Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Archive for the ‘research’ 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

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

Research Trip: Sketches from Munich

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by Luce

There is a way one settles into traveling; particularly if traveling alone and in a new city. Small details become important. The patterns of traffic are an object of scrutiny, the manner of greeting a muttered remembrance (“Grüss Gott,” the guy at Müller says and of course he does. It’s Bavaria. Munich). The Sonnenblumenbrötchen bought at a bakery by the Hauptbahnhof, which one realizes is essentially a French baguette disguised by sunflower seeds, turns into an object of first night annoyance. Hearty, excessively—deliciously—grained bread is one of the distinct pleasures of being a German historian. A woman on a bike clings her bell and yells at me as I walk back from the archive, backpack slung across my back, apparently causing the skirt of my dress to ride up. And so manner of dress and habit of walking begin a slow shift toward ones more suitable for summer archiving.


I’ve never been to Munich before, though I spent a month nearby in schönes Bamberg last summer — “Summit of Bavaria/ Excessively Gemütlich,” an 11th century poem in the Cambridge Songs, as liberally translated by a favorite medievalist, proclaims. Having experienced such a Bavarian wonder, I decided to save Munich for another day. And here I am now, with a few feminists to look through at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte, and a brother, who has joined me for part of my trip, to entertain and try to show Germany. How does one show Germany to someone? I’ve never been a tour guide here, probably because I’ve only ever come here to work. So Germany is more a lifestyle than a sight for me. Look at that balcony, I tell him, imagining how nice it would be to have a Käsefrühstuck out there one morning. Berlin will be easier; I was once toured around there. I was a sophomore in college and I remember spending a long time staring across Berlin from the top of the Berliner Dom as my German professor rambled on. And a Love Weekend spent jumping up and down in an old factory building while Paul van Dyk spun techno.

The first two days I spent in Munich alone, jetlagged and located by the central train station, never my first choice for a home base. I stayed in a hostel by the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof for a night on my way back home last summer and worried I might carry bedbugs across the Atlantic to New York. Repatriation. I don’t know if there is a New York equivalent to the area around a European urban train station. Perhaps 1970s Times Square — its unromanticized version. Casinos and sex shops (the site of Beate Uhse’s shop was oddly comforting—the woman has history) clustered next to hostels whose young British and American revelers run over. Small lessons remembered: don’t buy your Brötchen or sleep near the train station, Grüss Gotts all around, keep your skirt down.

European casinos and sex shops always seem to have black mirrored entrances with strobe lights and Halloween streamers. Last year I went into a casino in Bamberg to print a train ticket. Two middle-aged women pulled levers at 2pm and a manager grumbled at me “Bathroom? No, printer? There, there,” she jabbed her finger. I bought a card that would either print me a train ticket to Berlin or give me four tries at the slots.

Arriving at the archive this past Friday, radically jetlagged and underslept, I managed to make my needs known through a slurge of mumbled German. Research is a series of roads left untraveled and bets with oneself. If I don’t take this down, will I find something better later? Perhaps I’ll just note its existence. A conference on new contraceptive methods in the early 1970s? A half hour painstakingly going through my feminist’s handwritten notes—not necessarily for their worth, but for fear I won’t be able to get my hands on any other report of the events. Two folders later, the proceedings appear in typewritten full. In Reading Berlin Peter Fritzsche describes the illegible city as central to 20th century modernism: the uncertainty of being able to see or represent clearly, “the larger, ongoing process of just rereading and rewriting.” Unfolding a modern city is not unlike unfolding a new archive—terrifying, illegible, incapable of being represented yet forced to be nonetheless. One synchronizes oneself into both eventually.

Written by Kristen Loveland

May 15, 2011 at 14:50