Dissertation Soundtrack

Right now I’m procrastinating. I am supposed to be writing a blog post on a different topic. I’m trying to procrastinate productively, which is why I’m writing this. Productive procrastination is a crucial technique for accomplishing things in the long run. This morning when I was thinking about writing the blog post I should be writing, it occurred to me that maybe it would help if I listened to my dissertation soundtrack. What, you ask, is a dissertation soundtrack?

I am a a serial monogamist when it comes to music. I tend to get a little bit obsessive when I find something that I like, and I listen to it over and over again until I’m totally sick of it. By accident when I was writing my dissertation, I discovered that music was sticky. Whatever piece of research and writing I was doing glued itself to the music that I had on repeat while I was working on it. I would love for a cognitive scientist to explain how this works. But it does.

Once I realized that I could get myself in the mood for a particular chapter by playing the music that I had listened to while working on it, I started to do it strategically. When I started researching and writing a new chapter, I would pick out a new album or a new artist to listen to obsessively. And it came in handy later, when I was revising the dissertation chapters into a book. Even though in some cases 7 years had passed since I originally wrote a chapter, I could quickly get back into the mindset of that chapter by listening to what I listened to when I originally wrote it. When I listen to The National’s High Violet, for example, I pretty much can’t help but think about U.S. policy towards the Philippines in the 1920s and 1930s. I suspect that this might always be true. When I listen Zoot Woman’s Grey Day, I am immediately transported to the bizarre world of candy manufacturers in the 1920s.

Here’s the list I compiled at the end of the dissertation:

Chapter : Candy

  • The Gossip
  • M.I.A.
  • Zoot Woman
  • Cut Copy
  • Thao

Chapter : Piloncillo

  • Sean Hayes
  • Bon Iver
  • Madeline
  • Denison Witmer

Chapter: Tariffs

  • Dirty Projectors
  • Thao
  • Micachu
  • The Whitest Boy Alive

Chapter: 1930s

  • Sleighbells
  • Micachu
  • The Dodos

I added a few more chapters and much new research to the book, so there’s a whole other soundtrack for that.

And for my new project? Cannabis and herbicide policy in the late 1970s and 1980s has yoked itself to Sufjan Stevens’ new album, Carrie & Lowell. Now you know what I listen to!


About aprilmerleaux

I am an Assistant Professor of History at Florida International University. My research and teaching focuses on the 20th century United States in international context. My book, Sugar and Civilization: American Empire and the Cultural Politics of Sweetness was published by UNC Press in 2015.
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