A “Long” April

One of the more pretentious things historians do from time to time is attach the word ‘long’ to a period of time, like the “long 18th century” or the “long 1980’s.” We do this in order to highlight important trends or developments that, annoyingly, do not confine themselves to discrete chronological units. For example, a discussion of international affairs in the “long 1980s” might well include a discussion of both the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, even though this started in 1979 (barely), and the fall of the Soviet Union, even though this did not happen until 1991.

This use of ‘long’ is somewhat different than what people usually mean when they say something like, “It’s been a long week.” In that case, the word ‘long’ carries a definite negative connotation. This is not necessarily the case in historian-speak.

Let’s just say, though, that when I refer to a “long April,” I mean it in both senses.

This past month has been a doozy. And so this post is about those periods of time in PhD life that make you a little bit crazier than you were before, which, you know, is saying something.

As I mentioned in previous posts, April was my last month in Jinan. So I was trying to get as much research as I could done before leaving. And also trying to figure out where we’d be staying in Beijing. And helping with the packing. (Ultimately, my wife did most of the packing; I took charge of the repacking.)

But I was busy with some other things as well. First, I had to submit teaching applications for next year. As part of our program, we are required to accrue a certain number of teaching points prior to graduation, and part of our funding comes from compensation for teaching. There is no set path for completing teaching obligations, though. We have to apply for positions in different parts of the university and work it out from there. I decided to submit three applications. The most ambitious and time-consuming of these was a course I designed and submitted for a competition for a prize lectureship in the Department of History.

A couple weeks ago I also gave an hour-long presentation of my research at Shandong University. It was a bit intimidating trying to figure out what to present and how to give a general sense of my dissertation without being meaninglessly vague.  I was also presenting in Chinese, so that demanded an extra bit of preparation. Usually I prefer not to write out my talks in full, but I thought this might be a good time to make an exception. It came together in the end, and the attendees seemed to enjoy it. But both the preparation and the execution were exhausting.

Finally, (and here’s where the “long” comes in) I had a conference paper due on May 5. In some ways, that was the biggest of these three obligations, although I am considerably more comfortable with the genre of paper-writing than either teaching applications (syllabus, cover letters, etc.) or Chinese-language oral presentations. Unfortunately, it was also the last to come due, which meant, of course, that it was the most rushed. This paper is a kind of a mash-up of two dissertation chapters, one of which I’ve done a lot with, and the other that I feel like I’m just beginning to get a hold of. I got that done and, I think, along the way I may even have found an argument that makes some sense and possesses significance beyond giving me something to say next weekend.

So, the level of busyness last month was more than ideal, and I’m glad it’s over with. This kind of uneven rhythm is one of the things that’s a bit strange about graduate school. As far as writing the dissertation is concerned, the process is so drawn-out and in many ways self-paced that it’s not obvious why it would ever be necessary to be more busy than usual. And the moniker “all but dissertation,” suggests that there’s nothing else to be busy with.

Alas, not so. Even for post-coursework students, the pace and stress level of graduate school vary by season. And there is much more to it than the dissertation itself. Fortunately, this coming month is a bit less hectic, especially now that we’re settled into Beijing. I can turn towards making headway on some different parts of my project and start thinking again about how to keep myself on-pace for the “long” haul rather than meeting short-term deadlines.


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