On Pre-Dissertating (And Learning to Love It)


As I indicated in my last post, I recently arrived in South Africa (two weeks ago exactly, in fact) to conduct pre-dissertation research.  For the first 5 weeks or so, I’ll be mainly based at Killie Campbell Research Library in Durban (with some brief sojourns at the Durban Archive Repository).  After that, I’ll be spending a week in Pietermaritzburg to explore the Alan Paton Centre and the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Archive.  I’ll also be continuing my research on Izichwe Football Club, a program that I started researching and writing about last summer.  I’ll bid KwaZulu-Natal goodbye in late July to visit Cape Town and Johannesburg, splitting my time between being a tourist and a researcher.

But these first two weeks have really signaled a change in both how I view myself as a scholar and how I view my responsibilities as an academic.  I have never been much of an archive rat.  I was lucky to stumble upon the institutional archives of an NGO for my Master’s thesis (with them even providing me with copies of everything they had), allowing me to spend more time at my computer writing and less time buried deep in the National Archives in Maryland.  And last summer, I spent a grand total of maybe three days in archives, just getting my feet wet prior to and following my Zulu immersion program.  So finding myself in an archive every day is definitely new territory.

It’s also new territory to feel like I am also being a historian now, instead of just being taught how to be one.  At MSU, in our first two years, we are pretty much fully devoted to coursework, taking courses in all of our fields and familiarizing ourselves with the historiographies of our specialties.  And while a few of my courses have required me to conduct original, archival research, I certainly didn’t have to do much of that in my Master’s and a good number of my professors here have only required me to write historiographical essays (which are important in their own way, but still completely mind-boggling to me at times).  So to be thrown into archival research feels very unsettling.  But unsettling isn’t always bad; in fact, I always say that when you feel the most uncomfortable, the most out of your element, you are growing the most.

And I do feel like I’m growing here, on an intellectual and personal level.  Not so sure how much social development I’m achieving though I have made some very important professional connections and some lovely friends courtesy of my good friend Jill Kelly.  But the archives can be very isolating.  I’ve been working at Killie Campbell Library, which is a wonderful space to conduct research because it is very quiet.  The down side is that it is very quiet.  I have met maybe three or four other researchers at Killie thus far, the majority of them being a few decades older than me, which of course is useful in its own way.

And, more importantly, I’ve been meeting very important characters in my research.  Digging through these documents has challenged me, inspired me, and, most frequently, puzzled me.  I can begin to see a project taking shape; the shape isn’t always pretty but it’s decidedly less amorphous than the muddled blob of a project that I felt like I had before.  And I feel like I’m taking greater shape as a scholar as my project takes a more definite form.  And I am learning to love this process, though sometimes it feels much more like a love-hate relationship than some grand romance.

So now I feel like I’m rambling, which I probably am.  But I don’t see it as a bad thing.  I’m figuring things out, stumbling and picking myself up as I go.  And as a friend reminded me when I was feeling a little low the other night, all of this stumbling is stumbling I won’t have to do when I return to South Africa for my research year.  So, in short: I feel like I’m trying to find myself in this new role, feeling insecure and unsettled frequently, but excited about what comes next.

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