Thursday, April 5, 2012

How to kill your old love and become stronger in the process

Since I don’t seem to be able to post much on archaeological artefacts that I study, I decided to breathe some life into this blog to vent some steam about an actual artifact or “work of art” by my hand, my dissertation.

Me and my dissertation
The current state of my dissertation is that it is a bit of a Frankenstein’s bride. What I mean is that I have an idea that I love that I want to construct using parts of ideas I loved before. What I have to do for my dissertation is to tackle the distribution of artefacts found in the archaeological record of the pre-colonial Greater Caribbean and the problematical view this gives us of actual social connections between individuals and groups in this large region (see also some earlier blogs about this). The idea that I would love to use (and am using) in my dissertation is that the pre-colonial Caribbean should be seen as a giant network that would have connected people, groups and artefacts on local, regional and interregional scales. It is, in shor,t a social network or “facebook” approach to the past. The idea that I used to love is that I could tackle the issue through looking at exchange theory as it has been employed in social/cultural and evolutionary anthropology, mixed with new theories on the “materiality of things” (for laymen: how does material culture impact humans and vice versa).

The problem that I am faced with now is how I turn things that I have written previously, done from one framework, into the idea that I am running with now. Complicating matters is that I have to do this in roughly 9 months. 
Truth be told, I am not freaking out that much. My ex and new love get along quite well, in general. My new approach work much better than my old one and I have steadily been shifting towards it for over two years now.  I also have a clear outline on paper, an idea of what to write when, and a very good idea what I actually want to conclude in the end. The confrontation I had today that made me want to write this little blog post is about the sense of loss you feel when you have to throw away something that you have written previously that is not half bad, but just doesn’t fit into your new intellectual love life anymore.
When you start your PhD at Leiden University your supervisors force you to churn out one or two chapters in your first two years (force, in the sense that you first have a one-year contract that will only be prolonged with three years if you actually show some progress). Of course I dutifully obliged. Working from the idea that my dissertation was going to be about exchange theory in archaeology and its application to the Caribbean archaeological record, I produced quite a nice overview, if I can say so myself,  of economic anthropological theory in my first year. My supervisor liked it, I liked it, and other people that read it liked it. I even still do a yearly introduction into economic anthropology for an MA course here at Leiden.

That is why it came as a bit of a shock when I found that my discussion of economic anthropology is almost obsolete in the new framework of my dissertation. Today, a roughly 7000 word chapter was condensed into a 200 word paragraph (shrinking my hard work by more than 97%). That, I can tell you, was a hard but necessary thing to do. This does not lead me to think that they shouldn’t force you to write chapters in your first years of your PhD. Writing down what is in your head in full coherent sentences is a creative process that is unmatched by any kind of outline building or brainstorming. So, what lesson have I learned from this? If you want to grow it is good to kill your old love. As long as they exist solely in your head and on paper, of course.

Disclaimer:  If any of my supervisors is reading this, don't worry. I am not promising any regular blog updates on my thesis progress, but I am promising regular progress on the actual thesis. But perhaps if I find time, somewhere during my lunch break (like now), I might be able to turn this into a small “dissertation writing” diary. You get to see me struggle and that will be fun for you, as well, won't it?