So this past week I finished it. As in, It. The dreaded dissertation. It’s been written, proofed, and approved by the dissertation advisor unit. The defense is set, and I can move onto other projects. As you can see, I’ve finally settled on a title, which I quite like: “Through a Glass, Darkly: The Eugenic Impulse on the Southern Plains, 1910-1960.” The first part of the title comes from a paper written by W.F. Hoyt, a Professor of Science at Wesleyan University in Salina, Kansas, for the Kansas Academy of Science in 1907. The full excerpt goes like this:
“From repeated deception the scientist is learning extreme caution concerning alleged discoveries and revolutionary theories. There are many mysteries which science has never explained, and may never solve, but thanks to the patient investigator and the keen philosopher, there are some things we do know, even if seen as “through a glass darkly.” One of these is that if the established facts and principles of modern science are ever overthrown, it will be by the trained scientist with microscope, telescope and spectroscope, not by the ignoramus with the divining-rod.”
Hoyt was of course, as have so many others before and since, invoking an excerpt from the King James translation of First Corinthians to explicate the imperfect manner by which humanity experiences the world, both physically and metaphorically. It is one mediated by that which seems clear but is not, and necessitates an understanding that what appears on the other side is an imperfect simulacrum of any external real world independent of individual experience, if such a place exists. And I think it encapsulates the American eugenics movement perfectly.
So, the dissertation is done, and what’s a guy to do? Spend a little time with it in statistical form, of course! Sometimes those numbers, they can reveal characteristics of structure, style, and content that would otherwise go unnoticed. Plus, it gives a little closure that’s otherwise difficult to come by in a project of this size. So what, oh what, does a history dissertation look like under the hood?
VITAL STATISTICS: 260 pages, 89,338 words, 6 chapters, 528 footnotes, 141 secondary sources, 433 primary sources.
Let’s start with some word clouds (click to embiggen):
A word cloud of the 150 most common words among the 3,507 words in my Bibliography
A word cloud of the 150 most common words among the titles of the primary sources used in my dissertation
Of interest to me are a few things. Sociology, psychology, biology, and genetics all show up in dissertation with more or less equal regularity (the first word cloud above); this makes perfect sense, as I intended to explore and answer questions about how eugenic ideas moved between disciplines and intellectual arenas with ease, taking on new forms as individuals deployed it in the course of their own academic pursuits. This was as much a project about the mental lives of individuals on the southern plains as it was a cultural and institutional history. And if you compare the three word clouds (my work, the secondary literature, and the primary sources I used), a number of important themes emerge: science, marriage, heredity, family, genetics, and nature.
Equally important, I think, are the collocations which do not take place among the three. For instance, you can see “racism” figures prominently in the secondary literature on the movement as a whole, but does not in either my dissertation or the primary source material. Certainly, I wouldn’t go so far as to say eugenics was never about race. But on the southern plains, its wasn’t a racist–or really racialist–project. Proponents on the southern plains saw dysgenic forces primarily in the individual, not the population. And when they spoke of “race degeneration,” mostly (though not always) they were persuaded by social concerns–divorce, increased poverty and state welfare costs, the proliferation of crime, etc.–and therapeutic ones (the right of children to be well-born, getting rid of the feebleminded, etc), not by the danger of non-whites to the human race. Much of the secondary literature has had something to say about eugenics as an undertaking concerned significantly, if not primarily, with race. In Oklahoma and Kansas, this was simply not the case for most.
A running word count of every time I sat down and opened up my dissertation
Couple of interesting things here too:
- It appears as if I wrote it in almost exactly ten months, starting January 20th and finishing on October 22nd. This is only mostly true. I had 4 conference papers that I’d presented at some point over the past two years, one of which was garbage but the other three of which made it largely unscathed into the final dissertation (and each folded into a different chapter). So anywhere from 30-36 pages of the writing was done.
- As you can see, I sat down to work on it 85 times, which seems absurdly low. It feels like 850. You can see I took most of June off (I don’t remember this happening, really) and only opened it up to work 4 times in August (this I do remember, because we were moving ourselves, three cats, and all of our possessions from Rhode Island to Minnesota, and gents, that times some time).
- You’ll see Chapters 1 and 4 are running up near thirty thousand words, or almost 80 pages, each. The others are more traditionally sized, at 30-40 pages each. There are people who will say any diss. chapter longer than fifteen thousand words is suffering from some kind of Tourette’s that just needs to be stopped by the advisor. Here’s what I say: your chapters are exactly as long as they need to be. In my case, eugenics on the southern plains constituted an intellectually, institutionally, and culturally cohesive movement during the period 1910-1930. So why break it up? Likewise, my final chapter treats five individuals in five different disciplines/arenas—art, psychology, zoology, sociology, and journalism. They offer a rich matrix of experience that connects like a dense web across the southern plains. Am I supposed to sever those connections artificially, only then to have to repeat prefatory material in a new chapter? Finally, 4 chapters means 4 introductions and 4 conclusions (one for each), on top of the initial dissertation introduction and final conclusion. I wasn’t about to write 2 more just to satisfy some unwritten rule. I have no idea how other people do it, but this felt organic.
- It took me four months to write the final chapter (80 pages), then three months to write the first chapter (80 pages), a little less than a month to write chapter 2 (45 pages), then four days to write the final chapter (30 pages). Certainly the first chapter I wrote (chapter 4) was the slowest-going, and I gained steam throughout. But I also consciously did the hardest chapter first, and the easiest last. So while it seems as if the final chapter went super quick, in reality almost half of it was already written (it was the last conference paper I’d not yet worked in, it was shorter than the rest, and I’d been writing small bits along the way ), and, as I only needed to explore institutional numbers on sterilizations and scandal in the 1930s. A dissertation, I’ve discovered, is like a puzzle with a few thousand pieces where you’d only got a general description of the scene that’s supposed to unfold (“this puzzle depicts the development of an intellectual movement in Oklahoma and Kansas during a fifty-year period, and included some men and women doing science-y stuff. Ages 2-99.”). The edges are easy, and as you progress pieces fall into place. The end of the puzzle goes considerably quicker than the beginning. Plus, you know, deadline to defend this fall. I’m sure there was a little motivation there.
- My best day was when I wrote the introduction. 13.2 pages in one day, and I can attest that was 9a-530p, with about forty minutes for lunch. I barely remember it, in fact, it seemed to go so quickly. I seemed to sit down at my computer and then all of a sudden it was 5p. My worst day was April 20th, when I managed to squeeze out less than 300 words. But here’s a secret about taking on a writing project of this length you never really understand until you do it: at the end of the day, especially when you’re cranking out a few thousand words of writing, you feel emptied of words. Just a void bereft of any and all semiosis. Spend eight or ten hours writing, then try to have a conversation with anyone. You’ve got this internal monologue going on as you write, but then it keeps going when you stop writing. So once in awhile I’d be talking to my wife at dinner or on a run or whatever, in the middle of a sentence that I was re-writing in my mind as I was saying it out loud, and then I’d just say to myself “Screw it. This is redonkulous,” and have to shut my mouth for awhile.
Writing is hard. Dinosaur Comics recognizes this.
On sources and footnotes:
- First-time citations of secondary sources—i.e. how many sources in each chapter were ones which were showing up for the first time:
- Introduction: 36
- Chapter 1: 51
- Chapter 2: 15
- Chapter 3: 12
- Chapter 4: 16
- Conclusion: 11
- Total: 141
Clearly, this thing was front-loaded to a degree, though that makes some sense. Fully a fourth of the sources were first dealt with in the introduction as I set the scope and bounds and contributions of my dissertation compared to the rest of the literature. For a lot of those sources, this was the only time they were mentioned. More than a third of the rest came in the first behemoth chapter, as I approached in some detail the initial themes and trends and characteristics that would describe eugenics on the southern plains during the first third of the twentieth century, comparing and contrasting it to the bulk of the literature which also spends its time in the 1910s and 1920s. The remaining chapters saw pretty consistently a dozen or so new sources as I shifted focus from discipline to discipline and into the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. I’m a little surprised Chapter 3 saw 12 new sources, as that was solely about sterilizations on the southern plains 1930-1940.
The nice thing about the secondary literature on the history of eugenics is it’s completely doable—there are only a couple of hundred books on the subject that are worth reading, unlike, say, the Old South or Colonial America. I can say with confidence I’ve read the vast majority of them, perused most of the rest, and probably missed a few along the way.
About 17% of my word count lived in the footnotes, or fifteen thousand or so words. I never would have guessed it was this much. I do tend to like to use the footnote as a space for conducting something of a parallel conversation with the reader when the material calls for it. I like to imagine that one could, in fact, get a semi-decent sense of the project’s argument and place in the literature by just reading the footnotes.
I have no idea how well this describes the average history dissertation. The minimum my graduate program requires is 200 pages, including bibliography, but from my limited informal experience probably a quarter of my peers ran over. I offer no conclusions based on this evidence. I just like simple numbers like these, and it gives me a satisfactory feeling of closure to run through them. I also learned a few things along the way.