Getting Started

Three weeks ago, I passed my comprehensive exams. Hooray! This huge moment felt (as my advisor had hoped it would) anticlimactic. Up one hill to climb to the next, right? Thankfully, grad students farther in the process than I had warned me to take a minute to celebrate and then to regroup before taking on the next hurdle… the dissertation prospectus.

At first, I thought the prospectus would be no big deal. For my department, it’s only 12-15 pages  and most of the content I had already thought through. My first draft, though, was nearly 19 double-spaced pages! I felt swamped by the pressure to lay out my research plan for the next 2-3 years. This is the set-up for the next major phase of my life, and it’s only supposed to be 12-15 pages??? Brevity really is the soul of wit, I guess (at least in American Studies).

Building up to the prospectus, I didn’t realize how much re-examining I would feel the need to do before submitting it to my committee. I know that the prospectus is ultimately just a draft, a stepping stone before beginning a research process that will inevitably shift as I go along. What I want, though, is a solid compass as the foundation for my work moving forward. I’ve figured out some of my guiding ideas (influenced in large part by Amy, Randi, Christina, and Teryn at UNC’s American Indian Center and my Native Leadership Institute cohort), but many are still in the works — I’d love your thoughts about what else I should be thinking about in this prep phase.

Here are the basics:

  1. RESPECT: Produce something accessible.

    As you already know, I was a public school teacher. I want my research to be accessible and engaging to other public school teachers, administrators, staff, interested community members, and researchers. To me, researching something that impacts a community and then not making it accessible to them feels hugely disrespectful.

    Respect also means listening and responding to tribal community members’ needs and wants at every step of the process. I see myself as neither more in charge nor more capable than the people with whom I work. Quite the opposite — they are far more knowledgeable and skilled in many areas than I will ever be. I see myself as an accompaniment, a backstage technician who follows the wishes of the actual director and actors on stage. If this work really is about supporting tribal sovereignty (which it is, in my mind), then researching respectfully means they get to guide the work.

  2. RESPONSIBILITY: Produce something that is useful.

    A faculty member recently told me, “Think about how your dissertation will serve you in the future.” I get that. I know on some level that it’s important. But I’m way more interested in how my research can benefit others. Since I’m looking at federal education policy, that means figuring out what tribal governments and the U.S. Department of Ed might want me to provide for them (acknowledging that, in some instances, those interests might conflict with each other and/or with the goals of my committee).

    It also means fulfilling my responsibilities to those who supported me in getting to this phase of my work. Thanks to Adrienne Keene for summing up my thoughts on fulfilling our responsibilities to our communities.

  3. RECIPROCITY: The process matters as much as the product.

    If my work is really going to be decolonizing, I’ve got to pay attention to the ways in which the labor of creating my dissertation can disrupt and re-write existing power dynamics. Within my initial locus of control, that means working against the historically exploitative nature of research in Native communities. Still figuring out exactly what this looks like on the ground, but first and foremost it means committing to listen and act in ways responsive to the desires of the communities with whom I work.

    Also, finding ways to pay those collaborators who agree to work with me. I know some people think this somehow invalidates the reliability of the information you get, but I disagree. People are providing you with their time and energy. You should compensate them for it.

  4. A COMMITMENT TO NATION-BUILDING. There are so many amazing things to celebrate in Indian Country right now. I am continually inspired by the work of people like Adrienne KeeneJessica MetcalfeAmanda BlackhorseDahkota Kicking Bear BrownTara HouskaKyle Mays, and the folks at CNAYWHIAIANE, and whoever keeps the People’s Dictionary running so I can keep working on my anishinaabemowin skills. Native nations are rising again, reclaiming their histories, languages, educations, environments, land bases, economies, legal structures, representations, and contemporary identities. There is no neutral work in American Indian Studies — either your work helps or it hurts. I’m committed to make sure my research does the former and supports the needs of tribes as they build capacity and invest in their futures.

That’s it for now, and I’d love to hear your thoughts! Baamaapi,


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