Guest Post: From Coursework to Dissertation Work

Ian Bourland, a current ABD, has agreed to share his experiences making the transition from coursework to dissertation work and from Hyde Park to New York (+ various stops along the way). Thanks, Ian, for this thoughtful report!

Other students: feel free to share your own experiences or questions in the comments.

I was always amazed when I looked at the list of current grad students in our department.  The sheer number of people on that list compared to the number of people with whom I regularly interacted at CWAC was, for me, a disconnect.  Where did all these people go?  Were they jettisoned into the ether?  Holed up in some sawdust floor tenement, buried under a pile of second-hand Bakhtin books?

About a year ago, I answered these questions for myself.  For the passive onlooker, one day at the end of Fall term 2008, I was a ubiquitous feature in CWAC, attempting to teach undergrads, wasting Tara’s and Becky’s time, and skulking around the quad.  Then, after the holiday, I was gone.  This made perfect sense to me:  I was freshly minted ABD, finished with my dissertation proposal, and had a good handle on my research goals.  After four years in Chicago, I was ready to enjoy my relative mobility, and be closer to the mecca (for now) of contemporary art, not mention most of my dissertation research materials.  By December 15, 2008 I was living in New York.

The past year went by in a flash.  What happened?  How did I make the most of it?  Well, there were ups and downs, to be sure.  For one thing, a move, no matter how well-meaning, is time consuming, expensive, and distracting under the best of circumstances.  It is even more challenging when one is executing/planning five months worth of dissertation research abroad.  Moreover, Chicago is, in many ways, a grad-student utopia:  it is fun, culturally rich, gastronomically progressive, full of other grad students, and, in sharp contrast to every other fun city, cheap.  So while I spend one day every week looking at some of the most recent contemporary art, brushing up on current writing at storied libraries in museums, and periodically siting celebutants, I also live in a derelict neighborhood and eat like a box-car hobo.  I don’t have to shoo away vagrants looking for glass bottles to deposit, because they know I’ve already cashed them in.

It’s also very lonely out here.  For the first time in my life, I do not have a built in network of colleagues, cohorts, coworkers, and classmates, no lounge in which to linger, no Reg. in which to procrastinate.  Dissertation writing is a lone wolf activity, even more so in the absence of a home institution.  Moreover, and I cannot underscore this enough, the VRC and the Reg. and their tireless staffs are a godsend, and we are lucky to have them.  I miss them every day, no kidding.

All that said, it was a very productive year once I got my feet under me.  I spent most of January and March 2009 living in Finsbury Park, London, avoiding “hoodies” at the local tube stop and conducting archival research and interviews, mostly at a library and exhibition space in the east end, and at the ICA, Goldsmiths, UCL, etc.  I saw the Tate Triennial, polished my larger British art historical game, and spent some quality time with Yinka Shonibare and, in a bizarre turn of events, Mick Jones from the Clash.  During my few weeks in New York in between the British work, I established myself in the city, even as I looked for a subletter, arranged for visas, researched two artists in my dissertation in MA and PA, and presented at a SUNY Conference with David and Marin.

Then, in late March, I went to Africa.  I am pursuing a dual track in contemporary art and African art (mostly western).  My dissertation is about artists of the Nigerian diaspora working in the west.  In consultation with my various advisers, I determined that I needed to go to Africa, especially Nigeria, sooner than later.  Any international trip, as many of you know, is worth doing right, securing outside funding, planning a research itinerary, and blocking off enough time to see where the work takes you.  I did all of these things and still, Jessica Levin’s maxim “try to do one thing a day” held true.  The most basic of tasks, from brushing one’s teeth to eating lunch to sending an email can be exhausting in Dakar and Lagos—meeting with artists, curators, scholars, and collectors, mostly via public transit, in these circumstances was…intense.  The trip cannot be fairly distilled here, and I will be processing it for years, I think.  You may also recall the postcard I sent from Senegal.  I think someone in the department became the namesake of a mule as a result.

June-early July was decompression and regrouping, outlining, organizing notes, working on the Chicago Art Journal.  July-early October I wrote a chapter draft.  I spent much of October working on a CASVA application (these things take awhile, it turns out), and November was largely given over to working on two conference papers, one for CAA, the other for the Smithsonian.  December-now is revisions and another chapter draft to be presented at the Contemporary Art Workshop in a few weeks.  Bottom line?   There is not enough time in the day.  I know that when one is sitting in Historiography class, or working on dissertation chapter four in their studio apartment, staring at the wall, the time seems to drag on, but ultimately, this past year just flew by.  Everything takes longer than you think it will, and without the existential dread of end of quarter, it is hard to conjur up the same level of “productivity.”  The caveat to this is that with something as personal as the dissertation and its execution one often wants things to be just so rather than end of term passable.  This is a balance that we all have to figure out in due course.  I’ve decided it’s time to just get on with it.

What have I learned?

1)    If you have a topic that only involves work in Chicago with the occasional foray to an offsite archive, the smart money is to stay in Chicago, especially if you think you can finish relatively quickly.  I had a host of reasons to move on, and have no regrets, but life, as it turns out, is pretty sweet in Hyde Park.

2)    It is entirely reasonable to be totally burned out by the time you are ABD.  I did not know it at the time, but I sure was.  If I had just decided to sit down and write a year ago, I would have been tremendously frustrated, unprepared, and unproductive.  So, stirring things up and remembering why we are in this line of work can be helpful: research trips, meeting with artists, seeing new museum and gallery collections, learning about laterally-related but beyond your field writers and practices can all help recharge the batteries and put things in perspective.  Or just go hang out with Iva, Michael, Ann, Julia, or other colleagues abroad for a week.

3)    Even if you can’t get away in a literal sense, it is helpful to connect with new people.  I did this through tapping our CWAC network for both people in New York and also the emails of grad students who are in the area, and who are further along.  Meeting with these people, and meeting local art history people at other universities felt sort of Glengarry/Glenross, but it was very, very heartening, and opened me to the city, and to the post-ABD process in helpful ways.

4)    I thought I was pretty autonomous at UofC, but I took for granted both the power of positive peer pressure and the structure of classes to keep things right side up.  In a world where your office is the public library or your living room, things like hard deadlines, a daily work schedule, and rules about socializing become very important and need to be established immediately, I’d say.  I try to write three decent pages a day before I do anything fun.  It helps to work in a place with limited email access.

5)    It also helps to spend one day every week doing something related to your work, but not your project.  This can range from seeing a lecture or film, to meeting with new people in your rolodex, taking in some architecture or urban history (whatever floats your boat).  Calibrated relaxation like this gets me out of the office and makes me remember that this process and this job are truly a privilege.

3 Responses to “Guest Post: From Coursework to Dissertation Work”

  1. on 22 Jan 2010 at 5:11 PM Nicola

    Thanks for this Ian. It was helpful and fun.

  2. on 24 Jan 2010 at 9:54 AM Stephanie

    Thanks for sharing, Ian! I enjoy reading it.

  3. [...] we have another thoughtful guest blogger writing about the post-coursework experience. Julia, a 4th year student on [...]

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