On Swami Vivekananda’s 150th Birthday: Beginnings and Endings

Tomorrow marks Swami Vivekananda’s 150th birthday. Vivekananda haunts me. He was a man who meant and continues to mean many things to many people. But for me, Vivekananda will always represent a limit or a boundary. When I started the research project that became my dissertation, I started with Vivekananda and then turned and looked backward. In American religious history, Vivekananda represented the beginning of Hinduism in America. He brought Raja Yoga and the Vedanta Society. His speech at the World’s Parliament of Religion was the dawning of a new pluralism in America. I wanted to know what happened before that. I wanted to turn Vivekananda into the ending. What did Americans think about India and Hindus and yoga and Brahma and Krishna before 1893–before the Swami came to Chicago? That has been the driving question of my research for the past seven years, across my masters and Ph.D. work, and through two universities.

As Hindus around the world remember and celebrate the life of the Swami, I celebrate as well, but for very different reasons. As I said, for me Vivekananda represents the end. He is the last figure in my dissertation. So, as I put the finishing touches on this dissertation, look toward a defense in a couple months, a graduation shortly after that, and eventually a book, I celebrate the life of Vivekananda. Because without him I would never have found this research topic. And without him it would not have an ending.

Shut Up and Start Writing

Time for final check in. We’ve done this for six weeks now and I hope it’s been helpful. It seems that most of us are interested in keeping this going so here’s what I’m thinking. Let’s keep this going as a sort of writing support group. We’ll keep checking in with our goals for the week and reporting what we did the previous week but I’ll stop numbering each week.

This group has been really helpful in forcing me to be thoughtful about planning out my work. Sure I didn’t always hit my goals, but I was approaching my work much more strategically. I also liked the chance to reflect back on my work week that these posts give and the great feedback and encouragement you fellow writers give. Thanks so much for your participation and great comments every week!

I spent a lot of time reading through sources and taking a lot of notes. I wrote a couple hundred words a day but most of my work went into my moleskine not my computer. Until today. All that note taking paid off and I tore off 1100 solid words today. That made me happy.

For next week, I want to keep going at about 1000 words a day average. I want 5000 more by the end of the week. I’ve put in the time and thought in the past couple of weeks, now it’s time to crank it out. I need to get this chapter and a separate 10000 word encyclopedia article done by the end of the month.

Along with your check in and goals for the week I would love to hear from y’all about what this group has done help you and any suggestions for changes as we take this into the fall. What do y’all think about this group overall?

Shut Up and Start Writing Week 6: The Home Stretch

We have hit the home stretch. Much like a runner in the Olympics, it is time to hit our “kick” and sprint to the finish. This is the last week of our summer writing group so let’s get as much as we can out of it.

As far as last week, I did not get the 3000 words that I wanted but I did write everyday. I’ll take that. I’m trying to balance the “the best dissertation is a done dissertation” with my own desire that it be a really really high quality piece of work. Perhaps the perfect is the enemy of the good, but I’m worried I’ll end up with the mediocre instead.

For this final week I want to keep the daily pomodoro of writing going and I still want to shoot for 3000 words. I had hoped to finish this chapter by now or at least be close but that’s not going to happen. I want it done but not rushed, so I’m shooting for an August 31st completion and hoping I end up done early so I can pat myself on the back.

How was everyone’s week? I’ll post one final post next weekend so we can reflect on the whole writing group and what we got done. Also, be thinking if you want to no continue this into the fall in some form or another.

Shut Up and Start Writing Week 5: IKEA edition

Random household chores got in my way this week. Part of those chores involved two trips to IKEA and two nights assembling furniture. That said, I think most of that stuff is done and I can finish out the summer with some heavy duty writing. I did not reach the 3000 words I had hoped but I got about 1000 on the screen and I wrote for at least one pomodoro 3 out of the 5 days. That’s not bad.
For this week I want to finish what I failed last week. At least one pomodoro every day and 3000 words by the end of the week. I need this chapter drafter by August 15.
How did yall do?

Writing Group Week 4: Free Bates Edition

I have no reason for the above picture. I just like it.

So, how was everyone’s week? Sorry for the late post. I’ll do better next week.

I hit my goal. I’ve got a good outline of where this chapter is heading. I still have some primary sources  to go through next week but I can do that as I write. I’m trying to remember the whole “write before your ready” adage as I tend to put off writing too long. So for next week, I want to spend at least one pomodoro period each day actually writing into the word processor and I want to get at least 3000 words into said word processor before the end of the week.

How yall doing?

Shut Up and Start Writing Week 3

How are things going for everyone? We’re two weeks in and I know this group has been super helpful for me. I have a tendency to piddle around in the early stages of a new chapter. Having a clear goal for the week definitely pushed me to figure it all out. I did reach my goal and I have a nice list of sources that I will be going through this coming week. My goal this week is to go through the sources and come up with a very general outline of where this chapter is going. I wrote a blog post this past week that was me thinking out loud a bit about the chapter and I have some general idea of some themes I’m intrigued by. By the end of the week, though, I want a good solid outline of the major points/figures/texts I’m going to work through in the chapter.

What about yall? How’s it going? What can we do to help you? What’s your goal for this week?

Just remember, Success Kid loves you and is proud of you.

Shut Up and Start Writing: Week 2- The Starting Pistol

BANG! And we’re off.  Alright folks, time to check in with what you did this week and what your goal is for next week.

I actually got the chapter I’ve been working on revised and emailed to my adviser. So, if Dennis got his done too, that adviser should have a nice batch of summer reading. For next week, I’m starting a new chapter and I’d like to have a list of sources I need to go through put together by the end of the week. I’ll give myself bonus points if I can actually get through some of those sources. So, did I earn a sticker?

And what about yall? How was the first week? Did you start strong? Stumble out of the blocks? What can we do to help you? And what’s your goal for next week?

Your Taste is Killer: Ira Glass Provides Much Needed Dissertation Motivation

Ira Glass in a heart

I’ve been slogging through the dissertation work lately. I’m getting stuff done. But the joy is fading. Then I found this:


Oh, Ira. Thanks. I needed this.

I consider our work as academics creative. The very best academic writing has a creative flair to it, whether in the prose or the theory or the narrative or the use of sources. Those of us who choose, for better or worse, a career in the academic wing of the creative classes  are drawn here because of our “taste,” as Glass puts it. We read a book, take a class, research a project, or do something that ignites that taste and motivates us. Then we go to grad school and we start to produce seminar papers, conference papers, and eventually a dissertation, all the while reading works by brilliant academics. We start to notice the gap between what we’re doing and what these writers are doing. We want to do what they are doing, we always have, but we are afraid we can’t. We are afraid that our work will never live up to our taste.

Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems that we all feel this gap at some point in our training. For some it may come during course work or exams, but for me it has come at the dissertation phase–and not the beginning of the dissertation, about a third of the way through it. That’s why these words from Ira Glass were so motivational for me. My taste is killer. If you’re reading this, your taste is killer. Now comes the work. It’s time to fight your way through.

Ok, back to the fight.

Good advice for those of us writing dissertations…

Over the long arc of your career, you will complete many research projects, one often leading to the next. Research is an archipelago, not a single island. Your goal should be to build a career piece by piece doing good research. A professor once shocked me when I was a graduate student by saying, “Hopefully, your dissertation will be the worst thing you ever write.” Now I give the same advice: Our goal as scholars is continual improvement. Do the best job you can on your dissertation, defend it, publish it in some form, then move on.

Yep. That’s the goal.

More good advice here for those of you who’ve crossed over the river and are on the tenure track.

Help Me Write Better: How Much Signposting is Too Much Signposting in Academic Writing?

via Flickr user Kapungo, Creative Commons License

As I’ve been writing I’ve been thinking about the use of signposting in my writing. I have always thought the strength of my academic writing was my organization. I spend a lot of energy making sure a chapter/essay is built well and one way I do that is through very blatant signpost of what the essay/chapter is going to do (as you’ll see below.) I’ve been debating if I should go back and as part of the revision process, smooth over this blatant signposting. So, my question for folks out there on the internets is whether this is a good idea or not. Is signposting helpful? Is it distracting? Is it poor style? Will I lose clarity by taking it out? I’ve already tweeted and posted a Facebook status asking these questions but I thought an example might make it easier to get people’s ideas.  I know these questions might be hard to answer without reading the whole essay but I’ve put a chunk from the introduction of an essay I’m currently revising for submission below to give an example of what I’m doing. These are the last paragraphs of the introduction. Thoughts? Comments?


It is arguable whether the haystack meeting was the birth of American missions or not, but it still serves as an exemplary American missionary story. The young men of Williams College in 1806 took part in a revival experience of the community around them. They read transatlantic letters and sermons describing the movement of the Holy Spirit at home and in Great Britain and studied the work of great British missionary leaders such as Wilberforce, Carey, and Ward. Then, after they had gone to the field themselves, they sent back letters, journals and accounts of the mission field to an Evangelical audience in America that consumed their stories along with stories of domestic revival.

This essay examines this process of traveling narratives. Specifically, I argue that the travel of revival narratives constituted the transatlantic revival at the turn of the 19th century. This revival and its narratives engendered the missionary movement in America which then in turn bred new narratives that traveled across oceans from the mission field to America, creating the sense of a global awakening.

To analyze this process of traveling transatlantic and transoceanic revival, I begin with a broad definition of revival that draws on examples from across American history. I provide a six point definition of revival that foregrounds the relationship between experience, narrative, and communication in the production and spread of revivals. I then closely track two of these six points: narrative and communication. To that end, I move from the broad view of revival throughout history to a view of the revivals from 1790 to 1820 in order to establish the transatlantic travel of texts—that is, the communication of narratives. I then hone in more narrowly again and focus on the narratives of British missionaries that found their way into American culture. Finally, in concluding the essay, the fourth, and narrowest section, reveals how narratives from the mission field were part of a growing American Evangelical print culture that joined foreign intelligence with domestic and British revival narratives to create a sense of global awakening.

But to begin, what is revival?