Tuesday, February 28, 2012

An Update on that Ph.D. Thing


It has been over two months since I last posted to this blog, and now I feel it is necessary to give a little update on that Ph.D. thing.

In November 2011 I posted about my joys and frustrations (but mostly joys) pursuing language study in three different languages nearly simultaneously! I have elsewhere written about my Hawaiian language study, which unfortunately formally ended last summer as my teacher moved back to Hawai‘i. My study of Chinese has been ongoing (usually not going, with only little bits of "going" now and then) for over eight years. That project, which over its lifespan has had many different goals, resulted in the achievement of at least one of those goals in December 2011 when I passed my department's foreign language translation exam in Chinese. I translated a 19th-century Qing dynasty "memorial" from Chinese to English. If that sounds a bit interesting, you can read more about it in my "language study" post from last fall. In that post I had hinted that I would soon begin my third language of the Pacific World: Spanish. I have since begun lessons and can now read really, really simply Spanish texts. I have not yet made use of this skill in my research, but perhaps someday I will. In the meantime, we are planning to travel to Peru this summer and I will then get the first chance to use my spoken Spanish skills (of which I have very few).

Back to that Ph.D. thing, you might recall that since last summer I have been reading for my department's oral examination. I wrote about this both last June and July, although both posts tended to drift off into more interesting subject matter. And then, for many reasons that I need not explain, I never posted about orals again. I'll just say that the experience of prepping for orals became something I wanted to make believe wasn't really happening. I behaved that way until about 48 hours before the exam, earlier this month (February 2012), when I then began to feel the weight of my anxiety for the first time as if eight months of it had been building up and was only just then coming out. I slept quite poorly the night before and spent the entire morning of orals-day re-reading my notes again and again, and when that got old just looking at a piece of paper with the book titles on it, as if to burn the image of those books and everything I had ever thought about them into my eyes. But unfortunately, orals are like they sound: oral, not visual. So there is still the challenge of taking burnt eye-images, or burnt brain-ideas, or however you process the information, and transforming that into something oral and aural, that is, out loud in conversation with three faculty members sitting less than ten feet away from you. When the exam finally took place, it just happened, as everything spilled out of me, and I simply did my best to contain and control the spillage, to make the spills seem intentional and articulate and well-thought-out, rather than the wild tsunami it felt like.

I passed with distinction. And a day or two later, as I was beginning to imagine life without orals prep for the first time in nearly a year, I could begin to look back and see what a great experience it was. I learned a lot — "as much as I'll ever know," one supportive professor told me, although the words can also be read pessimistically, as if "it's all downhill from here" — and I developed stronger relationships with colleagues and faculty. I put my own projects on hold for a long time, including this blog, which I progressively got angry and sad about as the months of orals prep wore on, but now that I am back doing my own projects, I wonder what new distraction I can pursue to take me away from myself again. :)

With my foreign language exam done, and orals done, only one hurdle remains: the dissertation prospectus. Now comes my opportunity — "finally," I say — to do my thing. A big thing. The real Ph.D. thing; what it's all about. The dissertation.

I'm not ready yet to present my prospectus to the world. I can assure you that it will have something to do with Hawaiʻi, labor, environment, and the 19th century. It will be fun. It will tie together everything I have worked on for the past three years. It will, I hope, be a springboard for research trips to Hawaiʻi to conduct research. For it is shameful that I spend so much time in my "New York Life" dreaming these "Pacific Dreams," while in those dreams I live vicariously through 19th-century Native Hawaiian men who lived "Pacific Lives" and sometimes even dreamed "New York Dreams," although more often "Boston" or "California" dreams! They say the past is the foreign country, but the Hawaiian past is doubly foreign: it exists not only deep in an unknowable time, but also spatially apart: beyond the reaches of American imperial, teleological history-making (or at least, that's how I wish it was). (Of course, many historians, including myself, will disagree with everything I just said in the last sentence.) As a 21st-century haole from NYC, how can I get back to that past? And if I can get there, in this grand "Pacific Dream" called my dissertation, what will I say when I get there? How will I behave? Will the Hawaiian laborers I study recognize me as I recognize them? Will they appreciate that I want to know their stories, and tell their stories, to some unknowable future audience? Or will they think me a fool, or worse, even a bad person, because I dream these dreams about their lives?

Want to know? Well, you are cordially invited to jump inside my head whenever you'd like. Indeed, I would be happy to switch places for a while. Otherwise, the best I can promise is to continue to keep you informed through this blog as I explore the Hawaiian past. I can't guarantee that I will get there, but at least we can think about whether there is a there there, and if so, how historians might get there, or if they should even want to. And when not dreaming, I'll be doing the real work of finishing this Ph.D. thing. Looking at documents. Translating them. Analyzing them. Putting the pieces together. Crafting narratives. Testing hypothesis. And all that good stuff.