Forward, Flashback, or Stuck?

Although I embarked on writing chapter three with a point-based outline, a road map for how I wanted to build my argument, the journey has not quite proceeded as planned. Over two weeks and twenty-something hours of writing, I have generated several pages of content and several pages of "murdered darlings." I don't think it's much of an exaggeration to say that I've deleted a paragraph for every paragraph that remains. Two steps forward, one step back!

Why has it been such a struggle? I can't decide how the chapter should begin and end! Unlike chapter two, which began where chapter one left off and then proceeded quite logically in chronological order from a precipitating event through to the resolution of a controversy, the "open membership" debate that I'm describing in chapter three happened three years after the final major event that I describe in chapter 2, the JWB's 1963 Lakewood Conference. In addition to this chronological gap, I also want to use chapter three to fill in a content gap. The JWB made some important decisions in the years I covered in chapter two, but I left them out because they weren't directly relevant to the controversy at the center of that chapter. This left me with three options:

#1: Start with the 1947 JWB/Janowsky Survey recommendation on open membership and move chronologically forward in time to the 1967-69 JWB Committee on Open Membership in Jewish Community Centers, which reaffirmed that JCCs should accept all applicants for membership regardless of race or religion. 


  1. Easy to write and simple for the reader to follow!
  2. Follows the same pattern as chapter 2: beginning with disagreement over one of the Janowsky Survey's policy recommendations (in this case, over an inclusive membership policy)  and ending with the Committee that, between 1967-69 debated whether the JWB should uphold this  policy.
  3. Clearly demonstrates change over time, particularly the rising influence of the Civil Rights movement on the JCC movement.


  1. Rather than foregrounding the most important event, moving chronologically "buries" the moment of rupture in a longer narrative arc. 

#2: Begin the chapter with the 1966-67 controversy at the New Orleans JCC that precipitated the JWB Committee on Open Membership in Jewish Community Centers, then flash back in time to fill in the content gap, then move forward to discuss the Committee's debate and decision.


  1. By instead beginning the chapter with the controversy at the New Orleans JCC--about whether to accept non-white, not just non-Jewish, members--all of the preceding decisions and events of the 1940s and '50s can be contextualized by how they contributed to the eventual controversy and debate in the late 1960s. It's a helpful way to distinguish what details can be relegated to the background. 


  1. It's more complicated to write and puts a bit more of a burden on the reader to follow the chronology, even if it ultimately clarifies the argument. 
  2. It makes the Southern context of the Civil Rights movement seem more important than the Northern context. Foregrounding how New Orleans, a Southern city, catalyzed the JWB to renew its debate about open membership diminishes how active the Northern Civil Rights movement was in the mid-1960s--and though JCCs were located in cities in both the U.S. North and South, the decision-making "center" of the JCC movement was the JWB headquarters in New York City. 

#3: Try to do both at once.


  1. Experimental! You never know what will work best, so why not try every possible option.


  1. Confusing!
  2. Unproductive.

Always ambitious, I went with option #3. And that is how I ended up stuck in the cycle of writing and deleting.

I have now committed to Option #2, and it seems to be working well. I'm trying to be mindful of the disadvantages, so 1) I'm including plenty of signals to the reader about where the chronology is heading and 2) I'm incorporating evidence of how Civil Rights activism in the North also had an impact on the JWB's open membership debate. I hope that I can now proceed without too much deviation from my point-based outline: two steps forward, no steps back!


Drawing the Road Map

In a marathon work session last Thursday, I hammered out the outline for my third dissertation chapter. After I reviewed a large sampling of sources that described the JCC movement's response to Civil Rights activism and the urban crisis, I pulled out my colored pens and began to outline the temporal and political themes that I observed.  

I began by identifying three distinct phases or "moments": a period I call the "open membership debates"; the "classical" period of the civil rights movement; and the urban crisis. The phases I pinpointed map neatly onto periodization that historians already use to distinguish between phases of the Black Freedom Movement: first, the early legal fights for equal rights in housing and education during the 1940s-50s (Shelley v. Kraemer; Brown v. Board of Education); then the national, legislative push for voting rights and equal hiring opportunities of the mid-1960s (Civil Rights Act, Economic Opportunity Act); and finally the rise of black nationalism and the urban rioting of the late 1960s. More critically, however, I observed in the documents that JWB staff and Jewish Center workers exhibited distinct attitudes and decision-making in each of these three periods. At the outset of the 1960s, the vast majority of JCCs accepted non-Jews (including non-white Jews) as full members of the JCC. Despite this "equal" policy, however, most Centers did not have African American members and did not serve non-white members of their community with any regularity. Centers used their progressive policy to avoid changing their practices,  and black community members recognized that although they could apply to join the JCC they were not necessarily welcome. By the mid-1960s, however, growing support for equal rights, equal facilities, and equal services pressured JCCs to explore how they could serve non-Jewish and non-white members of their communities as effectively as they served their Jewish membership. 

After I sketched out these transitions, I drafted my overall argument for the chapter and wrote some tentative claims that I would like to make in each section. In my first-year research seminar, my professor advocated for this process of "point-based outlining." Whereas a regular outline identifies the topics you plan to include in your paper (or chapter), a point-based outline models how your overall argument will build from a series of claims. In my experience, drafting a point-based outline helps you avoid summarizing when you begin to write--it forces you to select only the evidence and context necessary to support your claims. 

Armed with this point-based outline, I'm now ready to begin drafting sections of the chapter. I know that as I re-read, analyze, and argue my claims, the overall argument will subtly shift. In that way, the point-based outline is more like a hand-drawn road map than it is a legal contract. It's a tentative and flexible document, intended to be improved as I become more familiar with the landscape. As I proceed I will edit it to reflect new insights or counterarguments, making it more accurate, precise, and easier to follow.