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. 


Yesterday, while waiting to receive back comments from my committee on the finalized prospectus draft, I finally wrote my abstract. The dissertation abstract distills the project down to one page, emphasizing the major questions, arguments, interventions, and case studies that underpin the study.  I dreaded this task for weeks. My study is SO BIG! I intervene into three historiographies using three case studies, which gives the study a national scope yet focuses on three very local examples. I examine the issues I'm interested in from both a top-down and bottom-up perspective, reading the reports and records of leaders and organizations and gleaning the "lived experience" and agency of grassroots actors. How the heck can you summarize a project like that in one page!?

Well, the truth is, you can't. I managed to draw out the most salient points and arguments I plan to make, but the abstract feels very flat to me. That's the whole point, and in fact it's what makes an abstract useful. It's oversimplified and easy for a non-expert reader to digest. I struggle with it, however, because it feels somehow untruthful. It's an obfuscation,  by definition, of all the complexity and nuance that really explain why events in the past happened the way they did. The best arguments manage to hint at this messiness while delivering clarity, but this project is still so new that my argument has yet to develop this sophistication.

The good news is that the abstract may evolve along with the dissertation, and I'll have more than ample opportunities to revise and rewrite it. I'm sure that by this time next year I'll be on my tenth version, and I'll still hate the abstract--but by then, I hope it will just be because I'm sick of re-doing it!

Outlining the Dissertation Chapters

After the introduction and historiographical overview, the prospectus has three more mandatory sections: a description of methodology and sources, a chapter outline, and a bibliography. Rather than complete these sections in order, I've approached the prospectus by beginning with the historiography. Outlining how I intend for the dissertation to contribute to extant scholarship and fill in gaps in the literature helped me to refine my argument and decide on the scope of what I should study (and what topics require no duplication of effort, on my part). Having clarified the argument and scope, I am now working to outline the six chapters I plan to write for the dissertation. 

This section was effortless to begin, but has been much more difficult to complete than I ever anticipated. After writing the historiographical overview, I had a very clear idea of how the chapters should chronologically progress, and what the thematic focus of each chapter should be. I also had a good sense of what questions I would attempt to answer in each chapter. Where I have gotten hung up, however, is in identifying what each chapter will argue and what case studies or sources I will use to support the argument. Obviously the prospectus is speculative, and these decisions are bound to change as archival research progresses, but your committee really wants to see that it is possible to complete a dissertation on this topic. Are there sources available that will yield a coherent narrative? Is it feasible to write a full chapter on the topic of interest, or conversely is the scope of the chapter or project too large?

I'm currently struggling with the relationship between scope and case studies. I would like to include three case studies in the dissertation, of JCCs in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. Unfortunately, I'm only sure that sources exist for the NYC case. The other two are merely speculative. Additionally, a majority of my advisors think it is not feasible to complete three case studies in the short time we are given to write the dissertation (3 years) and that I should focus closely on one case, especially since I am not proposing to do a comparative study. I'm now deciding whether the Los Angeles and Miami examples could be incorporated by using a secondary source base (historical studies that have already been written) rather than doing the archival research for these Centers all by myself. 

I'm hoping that taking a little break from the prospectus today will help me find some perspective on this question. I'd like to finish up the chapter outline by the end of the week, because I cannot really discuss my methodology and sources until I figure out what I want to do! 

Talking It Out

I spent half an hour this morning struggling to articulate my reaction to an important book in the historiography of social work. I kept coming back to one critique over and over, but could not really put my finger on how this critique related to my proposed dissertation project. After writing and deleting, writing and deleting, thinking, getting a cup of tea, and thinking some more, I felt stuck. I wanted to stay in front of my computer because my writing timer was on--I needed to keep going in order to reach my goal of two hours for the day.

Finally, I realized that I would not be able to clarify this point on my own, and I asked a colleague if I could attempt to articulate my critique to her. After two minutes of explaining the premise and arguments of the book, I began to levy my objections. Her dissertation, while on a different topic entirely, also had to deal with class relations between social workers and their clients. She was able to offer insight from her own experience grappling with this question, and helped me identify what parts of the book's argument I should carry into my own research, and what parts to discard.

The conversation was a nice reminder that writing is an inherently collaborative project, and that no project can be done alone. I have a tendency to hold up these amazing works of history and admire how these scholars could succeed at crafting something so brilliant. I have to remember that, yes, they did spend many many hours alone in front of their word processors hammering out their thoughts--but just as many hours were spent in conversation, stimulating and clarifying their proto-arguments.


Historiography is the word that trained historians use to describe a subset of scholarly literature on a historical topic. There is a historiography on every major era, from the American Revolution to Maoist China, as well as on thematic topics like African American history and women's history. There are also theoretical or methodological historiographies, which are a group of studies that use the same framework or technique--comparative international history or an "ecological approach" to understanding historical incidences of disease.

For example, one of the historiographies I have learned through my coursework and exams is African American urban history. In the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement, historians explained urban segregation as the result of white racism and housing restrictions that prevented black urbanites from living within white communities. This "ghetto synthesis" thesis (and then the "second ghetto" thesis which arose to explain postwar segregation) dominated until the late 1980s, when a group of historians who were influenced by the Black Power struggles of the 1970s began critiquing these studies for not acknowledging black agency. African Americans were limited in their choices, this new group of historians agreed, but they did exert powerful influences in their own spaces and spheres. More recently, historians have pushed us to look at the postwar city as multicultural rather than as a space of tension between black and white. They have pushed African American urban historians to consider race relations with Asian and Latino neighbors, in addition to the white majority.

A historiographical essay, like the miniature version I just offered above, is an explanation of how historical writing on a topic has changed over time. Historiography papers are the bread-and-butter assignment for many graduate seminars in the discipline, because they reinforce the main learning objective of the course--to learn what has been said and argued about the subject at hand. Contrary to popular belief, professional historians spend very little of their graduate training learning the actual dates/places/battles of their historical topic (though this varies according to the priorities of the student's advisor). You learn the history through research and teaching--especially teaching, which turns your fear of looking stupid in front of students into an incentive to learn the nuts-and-bolts details they are sure to ask about--and so your graduate coursework is really dedicated to learning what has already been said by earlier scholars. After all, the ultimate requirement of the PhD is a dissertation, and who wants to spend 3 years and 200 pages of effort on a redundant study? The goal of research is to contribute to our understanding of the past and further the field, and if you do not know where the field came from, how will you know where to take it?

That's why historiography is such a big part of the dissertation prospectus. You begin proposing a dissertation after completing your doctoral qualifying exams, which test your knowledge of the historiography. You then parlay this fresh appraisal of the recent literature into your prospectus, declaring how you plan to further the research in your distinct subfield(s).

I have spent the last month trying to weave together three distinct historiographies: postwar urban history, American Jewish history, and the history of social work professionalization (which is embedded within the history of medicine, public health, and social welfare more generally). This is not such an easy task, since each of these fields is engaged in divergent debates at the current moment. It has taken me over ten pages to lay out the major historical studies and debates in each of these fields, and to declare how I intend to intervene or further these debates. Until this intellectual work is complete, I cannot move on to the other sections of the prospectus.