Be Bold!…What to do When Your Prof Blows up Your Prospectus 0

The short answer is, of course, rewrite it.

Yet, in my case, the situation posses some interesting questions and issues for the aspiring digital historian. My advisor is a wonderful, smart, intelligent woman who is supportive of my work and ideas. But she is not a digital historian. This is not a bad thing. It is just a fact. But, because I am heavily using digital methodologies in my work, my third committee member is methodologically in tune with my work, but topically as different from me as night to day.

My prospectus made it past my advisor with a few critical issues to address and a blessing to send the draft onto the rest of my committee when I had done so. Within a few hours, my third reader had returned it to me covered in red text. I happened to be presenting at a conference the next day where he was the chair of my panel so at the reception we had a long conversation about what I should do and where I should go.

During the course of this conversation I realized: I was hedging my bets. I was taking a “traditional,” “safe” approach to my prospectus when the coolest thing about my project was its digital methodology. I was burying it in discussions of historiography, thematic chapter breakdowns, and “challenging” the established scholarship. When in reality, I am not challenging the scholarship so much as trying to bring nuance to it. I am not trying to trace influence, rather I want to look at correlations. I was couching my project in the terms used for decades by the scholars I had admired instead of really explaining the innovative, and unique approach I wanted to take to my subject.

Because, the thing is, I have no idea what my dissertation is going to be about yet. I have questions, I have things I’m interested in, but until I gather all my sources and start running them through Gephi, MALLET and other software, I have no idea what my argument is going to be. So, instead of saying that in my prospectus (obviously in slightly better language) I hedged my bets and wrote something that claimed to make a more “traditional” contribution to the scholarship. Instead of focusing on the methodology and how it would give me a new perspective on the existing scholarship, I “argued” that I was going to trace discourses and influences.

I am not saying that what I wrote was bad, or that it wouldn’t be a worthwhile project. But it never really was MY project. It was something I wrote that conformed to what my department’s requirements were for this document. I separated out my methodology section from my larger research question/thesis argument section because that is what was asked of me, but as my professor pointed out to me, was not really the best organizational structure given what I want to do. I am asking huge questions, and the answer to “but how are you going to DO that?” is integral to that discussion. I was trying to provide a “legitimate” answer the “so what” question — the bane of all graduate students — when instead of I should have been retorting back, “why not?” Why not look at this huge period of time and see what it tells me. Why not look at the correlation between images and texts and see if they mesh? If they do, that’s interesting. If they don’t, that’s interesting too. Why not try to examine the entire Cold War period and see what it tells me. I realized, I don’t need to have that answer yet. The point is that I’m asking the questions!

I also realized, as I was getting energized and excited about a complete overhaul of my document, that I was falling victim to what I’ve heard and read many digital historians complain about. How do you justify the digital methodology as worthwhile and interesting in and of itself? Yes, I am going to contribute to historical scholarship and add something unique to the conversation. But, I am only able to do that because of my methods. Why am I not playing that up? Why am I hiding behind what I think others want me to write about (at this stage) instead of taking the leap and being bold! Especially, since I am blessed to be in a department (I’m a Ph.D student at George Mason University) that is imminently supportive of digital work. If a student like me, at the institution I am at, is nervous and unsure about a project so dependent on methodological innovations, what must it be like for students at places not as supportive? So, my advice, and conclusion, is simple. Be bold! Take a chance. I am more excited about completely redoing a document that I originally viewed as a hoop to jump through, than I was when I thought it would breeze through my committee and just let me get on with doing my research.

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