Today I started writing the beast of the dissertation on Vietnamese libraries. “Builders and Users: Creating the Vietnamese Library 1887-1986”
The Vietnamese library was never quiet.
Readers flooded the reading room of the Central Library to escape the heat in the summers, and lovers huddled in corners during the unforgiving Hanoi winters. Frequent library patrons complained loudly to library staff and the public press about the lack of chairs for readers and unfair borrowing privileges between Vietnamese and Europeans. Everyday incidents between workers and readers, French and Vietnamese, coalesced into the ever so frequent epic library drama: a slap to the face, a lifetime revocation of library privileges, and a mysterious death reported as a suicide.
Graduate school perpetuates a nebulous concept of ‘work.’ In the academy we are always working—from research to teaching, grant writing to meetings, emails to professional networking. But for me, this concept of always working weighs me down. It is easy for me to forget why I’m doing this whole academy thing, and what it is I’m actually doing at the moment.
Thus, for the past two years of graduate school, I have quantified my labor. It started as a personal challenge if I could maintain a ’40-hour work week’ and have some resemblance to work-life balance. But over the years, I found that quantifying my labor was both personally revelatory and an affirmation of my work. Much like the ‘quantified-self movement,’ I wanted to know what I do with my time, so that I could more efficiently use my time. But most importantly, quantifying my labor reminded me why I was pursuing a Ph.D. in Vietnamese history.
Exam Preparation & “Reading” Publicly for an Online Audience
For several months I have been preparing for my Ph.D. qualifying exams in history at UC Berkeley. It can be an incredibly isolating process, where I read for hours with no clear sense of end in sight. Since I’m not teaching this semester, all these ideas that I’ve encountered in reading has felt quite stagnant and purposeless. These books marinate in my head rather than out there being challenged and questioned in an undergraduate classroom or grad seminar.
Something that has brought meaning and order to all these ideas is publishing summaries, thoughts, and questions here on my blog! The anticipation of an audience and the pressure of being ‘published’ online challenges me to refine my ideas more clearly. I liken this process to “reading publicly”. By sharing my reading lists, summaries, thoughts, and questions on these books, I hope to make a visible archive of my ideas.
Making Transparent the Ivory Tower of Academia
Often the ivory tower of academia is portrayed as self-serving and removed from the larger community. Pushing against the image of the isolated ivory tower of intellectualism, I aspire to make the research, reading, and writing process more transparent through my own work. My mission for my website consists of two parts:
Contribute to the body of online knowledge on Vietnam.
Share my experience as a graduate student and researcher.
My hope is that these thoughts and summaries can be useful to someone else out there who is planning coursework, interested in Vietnam, or curious about history. The English language information on Vietnam out there on the internets is quite limited, or incredibly weighted towards the Vietnam War. Furthermore, I seek to share the process of research as one of exploration, experimentation, and communication.
I want to contribute to a culture of sharing things in progress. Working papers, thoughts, typos, unpolished ideas.
It somehow became about the mid point of Berkeley summer term and I realized that my ambitious summer goals have fallen a bit behind. I’m currently in Aix-en-Provence, France for preliminary dissertation research in the colonial archives. It’s definitely been challenging to balance archival work and fellowship grant writing.
I will dedicate the next few blog posts to share my experience figuring out the ropes of fellowship grant writing and developing my research prospectus.