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Revelations, Pt. II (but this time they’re the good kind!)

December 7, 2014

A strange thing happened in the dissertation realm in the past two weeks. Somehow, swiftly and unexpectedly, everything has begun to fall into place for my first two chapters. It’s weird and startling and so very satisfying!

Beginning with Thanksgiving week, I’ve enjoyed a beautiful lull in lesson plans and grading students’ essays that has allowed me, for the first time in yonks, to dedicate several days solely to dissertation research and writing. I decided to start a round of editing on my second chapter (on medieval Irish coroners) to try and transform my endless bulleted lists into eloquent non-fiction prose before sending a complete first draft to my advisors. I began with a total revamp of my introduction. My previous post highlighted my many false starts in finding an interesting, arguable thesis for this chapter that actually fits my Irish record sources (rather than the other way around), and as I began to edit the introduction, there it was! As I trimmed the unnecessary verbiage, my argument emerged, previously concealed in a shambles of irrelevant facts and commentary! It was an astonishing epiphany. Now, I can continue editing chapter two to better reflect this new argument; I will shortly have a coherent and cohesive narrative and, most importantly, chapter two will soon be DONE!! HUZZAH!!!

The story of Chapter One’s revelation is a bit different. I submitted my first draft of this chapter (about Dublin’s testamentary custom and the places where it unfolded) in May 2014 (roughly seven months ago, in case math isn’t your particular strength – it isn’t mine). At the time, I didn’t have any kind of identifiable argument whatsoever. I always imagined the argument would simply present itself, fully formed, in a moment of zen-like clarity, and all would immediately be well. This is actually what happened, sort of, except this zenful moment happened to be a lecture by intellectual historian Joel Kaye at UConn’s Humanities Institute. Professor Kaye’s book centers on the intellectual history of the conception of ‘balance’ (equitas and its cognates) and the remarkable innovations and ideas that took place between the 13th and 15th centuries in the realms of medicine, economic theory, and natural philosophy. At least those are the disciplines he focused on; it’s the sort of thing where, once you understand the concept, you’ll actually see it everywhere in medieval texts of every discipline under the sun. One aspect of this new conception of balance was that it was experiential, and lived; it lent order and equilibrium to the public spaces of cities and towns themselves. That was my ‘AHA!’ moment. This idea of balance is exactly what characterizes the relationship between Dublin’s two cathedrals, St. Patrick’s and Christchurch – this is exactly what I’ve been trying (unsuccessfully) to articulate in chapter one! So, seven months since I abandoned this chapter, I now have a plan for revising it, and I have Dr. Kaye entirely to thank for it. He is my zen master, it seems, and he has earned himself a number of footnotes in my first dissertation chapter. So go on, read his book; it may change your life, too!

These revelations come after a frustrating and intensely discouraging 2-3 week stretch when grading student essays and our babysitter’s vacation meant I accomplished virtually nothing in the dissertation realm. I am insanely excited that they occurred just as we are heading into a nice long break between teaching semesters. It will be a busy few weeks of syllabus planning, fellowship applications, and writing a book review, but at the very least I feel reinvigorated, inspired, and eager to revisit and tweak these first two chapters before embarking on the third (and final!) chapter. Dare I say the end is in sight? It’s a far-off blip on the radar yet, but yes…for the first time perhaps, the expectation that I may actually finish this dissertation in the next academic year, with or without a generous fellowship, seems like a rational and reasonable goal to accomplish – and this feels pretty damn good.

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