Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘archives’ Category


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by Danny

This past weekend, I returned to my graduate school for the first time in over a year. It was a typical visit; I met with my advisors, said hello to colleagues, and stayed with my little sister, who—hilariously and weirdly—is now a first-year in the same program and department as myself. It was great to be back, see the old haunts, and walk around the (soon-to-be) alma mater. Thankfully, I’m very close to finishing my dissertation, and the questions I received mostly concerned the project. In speaking to younger years, I realized that the dissertation is a largely mystical product. It is spoken about as something tangible yet unknowable.


Alma Mater

For this reason, I figured I’d post a short list of tips that I’ve learned while writing my dissertation. I don’t mean to imply that everyone will find these tips useful, and I’m well aware that people have very different writing processes. But, I think any advice on the issue can perhaps help those who are beginning this arduous task. Some of these tips relate to picking a topic, some relate to research, and some relate to writing. I hope they might be useful to my colleagues in earlier years. In no particular order, here they are:

If you can, take courses related to your topic.

This is a semi-controversial tip, as one of the joys of graduate school is taking classes on topics with which you are unfamiliar and expanding your intellectual horizons. I very much support this. However, graduate school is also about pre-professional training, and getting a jumpstart on your dissertation by taking classes in topics broadly related to your interests is important for completing your dissertation in 5-6 years. Reading the secondary literature in your field will also help you situate your dissertation, important for both the prospectus and the final product.

Pick a topic in which you are incredibly interested.

You will probably be working on your dissertation for 3-5 years, so it is incredibly important to pick a topic that you can imagine reading, writing, and thinking about for thousands of hours. The last thing you want is to awaken in the middle of your fifth year, as you’re slogging through the Russian state archives, to realize that you don’t really care about the intersections between space travel and class in the 1950s Soviet Union.

Pick a topic that can be researched and written about in a timely manner.

Everyone enters graduate school wanting to write a dissertation like William Cronon’s Changes in the Land. Unfortunately, this is virtually impossible. In my opinion, it is much smarter to choose a topic that you know contributes to the literature, produces new knowledge, and can be written about in 5-6 years. In an era of dwindling funding, where many graduate students are unsure whether they will have funding after their fifth years, this is perhaps the most important rule. Having ambition is important, but it is unlikely you will suddenly revise the way we understand the French Revolution. For a first project, modesty is best.


An Object That I Have Not Used Once While Writing My Dissertation

Know your topic.

This is why taking courses on your topic is important. A dissertation is very time-consuming, and you don’t want it to be your sixth year when you realize that you really aren’t adding very much new information to the corpus of literature with which you are engaged. Having a good, general sense of where your work fits in will very much ease the writing of your dissertation. That being said …

Don’t feel compelled to know everything about your topic.

It is too easy to get distracted by the fact that, as someone who has spent only half a decade ensconced in your research field, in many ways you barely know the literature to which you are contributing. This is an unfortunate fact, and part of the reason why it takes such a long time to transform your dissertation into a book. However, you should be careful not to distract yourself too much with reading all of the secondary literature on every topic upon which your dissertation touches. Be familiar with these literatures, of course, but don’t go down too many rabbit holes. If you do, you’ll never finish.

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Written by Danny Bessner

March 22, 2012 at 14:51

Romney, Bain, Letters, and Archives

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by David

Mitt in the middle, celebrating his first love, money, along with the boys of Bain capital

People in both parties are attacking GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney for his time at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought companies, downsized them–that is, fired many employees–and then sold those companies at a profit. Even his rivals in the Republican primaries have taken something of an anti-capitalist line, in opposition to the free markets that Romney represents.

As readers of this blog can guess, I don’t have a particularly high opinion of Mitt Romney. The only office I’d ever elect him to would be the captaincy of team douchebag. Nonetheless, it’s important to know whether we’re asking the right questions about his time at Bain.

My free market friend Josh, now writing for Forbes, has identified the right questions. But first, he explains some basic but important economics.

Private equity firms like Bain often seek to fix firms that have failed to adjust to economic change. This can mean downsizing, increased automation, offshoring, and the like. These changes make enterprises more efficient, and in some cases save firms that would otherwise have gone bankrupt. These kinds of changes also produce broad-based gains that should not be discounted, particularly in the form of lower consumer prices. We could not, and should not, have stopped these changes in the economy.

As Josh notes, certain classes of workers have been hit especially hard. While capital has benefitted, workers have seen layoffs, pay-cuts, and long term unemployment, particularly those with skills that have become less valuable or even obsolete. Josh is right to argue that as a businessman, Romney was correctly concerned with making his company profits, not with the plight of his laid off workers. But Josh wisely adds, “while the human effects of these economic shifts are not properly the concern of business executives, they are the concern of government officials, and Romney wants to be president.” And so the right questions are:

What policy implications arise from the economic shifts of the last few decades, driven (in small part) by private equity. Does rising income inequality mean that fiscal policy should be more redistributive? Does a reduction in job security call for a stronger safety net? Do new workforce needs mean we need a shift in education and training policies?

Basically, the president is not a CEO, and it’s his or her job to care about all the workers, and the economy as a whole. And if you don’t want to take Josh’s word for it, take Paul Krugman’s, who said pretty much the same thing in his recent column. Josh reminds us that “as governor of Massachusetts, Romney’s signature policy achievement was a universal health care program—that is, a safety net program that reduces the cost of job loss or income loss.” Of course, Romney has said that Romneycare worked for Massachusetts, but the Affordable Care Act, patterned after Romney’s plan, is no good for nation. But that’s a whole other discussion.

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Written by David Weinfeld

January 14, 2012 at 14:19

Budaniv and Budzanow: The Weinfelds Come Home

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by David

The Weinfeld House in Budzanow

My dad and I came home yesterday. Not to Montreal, but to Budaniv, Ukraine, formerly Budzanow, Poland, where my grandfather, Arnold Weinfeld, was born and raised. We’d come a long way.

In my parents’ home in Montreal hangs a large, blown up framed photograph of house. Standing in front of the house are my great-grandparents, Moishe and Brauna Weinfeld, and two of their three kids, my grandfather Arnold, and his older sister, my great aunt Gizela. That was their house in Budzanow. Two stories and with a basement, apparently it had been one of the largest houses in town, as my great-grandfather had been a successful tobacco distributor. My father had that image seared into his mind, because he knew that that house was no more. Or so he thought.

Four years ago, I still didn’t think Budzanow existed. My grandfather had always told my father that Budzanow had been destroyed. Flattened. Erased like so many others shtetls by the Nazi killing machine. In 1999, I visited Treblinka, and took a picture of myself next to a stone commemorating the destruction of Budzanow, annihilated like so many other Jewish communities in eastern Europe. I thought that the last remnant of the town.

And so, four years ago, during my summer Yiddish class, in a discussion about shtetls, I told one of the instructors that my grandfather was from Budzanow, but it no longer existed. “Yes it does,” she said. “No it doesn’t,” I replied. “My grandfather said it doesn’t exist anymore. The whole town was destroyed.” I felt certain. But she said: “maybe he meant the Jewish community was destroyed, but the town is still there.”

And so later that day, thanks to the glory that is the internet, I googled the Polish shtetl Budzanow. And sure enough, it still existed, only now it was called Budaniv and was in Ukraine. I should have noticed an inconsistency long ago. After all, my grandfather had also said that he returned to Budzanow immediately after the war. Though his neighbours greeted him warmly, he found his childhood home looted. He never returned.

In any case, after learning about Budaniv, I excitedly told my father. He was in shock, but that quickly turned to happiness. We said that one day we would visit. And we finally made that happen.

So early yesterday morning, me, my father, our guide Alex, and our driver Vitali set out to find Budaniv. Neither of them had been there before either, but armed with GPS and maps, they said getting there would be no problem.

Our first stop, though, was Tarnopol, to visit the local archives. Tarnopol is the major city in the region Budaniv is located, and contained town registries for all the surrounding villages. The archives were old and dark. There was no internet access, and the computers appeared to be from the 1980s. Everything seemed a bit chaotic, but Alex spoke to a very friendly and helpful archivist, who was able to provide us with voting records from Budzanow from 1930.

My father, Alex, and I brought the two musty record books to the reading room, and began poring through them. Neither my father nor I can really read Polish, but we can read names. At first, it seemed fruitless. But then, not more than 10 minutes after we began, I saw them. “Weinfeld!” I shouted. There they were. Moishe and Brauna Weinfeld, my great-grandparents. The book listed their professions: we couldn’t make Moishe’s out, but knew he had been a tobacco distributor, a very religious man having come from nearby Zabraz (another shtetl in the Tarnopol region) to marry Brauna Schutzmann and work in her family’s tobacco business. Under Brauna, it simply said housewife. It also listed their ages: Brauna was 57, Moishe 56, meaning they had been born in 1873 or 1874. And best of all, it lasted an address. There were no street names, but they had lived in the central town area, house number 635.

My father and I were ecstatic. We looked through the books a bit more, but were too excited to stay in Tarnopol much longer. We thanked the archivists, ate a quick lunch, and got back in the van to go to Budzanow.

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Written by David Weinfeld

September 16, 2011 at 11:28

Family Myth-Busting at the Jagiellonian Archives

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by David

My Great Aunt Gizela's Apartment in Cracow

I love archives. Even when I don’t understand the language, just looking at musty old documents makes me happy. It makes me especially happy when those documents relate to my family.

My advisor, Professor Hasia Diner, is not a big fan of oral history. She believes that most people remember things wrong, or are misinformed, particularly in matters relating to their family background.

In this case, professor Diner was proven exactly right.

My father had told me that his father, Arnold Weinfeld, has received his law degree from the Jagiellonian University sometime in the 1920s. That turned out to be true, except he didn’t really go to Jagiellonian University. They had very few documents on him, aside from his diploma and some exam records, which indicated that he got his initial degree, a magisterium (perhaps the equivalent to a BA or MA), at the University of Lwow. We don’t know in what discipline, but it was likely either law or philosohy (which includes every subject other than law, medicine, and theology). He completed that in 1926, and then took three major exams at Jagiellonian in Cracow to earn his JD, so he could be a practicing lawyer. The three exams were in introductory law, legal history, and law and politics. His grades steadily improved with each exam, and he passed them all. After the war, when he immigrated to Montreal, his law degree was no longer useful, so he became a bookkeeper for Montreal’s main Yiddish newspaper, and then later for the city’s Lubavitcher Yeshiva.

As for my father’s aunt, Gizela Weinfeld, lived a fairly interesting life. She immigrated to the United States before the war, and then got a job as an advisor to the US army of occupation in Germany. She then got a job as the chief reference librarian for the Slavic Division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. This job required her to maintain frequent correspondence with Soviet officials, so the library could acquire the newest Russian books. Because of this correspondence, the FBI suspected her of being a Communist spy. As it turns out, Gizela was a militant anti-Communist, and when the FBI confirmed her loyalty, they sent her a letter attesting to that fact, which still stands, framed, in my parents’ house.

What sort of education prepared her for this career? My father had told me that she received her PhD in history from the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, with a dissertation on Church history. Family lore had it that she was the first woman in Poland with a PhD in history. Or maybe the first Jewish woman. We really didn’t know.

So there we were, in the archives of the Jagiellonian. Just being there resonated with me, as my relatives had studied in that same institution so long ago. Though I don’t know any Polish, I do know old academic documents from my research on Horace Kallen and Alain Locke, and with the help of an energetic archivist (himself a doctoral candidate in history) to translate, we managed to set some of the record straight.

Gizela was not the first woman in Poland to get a PhD. That happened in 1905, and was earned by a Jewish woman. Several other women got their PhDs as well before Gizela received hers in 1928.

Gizela did not write her dissertation on Church history. She wrote her 100 page dissertation, of which the university has a copy, on Podolia, a region of Poland (now Ukraine), in the 1300s.

The archives had lots of juicy tidbits on Gizela, including her CV, class records, and comments her professors wrote on her dissertation. We learned that though she and her brothers grew up in Budzanow, a shtetl in Poland, she went to gymnasium (high school) in nearby Stanislawow, probably because Budzanow was too small to have a regular, non-Jewish school. Presumably her brothers (my grandfather Arnold and great uncle Abe) went there as well.

We also learned that just like some of our information was a bit off, Gizela herself could be a bit loose with the facts. In at least one document, she claimed to be born in a city that was not Budzanow. In some documents, she claimed to be born in 1900, in others, 1901. We think the former year is correct, because a copy of birth certificate has the earlier date.

Most interestingly, we learned that the students were required to fill out brief reports of their progress each semester as undergraduates. Gizela also got her first degree from the Jagiellonian University, and filled them out dutifully. In these reports, she was required to describe herself in three categories: religion, language, and citizenship. For religion, she always wrote “Mosaic.” For citizenship, she always wrote “Polish.” But for language, she sometimes wrote “Yiddish,” and other times wrote “Polish.” Why? Perhaps she was wrestling with her Jewish and Polish identity? Or perhaps it was just accidental, and she forgot what she had written the semester before.

But one piece of information suggests that she did find herself caught between two worlds, at least to some degree. One of her records had the street address where she lived while at the university! When I saw this, I pounced on it. We looked the address up on our map: 36 Starowislna. And so later that day, we visited the apartment where my great aunt Gisela lived. My father suspected that Gizela lived in the building with a relative or family friend, or maybe as a boarder. The building was still there, completely dilapidated, with graffiti all over the walls of the passageway that led to the apartments. They opened up into a large courtyard, which must have been very nice back in the 1920s, but had become completely run-down.

We didn’t know exactly which unit Gizela lived in, it was written “II,” so could have been 2, could have been eleven, or might simply have been referring to the rear set of apartments as opposed to the front ones. So we decided to guess that it was 11, as that was the only one we could get to. A man answered the door. He didn’t speak any English, but we managed to communicate to him that a relative of ours had lived in his apartment in the 1920s.  He invited us in. He lived there with his wife and young son. The apartment was nice, modern, and clean, in stark contrast to the building’s exterior, though it was extremely small. The man told us that his grandmother had told him that it was once a Jewish owned building.

No more. After the war, many Jewish owned buildings, and buildings with Jewish tenants, were left empty. It was unclear whether these people were alive, or whether they would return. So the state took them over, and charged a small rent to new tenants. But they did nothing to renovate them. So they remain, decaying but still present, relics of a different time.

36 Starowilsna is located just on the outskirts of Kazimierz, the Jewish neighbourhood, in the direction of the main square and the university. Gizela probably went southeast to Kazimierz to go to synagogue, or perhaps to shop or meet with friends, but she went northwest to go to the non-Jewish Jagiellonian. She lived between these two worlds, at least geographically. I stood in that courtyard, looked at a tall tree that may have been there when she was there. This was the best moment of my trip so far.

Now we are in Lviv, Ukraine, formerly Lwow, Poland, or Lemberg, in the province of Galicia of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Hopefully there will be more such experiences to come.

Written by David Weinfeld

September 13, 2011 at 15:29

The Helpless

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by Bronwen

So I recently watched The Help.  Just about everyone has had something to say about this book/film, so I’m not sure how much new I can add to the debate.  These two pieces – one from Bernestine Singley at the blog ‘Before Barack’, and one from John McWhorter at The New Republic – are particularly interesting since they frame the two competing sides of the liberal debate: it’s a subtly racist movie that perpetuates the image of dependency and glorifies the past; or it’s not, but its critics are, and they are overlooking the nuance and subtly that is included and the value of making it into a widely accessible, if silly Hollywood movie.  Both sides make convincing arguments, so I’m not really going to address them here.

The film brings up an interesting, and totally separate historical problem, though: the issue of oral history interviews.

In May I participated in a seminar debate about the problems of the colonial archive.  It was a round table discussion at the Institute for Historical Research and it involved mostly graduate students and early career researchers in history and historical sociology.  Given the extent of the literature on working in the colonial archive, from Ann Laura Stoler to Caroline Steadman, we weren’t sure we’d have anything conclusive to add.  But people’s experience of doing imperial and post-colonial history clearly provided ample storytelling opportunities: from friendly, dusty and practically abandoned archives in Canada; to beautiful and easy to use archives sponsored by a member of Burma’s junta; to frustrating and awkward oral interviews in South Africa. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by apini

August 18, 2011 at 06:24

Berlin Advisories

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Prenzlauer Berg, Berlin

by Luce

There is a statue on the south side of Volkspark Friedrichshain that I run past nearly every day. It seems to be that of a lunging man with a sword wielded wobbily over his head; his limbs are lanky, rubbery, his face hidden beneath a dishpan helmet. I say “seems” because I’ve yet to stop. Every time I run by, I turn my head and squint my eyes and try to determine what this Acme-German soldier is supposed to memorialize. I don’t stop partly because I don’t want to interrupt my run, and partly because I like not quite knowing. So far I think I’ve made out “1938 – 1939.”  But there are so many memorials in Berlin dedicated to events around that date that I don’t know whether my mind is playing tricks on my eyes.

This is the summer of not knowing. In part this is because it’s the summer post-generals and pre-prospectus—an ambiguous time. The last big project is done and the new one not yet really begun. Archives unexpectedly close for holidays and other events, and suddenly long, quiet days stretch out in front of you, and you read a little at a café, but mostly you enjoy how wide the Berlin sidewalks are, and walk them side to side. Other days are spent in archives that moonlight as saunas, rushed with heat. Furious typing down of documents that may or may not have anything, in the end, to do with your dissertation. The other day it began to storm outside the FFBIZ and a piece of hail flew in and hit my computer screen. Because I am prepped to think the worst, I assumed at first that the window had begun to shatter in on us.

Last summer I spent most of my time in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz, which houses most of West Germany’s federal documents. It’s hard to miss. It looks like this:


This summer I’m touring a more eclectic range of archives. My Hamburg archive is located in the Rote Flora, a building that’s been squatted in since 1989. Rote Flora has many sides to it, all covered in graffiti. One of them is the outside, where in the summer homeless men and women camp out on old mattresses and sleeping bags. There are lectures and parties, but also, come to find out an archive, located beyond a metal door, up two flights of stairs, and into a chain-smoking chamber where boxes are thrown at you by the most lovely bearded man who invites you to take as many photos as quickly as you can. Its opening hours are Monday, four to eight. It looks like this:

There is an archive in Berlin I’ve just started to go to that is located in a bookshop. It is small and you work at a table in the front room, and every fifteen minutes or so someone will come in and ask the price of a book and you will direct them to the man at the computer in the backroom. The first day the proprietor toured me through the holdings. Once I knew where things were I was free to take them off the shelves at will. They have nearly every journal I could want in full serial, and binders of random flyers and brochures organized helpfully by themes. But many of the brochures have no dates and it will take some creativity to place them. Some of Papiertiger’s holdings are stored in the bathroom against the wall near the washbasin.

Through a series of random happenings, I had dinner with Francis Ford Coppola the other night, who was about to start on Jonathan Steinberg’s new biography of Bismarck. He told us about the death of generations and how he came to acquire a vineyard and found a literary magazine, and I lectured him about Alsace-Lorraine’s changing borders and explained Prussian militarism and German unification, which wasn’t a fair exchange. My friend and I took him to a bar in Kreuzberg, which he called “Little Brooklyn.” He is past seventy now and has wisdom to hand down; for example he advised us to “always say yes” and be good to our future kids.

On a balcony in Friedrichshain the other night, my friend told me to tap the building facade, which I did only to hear a hollow sound. Old buildings in the former East Berlin, never reconstructed postwar, are now outfitted with colorful add-on facades that cover up the old grays and browns and suggest the existence of stainless steel dishwashers inside. You might not recognize the same street you walked down in 2004. With their upscale fronts and backs these buildings bloat out an extra six inches or more, but I hear the added padding helps keep their insides warm during the bitter Berlin winters.

Here’s some other advice I’ve received since arriving in Berlin:

  • From an archivist: a description of every Berlin lake I could possibly want to bathe in, particularly one very nice lake frequented by gays and lesbians, if I am “comfortable with that,” and a suggestion that I could go nude if I wanted to.
  • From a fellow grad student: you have to earn their trust at Papiertiger before they’ll let you photograph for a fee.
  • A summary of Robert Koch Institute bulletins: Don’t eat the Spanish cucumbers, or for that matter any cucumbers. Or raw tomatoes and lettuce. Whatever you do, avoid the sprouts.

Written by Kristen Loveland

June 14, 2011 at 10:08