Dissertation Ceviches – Or, Thoughts on Writing and Project Management Halfway Through a Mission to Moscow

Crappy drip coffee from the basement cafeteria of the Russian State Library: light of my life, fire of my loins. It’s a slow, semi-restful Friday here in the Russian capital, as I cruise from archive to library to vacuum up some more material to process into some conference papers and weave into the chapters of the book manuscript that’s emerging from my D.Phil. After a quick visit to the Gorbachev Foundation this morning to check out what, if anything, they had on meetings between Muhammad Hassan Sharq (a prominent Afghan politician both before and after the Communist Revolution in 1978 and the Soviet invasion in 1979), I’m waiting in the most glamorous environs of the basement cafeteria of the main library here in town for several orders of books and articles by the Soviet Orientalist Yuri Gankovskii to show up for reading and scanning. With some luck, they should arrive in an hour or so.

After a little over a month and a half of research here in Moscow, I’m looking forward to a side research trip to Berlin, where I’ll be diving into some East German archives – just one more weekend of writing and some fun, two days of jamming in the Komsomol archives, and then it’s time to beat a path to the German capital just in time for the massive closedowns of the Russian May holidays to kick in. As such, it’s also a good moment to reflect on what I’ve accomplished thus far, the state of dissertation, manuscript, and conference paper things, and, slightly less narcissistically, some more general reflections about the research and writing process in general.

What keeps your humble narrator going in the bowels of the RSL

When I came to Moscow this March, I arrived with one major load off my chest – I had submitted the D.Phil., thank God – but with a new one about to be hoisted upon me. During the course of my research, I had accumulated tons of neat archival documents, written several drafts of chapters (only some of which actually went into the D.Phil.), and had a vague idea of how everything (the actual refined D.Phil. content plus the other stuff I had to look away from when the time came to refine down and edit for the D.Phil. version this November) actually fit together. But a vague idea is far from a finished product. After spending several months on putting together a semi-decent 80,000 word (+20,000 words of footnotes) dissertation, I knew how long it took to turn X amount of drafts about as flabby as your humble narrator’s gut into some lean, mean, and worthy of setting out to strut before my readers.

So now the task is even bigger than the one that I faced here in Moscow six months ago: now, instead of turning a flabby 100,000 words into a tight 80,000, while juggling four balls at a time (four chapters), now I have to turn even more content into something within the parameters of what a respectable academic press will publish, and which I hope people will actually read. How, then, to deal?

Part of me copes by trying to maintain something like a fixed schedule. For better or for worse, here in Moscow I tend to operate on a two-track system. Most of the archives I work in here are only open from 10 AM to 4 PM, meaning that after a leisurely morning and a commute, there’s still some time in the evening – maybe two hours if I’m realistic – to try to write a few paragraphs, edit some writing from several months ago down into something better, or think more about how things transition into new parts of the manuscript. There’s a certain schizophrenic quality to this that I think I deal with better than most: I find it easier to spend half of the day transcribing reports on road-building in northern Afghanistan (for example); and the other half of the day writing on ethnic nationalist political parties in the 1960s and 1970s. They’re different topics, and there’s probably a certain disjointed, uninterested quality to my first draft writing by jumping around so much.

But I also don’t go insane by thinking about asphalt and concrete covered roads in Pul-i Khumri for eighteen hours a day. And the process of jumping around allows me to think, in the back of my head, about other sections of the whole manuscript that need work. When I hit a roadblock in thinking on one section, I can jump back to another. Four months ago, writing more about USAID’s irrigation programs in Helmand Province in the 1970s seemed impossible, but now – having gained some distance from it – it’s likely to just be a matter of taking some time out of my schedule when I’m in Arizona and Samarkand this summer. Breaking things up into four or five two-hour chunks over the course of a week (while trying to keep weekends, or at least Sundays, sacrosanct and free of work) and simply grinding through a couple of mugs of tea usually results in slow but steady progress in terms of ‘filling out’ sections. (Not that any of those first drafts are great – but the point is that once something is on paper, it can sit there for several months, even while you do other things. Sometimes, when I come back to stuff I wrote three months ago, I’m appalled by how much junk there is – but occasionally I’m also surprised by how semi-crisp and decent it sounds — still in need of work, granted, but something with which one can start.)

When I think more about how graduate education in History is structured, my experiences between Central Asia, Russia, Germany, and elsewhere incline me to think that it could potentially be wiser for universities, and perhaps grant-making organizations like the SSRC, Fulbright (which funded past research), IREX (which funded much of my current research), or American Councils to consider allowing for some splitting-up of research trips. Granted, I’m sure that part of the reason why we currently seem to insist that PhD students do one big research trip comes down to the financials and the fear of 8th-year PhD students. It’s expensive to ship grad students, even in steerage, between Palo Alto and Pune, and one of the benefits, I reckon, of a status quo that features a big research trip in year four, followed by one (usually two) years of writing-up does at least have the benefit of scaring the dickens out of students that they *have* to get something accomplished during that year.

But looking at my own experiences – which were atypical, admittedly, since I was in the UK and it was easier and less expensive to scuttle over to Moscow, Koblenz, Berlin or Basel as certain episodes in the dissertation process demanded – it strikes me that writing a dissertation is more like preparing a ceviche than frying a fish (to use an excruciating metaphor). I started off the M.Phil. in Economic and Social History having virtually no idea what I actually wanted to write on. I switched advisors at the very beginning of my program, having the good sense to work with two great supervisors. Even a year into the program, when I made my first major research trip to Moscow and Dushanbe, I still thought I was going to write on Central Asia in the post-war years. Only some chance discoveries of materials on the Soviet women’s movement in Afghanistan and the Komsomol files turned me in the direction of what has become a project that touches on not just the USSR but also Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran.

Almost as tasty as 300 pages of dead trees

But it took time – not just time reading stuff in archives but writing crappy drafts of stuff back in the UK – to realize what I was actually writing about. Coming back on subsequent trips, first to Germany and then to Central Asia and Moscow again, I was able to focus like a laser in on materials that fit into my funnel. Part of me fears that if I hadn’t had those less stressed-out breaks in the UK to regroup, I would have spent more of a putative year-long stay running around like a chicken with my head cut off. Had I thrown all of my material and thoughts into the frying pan of a straight one-year run through Russia, would the fish dish of my dissertation still have cooked? Probably, but only in the same way that a raw fish thrown into sizzling oil would. Instead, I’d like to think that it took time – the marinade of time, lemon and lime (reading widely in fields outside of Soviet history, and simply reading tons of good literature in any event), and a pinch of salt and elbow grease in the last months of writing up – to prepare the perfect dish that I wanted to serve up to my dissertation readers. It took time, reflection, and plenty of self-doubt along the way, but also confidence in myself and the breadth of my reading that my ceviche mix, if you will, *would* actually turn my raw materials into something edible.

Now, to wait and see if the professors assigned to read my D.Phil. actually agree with this apologia pro D.Phil. sua …

In the meantime – my order here at the RSL is almost ready – I’m looking forward to preparing some stuff for future talks, conferences, and edited volumes. With any luck, I should manage to organize at least two talks for this May with the American Center at the Russian State University for the Humanities. Due to some visa snafus and the fact that I can’t seem to stay in the same country for two long, my plans for a student visa (and hence a formal affiliation) fell through, but fortunately my scholarship sponsors at Oxford, and some contacts at RGGU have been generous and understanding in terms of trying to facilitate my having some kind of presence at the University while also focusing 95% of the time on research.

Beyond that, I’m spending a good deal of time this month – even while in Berlin – putting the finishing touches on a first version of a manuscript chapter on the nationalities question in northern Afghanistan, Afghan Communism, and the Soviet invasion for what sounds like a great conference in Trento, Italy at the end of May, right before I split for much, much warmer climes in Tempe. Finally, I think I’ve finally gathered enough materials (among them the stuff that’s about to arrive here at the RSL) to begin making serious strides towards drafting a first version of a piece on Soviet Pashtun / ‘Pashtunistan’ Studies, which I hope will touch on some cool stories of internecine Soviet academic warfare, the link between Soviet academia and the policy-making apparatus, and (something I have commented on earlier) the relative dearth of Pakistan or Afghanistan Studies programs around the world – much less programs in Punjabi, Balochi, muhajir, Pashtun, Sindhi, etc. Studies. I’ll have my eyes out for wealthy Pakistani or Afghan donors to endow just such a chair in the long run, but in the meantime it’s back to the much more modest – but still fulfilling – task of writing my thoughts down, letting them marinade, and hoping, like my imaginary ceviche, that they’re fit to be plated once all is said and done.

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