Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF
I’m still a good eighteen months outside of the Qualifying Exams, which means I’m even further away from writing my dissertation. I’ve been given mixed advice on the dissertation process. One professor suggested that I put it out of mind until further in the program. I still need to build a more comprehensive historical foundation. Yet others advocate a more aggressive approach, saying it’s never too early to think about the dissertation. Because the dissertation is the culmination of the PhD program, I can’t help but focus my energy and attention on choosing a topic, even at this early point in my career.
I first considered extending my MA thesis. I used the sociology of nostalgia to explain the success of Rachael Ray’s Food Network program, 30 Minute Meals (her set design, menu selection, and vocabulary are reminiscent of the 1950s—an appealing era to many living in the postmodern world). The American Studies degree allowed me the flexibility to use an interdisciplinary approach to study media, food, sociology, and psychology. I very much enjoyed the hours of Food Network programming, the exploration of physiology and social sciences, and the investigation of the effects of media culture on a wide demographic of Rachael Ray viewers. But now I’m in a history program at a research university where the North American faculty is less interdisciplinary and more staunchly committed to historical theories and methods. Although an extension of my thesis might make for a head start on research and writing, it would also go against the strength of the people and resources at my institution.
What does the ASU faculty do well? Many faculty concentrate on the North American West. They approach this region from a variety of perspectives, including environmental, urban, American Indian, women and gender, and political. I don’t want to stray too far from my interests, but I also see my time here as an opportunity to work with the strengths of the program. So I’ve abandoned Rachael Ray (I think she’ll be OK) and have decided to look at the role of the air and sky in the sense of self and sense of place in the Southwest. I suppose then that I will one day become an urban and environmental historian of the 19th and 20th century American West. That seems startlingly specific, but I also know that the reality of academic life is specificity.
This semester I’m taking a writing course. The goal of the course is to produce either an essay that is worthy of publication or a dissertation chapter. I see it as a perfect opportunity to explore my topic more fully, and potentially write with my future dissertation in mind. The course, Global Environmental History, also serves as a springboard for my future field. The monographs we read during the semester will help me to assess the field, its sources, methods, narrative strategies, and analytical frameworks.
I respect the advice of the professor who advised me to use my coursework to create a foundation of historical knowledge, but I also believe that committing to a topic gives me the opportunity to choose a more cohesive compilation of courses without sacrificing the foundational knowledge I need to be a successful historian.