Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

On June 15th, I finished and turned in my first dissertation chapter to my advisors (it is both the first chapter of the dissertation and the first chapter I have written). On June 16th, I threw some clothes in a bag and jetted off to South America for a week-long vacation. Here are some lessons learned over the past three weeks:

1. It is very difficult to work on two different projects--the dissertation and the blog--while on a deadline. For the past few months, I would blog before diving into writing my chapter. It was a balance: one hour spent on a blog post, then a few hours dedicated to drafting a section of the chapter. That balance fell away as my deadline approached, not because I was scrambling to catch up but because the chapter became the singular focus of my life for those two weeks. I devoted every moment of mental clarity to evaluating the structure and argument of the chapter, keenly attuned to omissions or unsubstantiated claims. There was no space in my thoughts for a blog post. My mind could not let go of the ideas in the chapter for long enough to focus on another set of ideas. I continued to make blog-worthy observations and I have a long list of posts that I want to draft this week, now that I'm phasing back into a routine dominated by research rather than writing. Stay tuned for those. 

2. Vacation is the best deadline. If you have to set an arbitrary date for completion, apparently it is very effective to set it for the day before you leave for a relaxing trip. I knew that I would not, could not work while touring around a city with my partner and in-laws, and so the work had to get done before leaving. Plus, I looked forward to kicking back and relaxing for a few days! I'm contemplating booking a trip in late August to incentivize myself to complete the second chapter. 

3. I miss blogging when I'm pulled away from it! As fulfilling as it is to convey the thoughts that have been rattling around in my head for months about how events in the past played out, most of my daily writing will only be read by my advisors (who will send it back and have me re-write it many more times before it reaches a wider audience). The immediacy of blogging, in addition to the informality and the more expository nature of the form, make it a most lovely addition to my daily writing output. Many scholars blog to share their research or to extend their academic debates beyond the narrow confines of their discipline and the ivory tower, but I think blogging also appeals to scholarly writers in the way an amuse bouche appeals to fine diners. It's a light beginning to a heavier meal, thoughtful and substantive but informal and, importantly, not meant to distract from the main focus. 

I'm now back in New York, and I have several projects I'm balancing: an article draft, my second dissertation chapter, oral history interviews, and the "ghetto" corpus analysis. Not everything will get done in the five weeks I'm here but I feel invigorated by the city's energy... we shall see how far this momentum takes me! 

Lost and Finding Aids

I did not major in history as an undergrad, and did not write a thesis on a historical topic, so the first time I ever set foot in an archive was in my second semester of graduate school. This condition--being a graduate student in history that didn't know how to use an archive--had me breathing into a brown paper bag. The first year of graduate school is a nine-month grinding down of your confidence (see: impostor syndrome), and the specter of being berated by an archivist for knowing absolutely nothing  was like twisting the knife into the heart of my fragile emotional being. It worked out well for me, though, because I decided that the best way to cope with my anxiety was to first go to a little archive with a nice archivist, get my feet wet there, and then face the big scary Manuscript Room of the New York Public Library the following day. In that little archive with that nice archivist, I found a wonderful collection of documents that inspired my whole dissertation! So, no regrets.

Now, three years later,  when I go to visit an archive I feel excitement rather than anxiety. By the time I show up, I already know what I'm looking for--and more importantly, where to look for it. That's because I use archival finding aids to figure out what libraries have collections of documents related to the history I am researching. 

What exactly is a finding aid? Well, let's say that a Very Important Woman (maybe a socialite? maybe a radical labor activist?) decided to donate all of her letters, diaries, business records, scrapbooks, and files so that future scholars can learn about her interesting life. She contacts a library she really likes--maybe her alma mater, or maybe a library to which her friends or fellow activists donated their papers--and they agree to preserve her documents for the use of researchers. When the library gets the Very Important Woman's stuff, it's probably in some cardboard boxes. Perhaps they're neatly placed in the same order they were in when they lived in the Very Important Woman's filing cabinet. Or, more likely, they arrive disorganized. An archivist then has to process this collection of documents. Processing means to put the records in an order that makes sense, whether it was the way that the Very Important Woman arranged them, or by placing them in order chronologically by year or thematically by topic (debutante balls and charity dinners, or union rallies and Communist Party meetings). As this order is created, the documents are placed into file folders and then into boxes (like this or this). Some collections fill only one box, but most take up several. Once everything is filed away, archivists create a finding aid; it's a map that tells you, the researcher, what documents are in those boxes and folders. 

Before breaking down the collection into this level of detail, a finding aid begins with a description of the collection. If the collection is of an individual's personal papers, the archivists will also include an autobiographical note.

These records of a Very Important Woman provide valuable insight into 1920s society. Very Important Woman was involved in major events of the 1920s like Big Parties/Rallies with other Very Important People who are historically relevant if you study 1920s society or social movements.

The Very Important Woman was born in 1898 in a big city, to aristocratic parents with no money who worked hard to instill in the Very Important Woman the values of polite society and solidarity. She died after establishing a magazine and foundation dedicated to Charitable Causes and the Social Good.

The beginning of a good finding aid will also list the subjects (topics or individuals or locations) that are especially prevalent in the collection.

After all of this, the archivists describes the contents of each box and folder. Finding aids are rendered in various degrees of detail, which can be challenging. If an archivist was given a substantial amount of time to process a collection, they usually include more detail about what's in each individual folder. Usually, though, a finding aid only tells you the label of the folder. It might say something like "Very Important Woman's Correspondence with Labor Activist," or "Debutante Balls, 1918-1919." As a researcher, you don't know if there's one letter or one hundred letters in that folder, or if "Debutante Balls" refers to parties thrown by the Very Important Woman or parties she attended. When you open that folder, you have no idea if you're in for some fun or some frustration. 

So, how do you find a finding aid? Sometimes it's as simple as Googling "Very Important Woman." More often I use a database called Worldcat to search through many library catalogs at once. It can be unreliable because each library has to sync their catalogs up with Worldcat; if they do not, you might miss something. To be thorough, I also search the catalogs of libraries and archives that would be a logical place for my historical subject (either an individual or institution) to deposit their records. I look at all the public and university libraries in their city, or I look at special archives dedicated to a defining characteristic of my historical subject (like at an archive that specializes in American Jewish history or one that collects materials from social welfare institutions). It's time consuming to go to each library's website and type your search terms into their catalogs, but sometimes you find complementary collections to the one your were looking for. That's always a nice surprise! 

Once I find my finding aids, I then decide if a collection seems valuable enough to justify a visit to that archive. Sometimes it's an easy decision, like when a library has the complete papers of the Very Important Woman who is the subject of your dissertation. Other times, you know you want to write a chapter about the Very Important Woman's favorite charity, and you look at the finding aid for their records--which with your luck are at an archive on the other side of the country--and you realize that the charity only donated one box of documents and all of the folders are labeled "Tax Forms" and dated from the 1970s, well after the Very Important Woman died. It's not worth buying a plane ticket to look at that! That's when you decide to cut the chapter, or to base it on research that has already been done (secondary sources). 

Finding Aids are an invaluable tool to a researcher, but like all tools they vary wildly in quality and helpfulness.* Sometimes you end up with a top-of-the-line power circular saw with laser precision guide and built-in level, and sometimes you end up with this. The more you use finding aids, the more adept you become at working with what you're given!

If you're interested in looking at a few examples, here are a few finding aids from my own research that represent the spectrum of detailedness:

Solender Family Papers (American Jewish Historical Society/Center for Jewish History)

Fort Washington Branch Records (New York Public Library Archives)

Henrietta Scherer Papers (Tamiment Library, New York University)


*Let me make it clear that this is not always the archivists' fault. They are often underfunded and overworked. Most archives have more collections than their existing staff is able to process, but grants to hire more helping hands are really competitive and hard to come by. I love archivists and librarians, and could not do my job without them.

Ground Zero

This post begins a three-part series describing my dissertation project. Today I will lay out the study as originally proposed. Tomorrow I will discuss the research I have accomplished so far. On Friday, I will post some reflections on how the project has evolved and changed since its inception. Change over time being, of course, an historian's primary interest, both in the distant past and the immediate, personal present.

I recently re-read the abstract I wrote before I defended my dissertation prospectus. My department requires that the abstract be circulated to faculty and graduate students in the email announcing the defense. I distinctly recall finishing one of the last drafts of the prospectus and absolutely dreading the task of writing the abstract. I also remember that, once I sucked it up and forced myself to sit back down at the computer, writing it was a loathsome, tedious experience that yielded an unsatisfactory product. 

The best part about the whole "ordeal" was that it did not matter; no one cares about the abstract for a document that by its very nature is prospective. Five months later, however, when I read this overstuffed paragraph I do find it instructive. It's a testament to the ambition of the project. I really wanted--hell, I still want--to tell a thoughtful story with contemporary relevance, national scope, and valuable implications for urban leadership. It's also evidence of my determination; I stubbornly jammed in every element and angle that I determined was important. The abstract talks about Jewish identity, professionalization theory, spatial politics, demographic transition, intra-religious tension, and ethnic conflict over three decades in three cities, and maps all of this onto the history of one institution!

Here's the basic premise: Jewish communities in large urban neighborhoods began to change after WWII, for a variety of structural reasons. Demographic changes pushed Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) in these neighborhoods to reevaluate their membership policies. Executives, Boards of Directors, and Federations of Jewish Philanthropy debated the options for membership intake policy. Would they accept non-Jews, eschewing their sectarian mission? Or should they double down on their sectarian commitment, and work to strengthen their membership's Jewish identity?

I argue that the gradual shift towards more inclusive membership policies in postwar urban Jewish Community Centers derived from the universalistic social work training of movement leadership and local Center executives; that this universalistic commitment was guided by the imperative to maintain professional prestige and legitimize their expertise among fellow (non-sectarian) social work colleagues and to distinguish their expertise from religious leadership; that this distinct professional identity required constant validation because the unique expertise of Jewish social workers justified the existence of separate sectarian institutions like JCCs; and finally, that universalism won out over particularism during the urban crisis, as local demographic changes affected Center memberships and forced a reevaluation of these institutions’ sectarian missions.

I proposed to do case studies of three urban JCCs in order to support this argument: the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood in northern Manhattan, the Soto-Michigan Community Center in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, and the Miami Y.  Throughout the chapters, I would move from telling the history of the JCC movement more broadly to an specific, emblematic episode in the history of one of these Centers. This close study would demonstrate how broader national or regional trends played out at the local level. For example, after describing how autonomous JCCs often came into conflict with their Federations--metropolitan fundraising bodies--over agency priorities, I would zoom in to describe a fundraising campaign undertaken by the YM-YWHA of Washington Heights-Inwood in the early 1950s. The Y was struggling to pay for the construction of a new building, and they wanted help from Federation to meet their fundraising total. The episode not only illuminates the complex financial relationship between the New York Federation and individual Centers, but also how these entities disagreed on the degree of responsibility Board members, Center staff, and local members had to subsidize and contribute to their own services and spaces.

To boil it down even further, here are the assumptions and questions that are central to my project. 


Beginning in the 1940s, American cities rapidly deindustrialized. Economic prosperity and changing social values prompted white Americans to decamp for the suburbs. Many formerly- Jewish neighborhoods transitioned to predominantly black or Latino. JCCs that were built in these neighborhoods to serve Jewish members had to decide whether or not to move, close, or start serving what they referred to as the "total community."


How did American urban Jewish Community Centers evolve between 1945 and 1980 in response to changing American society and values? How did community building occur in increasingly multicultural urban neighborhoods? How did JCCs define the extent of the Centers’ community? Would it include non-Jews? If so, would the Center relinquish its sectarian commitment and become a secular agency? How would this stance likewise facilitate cooperation with non-Jewish membership, particularly Latino Catholics, or underscore differences? Finally, did these changes affect the social service and communal welfare infrastructure of urban areas?

Any questions? Yeah, I bet you do! I'm not sure that I've done a better job explaining it here than I did in the abstract. 

Victory Strut

I greet you this week as a newly minted Doctoral Candidate! Until you begin writing your dissertation, you are merely a doctoral student. Once your dissertation prospectus is approved, you’re finally considered a candidate for the Ph.D. degree.

My defense was truly a pleasure. I have such a supportive committee of advisors, and although they spent quite a bit of the hour-long defense critiquing my work and pushing me to consider the weaknesses of the project, they also expressed optimism that the dissertation will make a significant contribution to the historical literature. The unanimous critique made by my three advisors was that the scope of the project—particularly the chronology—is too large. They encouraged me to focus on the 1960s and 1970s, and to pack the 1940s and 1950s into an initial, introductory chapter. I see their point. I tend to think very concretely, and in chronological order, and it’s reflected in my chapter outline. I begin at the end of WWII and slowly scaffold the narrative into the ‘60s and ‘70s. My committee pointed out that this scaffolding is not necessary, that much of the earlier story can be folded into the later narrative as historical context. So the defense was very productive and I feel better prepared to begin my archival research.

My plan for the rest of the summer, however, is to focus on reading rather than researching. I have several important texts to read that will help me contextualize my case studies. The additional benefit of reading and not researching/writing is that I will sneak a little break from the stress of constantly producing deep thoughts. I’m looking forward to a refreshing summer.

Almost ABD

If I succeed in keeping my foot out of my mouth, by this time tomorrow I will be ABD (All But Dissertation). After countless revisions--I estimate about 10 rounds, eight based on faculty feedback and two resulting from my own attempts at "tightening" the argument--my committee finalized the prospectus on Monday morning and gave me the thumbs-up to defend. In my department, the defense is a formality. No doubt it is a useful exercise, giving you a chance to explain your research and practice answering questions. No one in institutional memory has failed the defense, though, and I doubt I will be the first. I'm anxious about saying something stupid, but I think my committee has decided that I'm ready to move on to the dissertation.

For those who have never attended the defense of a dissertation prospectus, it's a pretty standard format across humanities and social science doctoral programs. The student presents their project, and then your committee takes turns asking tough, penetrating questions. Sometimes these questions address shortcomings in the proposal, other times they attempt to ascertain the feasibility of the research (for example: how will you find records that convey the thoughts of the actors/subjects you will research?). After the committee is satisfied, they allow the grad students in the audience to ask questions. Finally, the committee dismisses the student and the audience and confers. If they agree that you successfully defended, they sign a form stating that you have been advanced to candidacy for the degree of Ph.D. and are now ABD!

Wish me luck!