When I studied abroad, we heard a lot from our program directors about the "W." Our first month, they told us, we would feel elated and endlessly excited. Studying abroad would be THE GREATEST TIME EVER, Argentina would be THE GREATEST COUNTRY EVER, and our lives would be TOTALLY AWESOME!!! They warned us that this intensity would fade in the second month as homesickness set in. We would eventually recover and recalibrate, and the experience would once again feel exciting and fulfilling (if not quite as AWESOME!!!). Towards the end we would slide back down into homesickness, as the novelty of the adventure fully tarnished and the frustrations of living abroad mounted. In the final month, anticipating our departure, the last round of drinking and sightseeing and travel would buoy our spirits and we would return to the US of A with stories about how studying abroad was absolutely the greatest. Up to down, back to up and down again before one last up.... that's exactly how it went for me.
Writing the first chapter of my dissertation was the complete inverse. At the beginning I was so unsure of what I was doing, but slowly I got the hang of it and I climbed. I wrote an outline and began working through my argument. I wrote pages and pages of background context (based in secondary literature) about the evolution of synagogues and synagogue-centers, social work and then Jewish social work. I found a rhythm and made progress. It felt totally awesome, if not quite as intensely awesome as those first few weeks of running around a new, foreign city.
The sensation didn't last. All of that background information became oppressive and I could no longer see the forest for the trees. I had taken the "more is more" approach and now could not really figure out where or how to make it "less." Even armed with my outline, I felt unclear about how to connect the historical context to my own contribution, my analysis of my primary sources.
I decided to keep writing. I hammered out the details of the past and constructed a narrative to explain how the 1946-47 Jewish Welfare Board Survey affirmed the sectarian commitment (the "Jewish purpose") of the Jewish Community Center. I reinforced the narrative with an incremental series of arguments about how ideological, functional, and communal disagreements between JCC workers, lay leaders, and the rabbinate pushed the Jewish Welfare Board and its constituent Centers to reject the possibility that agencies adopt a policy of nonsectarianism and to instead embrace a positive Jewish function. Once again, writing became fulfilling--I was building something. I believed that I had avoided just writing a laundry list of past events ("first this happened, then that happened, then that happened") and instead had drafted an argument and substantiated it with the historical narrative.
The bubble burst when, at long last, I finished my draft. As I put it all together, I was so impressed with what I had accomplished. Eighty pages of history! The most I'd ever written! As I began to re-read it, however, all I saw was holes. None of the sections seemed to connect, and arguments appeared and disappeared without pointing towards any ultimate conclusions. I was humbled. I realized that I had made the same mistake as in previous research papers. Instead of incorporating the historical context into my primary analysis and using it to further support my claims, I front-loaded the chapter with thirty chunky, bloated pages of background information. My review of the draft also exposed a steady stream of sentences that provided too much detail, or not enough, or that were laden with assumptions. I filled the margins with comments and turned the pages bright blue.
By the time I finished confronting and correcting all of the circles and arrows and question marks and strikeouts inflicted on the text, I could not clearly identify the point I was attempting to make in the chapter. It at once addressed everything and nothing. I sent my advisors 76 pages; only one page provided an introduction, and only one page offered concluding thoughts. I was crushed. I'd been so confident, I'd told my advisors to expect a thoughtful, well-crafted draft, and in the end I felt like I had delivered a mess... the very laundry list that I had tried so hard to avoid.
With two weeks of distance and hindsight, I've regained some perspective. While I haven't had the courage to reread the entire draft, I skimmed bits and pieces and it seems just fine. More importantly, I regained sight of the "first-ness" of the endeavor. That I generated 80 pages of coherent English in just a few short months is a remarkable achievement in and of itself, considering that at the outset I had no idea what I was doing. So I'm looking forward to receiving feedback from my advisors. I expect they will have a list of critiques, some of which I identified myself and others that I haven't anticipated. I know that I'm capable of fixing any issues or bolstering any weaknesses that they find, and so I'm ready to learn from their insight and to receive their advice on how to proceed.
Now that I've stepped off the rollercoaster that was the "M," my hope is that the process of writing chapter two will more closely resemble the study abroad "W." If it's inevitable to have down moments, I'd prefer to begin and end on a high note.