Stumbling into Resources, My Matryoshka Problem

Right now, I’m up to my eyes in research, as I mentioned before. I keep getting to a point where I’ve synthesized a lot of historical and critical work, but get roadblocked in making my argument by difficulty finding other resources. I’m going to start with a request–above the fold–and then get more into this saga.

I am currently seeking letters written between students at American Indian boarding schools and their parents or other people not associated with the school administrations. I’m working on a chapter about gender in the boarding schools and, while I have a mountain of research on the history of the schools, as well access to the student records archived by Carlisle, I desperately want to get my hands on students’ letters. The files at Carlisle include correspondence between students and the school, but, although those letters can be interesting, I don’t think they can really be taken as students writing about their experiences at the school. I’m going to keep looking, but if you happen to have seen something like this in a book or archive somewhere, I would love to know that.

Anyway, one of the best pieces I ever received in grad school was to follow the questions that I was interested in and to create my archive of texts and artifacts around those questions. Taking that advice from my awesome advisor has shaped the last few years of my academic life and has led me to the dissertation that I’m working on now–a dissertation that I love and will hopefully be proud of. Also, a dissertation that keeps surprising and frustrating me. One of those surprises is that to answer the questions I’m interested in, I have to educate myself all over again about new historical moments and fields of inquiry. For example–and primarily–I don’t like to read autobiographies, yet that’s all I’m reading right now. Between life writing and interviews by young Jewish immigrant women and theory about autobiography, I’m consumed with reading that I would never, ever choose for fun. But it’s fascinating because it is necessary to answer the questions I am interested in about how girls made sense of citizenship during a period of intense Americanization and changes around gender norms in the home and the economy. It seems like once a day I’m having a moment in which I think both “I love this!” and “How on earth did I end up here?!” I’m enjoying it, even if I am also getting tripped up by the way my sources act like Matryoshka dolls. Each source just leads me to another source I need in order to proceed.

Fellow writers, how did you go about forming your archive? Are you surprised by where you’ve ended up in your dissertation or other project? How do you draw the line and say, “This is enough research, already!”?

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