April was a whirlwind. I presented at the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Meeting in Chicago, Drawing Ambience opened at the RISD Museum, and my husband defended his dissertation. And so now we're on the brink of May with more conferences, new projects, and unexpected opportunities on the immediate horizon and I have a confession to make: I'm not writing. Well I guess that isn't really fair to say, because I've actually been writing A LOT. I've written and revised several conference papers (all dissertation related), I'm churning out wall labels and other texts at the Museum, prepping abstracts for conferences next semester, and finding a little time here and there to put together this blog. But I'm not writing dissertation chapters in the measured and sustained way that I was last semester. And I feel like a hypocrite because I have certainly judged friends and colleagues who have told me that they were too busy to write, thinking that those who complained of having no time to write simply needed to get their priorities straight. There is, after all, an expectation that advanced PhD students are always writing, carving out little bits of time between other major engagements to chip away at the conceptual behemoth of the dissertation. Every dissertation writing guide advises crafting a consistent and daily writing schedule. Sage advice, certainly, and wisdom that I found genuinely helpful last semester when I was on fellowship and my days were unfettered by other significant academic obligations.
Despite being out of town for more than half of the weekends this semester and working two full days a week at the museum, I had dreams that this practice would effortlessly continue amidst steadily mounting responsibilities. But I quickly found that whatever writing momentum I had built up on Monday had largely dissipated by Thursday after two full days of museum work. When I sat down to work, it took a substantial amount of time just to remember where my thoughts had been three days previous. And those little pockets of time that writing manuals are always urging you to find? They’re unreliable. I had set an intention of revising one conference talk while on the airplane to another conference (I was banking on a solid 2-3 hours of work) but trying to work in a middle seat while the person in front of me reclined (UGH) proved to be impossible from a sheerly getting-my-fingers-on-computer-keys perspective. It’s been a frustrating semester this way, one where these sorts of experiences have come to feel more like the norm than the exception.
So how do you work on your dissertation when you feel like you don’t have time to work on your dissertation? I’ve started a series of short projects that I’m calling “sidelines” that are all dissertation-related but don’t require the investment and creative energy of writing. When I get a spare half hour, I can make a little progress on one of the sidelines without feeling like I have to come back to it again tomorrow or even the same week. For example, if I’m at the library and don’t have much time or productivity on other projects, I’ll grab a volume of the Rural Electrification News and pick up where I left off cataloging and scanning the relevant articles from every single issue 1936-1945. Or if I’m somewhere with internet but not a lot of other resources, I’ll prowl on GoogleMaps Street View to see if the buildings in my dissertation are still standing. This latter task has turned out to be more depressing than anything else (I’ve looked for about fifteen buildings and have only found one that is even maybe original), but it keeps me occupied and this work will have to be done at some point anyway. I’ve made significant strides on the photo cataloging project described in my previous blog post as well: almost all of my dissertation-related images are now in Adobe Lightroom and keyword searchable. Unlike many of the digital organization projects I’ve undertaken in the past, this one has actually elevated my efficiency and made images easier to find—a major boon in a semester dominated by Powerpoint presentations. Keeping these projects going makes me feel at least a little as that the dissertation is still churning away in the background, humming along contentedly while other responsibilities are at the fore.