I thought a lot about my future dissertation (and its already-evident failings) while I was in Poland. I tried to back it up a step and think about WHY I am writing a dissertation and WHY I've selected the general topic area that I have.
My reasons for writing a dissertation are pretty instrumentalized (as for most people, doubtless):
1. to demonstrate to my advisor, committee and the U that I can successfully conduct independent research;
2. to provide evidence of scholarship that will get me a JOB; and
3. to serve as a starting point for a life's work in research on topics that I care about that are relevant "enough" to keep me employed.
I am trying to think strategically about all of this because (unlike some of my younger grad student colleagues) I would like to finish in a year AND get a decent tenure-track teaching job. I'm not that interested in R1 institutions, because I just don't have the desire to be clawing to the top constantly seeking publicity for my research and working a hundred hours a week. I've seen what that looks like in some of the junior professors and it is NOT attractive.
I'm looking to be a generalist, relatively speaking. I specialize in Europe, obviously, but like to think I have some familiarity with North American geography as well. (It would be great to TA US and Canada this fall for that reason but it's a schedule-killer.) I have greatest familiarity with urban geography but also some experience with economic geography and cultural geography.
Why study eastern Europe? Two reasons, really: 1) the transition from communism to post-socialism is historic and probably unique; and 2) membership in the EU is the same, both historic and unique. What are the spatial effects of these two sets of transitions?
Why study Poland specifically? Again, two reasons: 1) it's spatially extremely interesting and diverse because of the history of border shifts and contested nationhood; and 2) pragmatically, it was easier to find Polish language courses than, say, Latvian. A sort of third reason is that I really liked the country(side) on a visit in 2002 - although now that I know more I find I don't like it yet as well as I like, say, Italy or France. It might help me to read the literature or look at the art of the country to gain more appreciation for the culture.
Why study Polish cities? This is more personal, probably - as well as instrumental. I like cities, their bustle and excitement and novelty and amenity. More pragmatically - I have a strong background in urban issues, and there is more information available about cities.
I have four ideas for dissertation topics - 2 well-thought out, 2 just glimmers. My plan is to flesh out all four (I have a sort of template for this), discuss them with my advisor, and then pick one and get to work. The chosen topic will frame a new attempt at "real" reading lists (as opposed to the in-the-dark lists I currently own) and I hope will get me through prelims in good time this fall. It's also necessary for the raft of fellowship applications I'll have to work on this fall.
I have a couple of minutes to write before I get booted.
On Friday afternoon August 12 I went to Nowa Huta again, this time with a group of 5 German students. We took the tram all the way to the steelworks: massive gate with a massive modernist sign (it's new though because they've changed the name, not "Lenin" anymore); massive crenellated buildings flanking on both sides.
We tried to get in to one of the buildings, police said no. Then we tried at the main gate, denied again. A big sign forbidding the cameras and bottles. They must be afraid of whistleblowers or just people busting on their antiquated system?
So we walked through a parklike area full of little clusters of middle-aged men standing around under trees drinking and smoking. Despair was in the air. I was glad to move on, even though the men seemed wrapped up enough in their own problems not to care about hassling others. Some bottles and other trash. On the sidewalk, waiting for the tram, they were drinking openly, which supposedly is against the law although I've seen it elsewhere.
We walked through a little neighborhood on a hillside: small single family houses, some new, all with productive gardens. Should've grabbed a soil sample! - the spew from the plant has been destroying the environment here for 50 years. Although they have cleaned it up some, I imagine there are still residues.
Saturday August 6, 2005, visit to the suburb of Nowa Huta.
(note this is a temporary place to put these notes so I don't lose them.)
From Piast in the western "suburbs" it takes the better part of an hour on the #4 tram. The tram was crowded and we picked up more and more people along the way esp in the center, mostly all of whom got off at NH Plac Centralny or the several stops immediately before. I concluded that they had been doing errands more centrally and were returning home.
First I walked around the central plaza, which is 3 arcaded buildings in a U-shape organized around a road/tramway, in the middle of which is a grass/flower park. the grass needed cutting (just about everywhere) but that might be a function of all the rain rather than a consistent lack of maintenance.
The plac is called Plac Centralny im. Ronald Reagan. What is THAT about? It contains the same small shops as you'd find in neighborhoods (I should inventory them): banks, hairdressers, a bookshop, travel agency. NO CAFES! There were people about doing errands but not too many and everyone was clearly "from" there: no tourists. I wanted to find a sort of tourist info area, but there was nothing.
I walked up the main axis, which in the third block devolves into a strictly pedestrian way. Apartment blocks on both sides - nicely landscaped if a little overgrown. Some people have nice balcony flowers, others nothing so there's a sense of individuality. In the apt blocks it's the same as the Piast neighborhood (except I think more formally designed).
At the end of the axis they are building what looks like a church to replace a sort of vinyl sided barn looking building that is currently a church. next to the new building and in the same style/materials is a large dwelling of some sort - a rectory? convent? retreat center? beyond that there is a stream with pretty good flow and then woods and overgrown open areas. It looks like a place where people go to avoid being seen (there was a cab down at the end) so I didn't proceed further, but indeed went west on the main road and cut up through a different kind of n'hood with the tall, square blocks of housing. Again, lots of green space, benches, etc. Rather more shabby looking than the midrises.
I then passed a number of courtyard style buildings (again with laundry hanging out in the yard - likely the number of people with dryers is even smaller than that with washers, which latter is about 40%, I read somewhere) and then came to a main street with busline and trams. I thought it was the main road Al. Jana Pawla but no. There was an open market on the opposite corner: walked through that. Fruits and veg, some clothing (sweaters, blouses, bras) and lots of flower stands. The building behind looked to be a flower market perhaps year round, spilling out into the front parking lot in summer.
Walked along the main street to what i think was a workers hall now has computer-type places in it, very run down looking. Next to it a restaurant/cafe, the only outdoor eatery I saw. Further along, the streetscape was under construction: new underground utilities, paving and sidewalk. They were installing sidewalk pavers even though it was Sat, and the guys in the street were working as well.
Took the next left - a little node of shops on my left, more apt blocks, set back from the street, on the opposite side. These apts didn't have shops in the ground floor unlike the ones I'd seen east of the main spine a little earlier.
By this time I was lost and the sun had gone in so my sense of direction was really screwed up. A steady procession of apts right on the sidewalk, with a little free-standing meat shop. The buildings got more formal and classicial looking so I hoped I was reaching the square, which indeed turned out to be the case, but on a different street than I had expected.
By this time it was raining and cold and I had no umbrella and no sweater and I really had to pee. Stopped into the 2 bookstores for a map of NH - none to be had (I asked).
Walked across Al. JP to the so-called cultural center, that Rick had mentioned to me. A class of kids let out and raced to the exit. A wedding or other event was being set up in the hall. I looked through a photo exhibit (travels in Mongolia and Peru) in one of the halls, but the other halls were locked even though there seemed to be visitors inside.
I concluded that this was a local place built for the locals and their events, nothing to do with outreach to visitors. The building is offset from the main axis and looks slightly newer, but not of post-communist vintage, I don't think.
Next to it they are clearing land for something else.
Took tram to Kopiec Wandy (a completely abortive trip) and then back to the main square to get the tram back to Stare Miasto. And, time's up.