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Writing the Dissertation, One Chapter at a Time

As a Ph.D. Candidate in History, I'm working on the intersections between the history of American antislavery and the history of families. My dissertation traces the journey of African American families as they migrated from North America to West Africa during the early nineteenth century, locating settlers and missionaries as they established new lives for themselves in the American colonies at Liberia. These migrants often kept in close contact with family members that remained in the United States after the Atlantic crossing was made, and I have been working on uncovering the histories of these connections.

While it’s summer in Ann Arbor, and many of the undergraduate students have left town, I’m still hard at work on my dissertation. The project for this summer is to write a chapter of my dissertation (ultimately, it will have about six). As a historian, most of my work involves researching in archives – which you can read about in my last blog post here. What I’m doing now is taking my archival findings – notes and photographs from old letters, diaries, land deeds, and books – and turning them into an intelligible narrative. Since most of the people I write about left little written record, I often have to do a lot of work to uncover small points. For instance, I had to visit three different archives just to determine how many printing presses were in Liberia by 1840.

I’ve always enjoyed writing, and especially writing history. But writing a dissertation chapter can be exhausting. Recently, I’ve taken to writing in the afternoons in stretches lasting a few hours. I find that if I try to write for longer periods of time, I distracted too easily and end up with messier prose. And since I’m still in the research stage of my dissertation, I can spend mornings looking at microfilm or reading books at the graduate library on the U-M campus. Most often, I’ve been swimming in the early morning. Exercise has helped me more thoroughly concentrate when I am writing, and it also forces me to stretch out my arms and back. Unsurprisingly, sitting in a chair reading and writing over a computer all day is not the best for one’s body.

When I think about the past four years I’ve spent in grad school, it occurs to me that I’ve done quite a bit of writing. During the first two years, when folks in my program typically take coursework, we write a fair bit. Usually, there’s weekly reading responses, end-of-term historiography essays, research-driven seminar papers, syllabi and teaching statements, or some combination of these things that must be done to complete a course. During the third year, when many students take prelim (sometimes called “comprehensive”) exams, I wrote synthesizing essays for all of my prelim fields. But I am finding dissertation writing to be very different than these other exercises in writing.

The writing can be a bit lonely. I don’t just mean that the process of writing is isolating, as a lot of other grad students in my cohort are off researching. The loneliness comes in when I’m actually writing, and it occurs to me that less than a handful of people have read the same documents I’m reading, and now it’s up to me to tell a story based off of this mass of newsprint and manuscript material that I’ve found. There’s a lot of pressure to “get it right” while writing history, and I feel like I wouldn’t be doing my historical subjects justice unless I gave my full effort into telling their story. Since I work on the history of people who, historically, have not been afforded much attention (both in the nineteenth century and now), I really want to get it right. One of the African-American missionary families I’m studying left a lot of records from their time in Liberia. But unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to find evidence that would indicate whether the mother in the family was born free or enslaved. While it’s possible that I’ll come across some document in Virginia that might give me a clue, it’s also possible that the records of her birth are simply lost. When there’s that level of uncertainty, it can be difficult to get to writing because I’m a bit unsure if the assessments I’m making are on point. But I’ve found that as I continue writing, this insecurity falls away. I suppose the answer is to just write more!