Is Anyone Really Writing? Everyone is Writing, and No one is Writing.

By Dave Papendorf

There is a strange phenomenon that exists in academia and within the Humanities in particular.  Apparently, every PhD student is writing their dissertation. How industrious of them! They retreat to an airy salon and knock away at their typewriters while feeling the thrill of progress. These students are consistently fueled by the swelling approval of their ever-vigilant supervisors and the pleasant typewriter ding of every line completed on their ground-breaking project.

However, upon closer examination, this proves to be false. In fact, as it turns out, no one is writing their dissertation. Instead they write emails, book reviews, journal submissions, funding proposals, fellowship applications, course syllabi, comment on students’ work, teaching philosophies, job applications, letters of recommendation, conference papers, bibliographies, and exam prompts. After all of this, they are left dejected, despaired, and despondent. To get a job, PhD students need to be doing all of these things. “A dissertation is not enough” the market tells us. Good thing too, after keeping so many plates spinning, who has time for a dissertation anyways!

Perhaps this is too melancholiac of an assessment. After all, people are constantly finishing and defending their dissertations. But surely the sentiments shared above resonate with my colleagues. At least I hope they do, because in my experience pressures mount not only to finish the dissertation but also develop professionally with some ontological crises along the way. In the remainder of this post, I will share a little of my experience as a dissertation-writing, plate-spinning, job-hunting ABD student. Hopefully, we can commiserate together, and my honest reflections can help spur on my current and future colleagues to keep writing. Friends, please receive my unsolicited advice kindly. Most importantly, I hope this post gives non-students a view into the psyche of a late-stage PhD student.

Some of you might recognize me as a previous editor when I had just started “writing” my dissertation. While I have made progress since editing the blog, it has not been as swift as I hoped. C’est la vie. Nevertheless, I have noticed three things about myself as a “writer” that are worth sharing.

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

An Airy Salon for the Industrious PhD Student

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

Despaired, Despondent, and Dejected (ish)

1. I am what you might call a “long runway” type of writer. In other words, it takes me a long time to get “off the ground” writing productively (please indulge my aerial metaphor). I need a plan, an outline, a developed structure, and goals to check off and mark my daily progress. This helps me feel as if I am doing something and forces me to come to grips with the reality of my current situation to complete my dissertation tasks (see checklist below). If you cannot simply sit down and write, this might help you. However, it is not a failsafe for all students. I find that when I do get to writing, I write in chunks. Recently, I wrote 13,000 words in nine days, but keep in mind this took two weeks of “runway” time. Alternatives would be short bursts of writing (write all you can over a weekend) or slow-and-steady (write for 50 minutes a day, regardless of quality).

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2. I am always more successful when I measure my progress in terms of word count rather than number of pages. I write using Scrivener software which measures word count and not page numbers and stores footnotes outside of the text. I find these elements helpful because I think less about overall length and more about paragraphs. Doing so helps me focus on the cohesiveness and effectiveness of my writing rather than numerical values. Overall, this benefits my argumentation and writing quality. On a more metaphysical level, focusing on word count helps me think less about “space” on a page and more about argument.

3. I have developed a schedule-oriented plan to finish my dissertation all the way to my dissertation defense date. I have two plans: one labeled “ambitious” and the other labeled “realistic.” This two-pronged schedule gives me the impetus to be ambitious while not condemning me for being realistic. Ideally, I would finish somewhere between the two. I find that having a large-scale idea of where I am headed in advance to be consoling. Such a plan also helps give me the right “push” when I need it and comforts me when I feel like I should be doing more. Finally, sharing this with my supervisor has been helpful so that we are on the same page and the ever-frightening gap between actual progress and supervisor-expected progress is mitigated.

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I titled this post sardonically. However, cynicism is often revealing even if just revealing to its source. I suspect that many feel the same way as I do. The industry seems to be heaping more pressures on students so that our focus is diverted from dissertation writing even while, at the same time, doing more tasks overall. So, to restate the titular question, who is writing after all? Answer: everyone is writing, and no one is writing. PhD students, soldier on. Non-PhD students give a dissertation writer a hug. All of us need one.


Dave Papendorf is a late-stage History PhD Student at Central Michigan University and a Special Instructor of Historical Theology at Moody Bible Institute. His research examines the early Reformation in France (1520s-1540s) and the connections between the French and German Reformations during this period.

For more information or to contact him visit his graduate profile.

Writing Arthur Vandenberg

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By Hendrik G. Meijer

In 1979, after five years as a reporter and editor in Plymouth, I rejoined the family retail business in Grand Rapids.  I also began graduate work in history at Western Michigan University, attending in the evening, but did not complete my thesis.

At that time, Meijer had evolved over half a century from a grocery store opened by my grandfather to a regional mass retailer.  My father and I talked about doing a company history.  But my interest lay less in the blow-by-blow development of the business than in the story of my grandfather, who was fifty years old when he opened that little store in Greenville.

The book that resulted was Thrifty Years, a biography of Hendrik Meijer.  I fell in love with biography as a form. The research, including the interviewing I loved from my reporting days, as well as the writing, and, ultimately, the discovery of a life taking shape, was exhilarating.  I wanted to write another.

I had done some research in the Grand Rapids Public Library.  Its archive was presided over by city historian Gordon Olson.  In the course of my research, I became curious about other archival material. Here were microfilm copies of the Grand Rapids Herald, Arthur Vandenberg's newspaper.  I also recalled a book I'd read in the 1970s by Daniel Yergin, Shattered Peace: The Origins of the Cold War and the National Security State. One of the featured characters was the colorful senator from Grand Rapids.  I kept coming across Vandenberg's name.  Yet he seemed largely forgotten, even in his hometown.

A professor in Chicago had already turned his University of Michigan dissertation on Vandenberg into the first book of a projected two-volume life.  It ended in 1945, just as Vandenberg was revving up for his pivotal years.  I assumed a second volume would be forthcoming, and that the world did not need two Vandenberg biographies.

But Olson was putting together the program for the 1989 conference of the Historical Society of Michigan.  Eager—or perhaps desperate—to fill the schedule, he suggested I do something on Vandenberg.  "Just take an episode from his career," he suggested.  So I talked (for an audience of about six) on the 1939 debate over the repeal of the arms embargo provision of the Neutrality Act.  This was the embargo that tied Franklin Roosevelt's hands on the eve of World War II, hindering him from aiding the British.  Vandenberg, legendary for his later conversion to an internationalist perspective, led the isolationists fighting repeal.

In January 1990, the professor in Chicago died.  His adult daughter, selling his house in Wilmette, wondered what to do with the files on Vandenberg that filled his basement.  Boxes of Xerox copies from the Truman Library, the Roosevelt Library, the British Foreign Office, and other sources had no monetary value, but she hated to throw out a lifetime of research.  Local libraries had no interest, so she called the Historical Society of Michigan.  Did they know of anyone with an interest in Arthur Vandenberg?  They only knew me because I had been on their program a few weeks earlier.  They gave her my number, and I came back from Wilmette with a van-load of papers—and a sense of mission.

In an essay in Brave Companions, David McCullough noted, among other topics, the need for a study of Arthur Vandenberg after 1945.  My sense of mission grew.  I felt fortunate to have as a subject someone so pivotal in the creation of an American foreign policy consensus destined to prevail to the present day—when the nature of American leadership once again appears to be in question.  And Vandenberg also became iconic for his efforts to find bipartisan solutions.   

I felt like I had stumbled upon a missing link in American history, as well as a model of the sort of politics we long for today.  And with files in hand, some of the research travel required in those pre-internet days could be shortened or avoided.  I could concentrate on the Vandenberg Papers at the Bentley Library at the University of Michigan, and pursue my favorite part of researching a not-quite-contemporary figure: interviewing people who knew him.

Vandenberg's papers occupy only eight linear feet.  For someone with decades of prominent public service who was himself a prolific journalist, these were slim pickings.  After he died in 1951, his son, who had been his chief of staff, published an elegant account called The Private Papers of Senator Vandenberg.  And apparently disposed of many of his father's papers when he was through.  After the Grand Rapids Herald was acquired by its rival, the Grand Rapids Press, later in the 1950s, its long-time librarian was so upset that she reportedly threw out the morgue.

Ah, but the interviews!  Vandenberg's surviving child, his younger daughter, lived in Connecticut.  As I spent more time with her, she became increasingly candid, even producing telling pages from her step-mother’s scrapbook that the family withheld when the papers were given to the library.  Others who had known the senator were also in their dotage, which brought mixed results.  For President Gerald Ford, Vandenberg was a hero and model.  Clark Clifford wished he’d known Vandenberg's mistress. Margaret Truman said how much her father admired Vandenberg, but told me not to believe Clifford, who was among her father's closest advisors. Gore Vidal offered a different slant. Harold Stassen recalled the United Nations Organizing Conference.  William Fulbright struggled to remember a story as we spoke.  In words that send a shiver down a biographer's spine, he lamented at one point in our interview, "You waited too long to talk to me."  He was 88. 

As research deepened, the manuscript ballooned past 1,000 pages.  This was a "life and times" when I should have known I would be lucky just to get a "life" published.  (Classic later-draft realization: all that hard-won local color would have to be jettisoned to get the hero to Washington.)  My breakthrough came when biographer James Tobin agreed to consult on the manuscript.  He suggested bold cuts that pulled it below 500 pages and gave me something marketable.  (Later, at the Bentley, researcher Rob Havey rescued my footnotes and had the Vandenberg Papers handy when decades-old index cards were misplaced.)  The University of Chicago Press, with experience in reaching general readers, agreed to take a chance on someone who lacked formal academic credentials and published the book in 2017

Finding freedom to research and write is always the challenge.  I am fortunate that my day job offers a degree of flexibility, as well as colleagues who tolerate my big avocation.  When someone asks where I find the time, however, the answer seems too easy: it only took me twenty-five years.


 

Hendrik G. Meijer, author of Arthur Vandenburg: The Man in the Middle of the American Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) and co-chairman and CEO of Meijer, Inc., will give a talk on his book on March 19 at 7:00pm in the Park Library Auditorium at Central Michigan University.