There are many elements of dissertation writing that gut your self confidence and leave you flailing, but there are also moments when you witness progress and feel really pumped and good about yourself. I literally brush my shoulder off when this happens. Even when I'm alone, at home, disheveled, and there is absolutely nothing swag about me. It's my academic humble brag. Oh, I just finished taking notes on thousands of pages of documents? Aint no thang.
Amidst the swirling uncertainty of the first weeks of working on the dissertation, the one reliable confidence fix I regularly got was the realization (and re-realization, and re-re-realization) that I already knew A LOT about my project. If I made one good decision in graduate school, it was to continue working on the same topic I researched for my mandatory, year-long research seminar. The semester after the end of that course, I continued exploring the topic with my advisor in an independent reading course. I based the dissertation on the two years of work I had already done.
So, even when I had no clue what I was ABDoing, I could open up my laptop and celebrate. I already had SO MANY DOCUMENTS! Better yet, I had a really good idea of where I could find the rest of the documents I needed! The catch was that they were all in New York, and my home, my friends, and my partner were all in Pittsburgh. I had to figure out whether I wanted to pick up and move to New York for the academic year--I have fellowships for both semesters this year and do not have to be in Pittsburgh to teach--or whether I would rather travel back and forth between the two cities.
Ultimately, travel won out--in addition to really liking my partner, it was going to be a huge burden on our finances to maintain two separate homes. So, in the last five months I have been to New York for a week in June, two weeks in August, and a week in September. On Sunday, I head back for another week! While I am quite sick of airports at this point, each of these trips have been incredibly productive. Next week I will break down the process of archival research into more detail, but for now I will discuss just a few of the great historical documents I found during these trips.
In June, the Executive Director of the YM-YWHA very graciously allowed to make copies of the minutes from the Board of Directors meetings between 1960 and 1980. These valuable sources have provided an excellent overview of the major issues that the Y's leadership considered over these decades. In August I conducted an extensive survey of the Jewish Welfare Board records. This organization served as the leader or guide of the JCC movement for most of the twentieth century. I found materials ranging from conference presentations about JCC's relationship with synagogues to surveys of local communities trying to evaluate the number of Jews living in the area. I was especially excited to find many documents relating to the JWB's concerns about the Urban Crisis. In September, I returned to look at these materials more thoroughly.
In the interim, I've organized all of these documents into a giant database and I'm slowly making my way through it. I've taken thorough notes on the growth of New York City's senior citizen population and it's Orthodox Jewish community over the 1950s and 1960s. I've also read a lot of materials that discuss tension between JCCs and synagogues. And luckily, I've also found a lot of what I'm looking for: discussions between leaders about how the JCCs should react to the changing demographics--both by race and class--during the urban crisis.
Reading these documents has shown me that, while many of the arguments that I laid out in the prospectus were spot-on, the history was much more complicated than I initially thought. No surprise, there, but it's certainly a challenge to reconcile my preconceptions with the reality, and I feel disoriented. More on that tomorrow.