen times, you haven’t told it to this person. Patience is a virtue, often rewarded.
In another post, I will address another question that came up — how to reconcile all the funding applications with what you actually want to do during your research year. It’s not as complicated as you’re afraid it might be.