I spent most of January and February revising the second chapter of my dissertation. Whereas the experience of writing my first dissertation chapter was akin to being lost in the woods with no map and trying to find my home, I wrote chapter two in three quick months and the process was orderly and focused. When I finished, the product reminded me of that humorous test of abductive reasoning: "If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck." My draft had the average number of pages for a chapter, it had an argument like a chapter, it had evidence and citations like a chapter... it was a chapter! I didn't know if the argument or my analysis of the evidence was any good, but I was proud to have produced something that at least looked right.
When I read the comments and feedback from my advisors, however, I realized that I was still learning how to write a dissertation chapter. The essence of their recommendations was that I focused too closely on my documents, creating a laundry list of events and responses ("he-saids, then she-saids"). While this provided a clear accounting of events, I needed to do more to connect the narrative to the broader historical context. One of my advisors wrote, "I would like this chapter to be more conceptual." I may have written what looked like a chapter, an achievement of form, but inside it was not functioning as well as a chapter should function.
Thankfully, that same advisor gave me very specific recommendations about how to make the chapter more conceptual. My second chapter examines a debate that emerged between rabbis and JCCs in the early 1960s, when a group of rabbis accused JCCs of "secularizing" American Jews, and argued that the synagogue was where Jews should spend their free time. My advisor encouraged me to remove some sections that analyzed this debate in excruciating (and now, I can see, unnecessary) detail, and to replace these sections with a discussion of why Jews in the 1950s and early 1960s were so concerned about assimilation and secularism. After reading her comments, I felt confident that I could make the necessary changes quickly and easily.
It only took me a few days to realize that what I thought would be a simple revision was really going to be a "re-envision." Rather than a process of add-context-and-stir, I adjusted my thesis and many of the claims that I was making throughout the chapter. Over the next six weeks, I significantly rewrote almost every section to reflect this new argument. It was really, really hard. Not only was it difficult to remove so much writing that I had worked so hard on over the summer, but my new argument was more complex and I struggled to fully understand it myself, at times, and to articulate it clearly to the reader.
After I finished the "re-envisioning" process for chapter two, I revisited chapter three. Interestingly, that one was a straightforward revision that I completed quickly and easily--despite the fact that I struggled to write the first draft of chapter three. Perhaps I had finally gained a better understanding of how to make a chapter function. Maybe I made all the difficult decisions as I wrote the first draft, easing the revision process. Probably, it was a bit of both.
Although I'm very satisfied with what I produced these past two months, the exercise was intellectually and emotionally stressful. I now understand that revision is a completely different skill than writing a first draft. As I proceed through the dissertation, I will no longer assume that revision will come easily--and hopefully, by changing that expectation, my future revisions will feel less stressful!