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Writing a PhD Thesis (on French Pacifism) during a Global Pandemic

Written by Lauren Jannette

A long and lonely road. When I began my PhD journey back in 2015, fellow graduate students described the process of writing a PhD thesis as just that: a long and lonely road in the wilderness of archives, libraries, and at home in front of the computer. Lacking a reason to come to campus, the process was devoid of human contact except for your roommates, if you had any, and the occasional meeting with your advisor. As first year PhD students, the slightly ominous warning prompted myself and members of my cohort to plan regularly scheduled meetings to discuss our research and comment on each other’s drafts when we reached the writing phase of our PhD theses. Plans made, we spent the next three years venting about papers and presentations for our remaining coursework. We shared the triumphs and frustrations of teaching introductory history seminars to first-year students who were only taking the class because it was required to graduate. We survived the intensity of comprehensive exams. Then after forging close bonds of friendship and comradery, we parted ways to our archives across the globe with the promise of future commiserating about thesis writing over a pint or two upon our return.

I spent the year locked away in archives and libraries across Paris. Having chosen to study French pacifism between the two world wars, I faced the daunting task of piecing together a project from police surveillance reports, the scattered records of pacifist organizations, and hundreds of feet of newspapers on microfilm. Inspiration struck while sending friends photos of the funny cartoons, and I eventually decided to study the evolution of motifs of women and veterans found in pacifist ephemeral propaganda from 1915 until 1939. When members of my cohort came to stay with me in Paris, either for their own short archive trips or a conference, we took a break from the daily grind of archival research and celebrated the progress we were making on our projects. We began planning our writing groups and meetings once we returned to the States. We were looking forward to seeing everyone again and seeing how their thesis topics had evolved over the past year. Life, however, had another plan for us.

Coming back to campus in the fall of 2019, my cohort and I celebrated with dinners and nights out where we shared the good, the bad, the ugly, and the confusing of dealing with foreign bureaucracies and archival staffs. We imparted our gained knowledge to the cohort behind us as they headed abroad, ensuring them we would be available to help with whatever they needed. The semester came and went with the usual amount of student and department drama. Gleefully handing my finals to my fellow teaching assistants to grade, I departed for my long-awaited honeymoon in New Zealand where I completely ignored any and all things related to my thesis and the mountain of work I had to do to complete it. I foolishly believed I would be able to finish the drafts of all my chapters by the end of spring.

Arriving back to campus in January recovering from the flu (and it was the flu), I was looking forward to continuing the drafts of my thesis. I say drafts, because at this point, two of the eventual six chapters had already gone through two or three different iterations, as I continued to search for my argument and tried to figure out if a thematic or chronological approach was the best choice. I had come to the harsh realization that I would not be able to complete my chapter drafts by the end of spring and would need another year to finish. This realization meant that finding grants to fund another year of writing became of the utmost importance, as my university fellowship was coming to an end. Dividing my time between grant writing, lesson planning, and teaching left little time to actually write my thesis. I gained an appreciation and understanding for professors’ difficulties with finishing their book manuscripts and why they fiercely guarded their sabbatical years as a no contact period.

Then the world came to a screeching halt.

The Friday before spring break 2020, we received word that we would not be coming back to campus. The Covid pandemic had hit Washington, D.C. and the university decided to transition fully to remote teaching. In a daze, I went home to set up a workspace that eventually took over the whole dining room table. Faced with the transition to online teaching, my entire spring break was spent setting up online discussion groups and recording lectures. I was confronted with the enormous task of coordinating discussion sections for students across the US, China, Indonesia, and a host of other nations. What had once been two one-hour sessions of thirty students was now five one-hour sessions with five to eight students. While I appreciated getting to hear the shyer students share their thoughts on the weekly readings (something that never happened in the large sections) and the engaging conversations that occurred every week, any spare time to write my thesis evaporated. My entire week was absorbed preparing for these new discussion sections, checking in on students’ mental health, troubleshooting issues for students in China who could not access the course material due to the government’s censors, and trying to figure out how I could access and share non-digitized library materials my students needed for their coursework.

Despite my troubles, I came to realize how lucky I was with the timing of my research year during conversations with friends abroad. Not only were they locked out of their archives and burning through non-refundable grant money, they were also locked in their very small studio apartments with spotty internet and nothing to do. One friend shared a moment of luck when a tiny archive in the French countryside took pity on her and snuck her in on the last possible day of travel so she could hastily photograph anything and everything the archivists could produce before they had to close their doors until further notice. I listened to their worries and frustrations at not being able to do the project they envisioned and unable to leave their host country to come home.

We all watched in horror as outside funding from national organizations, scholarships, and endowments dried up or went on hiatus for the year, leaving us questioning how we were going to fund our writing next year when our teaching fellowships ended. Among the various cohorts in our department, we scanned and sent materials to one another when we were able to get our hands on them, and shared every rumor of funding that we came across. We did our best to support each other through virtual happy hours, phone calls, and group chats. However, as the days of lockdown turned into months, our virtual get-togethers dwindled and we sank back into our isolated bubbles of worry, frustration, and dread. Instead of capitalizing on the time to churn out chapters of my thesis, I spent the weeks of lock-down funneling my energy into other projects. My motivation to complete my thesis disappeared entirely.

The summer came and went. Finally done with logistical nightmare of teaching across time zones and with D.C. easing Covid restrictions, I was able to meet with friends in person again. They shared how they were able to channel their frustrations into motivation to finish their theses as quickly as possible, which in turn lit the metaphorical fire for me to get my own project done. I found myself surrounded by a pile of various iterations of drafted chapters, advisor comments, hundreds of images to sort through, and absolutely no funding. Not exactly the best place to be when one is trying to find motivation to finish a project. Yet, I dove head first into my material to try and find an argument that would satisfy my advisor and my own personal ambitions. Unlike the newer cohorts, I was too far into the thesis writing process to change my topic to suit digitally accessible materials, and my topic of post-First World War pacifism was not “popular” enough to warrant digitization by the archives and libraries in France. I realized that I would need to return to France to fill in gaps in my research.

Taking advantage of a dual citizenship loophole that allowed for international travel into Europe, my husband and I moved back to France just as it reentered a period of intense lock-down. Thankfully this lock-down period was shorter than friends had endured during the spring, and within a few weeks libraries and archives reopened for researchers. However, Covid restrictions placed limitations on how many people could access a site each day and how many sources each person could view. I learnt very quickly how strict these restrictions were after I attempted to order an additional source one day, only to be met with a very harshly worded reminder that left me shuffling quietly back to my table. I was slowly able to fill in the gaps in my research, reexamine documents that I had photographed poorly, and double-check citations and footnotes (a number of which were incorrectly cited) throughout the 2020-2021 academic year. A process which should have taken a few months ended up taking over a year to complete.

Yet despite all the frustrations and setbacks brought on by the pandemic, a silver lining did appear at the time of my defense. Traditionally PhD thesis defenses had taken place in person at our department’s conference room. The PhD candidate would sit in front of their advisors, some who had flown in for the occasion, and respond to questions about what their research process was, why their research was important, and how it was going to change the course of their field of study. While the defenses were typically scheduled for two hours, sometimes committee questions could stretch on for much longer, and could get into minute details about the argument and evidence of the thesis. Thanks to the global shift to virtual conferences, however, I was able to conduct my defense in Paris with committee members in Washington, D.C., Sacramento, and Montreal. The digital platform and time differences ensured the two-hour time limit for my defense. Friends and family around the world were also able to join in and celebrate when the committee officially declared my defense a success.

While I was able to complete my writing by taking advantage of any and every opportunity that came my way, others in my cohort are still struggling to finish their theses within the extended timeline given to us by the university. PhD thesis writing in the time of global pandemic is not something I would recommend for future scholars. The additional stress of restricted access to sources, loss of personal connections, and non-existent funding made the long and lonely road of thesis writing even worse. Should a future pandemic see us return to periods of lock-down, I hope future scholars learn from our shared experience and adapt their research methods and topics to suit the restrictions of the era.

Lauren Jannette received her PhD from George Washington University in May 2022. Her current research looks at artistic motifs of women and veterans in French pacifist art produced in the 1920s and 1930s, and examines how they influenced and were influenced by the political, philosophical, and religious divisions present in the pacifist movement.  

Image Credit: A Peace Conference at the Quai d’Orsay, ©IWM Art.IWM ART 2855, Licence: IWM Non-Commercial Licence.

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