On what I knew my book would include—and what I didn’t.
At the time of my dissertation/first book, I was deeply invested in strategies of inductive argumentation. I believed so strongly that a work’s main ideas and arguments should develop out of the research and reading and writing process that I didn’t even have a central argument yet when I submitted the final copies of my dissertation ahead of my defense—it was only in conversations before and at that defense that I finally pulled together that thesis! There were definite disadvantages to that approach (when I sent out job cover letters, for example, I wasn’t yet able to articulate my main argument, which I’m sure didn’t help my chances), but also many advantages, including this one: it allowed me to discover numerous texts and focal points as I worked, many of which became crucial to the project.
For my second and (current) third books, however, I have shifted gears dramatically: starting each project with pretty clear main ideas and arguments. Partly that’s due to an even more dramatic life change: since parenting is now my #1 priority, I have far less time at the moment to wander the stacks of Harvard’s Widener Library, discovering focal texts as I go. And partly it’s due to my shift toward public scholarship, which (I believe) requires clearer and more defined main arguments in order to connect to and make its case for broad audiences. With this current book, for example, I don’t believe it would be sufficient to argue, “We need to remember the Chinese Exclusion Act, and in this project I’ll explore those memories and see what they produce”; I had from the outset a much more defined sense of what lessons I wanted to highlight, and they remain the focal points of my book’s three chapters.
Yet such clear and defined main ideas shouldn’t preclude unexpected discoveries, of course, and each of my chapters likewise includes significant and (I hope) interesting such finds. To highlight only three: I knew next to nothing of New York’s Castle Garden Immigration Station until I began researching the process of arrival for 19th century immigrants; I first learned of Louisiana’s 18th century Filipino community while researching foundational American diversity; and I had never heard of one of America’s most inspiring individuals, Chang Hon Yen, until I looked into the individual lives of Chinese Educational Mission students. Such discoveries are far from secondary to projects like this one—if the main arguments can highlight the contemporary and ongoing stakes of doing public scholarly work, the forgotten moments and communities and figures can provide the compelling histories and stories that help us all connect to our national past.
Next reflections tomorrow,
BenPS. What have you discovered that you’d want to share? Other thoughts on these questions?
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