Saturday, July 23, 2011

Writing and Publishing a Dissertation; or, A Frown Upside Down is All Done


On Thursday morning, I sent off the final manuscript of the book, tentatively titled A Frown Upside / Race, Convergence and the Hidden Histories of Disney’s Song of the South, along with images and captions to the University of Texas Press. It was technically due a month ago, but they gave me an extension to work on proofreading, tightening up the writing, and putting the images together.

I feel like I should mark the occasion somehow (that and I have some time to blog now!). But I’m not sure what I want to say. I’ll have pages to proof later, editor queries to look over, etc., so it’s not quite the end, I suppose. But in terms of substance, it is now what it will be for the foreseeable future. The book itself is set to appear in the fall of 2012.

When it does appear, I will probably reflect more on what I think it has to say, and on how I expect it to be received. Then again, by the time I get to that moment, I may have entirely different thoughts. For now, I think I will offer a chronology of the project’s evolution and development. From a personal standpoint, it will be partly a “how did this book come about” post.

More professionally, it may also serve as a more general “this is what it’s like to write, revise and publish a dissertation” post. To that extent, it is, of course, localized and subjective. My experiences are not meant to represent anything universal. A hundred different newly-minted PhDs will give you a hundred different stories.

The idea

The book was a full ten years in the making. The idea began, of all places, with the movie Ghost World (2001), a film which has developed into one of my personal all-time favorites—even though with time I’ve increasingly become aware of the fact that there’s really no third act. This is only glaring because the first two-thirds are pretty much perfect. Anyway . . . Detour. In the movie, the young protagonist, Enid, discovers that the fast food franchise Cook’s Chicken used to be called “Coon’s Chicken,” which featured a racist image of an African-American as its logo. At a certain point, this was whitewashed by the corporation to remain viable. The film’s narrative is a mix of fact and fiction. There really was a Coon’s Chicken a long time ago, but it was never reinvented into another chain that I know of.

Enid’s fascination with how historical traces of racism permeated, unnoticed, throughout American postmodern consumer culture resonated with me. How racism remained hidden right out in the open. This plot point reminded me of another real-life equivalent: Disney’s Song of the South and Splash Mountain. Growing up in a “Disney household,” I knew a little bit secondhand about the old racist plantation movie. I was more captivated with how Disney had adapted it into a theme park ride with apparently little concern for any racial backlash. Its amazing how complicated books grow out of very simple moments.

As a kid, I was obsessed with the Disney theme parks. The other aspects of Disney, less so--and so I suppose this part of its corporate history resonated with me especially. Disneyland built a monument to its racist past; or more precisely, it knew it could use this permanent building as a way to both exploit, and erase, its racist past. I really thought somebody should do more with that history--what does it say about our collective understanding of the past? What does it say about capitalism's relationship to history? What does it say about dominant (white) society's negotiation race and to racism?

This idea came to me around the spring of my first year in graduate school. It coincided with my obsession with postmodern theory. I became convinced (and I suppose in a way still am) that Splash Mountain was the perfect embodiment of the simulacrum, and that Disney's project fit Fredric Jameson's theories on the economic, historical and cultural logic of the postmodern. I was so convinced of this that I knew I had to write something. I was already working on a Master's thesis on Stanley Kubrick, so I decided to shelve the idea for my dissertation. For a lot of reasons, that was the smart move. But I still didn't want to let go of the topic.

The result was this. I wrote it over a long Thanksgiving weekend, during a terrible Oklahoma ice storm in late 2002. It wasn't published for another three years. It is, like most things written during one's second year in grad school, thoroughly mediocre. Well-informed and promising, but nonetheless the product of someone who doesn't know what he's really doing yet. Although I kept (most) of the title in the end, because I still like it, and still feel it fits, the rest of it bears no resemble to the book. I cannot stress that enough--its apples and oranges. I don't now disagree with what I wrote then. I think within its own parameters, it works. But it just doesn't fit with where I ultimately choose to go (with this project and with my career). If there is a criticism, in retrospect, the article was guilty, I suppose, of exactly that which it criticized Disney and American society--being superficial.

So, anyway, I wrote that article as a placeholder--to stake out that ground before I went off and did other projects and topics for awhile. I was afraid that by the time I got back around to writing my dissertation too much time would have passed and my opening would have closed. I was partially right--I had no idea it would be another six years from when I wrote that before I started researching and writing my dissertation. Part of this was that I took longer to finish my MA at OSU than I had planned, and part of this was I went off to Wayne State for a year of doctoral courses before transferring to Indiana, a move which essentially meant starting over with coursework. But, I was also wrong in another respect--the idea was good, but it wasn't in danger of being overexposed as I'd feared. As I've gotten older, I've definitely gotten more patient with my writing. As Jim Naremore once told me, its not important to do it first; its important to do it right.

The prospectus


So, I arrived at Indiana University in the fall of 2005. I knew I wanted to do a dissertation on Song of the South, but the rest of it was still unformed. In the intervening three years between writing the JPC article and starting my doctoral program, two things had occurred. For one, I increasingly lost interest in postmodern theory, and perhaps theory in general. I still respected what it had to offer to film and media studies, but it wasn't what I wanted to define me as a scholar anymore. I had become much more interested in being a historian and in thinking about audiences.

A great deal of this, it must be noted, was due to the influence of Barb Klinger, my adviser. In graduate school, I had a tendency to gravitate to my biggest critics. I didn't come to IU to work with Barb per se, but by the end of my first year I knew I wanted her as my adviser; during two seminars that first year, she challenged my thinking and my writing in a way that always inspired me to work harder. Barb inspired me to see film studies in a new way, and as I began to research the exigencies of my own topic, I became a convert to her way of thinking. The real inspiration was not her books, but one of her more well-known essays: "Film History Terminable and Interminable." From that point on, the topic of Song of the South didn't make sense any other way.

Along those lines, the other thing that changed is, over time, I became less interested in Splash Mountain and theme parks as a scholar, as that JPC article indicates, and more fascinated by the history of Song of the South itself. Originally, my interest in the film didn't extend much beyond thinking about it as a reference point, a lost referent, in postmodern culture. But as I explored my topic more, I saw fascinating histories of race, media practices, and audience reception that were much more engaging than anything to do with Splash Mountain. In a sense, it started out as a dissertation about a theme park ride, and eventually became a book about Disney's most infamous film instead.

So, as I begin to put my committee together in 2006, I knew now what I wanted to write about. Instead of using Splash Mountain to challenge theories on postmodernity, I was going to write a reception history of Song of the South. Yet, even though it was a much better topic, this still presented a series of unexpected obstacles that I am still dealing with to this day, I suppose. Namely, why just Disney's Song of the South? This wasn't just a methodological question in terms of focusing on one text (at the time, I still saw myself as following the "total history" model called for in Barb's article). It was more personal than that--why did I choose this film, of all possible others?

The number one assumption people make is that you only write a whole book on a single film (or television show) if you are an obsessive fan of it. I am not a fan of Song of the South at all. In addition to finding it offensive, I also find it boring to watch. But I find its histories fascinating--I think because I grew up with Disney, and because I became obsessed with cinematic representations of race, discourses of whiteness, the general history of classic Hollywood, and the sort of textual ubiquity that today we call "convergence." I'm confident the book works through this challenge successfully. But to quick-glancing book editors and search chairs, it produces the same response, "why would this guy write a whole book about an old racist Disney movie?"

This is something I didn't really appreciate until it was too late to change the topic. My committee warned me while I was working on my prospectus, and I admit I failed to grasp the enormity of the situation at the time--to me, I was just working on what I felt was a great topic for a writing project. I didn't see that I was working on the only thing that would come to define me as a scholar and a person in the immediate years to come. This is a rather unfortunate side of academia--for all its occasional intellectual richness and nuance, it is just as quick as everyone else to seek out and embrace reductive labels. I thought then that my published work on a number of topics would distinguish me as someone who was both extremely productive and intellectually inquisitive. I've come to see now that the opposite is apparently true. Although that comes with a caveat--I'm glad I didn't realize it then, because I might have changed my topic and produced something less interesting and, dare I say, more generic than what I did.

Another detour--I have come to better appreciate the need to define one's self narrowly in academia (and to define one's self with the right label), but it is something I am still reluctant to embrace. I call myself--accurately and sincerely--a historical reception film scholar. But I resist the obsession with limiting one's self in favor of a healthy curiosity. I came to be a patient, focused scholar through years of hard work, practice and discipline; not because I bought into a particular dogma. The jury is still out on whether that was wise.

The Seminar Paper

I first wrote what would eventually become a part of my dissertation (and book) in the spring of 2007. My third and final seminar with Barb was on Fandom and Fan Cultures. In that course, I wrote a research paper on Song of the South fans. I was trying to accomplish two tasks with the first draft, one of which remained throughout the dissertation and another which eventually became sidelined. On the one hand, I was trying to work through how actual fans and other audience members worked through racist imagery in films (In general, the issue of race and racism remains under-explored in fan studies). With increasing nuance and historical context, this is basically what half the dissertation ended up focusing on.

The other part was affect--another carry over from my high theory days (thank you, Deleuze!), I was originally more interested in drawing out how film and media scholars don't put enough emphasis on the ways in which non-cognitive responses affect reception. This absence is especially ironic in fan studies (one notable exception is Matt Hills' work). This attention to affect was a huge contribution in the original seminar paper, but it largely faded to the background as I worked on the larger project. In fact, I think its the only major part of the original dissertation that I ended up not addressing in the book's introduction, which was the last major thing I wrote, as I discuss more below.

This seminar paper would eventually evolve into my Cinema Journal article. As that would suggest, I am very proud of the piece, but it was a long way from the seminar room to the pages of CJ. Moreover, it underwent a lot of further revision from journal article to book chapter. It was the first thing I ever wrote from the book and it was one of the very last things I ever heavily revised.

In a lot of ways, the essay on Disney internet fandom for a long time existed on its own plane, separate from the dissertation. In 2008, I submitted the article for review at Cinema Journal. I believed it was important to have an excerpt from my dissertation placed at a strong journal when I went on the job market. So I pushed ahead with publication, even as the larger dissertation was still only partially formed. As I waited to hear back from CJ editors, I pushed ahead with writing the dissertation.

I originally submitted the essay for publication in 2008. Around this time, I also presented the research at two separate conferences, including at SCMS's gathering in Philadelphia that year. In early 2009, I heard back from the journal that it would be published pending revisions. By then, I had finished a first draft of my dissertation, and as I waited to hear back from Barb on that, I began revising the article. Most of the changes had to do with fleshing out the larger context for my focus on Disney fans, which proved to be hugely helpful when I returned to the overall project.

Of course, I am very proud of that article. It was the product of a great class, it set me on the path to a good dissertation, and it was placed in an excellent journal. That said, when I return to it now, I feel it might have been rewritten one too many times (kind of like the original introduction to the dissertation, which I eventually discarded). Thus as recently as a couple weeks ago I will still heavily revising the first part of it in the book.

The Dissertation

I finished the last of graduate coursework in the fall of 2007, while also taking the reading hours for my PhD exams. I passed my qualifying exams in January of 2008--my four areas were Reception Studies, Postmodernity, Disney Studies and Critical Race Theory. By the end of the spring semester, I had finished a first draft of my prospectus, which I revised several times throughout that summer. During this time, I also started researching the topic more and working on sections of the dissertation. By the time I defended my prospectus in September of 2008, I had probably already written half the dissertation. By November, I had finished a first draft of the whole thing.

I admit in retrospect I was rushing. Part of it was finally diving into a topic I had been waiting to write for six years, and I just throw myself into the manuscript. I wanted to finish and I knew I was better with revising, a process I probably embrace too much, than with writing from scratch. I wanted to get it all down on paper and then worry about seeing what worked, what didn't, what belonged where, what needed to be trimmed or reworded, and so forth. So I guess looking back I don't regret the approach I took, though I did not have the appropriate context and big picture at the time.

In the spring of 2009, I was revising the CJ article (I did one final small batch of revisions in late summer). By the summer, I was working through the dissertation again, one chapter at a time as each one came back from my adviser. With the daunting weight and pressure of actually writing a whole dissertation now off my back, I was now free to work methodically on bringing each individual chapter into better focus, one by one.

To summarize, I wrote the first draft mostly between April and November of 2008 (not counting the prospectus-turned-introduction and the last chapter, i.e., the old seminar paper). I revised it between May and October of the following year. I spent Halloween weekend 2009 locked up in an old Indiana Holidome as I proofread the entire dissertation. I successfully defended on the first Friday of December. After my defense, Barb said that she felt the manuscript was already very near publication shape.

The Book

Looking back, I realize now the publishing process was probably the easiest part of the whole experience. After I defended, I spent the next few months focused on the job market and on being a new father. In the early summer of 2010, I returned to the dissertation. I revised the introduction, added a preface and trimmed the conclusion. I also tightened up some of the writing here and there, but nothing major in the body of the manuscript.

I sent out some initial proposals in early summer, but nothing came of it. Again, I was faced with the same issue as when I initially started--people didn't understand why anyone would write a book just on Song of the South. I admit this threw me for a loop at first--I thought the combination of Disney and the notoriety of this particular film would make the topic an easier sell--for better and for worse--than a lot of other more obscure topics that come out of academia.

I wish I had waited until the Cinema Journal article came out in late summer of 2010 before sending out proposals. It would have allowed more time to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of the project. And because after it did, more editors suddenly were interested. Maybe it was a coincidence. The article had been in the pipeline for over a year, of course, but there was something about making reference to the latest issue that may have made it sound more timely.

Anyway, one of the presses that showed interest in the last summer was the University of Texas Press. Given their past experience with books on Disney and on race in the media, as well as UT's generally excellent reputation within film and media studies, I was thrilled at the opportunity. From there, everything moved pretty quickly, as these things go.

By September, UT was evaluating the complete manuscript. A month later, it was out to the first reader; within another month or so, it was out to the second. Both reports came back positive--the first in November, the second in January. There were specific recommendations for revision in each, but they both supported publication of the manuscript. By the middle of February 2011, UT's board has approved the project and a contract was issued for A Frown Upside Down.

The last, not insignificant, part was revising the manuscript. I wish I could say that I lovingly spent every working moment of the last six months pouring over the material, but teaching at Northwestern sucked up just about all my time. I worked on it here and there, including over spring break, free weekends and summer "break" between spring and summer teaching.

There were two major concerns that came up in both reports. There were smaller concerns in both that I also addressed, but two things in particular that needed some more work. Both felt, in different ways, that my chapter on Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin seemed out of place--methodologically as much as anything else. So I pulled that chapter out and put a newer section on the film in a subsequent chapter.

The other issue was the introduction. As I feared for years, it was just too bloated--not just too long per se, but lacking focus and organization. It was the result of just rewriting it one too many times. It was written and rewritten several times as a prospectus. And then another several times as a dissertation introduction, and then two more times as a book intro. So, in total, there were probably eight or more distinct versions of the introduction dating back to early 2008.

Revision is very important, and I've gotten better at it through the years. But there is such a thing as over-revising. An essay, or even just a section of an essay, gets tinkered constantly with here and there. Sentences are added, sentences are moved around. Emphases shift awkwardly from one idea to another. New sources are consulted. Old sources are taken out, or condensed. Different audiences are written to, at different times. And so forth. The end result is a bloated beast that maybe makes sense to the author who remembers every stage, but which is utterly incoherent to a new reader. And more to the point the only way to fix it is not to revise more and just make it worse.

Instead, its to wipe it all out and rewrite from scratch. That way the things you really want to say are said, and said in the way that you want them to be said. With none of the old junk blocking the way. I did this with several sections of the book ultimately, and I did this with the entire introduction.

Last spring break, I started with a blank sheet of paper and mapped out--just like I used to teach my Comp students--everything I wanted to touch on in my introduction. I wiped away all the old stuff so that nothing would distract me, or become a crutch. And then I started writing the new introduction--section by section by section. The result, I hope, is the strongest part of the entire book, something that actually "introduces" the project, instead of just reflecting all the different possible ideas I had in the course of writing the manuscript.

The last few weeks, finally, have been spent just proofreading the entire manuscript, while also polishing the prose (a fair concern of the second reader). It ended up taking longer than I anticipated because I really was trying to tighten the language, focusing the organization and clarity of the manuscript, cutting out redundancies and ambiguities, and not just checking for typos. Ironically, the final manuscript was over 13.5K words shorter than the original dissertation it was based on, even with several new sections added here and there. Half of it was cutting the whole chapter on Coonskin; the other half was just from cleaning up the writing.

This is the second book I've published. I did not think it would take another six years to finish another one. But I'm glad it did, and the experience with the first taught me to take everything about the last few months very seriously. I can assure you it will not take another six for the next. I don't even think its going to take much more than one.

Onward and upward.

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