Joss Greene, PhD Candidate in Sociology, recipient of the inaugural Devon T. Wade Mentorship and Service Award and a Center for Engaged Scholarship dissertation fellowship, shares his dissertation journey. Over the course of this year, Greene will reveal the ups and downs of his dissertation-writing process. In this introductory segment, he describes his dissertation topic and methodology, how the process has been going so far, and his secret trick for maintaining work/life balance.
My dissertation, “Gender Bound: Regulating Femininity in Prisons for Men,” examines prison regulation of gender deviance between 1940 and 2018. At present, legislators across the country are remaking prison policy to house transgender people based on identity. Judges have passed landmark rulings that trans prisoners are entitled to gender-affirming surgery. We are witnessing a change in the ways gender is interpreted and managed by prison administrators and staff. This moment of change begs the question: How are prison gender rules codified, implemented, and transformed? How have prisoners at the gender margins experienced and contested imprisonment, individually and collectively? How has racialized state punishment structured life for gender non-conforming people for generations, and how are trans social movements fighting for a world without state punishment?
My project focuses on California as a case study and draws on multiple methods: archival research; oral history interviews with formerly incarcerated trans people, prisoner advocates, policy makers, and former prison staff; and ethnographic observation in transgender prisoner advocacy organizations. The bulk of my archival research took place at the California State Archives and California State Library, with supplementary trips to law libraries across the state. I read thousands of pages of California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) materials, including: classification manuals, training manuals, internal memos, census reports, and audits. I also examined materials on prisoner advocacy within two social movement archives: the Freedom Archives and the GLBT Historical Society. To understand daily practices of prison gender regulation I interviewed formerly incarcerated transgender people, current and former advocates, and former prison staff. I gathered accounts of transgender prison experiences from 1975-2018, interviewing people incarcerated decades earlier and people released mere days before our interview. In addition to using the aforementioned archival and interview data, I examined collective resistance through 13 months of ethnographic observation of contemporary trans prisoner activism in the San Francisco Bay Area.
What I’ve been doing this summer
I’ve been finishing edits to my first dissertation chapter (a historical chapter) that I hope to submit to a journal as a stand-alone article. I've also been drafting a dissertation chapter that discusses incarcerated trans people's relationships and the ways they thought about violence. I haven't quite figured out the frame for this chapter, but after working on the historical piece of my dissertation for so long it's exciting to return to my interview data and listen deeply to the accounts of women I interviewed. The last piece of dissertation work I'm tackling this summer is working on a draft book proposal.
Obstacles I’ve encountered so far
The book proposal (though shortest) is the most intellectually challenging piece of writing for me at this point. There are so many stories that I want to share from my research. A book proposal insists that I put a frame around a certain subset of information, foregrounding some information and omitting the rest. I find this work of analytically focusing very difficult and have been re-reading favorite books in an entirely different way! I'm now looking at how scholars organize chapters and tie them together. I've had a skeleton structure envisioned for my dissertation, but as I was writing it up for the book proposal I wasn't feeling psyched about it. The organization was logical, but it wasn't theoretically inspiring. But I was saved by Emily Thuma's All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence! This book is phenomenal. It has four substantive chapters (fewer than most social science books) and they are all tightly connected to her overarching argument about feminist activism against interpersonal and state violence. Her book illustrated the skill in being strategic in what you foreground in order to make a larger theoretical argument. I now have a vision of a more compact, theoretically motivated outline of my chapters and feel eager to go back to revise my book proposal with this framework!
After I have a new draft of this proposal, I'm planning to meet with a consultant at the GSAS Writing Studio to think about how to move forward with actually writing the chapters. This has been really helpful for me in the past when I have a high-level vision of my writing project but need support mapping out the practical next steps to execute it.
Milo and me
Dissertation-writing definitely feels like a marathon. In moments when I'm feeling overwhelmed or losing perspective, I've been helped by my puppy! Her name is Milo and she's almost five months old. Puppy parenting demands that I take regular breaks. I've tended to be the kind of person who gets stuck on an idea and sits at his desk for hours on end while he figures it out. Since I'm caring for a puppy, I've got two hours (tops!) before she needs some kind of attention, stimulation, or time outside. Adjusting my work habits to meet her needs has shown me how inefficient some of my prior habits were! I'm working slightly fewer hours, but getting more done and feeling better overall.