Armour & Co. postcard, early twentieth century.
By the mid-point of my second year of grad school I really needed to settle on a dissertation topic. I had a project idea—the history of the Confederate dollar—that I thought was good, but I was also interested in meat consumption in America, the history of dog-fighting, and even conspiracy theories. I told people I was writing about Confederate money, but really I had no idea. Most of the advice on choosing a dissertation topic that I found on the internet or received from friends and colleagues wasn’t very practical. I eventually settled on a project on beef in America, because it was the one I was most excited about, even if it didn’t seem like the most strategic choice at the time. It turned out to be a good decision and I ultimately learned a few things about developing a dissertation idea. Below are three suggestions for people trying to choose from a few different ideas as well as some scattershot (but effective!) suggestions for those of you with no idea.
1. Be strategic…after you have a topic.
Eventually, you are going to be sick of your dissertation topic. So you need to choose something you start out passionate about. At the same time, your dissertation also needs to fit into a wider scholarly conversation. But here’s the trick: any dissertation can fit into an exciting scholarly conversation. It’s all in how you frame it. So the key with a dissertation is to find the topic you’re excited about and then spend all your energy framing it in a way that’s strategic. To do that, you should…
2. Use draft project titles to refine your topic.
Take out a piece of paper. Draft ten different project titles for your hypothetical dissertation. You want titles that reflect both the topic and your approach, so use a “[TITLE]: [LONGER SUBTITLE]” format. Limit yourself to at most 10-12 words. You can take either a broad approach, brainstorming radically different titles, or start with a basic title and gradually refine it (the former is harder but more effective for a first pass). If you write ten different titles, you’ll get a sense of what you most want to argue, as well as how to convey it in the most succinct way possible. Its how I got from “Everything but the Moo: the Rise of the Cattle-Beef Complex” to “Red Meat Republic.”
3. Practice explaining your project.
People often view the “elevator pitch” as the key to promoting a project once its done, but its actually a great brainstorming strategy for the early stage as well. Explaining your project in conversation is a good first step to being able to write about it. Talk to fellow academics as well as nonspecialists. You not only get a sense of what people find interesting, but you can figure out what you really care about. When I was deciding between Confederate finances and the history of beef, it wasn’t until I started explaining the new idea to people that I realized how excited it made me.
If you really don’t have any ideas….
If there was an easy answer, you wouldn’t be in this situation. So all I’ve got are some scattershot suggestions. I have one core belief when it comes to good topic ideas: creativity is mechanical. A great idea doesn’t just spontaneously generate. It might hit you in the shower, but only after a few hours of reading or tearing your hair out in front of a blank piece of paper. That’s why I like the draft title idea: if you write ten titles, you get one interesting one. If you write ten more, you might get a great one. Try the strategies below and you’ll eventually get something.
* Make a list of the ten academic books you like most (half inside your field, half general books) and write a sentence about why you like each.
* Do the draft titles exercise but for completely different projects. Write five sample dissertation titles, then pick your three favorite and try developing two alternate titles for each of them. You end with three potential topics and three framings.
* Brainstorm topics that interest you outside of an academic context. The best thing about history is you can write about anything (as long as its in the past). Think about your interests and explore the historical context. You can figure out the strategic framing later.
* Talk to people about their work. It somehow helps get the creative juices flowing.
* Chill about it for a minute. You’ll think of something eventually. Any topic has potential. It’s all about how you frame it.
I started my academic career as a lousy writer. More specifically, as a lousy academic writer. But I was motivated to improve. I consulted people whose writing I admired and generally received the same suggestion: if you want to write better, you should (a) write a lot and (b) read good writing. Unfortunately, this advice always seemed a bit self-evident and frankly, unsatisfying. I had already tried both. Eventually, however, I realized that the key was less about what one read than how one read. The important thing was to think about how an academic argument is constructed. What nobody had told me is that the best way to do that is to read other people’s drafts.
My biggest improvement as an academic writer came from co-organizing a graduate workshop. In the workshop, students from a variety of fields pre-circulated drafts that we discussed in a group of roughly six to twelve. While it was almost always successful, the main reason I learned so much is that as an organizer, I was so worried about the contributor receiving poor feedback that I always thought hard about their paper and how it could be improved.
Reading drafts from people in your field is good, but reading drafts from unrelated fields is even better. When you’re reading about a topic with which you’re unfamiliar, you’re more attuned to the writing. You don’t worry so much about the specific contribution or intervention, but focus on how to improve or clarify it. I know little about medieval history, so when I read a paper on twelfth-century guilds, I can think carefully about the use of archival material, the overall structure, or the clarity of the scholarly intervention. It’s even better when you find the topic boring. Thinking about how to put the best spin on a topic you find uninteresting will hone skills that apply to your own work. Ultimately, other people’s drafts pose you with writing challenges you may never have faced or never known existed, and that leads to good things.
Talk to the person about their piece after you read it. Explaining suggestions not only improves the draft, but it helps you think consciously about what is and isn’t working. When I read an article I don’t like, I tend to move on without thinking about why. Actually having to explain why something isn’t working requires a better appreciation of the author’s challenges as well as the nature of the problem. The conversation also provides insight into the author’s perspective, which can change how you think about writing more broadly.
Finally, it’s always easier to spot bad habits in other people’s writing. This will lead to realizations about your own. For a period of about two years, I used the word “however’ in nearly every sentence I wrote. However, I wasn’t aware of that fact until I was reading a draft in which someone had the exact same habit. Problem solved. Of course this is only productive if you approach your own writing with humility. Drafts are rarely good and never perfect. Be charitable to the author and you’ll be more aware of your own limitations.
I spend more time offering to read drafts than actually reading them, because many people assume it’s not a genuine offer. It is, and hopefully this post has clarified why. If you want to be a better scholar, read other people’s drafts. Oh yeah, and if you read someone else’s drafts, they’ll read yours.
By the end of grad school, I’d (pretty much) figured out how to be a historian. Though some of my peer reviewers probably disagreed, I felt like I knew what was going on with researching, writing, giving presentations, etc. But in terms of thinking about a long-term research trajectory, I was pretty much disaster. While this remains a work in progress, below are three lessons I learned the hard way.
1. Find your niche (at least in the short-term).
Intellectually I’ve always been a bit all over the place. I get excited about work in anthropology, sociology, and law, and I’ve always got three or four radically different project ideas. This curiosity (or lack of an attention span) is one of my strengths. However, it is also a problem. For instance, most of my work focuses on the environmental/economic history of meat. Four years ago, I wrote an almost completely unrelated spin-off piece. It’s been rejected four or five times from various journals. I just didn’t have the right sense of the relevant literature or more importantly, the key scholarly debates. Further, because it is a spin-off article, I just don’t have the research time to give it the archival attention it might deserve. I’ve spent a huge amount of time revising the piece and while I remain very enthusiastic about it, I’m not sure where it will end up.
The point: reading and writing about radically different subjects is intellectually healthy, but it’s a good idea to recognize where your core expertise lies and to focus on that. I am an environmental historian of meat production. I know the relevant literature and archives. I know how to write and think about food production and consumption. You are probably in the same situation with your dissertation and first book topic. Especially early on when building a profile is important, focus on your expertise. We can all reinvent ourselves after our first book comes out.
2. Find your people.
I’ve always known that its important both professionally and intellectually to connect with colleagues wherever I find myself. I was much less good about identifying my wider scholarly community, whether that’s environmental history, western history, or business history (I still might not be sure). Because I did a poor job of talking with those people, I found myself a bit out of the loop a couple years into my career.
Academic life is fundamentally social. The best ideas start as bad ones that you discuss with other people. The key then, is finding your scholarly community and being active. This leads to new insights, but also has mundane benefits like providing leads on important new books, presentation panels, and even archival nuggets. Attend the relevant conference in your subfield; often small ones such as the BHC and ASEH conferences I’ve attended are best. Further, simply emailing people whose work you enjoy and respect can work wonders.
3. When it comes to publications, exhibit patience and pushiness in equal measure.
One common piece of advice is to learn to deal with rejection. It turns out I’m pretty good at it. But what I wasn’t ready for was dealing with how long everything takes. For instance, I did a great job of quickly revising my dissertation for submission to a press. I sent the full manuscript to an (enthusiastic, or so I thought) editor and it sat in their inbox for nearly eight months with no response, including to a couple follow ups. Eventually I had to move on. I probably should’ve done so after three months. Similarly, I sent a piece to a journal, after a year received a “revise and resubmit,” turned it around relatively quickly, only to wait another four months for what was ultimately a rejection. Fair enough, but each wait was brutal.
Learn to be patient. Publications take a long time. Keep that in mind as you plan your research schedule. Meet deadlines to the extent you can, and get started on things sooner rather than later. Finally, regarding pushiness, don’t be afraid to follow up with people (obviously only after a reasonable amount of time). They have a million things on their plate and they might’ve forgotten or never even have been interested in the first place. Better to know now than in six months.
Note: optimism is a required baseline for this one. I’m now pretty happy about my situation regarding both my manuscript and the article mentioned above.
In a key scene in the film Okja, we see a young girl named Mija walking with her genetically-engineered superpig friend, Okja, as tens of thousands of nameless beasts watch through a feedlot fence. Director Bong Joon-ho is asking viewers to reflect on what separates Okja from her fellow species and whether the distinction is significant. Okja is the tale of a relationship between a young girl and an animal, but it is also an exploration of capitalist food production, genetically modified organisms, and animal rights. The divide the film explores, between the animals with which we develop bonds of affection and those we butcher and eat has not always existed, and it both enables industrial animal husbandry, and constitutes one of its critical weaknesses.
People today largely categorize domesticated animals into two groups, those that are individuated and with personality, i.e. our pets, and those that only exist as part of an undifferentiated mass that we eat or turn into coats. This distinction is not merely about feelings. It has real world implications. Pets are protected by cruelty laws; livestock are not. Often, but not always, this line is divided by species: cats are pets, turkeys are food. The systems of modern animal husbandry are designed to police this boundary. Few consumers could have any direct familiarity with the animals that become their food even they wanted to and video-recording slaughterhouses is illegal in many places. Slaughterhouse workers—themselves thought of in similarly abstract and faceless terms—do the actual killing. These boundaries absolve us of responsibility for the treatment of the animals we eat. The fact that we love Fluffy makes it easier to draw a circle around animals with which we don’t develop affective relationships.
Though this divide largely promotes indifference to the well-being of livestock, Okja reveals how our love for individual animals can mobilize opposition to industrial animal husbandry. In the film, the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) fights the attempt to popularize the superpig as the meat of the future. When they distribute undercover footage of the abuse of the superpigs in a secret laboratory, they rely on the affective connection people feel when confronted with the suffering of a fellow mammal. Though we are meant to sympathize with the ALF’s goals, the characters do not escape the director’s satire; one character is perpetually woozy from his reluctance to eat almost anything and Paul Dano plays a surprisingly violent animal defender.
On the whole, the movie plays on the sense of empathy and collective outrage people today feel when actually confronted with the workings of industrial husbandry on individual animal bodies. However, for both the film and the ALF characters in it, this approach put critics of animal husbandry in a bind. Connection with individual animals builds empathy and support for reform, but without requiring popular commitment to clear plans for change. It puts the focus on individuals and relationships, when the problems of animal husbandry are about the broader social and economic system—the forces that create the pen filled with thousands of nameless creatures.
Of course the idea that caring about an animal and eating it are necessarily at odds is not a universal assumption, but one borne of the increasing separation (physically and conceptually) between us and the production of our food. The movie hints at this reality through Mija’s grandfather, who cares for and about Okja, but also sends her off to be slaughtered. He soon reacts with surprise at the intensity of his grand-daughter’s outrage. Though we might similarly condemn his decision, his response suggests working with or even eating animals does not preclude caring about them. This tell us that there might be ways to promote animal husbandry reform without relying on the pet/livestock paradigm that dominates popular opinion today.
As Mija and Okja flee the feedlot to which Okja was sent, two animals from the doomed herd engineer the escape of a piglet—presumably their child. Our protagonists take it back home and it is later frolicking in a lush forest. In the end, the special bond between Mija and Okja survives, and they seem (mostly) untroubled by the fact that consumers worldwide are munching on superpig jerky. The film is not entirely clear whether this absolves us from, or implicates us in, the fate of the remaining animals to which we do not give names.
tl;dr review of the film: mostly only okay, the ending is pretty good. Punctuated with some quality superpig toilet humor, it’s one of those movies that, to paraphrase Levi-Strauss, is good to stink with.