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.

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