To Chapters, New and Old

TasselOne of the nice things about social media is that you never forget an important date, like the one when you defended your dissertation. In the six years since then, so much has changed, but not everything. For example, I haven’t entirely left grad school behind – or at least, I’m still working on what once was my dissertation project. Only now, I have a little more to show for it.

Before I finished the dissertation, before I took my teaching job, I was part of a panel proposal for the 2012 American Historical Association meeting.I didn’t know in February 2011 – when the proposals were due – whether I would even have a job the following school year. I hoped, at the time, that having this as a forthcoming talk would look good to a prospective employer.

Almost a year later, I flew to Chicago for a quick weekend, making sure I didn’t miss any teaching obligations. I hung out with old friends and enjoyed conference sessions on my terms. I hit up the Art Institute in Chicago (and had an unfortunate run-in with a light pole while walking down the street). That Sunday morning, our panel convened in the final hours of the conference in front of a small audience of people. (The panel focused the military’s experiences of integrating women and minorities as a way to manage the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.)

I’d participated in an AHA panel the year before, and I presented somewhere at least once a year during my graduate school career, but the 2012 panel was different. It wasn’t just because I had a job to go back to and was no longer worried about my career, but also because it led to an actual writing opportunity. One of the panelists, Douglas Bristol (U. of Southern Mississippi) suggested we consider collaborating on a volume of essays about integrating the military.  I loved the idea: there’s just not much work out there on the topic, and being included in such a book appealed to me deeply.

It was also a time when I was emphatically not touching my dissertation. I think one of the common things at the end of grad school is to feel worn out by your research; it doesn’t mean you don’t love it, and it doesn’t mean you never want to see it again, but in my case, I needed space. I obsessed over my project for years, pouring everything I had into my research and writing. Even doing the panel in Chicago in January 2012, less than a year after my defense, was a little close for comfort.

But it also became my way back into the project.

The edited volume began taking shape, led by Doug and his colleague Heather Stur. We all put together the pieces of a proposal, and by spring 2013, it was time to write.

I remember this very clearly because I was pregnant and very busy in my second year of teaching. I was exhausted all the time, and generally nauseated at all points of the day. It was not one of the best times of my life, but that March, as I tried to rest over my last child-free spring break, I sat down to write my chapter of the book. Aside from my part of the book proposal and the AHA 2012 presentation, this was the first time I had really sat down with my research since finishing grad school.

My students often roll their eyes because I’m so insistent about drafting and revising, but it’s exactly how I work. During those two weeks of spring break, I drafted and revised again and again before sending the chapter to the editors.  I’d follow that with “And then I sat back to wait,” but I was seven months pregnant and trying to get through the end of the school year before my baby (due June 3!) arrived. I pretty much stopped thinking about the chapter because I was preoccupied with many other things. I vaguely considered diving into the early stages of the dissertation revision that summer, buoyed by the book chapter I’d just drafted and thinking about the fact that I could probably reread my dissertation while I nursed a newborn.

Vaguely is the keyword there.

At the end of May 2013, I managed to get through all the classes and my students’ final exams and got them graded. On Memorial Day, I went to the hospital and got sent home. The next day, I participated in faculty meetings before my OB appointment, where my obstetrician decided we should induce. It was about one week until my due date, and I was good with that. (Needless to say, I didn’t make it to the last two days of faculty meetings that week, or the first annual night out at the ballpark with colleagues.)

Before the week was out, I had a new baby boy – and an email from Heather asking for specific revisions to the chapter I’d written in March. The timing was absolutely unexpected, but newborns don’t really do much beside sleep, eat, and poop. In so many ways, it was the perfect time to get that chapter out the door. By the time my son was a month old, my revision was out the door, and that was the last I would see of the project for a long while.

9781421422473My son turns four this month. This week, I should finally be able to hold a copy of Integrating the U.S. Military: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Since World War II in my hands. I’m Chapter 4, “‘An Attractive Career for Women’: Opportunities, Limitations, and Women’s Integration in the Cold War Military”. I’m really proud of this one. This book marks the first time any of my research about women’s military integration has appeared in print. I have encyclopedia articles I’ve written on women’s military service, but nothing like this. I’m pretty much over the moon.

Working on this chapter helped me renew my interest in my work as a whole. It took me another couple of years, but I finally did get back to the project. I’m about one year into the revision and publication effort. I have a version of it now that is decidedly not a dissertation, and piles of rejections from agents.

But Integrating the U.S. Military took time, too. I’m not giving up on this one, either. Here’s hoping that a couple of years from now, I’ll be holding an entire work of my own in print, in my own hands.

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