Tripping to the Library

I’m writing this post from our campus library. Right now, things are quiet – it’s Saturday morning after all. This is a far cry from what it will be like during finals week, as the tables and carrels are packed with students cramming for their exams. The calm today is welcoming.

This is actually one of the few times I’ve been to the library so far this year (2018). I work from home a lot, and I’m not teaching this quarter so I have fewer reasons to be on campus anyway. From home I can use the notes I’ve already compiled, sources available online, and, yes, books I’ve checked out from the library. Still, it feels odd to spend so little time in a place undoubtedly at the center of my individual and communal (intellectual) life.

Equally surprising is how infrequently I’ve referred to my university’s library in this blog. The closest it’s come to center stage is ironically a post I wrote before leaving for China, whose conceit was the graduate student’s ritual returning of (unread) books before a trip. Maybe I haven’t given the library its due because it embodies the intersection of the mundane and highly specialized nature of my work as a graduate student. But maybe it’s time.

The view looking south onto campus from the front steps of Regenstein Library (2/1/15)

Last Friday morning I organized an event on campus. It was bitterly cold. Only a couple people came. There was a book I wanted to check out from the library, so I stopped by on my way back home. It was not one of the library’s busier days, but compared to the deserted campus pathways outside, it was practically bustling.

Almost immediately on passing through the gates I ran into a classmate who I hadn’t seen in the new year. He had just finished teaching his first discussion section of the quarter. It was good to see him and hear his class had gone well. As we parted and I headed toward the stairs, I encountered another friend who works at the library. We had just seen each other the night before, but I was able to relay that another friend had failed to appreciate the economic and comedic genius of a plan we had hatched involving singing candles/holders.

My first destination was the B level of the basement. Having to retrieve a book from the social sciences stacks down there irks me. The second floor is the proper domain for a historian, while the fifth floor houses our East Asia collection. The basement is at best a distant third in my hierarchy of library stacks.

On the way, I realized that I should probably check out the next book on another of my reading lists too. I couldn’t remember what it was, much less the call number, so I seated myself at one of the computers, checked my list, and punched the book title (Inscribed Landscapes, if you’re curious) into the library’s online catalog. To my initial confusion, the first result was for a different book with the same title. I looked at the abstract and table of contents and realized it was something I might want to read. I added it to my list, sighing at the futility of hoping this list of things to read would ever shrink.

Scrolling down the results page, I found the book I had originally wanted. I noticed there was an electronic version. I could have accessed this book from home, but I was at the library anyway, and I much prefer paper versions. Its call number told me it was on the second floor. If there’s anything more irksome than having to go down to the basement in the first place, it’s having to double back, wondering all the while how two books being used for the same dissertation chapter could wind up so many floors apart. Soothing my inner rage, I saved myself some exercise by taking the elevator. Finding my target book, I cursed the author. 580 pages. Not what I needed, or, at least, much more than what I needed. My opinion of the author changed quickly as I flipped through the pages. When I put this book on my reading list eons ago, I probably knew that it was mostly a translation of primary texts and that what I really wanted to read was the introduction. I had long since forgotten. Bless you, Richard Strassberg.

So I returned to the ground floor, fumbling my library card out of my pocket and into the hands of the circulation desk attendant. And I was on my way back home.

In some ways graduate students’ perceptions of the library epitomize how we see life in academia in general. It is isolating. It is harsh. It is focused. However, our experiences here are much more multi-faceted than this. It is a space of encounter with people and ideas, both planned and otherwise. It is both a symbol of the vastness of human knowledge and a tool for acquiring it. But it is also a reminder of the finite nature of my own knowledge about the world and the time I have to acquire more. The library stacks invite leisurely perusal even as they goad me, the would-be reader, to move quickly because the list of things to read is only growing longer.



The Genealogy of a Dissertation Chapter

Sometimes I get so wrapped up in writing about all of the other things that go on in the life of an ABD student that I forget how long it’s been since I talk about the dissertation itself. I hope I don’t give the impression that I’m not making much progress on that front. In fact, I’ve made a lot of progress this quarter towards writing a chapter. One part of this has been figuring out what a dissertation chapter needs to do differently from other pieces of writing. It’s hard to separate that from the content of the chapter I’m writing itself, so a little bit of an introduction is in order.

Partly by coincidence, I’ve been working on the first chapter of my dissertation. I had actually done quite a bit more preliminary work on a couple other chapters (three and five) even before I went to China. I’m going to space out working on those alongside the other chapters that I’m writing more from scratch. I chose to start with chapter one because I felt really good about it and had a lot of source material for it, a large amount of which I hadn’t read in detail.

This chapter focuses on writings about Jinan’s most famous scenic site, Baotu Spring. I’m explaining how a corpus of literature about the spring developed over time, some of its major themes, and how ideas about the importance of this particular place informed and were affected by a series of southern tours undertaken by the Kangxi (reigned 1661-1722) and Qianlong (reigned 1735-1796) emperors. In particular, I’m interested in how authors positioned Baotu Spring within both local and empire-wide geographies.

I’ve been interested in these problems for so long now that it’s easy to forget there was a time they weren’t on my radar. Early in graduate school, I was thinking about focusing my dissertation on social movements (like protests) and maybe violence. This reflected how I first got interested in Jinan – through a series of property disputes involving American missionaries in the 1880s and 1890s, which I actually wrote a paper about before I got to Chicago. I realized that where the missionaries tried to buy property mattered a lot, which is what got me interested in the issue of urban space. It seemed especially difficult for the missionaries to buy property in the western portion of the city. I also discovered that the name of and academy that played an important role in the early phase of these disputes – Luoyuan – was another name for Baotu Spring, which is located outside the southwest corner of the old walled city.

After “finishing” that project, I still had a lot of unanswered questions about this and other topics. One set of questions – how the previous decades shaped the elite class of Jinan, whom the missionaries found so incorrigible – became the topic for my first major research paper at Chicago (and the third chapter of the dissertation). During spring quarter of my first year here I took a course on “Chinese Spatial Strategies” in our Art History department. It was a bit beyond my comfort zone, but it was a great opportunity to encounter another field of scholarship. And, because the course required a research paper, it pushed me to dig more into the questions I had. I found some answers, encountered new materials (especially important 11th century texts), and realized that my interests might intersect with the history of these imperial tours. (Any time you can connect a couple of super important emperors to your study of what many people consider a pretty non-descript place, it’s a bonus.)

A couple important things happened over my two trips to China (in the summer of 2014 and last year). First, I discovered that there were a large number of recently-published books about Baotu Spring and other famous sites in Jinan held at the provincial library. A decent number of these reprinted primary sources. Together with sources I could dig up on my own, I knew that I would have plenty of materials to build a chapter out of. On my first trip I also noticed something odd: a map of the area around Baotu Spring in a 19th century book about the Shandong salt administration. I made a note of it on my first trip and went back to it last Fall. It’s a long story, but I was right to be surprised: there were no salt-related facilities around Baotu Spring. Upon further reading, I discovered that this would be another tie-in to the imperial tours. I also discovered that there was a digital version of a very important text about Baotu Spring available through the Chinese Text Project website, which would enable me to do some different things with analyzing the text as a whole.

In part because there is such a wealth of sources for this chapter, getting writing started has been a bit slower than I would have liked. And, now that I’m making good progress, I’m finding that I can write an awful lot without moving very far through my planned outline. Consequently, the partial draft that I have written is long enough (but certainly not finished enough) to be a chapter itself.

I suspect other graduate students will recognize a familiar pattern: some interests and questions morph into a research interest that is very different from what you originally intended (my dissertation is no longer focused on violence); some choice sources emerge that make this seem like a viable project; you wind up with so many sources that you wonder how you’ll ever get around to writing; you start writing anyway; you discover the problem isn’t having too little but too much to say, you pare down and revise. In some ways, writing a dissertation chapter isn’t too different, then, from writing other research papers.

The process, though, has been longer, playing out over more than four years. Another difference I’ve faced is in how I narrow down this chapter. Any research project will entail leaving aside certain questions. Writing within the context of a larger project, though, forces you to think about the big-picture ramifications of not addressing a topic within an individual chapter. A topic relatively tangential to one chapter might be something you want to revisit in a later one. So maybe it is worth discussing. Or maybe a complete discussion of the topic should be pushed to a later chapter. There’s also the problem that if chapter A doesn’t address a given topic, and chapter B doesn’t either…then it’s not going to come up in the dissertation. While that might be fine as far as the individual chapters are concerned, it might be a problem for the dissertation as a whole.

Earlier in graduate school, I didn’t think of this as a problem, or at least a particularly thorny one. It’s easy to assume that a dissertation is long enough and that there is enough time to write it that you can cover everything. This turns out not to be true. Writing a dissertation chapter does depend on a far broader range of research than preliminary papers. But it also requires even more difficult decisions about what to include or exclude and how to present material in a way that will engage your readers.

Graduate School Can Be Taxing

This week the House of Representatives passed their version of a tax reform bill. As reflected on page 11 of the Ways and Means Committee’s summary of the bill, this legislation would eliminate qualified tuition reductions for all graduate students. This measure and others have drawn harsh criticism from across the academic community and beyond. As of now, the Senate version of the bill – which may or may not pass – does not contain this provision.

This is little comfort to graduate students, including myself.

While Republicans have touted the benefits of cutting taxes for Americans, taxing graduate students’ tuition waivers has the potential to drastically increase our tax burdens. Higher ed finances and tax law are, of course, complicated. However, the basic issues are simple.

As part of the funding packages most graduate students receive, our universities essentially pay themselves tuition on our behalf. Yes, that’s weird, and I won’t pretend to understand all the accounting reasons behind it. (One important factor is that universities need to factor in tuition for graduate students when applying for grants to support research projects.) Regardless of the reasons, the effect is that graduate students are at the center of some very big transactions (since tuition is so high) that, from our perspective, happen only on paper: I never see a dime of the part of my funding that comes in the form of tuition waiver.

The tuition waiver is only one part of my funding package. Another part is my stipend – money that the university pays me so I can pay rent, buy groceries, etc. A salary by another name. This is taxable income, as well it should be. But I don’t get taxed on the money I don’t see.

How the legislation passed by the House would affect graduate students would vary by individual case and depend, of course, various other things in the tax code. But again, the underlying math is simple. Instead of just being taxed on the ~$25,000 I receive via my stipend and TA wages, I would be taxed on that amount plus the value of my tuition waiver: conservatively, a total of at least $70,000. Basically, I’d be taxed as if I were making about three times as much as I actually am. I’ll let you think about how that kind of change in your tax bill would affect your personal finances. (Remember to bump up your tax bracket along the way.)

There a lot of confusing things about graduate school finances. Some might wonder how anyone can live on so little. Others no doubt find it odd that our universities pay tuition for us, let alone give us a stipend on top of that. These are, after all, benefits that our colleagues in other types of post-graduate education, like law school and medical school, do not receive. Couldn’t graduate students in STEM, the humanities, and social sciences do without these perks? Or at least suffer paying drastically higher taxes on them?

These questions boil down to a much simpler one: Should pursuing a PhD be a viable option for people who aren’t independently wealthy? In the absence of tuition remissions, stipends, and reasonable tax rates, getting a PhD is a profoundly terrible idea financially. In fairness, it already is, at very least in terms of comparing a stipend to what someone qualified for a PhD program could be earning over seven or ten years in their 20’s and 30’s. Not to mention the issue of the increasing number of people who have earned PhD’s who are working for poverty-level wages as contingent faculty.

Despite these serious challenges, it is possible, at least under certain conditions, to make getting a PhD work financially. But we’re not far from the cliff, and some of us are already sliding off the edge. Taking thousands of dollars in income away from us through taxes on money that we don’t receive will take financial feasibility off the table for thousands of people like me who have put off taken-for-granted aspects of middle-class life in order to increase our knowledge about the world. As I’ve said, the logic and the basic math is simple. Anyone who spends more than a second thinking through this and still votes for this bill is casting a vote to say that people like me shouldn’t exist.

227 legislators did just that.

And that’s what is especially taxing about being a graduate student right now. No matter what, getting a PhD is going to be difficult intellectually, personally, and financially. No one is going to fundamentally change that, least of all politicians. But that does not preclude recognizing the value of training people to expand our knowledge in specific fields and not putting up illogical obstacles to doing so.

Instead, we are witnessing a collective disregard for the value of learning. Some will argue that higher ed devalues itself by training students in fields of expertise that are overly narrow or irrelevant. To be sure, we always need to do more to explain the value of our work both within and beyond the academy. But even work that is highly relevant to contemporary problems often finds itself shunted aside. As I’ve written before, it is preposterous that a country that sees itself as a global leader would shirk even modest funding for training people in less commonly taught languages. For myself, becoming an expert in the history of a city with a population of seven million people that is nevertheless practically unheard of among Americans and being trained to teach the last millennium’s worth of history of the world’s most populous country may be many things, but overly narrow is not one of them.

The current tax legislation extends this disregard across academic disciplines. Experts-in-training who would teach about the languages, histories, political systems, and social conventions of the other seven billion people who live on the planet, who would discover the cure for cancer, who would research the principles behind technologies that would provide more affordable and sustainable energy, and so on – none of us is spared. When it comes to higher ed, we need more than a debate about taxation. We need people to go on record about whether or not they think PhD training is worthwhile. With their penny-wise, knowledge-poor tax policy, our representatives have done just that. Will you?


What Happened to…? Has Your Project Changed?

Early in their training as historians, students often receive warnings that their carefully designed research projects are likely to change. This is also true of PhD students, who hear the research plans and outlines described in their dissertation proposals described as “fiction” and “a myth” (but a useful exercise nonetheless). From my time as an undergraduate up to now, I have definitely changed my approach to various research projects. But overall, I’d say that I tend not to change my research plans too much. That has more to do with me being stubborn than smart, but smart gets you only so far in a PhD.

After coming back from the archives, my assessment was that my research had stuck pretty close to my original plans, with some reasonable deviations due to certain paths being blocked and others opening up. But then, a couple weeks after getting back, I had to give a brief presentation of my research to fellow participants at a workshop. The main organizer of the workshop was a professor, who, although not my main adviser, had generously read an early draft of what would become my proposal. She recalled that local “identity” had been one of my primary interests and found it odd that I had hardly (if at all) mentioned “identity” when describing the current state of my project.

I honestly can’t remember how I responded; whatever it was, it was the beginning of a series of ruminations leading up to this blog post (and probably beyond). This professor’s observation was as attentive as her original reading of my work was generous. I did in fact talk about local identity in my dissertation proposal (at all stages of writing it) and my grant applications. “Local and imperial identity” are among the research interests listed on my department webpage. So it is odd that I would not phrase my research interests in this way, even in the course of short presentation.

As odd as it was, though, it actually made a lot of sense when I heard someone say it to me. And trying to work out things that make sense intuitively but lack obvious reasons is, well, what I do.

In the past, I’ve framed my research in terms of identity and institutions. Among other things, this reflects how my interests cut across the genres of cultural (how people see themselves) and social/political (how people behave in groups) history. Obviously, it’s hard to separate these things too clearly, which is why I study them together, adding an interest in how they do these things with reference to a particular place.

As you might imagine, institutions (even broadly conceived) are more tangible than ideas. That means that they are often easier to isolate and observe for historians. Of course, people also write about what they think about the world and themselves, or they write about other things in a way that give us a glimpse into these things.

I spent a lot of my time in China really hunting for and reading sources related to my more “institutional” interests. That’s kind of bread-and-butter archival research. On the other hand, I also found a lot of different sources in which people talk about Jinan – the sort of thing that could be really helpful for figuring out the “identity” side of my project. By and large, though, I was able to collect (scan, purchase, etc.) a lot more these sources, which, together with the availability of similar sources back in the U.S., meant that my most urgent task wasn’t reading all of them on the spot.

I did read some of them of course. (And am reading a lot more now.) In the process of collection, though, I found myself being drawn into the question of whose sources I was finding, how they had come to encounter the city, and what kinds of networks they formed with others. Another way of putting it, is that I became increasingly drawn to the practices associated with writing about Jinan, rather than jumping straight into the content of what people wrote. (I’d like to think reading Latour has something to do with this.)

In addition to the research process shaping my interests, some of the things I found proved difficult to process. One of the reasons Jinan is interesting is because it sat at the top of the provincial administrative system, meaning it was simultaneously a county, prefectural, and provincial capital. It thus served as a point of convergence for people from around the province and, one might suppose, a place where different types of identity might coalesce. One of the things I’m supposed to do is sort this out.

There is, in fact, evidence of these different layers of identity at work. A good example are collections of poetry and transcriptions old stone and metal inscriptions. We can see some that were compiled at the provincial level while others focused on the single county that contained Jinan. (E.g. the difference between an anthology of poets from New York State and New York City.) However, the pattern I’ve observed is that county-level compilations followed and drew on provincial-level works.

There are a couple ways to interpret this. One is that local identity particular to Jinan was strong enough that compilers felt obliged to assert it even though these sources had already been preserved in provincial-level compilations. On the other hand, the fact that provincial-level works came first and seem to have spurred on more Jinan-specific cultural production suggests some kind of priority for provincial identity or at least the networks and institutions that supported these larger-level compilations.

In other words, some more research is needed. Which comes back to where I am in the research process. So I haven’t abandoned an interest in “local identity,” but there are some other questions and observations that have cropped up and taken priority for me. How different my dissertation will be in the end, only time will tell; the path I’m taking to get there is certainly different from what I expected, though.

Let’s Talk about “Attrition”

The start of a new school year is a great time to meet new colleagues and catch up with those you haven’t seen in a while, especially after being gone for a year. But every year you come back to graduate school there are inevitably a few faces who aren’t there any more. This is just as much a part of the academic rhythm as anything else.

There’s a statistical side to this. A 2011 study based on responses from 138 history departments found that the median completion rate for students entering PhD programs in history between 1996 and 2005 was 42%. Yes, you read that right. At least at that point in time, any given student beginning a PhD program was more likely not to finish than to earn a degree. The good news is that this number has been improving over time, even dramatically when compared to half a century ago. It is a phenomenon that has received some attention, of course, but, given the normality of leaving a PhD program, it is still a surprisingly taboo subject within the halls of the university.

It seems likely that changes that have lowered the attrition rate have also contributed to failing to treat not finishing as a normal outcome of entering a PhD program. Increasingly, incoming graduate students are given funding packages that, at least in theory, will provide them enough support to carry them through the entirety of their programs. Despite reasonable complaints about the insufficiency of these funding packages, this is a far cry from the situation in programs twenty years ago (or even less). Instead of giving all or even most students guaranteed funding packages, departments would admit large numbers of PhD students without funding and use the first year of the program to weed out large numbers of them, asking those who did not make the cut to leave. Departments could then offer some support to students who had passed this first hurdle.

There is not much nostalgia for those halcyon days of cutthroat competition, although professors who came through this system are sometimes at pains to explain to today’s graduate students how we have it so much better than they did. This undeniable truth notwithstanding, these structural shifts in graduate education actually raise some troubling questions about doggedly low completion rates for PhD’s.

If departments are no longer using the first year or two of the program as a kind of a tryout for the remainder of the PhD and systematically over-admitting and then “culling” cohorts, then this would drive down “attrition” by a significant margin. It would not, however, necessarily say anything about the likelihood of students to complete the program after they had navigated that first trying year or two. Moreover, it does not preclude the possibility that some of these pressures have not been so much eliminated as displaced beyond the PhD program itself. For departments now admitting fewer students but with higher expectations, it is both more possible and desirable (given the substantial investment a multi-year funding package represents) to extend offers of admission to only the most qualified candidates. Anecdotally, this is leading to cohorts comprising an increasingly large number of students who have already completed MA’s. Of course, when these same universities run large MA programs that attract students who are hoping to advance to a PhD and willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition for a chance to do so, the changes to graduate education described above don’t seem quite as positive as at first glance.

Up to here, it may seem like I’ve been describing not completing a PhD as an inherently bad outcome. I actually don’t believe that’s the case. I’ve seen people leave PhD programs for lots of different reasons. Sometimes students realize early on that this type of work isn’t a good fit for them. In those situations, getting out early is probably the best solution. On the other end of the spectrum, getting a PhD is a long process. Any time someone takes on a project that will take something like seven years to complete, you have to account for the possibility that what people want from life will change along the way. And sometimes when that happens, again, maybe the best thing is to move on.

Maybe this is to acknowledge that I’m also an attrition statistic. I had to leave one program to follow an adviser to another institution. That’s probably as good a reason as any to leave behind a PhD; and even though I wasn’t quitting “the PhD,” I still had kind of mixed feelings – I was leaving a place I had really enjoyed, people who meant a lot to me, and a bright future I had imagined for myself there.

But I’ve also seen very different situations. Students not necessarily kicked out but pushed aside. Who didn’t get the support they needed. And sometimes very much worse.

So here’s my pitch for why we should have open, probing, and honest discussions about “attrition”:

Because not completing a PhD program is a likely outcome for entering students. If we don’t admit this, we are lying to ourselves and prospective students.

Because a completion rate around 40% is probably lower than it should be and there are things we can do about it to make graduate school better for everyone. This includes educating prospective students about graduate school so they can make better decisions about whether it is the right route for them, providing community and guidance for students at all stages of the program, and checking professors who emotionally, verbally, or sexually abuse their students.

Because mental health in graduate school is a serious issue and because acknowledging there are other options will help us be happier and healthier, whether we stay or not.

Because we are increasingly recognizing that even completing a PhD is not a one-way ticket to a job as a professor and because students who do not complete PhD’s will, like many of their colleagues who do, utilize their skills as historians (etc.) in other professional fields. Training at all stages of the PhD should reflect that.

Because, as intellectuals, if we can’t talk honestly about some things things, then we shouldn’t be trusted to talk about others.


I’ve been back in Chicago for three weeks now. We’ve found an apartment and moved in. People have every right to assume that we’ve settled in, or at very least ask if we have done so.

And yet…

Our living room. Also, my dissertation research.

We find ourselves in the uncomfortable state of having both too few and too many things. There are too many boxes, too few places to put the things currently in them. Too many books, too few bookshelves. Too many people…ok, not really, but nowhere to sit that isn’t the floor or an Ikea dining room chair. But the TV, computer, and desk are set up, so civilized living is not out of reach.

“Are you writing now?” I can’t answer this question without clarifying the meaning of ‘writing’ and ‘now’. Three weeks back from archival research, you’re entitled to think I’d be settled in by now. But really, I’m still unpacking.

And that’s not because my year of research abroad was unfruitful. It was very productive. But now I’ve got a lot of stuff. And as I shift into a new stage of ABD life, I’ve got to figure out where to put it. And there are still a few things – some really important, some less so – that I’ve got to find before I’ll really feel like I’m ready to write normally.

So how do you “unpack” from dissertation research? I’ve talked with my adviser about some general initial goals: the chapters I want to work on first and a general timeline for when I want to get drafts completed. (Dear other committee members: I’ll be writing you shortly too. I swear I haven’t forgotten about you!) It’s my vision for what writing this dissertation will look like. But, like planning out an apartment before you’ve gotten the furniture, I’m sure I’ll have to shuffle some things around.

For those chapters – or one at least – I’ve revised an outline and written up a new to-do list. This means revisiting old to-read lists of books that I’ve set aside, like all the stuff I couldn’t bring myself to throw out but just had to put in storage while I was gone. And it means sorting through the materials I’ve gathered and notes I’ve taken over the last year to prepare to turn them into something. There’s some writing I can do almost right away. And some where I need to check off a few more boxes first. And some…

Unpacking is the worst. It makes you wonder why you have all this stuff and why you ever thought about moving in the first place. But it’s also fun. Opening up boxes can be like a Christmas gift from yourself. Sometimes you find something you forgot you had. And then there’s the new stuff you’ve picked up along the way.

When is unpacking over? In some sense, it is never stops, right? Do you ever have everything you want right where you want it? But you achieve a degree of order with which you are ok. And then you are “really” living, and you probably quickly forget all the unpacking that made that possible, at least until you have to do it again.

So I’m writing but not “really” writing, if that makes any sense. And we’re settled into our apartment, but it’s going to take a little time. But I’m optimistic that apartment and dissertation alike will be presentable before too long.


Reading from the Other Side

One of my research goals for Bejing outside the First Historical Archives was to read through a periodical titled Shandong zazhi (Shandong Magazine) held at Peking University’s library. This journal was published by the Shandong Province native place association in Beijing in the early twentieth century. It contains news and essays related to Shandong Province (of which Jinan – the focus of my dissertation – was the capital). Since it was written by people from the Province but residing outside it, it provides a perspective that is different from other sources, especially publications produced by the provincial government itself. This perspective is especially useful for the final chapter of my dissertation, which examines how different groups of actors participated in and responded to a series of sweeping reforms in the first decade of the twentieth century, leading up to the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty in 1911-12.

This source posed a couple challenges, though. First, like other sources focused on the province as a whole, I had to sort through a lot of information to find material directly related to the specific city I’m interested in. But understanding the context of the province as a whole is also important for studying one part of it. So I couldn’t just set aside anything that didn’t specifically reference Jinan. But I also didn’t have time to read every article in detail.

This kind of dilemma and the aftereffects of confronting it alone in a library reading room for hours on end is associated with two competing stereotypes of PhD’s. One is that our expertise is so narrow that it is almost necessarily obscure and pretty useless. Another is that we spend an awful lot of time reading far too many books, which makes producing a dissertation an unbearably and unreasonably long process. On the first count, if the scope of knowledge required to write a dissertation were as narrow as people assume (and not infrequently express), then there would be no need for so much reading. On the second, the reality is that narrowly delimited knowledge is not just sitting out there waiting to be discovered. Sufficiently focused expertise can only be acquired through sifting through piles of sources that may or may not be relevant to what a researcher thinks they are looking for.

The Shandong zazhi also challenged me by forcing me to confront a set of voices that, for the most part, don’t play a big role in my research. It seems to represent a more commercially-oriented perspective from the eastern half of the province, as opposed to the elite in the western and central portion of Shandong, who were less commercially active and more connected with government officials. This latter group includes the people from Jinan I am most focused on and have found myself strangely sympathetic to. I would generally prefer to be reading about the events of this period from their perspective. But with the Shandong zazhi, I take what I can get. And that detour into the writings of people who are, for my purposes, secondary and maybe slightly antagonistic actors, is useful because it gives me some insight into how they interacted with people and events that are at the forefront of my research.

One of the criticisms of academia that you often see is that academics live in “ivory towers” or “echo chambers.” And some of these criticisms are valid. But they should be tempered with a recognition that historical research in particular requires shoving out into strange and often dark waters. You don’t write a dissertation or build a career as a historian by reading only the best-known sources. This isn’t to say that all subjects of inquiry have been treated equally; some researchers have had to fight harder than others to win a hearing for the people who have captivated them and for stories that have the capacity to alter how we understand history. But this drive to read both broadly and deeply and then come back to one’s colleagues and make the case that the voices you’ve found can teach us something valuable is an essential and invaluable part of academic life.

It’s also something many people seem to recognize we need more of in public life. It turns out that the multiplication of voices and opinions available to us, transmitted through websites, blogs, tweets, video clips, etc., has not necessarily made us more effective at discerning what to read and how to read it.  The challenge is not only identifying trustworthy sources of information but also seeing the value in reading a diverse range of viewpoints – even if they are unreliable or even morally reprehensible. And yet we consistently hear people disparage the usefulness of history and other disciplines that reward practitioners for doing exactly these things.

Of course, all the skills in the world are of hardly any use without taking the time to implement them, to sort through for ourselves sources that may be informative and to give them a critical reading. This is a daunting task. It takes time, energy, and a commitment that is not easy to build up and maintain. And at the end of our sifting and searching, we have to confront head-on the gnawing voice inside that has been telling us all along that it will be for nothing if we can’t distill all this work into an understanding of the world that is greater than the sum of the individual sources of information we have read.

That’s the abyss I find myself staring into. I’m back in the U.S. now, finishing this post after an uncharacteristic, jetlag-induced late afternoon nap. As I shift gears from a year of full throttle research, it’s time to give some more attention to what I do with all this reading I’ve done – organizing my notes, outlining my chapters, and, well, writing a dissertation.