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Posts Tagged ‘dissertating’

Outlining

My breakneck speed in writing has tailed off since the weekend. I wrote the first twenty-seven pages of Chapter 6 from Friday to Sunday, then took off all of yesterday. Today I’ve chosen to do some outlining for a change.

Actually, it’s probably a bit of a stretch to call my pre-writing outlining. Since I usually have a reasonable idea of what my big argument or key points are, I try to figure out mentally what I want to say in a paper, or, in this case, in a particular chapter. I tend to prepare to write by sifting through my sources and organizing them in a logical way, usually into thematic groups, then I think about the points to make in each group and basically order the sources that go with each group. There’s surprisingly little evidence of me actually putting my thoughts on paper as a reminder of what the main idea is to convey at a given point; at times this probably works to my detriment when I forget to mention something and only remember it after the fact. But, for better or worse, this is how I write, and I seem to have gotten remarkably far in my dissertation (and academic career) with “outlines” that look nothing like the things Mrs. Banks taught us to make in fourth grade.

Anyway, as I was doing my research last year, I tagged each source according to the key themes it addressed, and created collections and subcollections in Zotero to organize my sources. Along the way I started to thing about how I wanted to organize my dissertation into chapters, as well as the main, overarching arguments I want to make. By the time I had my research more or less finished this summer, I began the arduous process of reading through all those sources (I have something like 1,300 or 1,400 sources, and if I had to estimate I’d guess somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000-5,000 notes for my sources). In the process of revisiting all my sources, I created collections for each proto-chapter with all the sources I thought I might use, or moved sources into the chapter they best fit. It’s an imperfect science, especially because there are hundreds of sources that won’t actually end up cited in my dissertation, but I took the approach of putting everything including the kitchen sink in my chapter collections.

Once that was complete, I started each chapter by, yet again, sifting through all the sources from that chapter’s collection and began to contemplate the sections that would comprise the individual chapter. Subsections were created in Zotero for the chapter, and I put sources in the appropriate subcollection. I stuck to this pretty strictly for the first three chapters, then sort of abandoned it for what wound up being Chapters 4 and 5 since those are substantially based on a seminar paper, on which I scribbled notes about new sources and ideas to add.

But I’ve returned to my methodology for Chapter 6. I decided on eight sections and filtered the sources into those. (I’ll probably deviate from this since the last four sections are kind of a jumble, and I’m going to cut off this chapter just shy of the halfway point and put the rest into a new chapter, Chapter 7.) The introductory section of Chapter 6 is cribbed largely from my first article, which made it easy for me to write the whole section on Friday. Then I wrote up the section from my first subcollection on Saturday, and the next subcollection on Sunday. I’m left now with the third subcollection, which is kind of a hodgepodge, much as this whole (truncated) Chapter 6 will end up being. I’m going to have to create a short concluding/transitional section to end this chapter as a segue into Chapter 7, which shouldn’t be too bad, especially since it’ll probably only be a page or two. But because I wrote the introductory section before realizing I needed to split the chapter in two, I’m going to have to do some tweaking once I complete the first, very rough draft.

Anyway, all of this is a longwinded way of describing my writing process in detail, or at least in as much detail as I tend to develop. I’m probably going to end up having to split this next section in two, just because the section has ten main subthemes, and while some of them will be only require a single paragraph (or less), others are probably going to need a page or two, if not more. We’ll see.

This is actually why I resist creating more detailed outlines (and I think this completely contradicts something I wrote back around July when I started this blog and began writing my dissertation) for many papers. My general modus operandi is just to write the damn thing and find my voice as a writer so the narrative flows well. I find it’s easier to go with the flow, literally, and let the argumentation and section breaks fall where they may, rather than to try to construct a rigid structure in advance.

I mean, this must be pretty obvious to anyone following this blog, since I’ve already split my first chapter into a Prologue and Chapter 1, I’ve split Chapter 4 in two, and now I’m splitting Chapter 6 in two. I guess it’s largely because I’m wholly incapable of estimating in advance just how longwinded I’m going to be in writing a particular chapter.

What this really means, I suppose, is that I have no freaking clue how much longer my dissertation is going to be. I’m onto page 242, and I’d guess this next section will run ten to twelve pages, plus maybe another couple of pages for a conclusion. That’d put me just shy of 260 pages at the end of this chapter; the next chapter will run a good forty to fifty pages, I’m sure, and I still have no clue how long the (now) Chapter 8 and Epilogue will run. At the moment, I’d estimate it’s going to end up being 350 to 400 pages total, and probably closer to the latter.

The good news is, with the rest of this chapter organized (in my own special way), I’m confident I can finish it by the end of the week. With some luck, I might also get through Chapter 7 before Christmas, or at least by New Year’s. That still puts me in good shape to get Chapter 8 and the Epilogue by some time in January or February.

Of course, all this is subject to change when I figure out halfway into a subsequent section or chapter that I need to break up yet another portion, and wind up with something like ten chapters. Though at this point in time, I think that’s pretty unlikely.

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Update

Well, I managed to split Chapter 4 into reasonable Chapters 4 and 5. Chapter 4 is now a manageable forty-five pages, while Chapter 5 is an equally reasonable thirty-nine pages. I was able to divide them at a logical point without too much difficulty. I had to tweak the introductory sections of both chapters, write a sort of conclusion/transition for Chapter 4, and make a few other tweaks. I also did some copyediting and other revising (I caught a number of typos and other small errors), and I think it’s about in a form where I’ll probably give it a fresh read in a few weeks, then send both chapters off to my committee.

And I also made progress on the Christmas front tonight, since I plotted out about three-quarters of what I need to buy. I’m hoping to hammer out the last bit tomorrow, but mainly I need to make sure I’m not overlapping with what anyone else has already purchased. And, of course, I’ll still need to place the actual order so it actually arrives in time for Christmas. But, it’s a bit of a relief to have finally gotten started on that.

Tomorrow I begin the task of outlining the rest of the dissertation. At most I have two chapters and an epilogue to write, which should come out to somewhere around 100-150 pages altogether. My best estimate at the moment is that it will be in the ballpark of 120-130 pages, and possibly less, since the longest chapter I have at the moment is fifty pages (both Chapter 2 and 3), and most of my chapters have been running in the range of forty to fifty pages. Based on that estimate, and with 214 pages already in the book, that means I’ve drafted something close to two-thirds of the total product.

So, yes, tomorrow I will most definitely find time for a sorely needed Wii break. I’m thinking a game or two of NHL 2K9, plus some Mario Kart mayhem are in order.

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Having read a few more secondary sources, I’m turning my attention back to writing.

My long-term goal is to get the full first draft done by sometime in February, if not sooner. I have two more chapters to write, plus the conclusion, so I think that’s feasible.

My intermediate goal is to get at least one of those chapters, if not more, written by the end of the year.

To get myself on track for those, I have some short-term goals for this week.

First, since I like to reread the whole draft before starting a new chapter (in order to jog my memory and remember what I’ve already said), I’m going through the previous chapters to refresh my memory and do some fine-tuning along the way. I managed to get through the Prologue and Chapters 1-3 today, which wasn’t too shabby. I also decided that the way I split the original draft of Chapter 1 into a Prologue and Chapter 1 reads well enough. I still haven’t run that change by my committee members, but I expect they’ll have few changes to recommend on it. But, on the whole, the chapters I read through again today work pretty well.

Second, I need to revise the draft of Chapter 4 I finished right before Thanksgiving. It’s about eighty-one pages, as it stands, which seems too long. I think I know how I want to divide it thematically, but tomorrow I need to sit down to the nitty-gritty of cutting it in two and making the prose work. So, that’s the objective for Tuesday, to revise and have Chapter 4 (and 5) worked up and ready to submit to my committee.

Finally, I need to get an outline hammered out for Chapter 6 and 7.  It makes the most sense to map out both chapters at once, since they both cover 1968, and I’m still not completely certain how I’m going to divide them. My working outline has basically placed the dividing line at the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, so that Chapter 6 covers the emergence of the upheaval of 1968, and the federalization debate that was so central to the Slovak side of ’68, then Chapter 7 will cover how the federation was implemented under the occupation and the problems and disappointments that came with it. But, I’m not sure it’ll be quite so straightforward. It’d be nice if it is, since my first article just deals with the federalization debate and focuses mainly on the pre-invasion period of 1968. But part of my current tentativeness is that I’m not sure how much I really have for Chapter 7, or if I should just fold Chapter 7 into the Epilogue. The Epilogue will wrap up the dissertation, while also drawing on parts of another article I wrote concerning the debates that led to the breakup of Czechoslovakia in the early 1990s and the parallels from the sixties. I’m just not sure if I have enough to put together at least a very short Chapter 7 that ties up the loose ends of the 1960s, or if it’s sparse enough that I should just have a big Chapter 6 that leads into the Epilogue. So, perhaps I really need to plot out what’s going to go into Chapter 6, 7 (if necessary) and the Epilogue, which at least would put me in good shape for writing the rest of the first draft.

Anyway, assuming I get Chapter 4 and 5 in shape tomorrow, the rest of this week will be devoted to mapping out the rest of the dissertation, in the hope I can start writing a new chapter next week.

Boy, I am ready to be done with this thing.

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Well, it seems like I’m not an entirely hopeless case. I got a request today from one of the schools to which I applied for a writing sample. Seems they’ve done their initial review of applications after last week’s deadline, and they liked my cover letter and CV well enough to want to read part of my dissertation. Progress is progress.

It’s encouraging as well because the department in question cast a pretty wide net in its advertisement for this position. In other words, it’s not a job specifically asking for someone who does East-Central Europe, but rather is open to all European fields except Britain, Germany and Russia. I’m hopeful this means I’ll be competitive for many of the jobs out there, if I can stand out enough in this expansive a search. Of course, it’s hard to know how much I might be helped by the fact that one of my committee members knows the chair of this department and has put in a good word, but, still, if I was a hopeless case, that probably wouldn’t have been enough to get them to request work from me.

Still, without having inside knowledge of the search, it’s hard to gauge my chances. I have a vague recollection of the search committee I was on a couple of years ago. I think we ultimately received somewhere north of 60 applications, decided to request additional work from maybe 15 or 20, then did phone interviews with perhaps half of those before bringing four people in for campus visits. If I had to guess, I might speculate that this committee requested writing samples from 20-30 applicants, but, again, I have no way of knowing, and couldn’t even guess at how many applications they received. I did hear by coincidence how many people applied for a European history position with an open specialization at another school where I also applied, since I ran into the retiring professor and he said they got something like 250 applications.

So, even if this is only the first cut, it’s good to have made it. At this point I expect they might decide in a couple of weeks who they want to interview at the upcoming AHA convention, since that’s the weekend after New Year’s, though I suppose they might first request more of my work, possibly all of my finished chapters.

And speaking of chapters, I’m still slogging away at Chapter 4. In reality it’s going to get split into two chapters, since I’m currently up to 63 pages and still have probably 15-20 pages to go. I’m pretty sure I know how I want to divide it, and I think I can do so in a way that makes sense. But I’ll be glad once I can get through the current draft, then tear it in two. That’ll put me up to five chapters plus the preface, with two chapters and an epilogue to go. I think I can get Chapter 6 done by the time I get back from the holidays in early January, and hopefully I can crank out Chapter 7 by the end of that month. I think I’m going to have to keep revising my timetable because things just seem to take longer than I anticipate, but I maintain my guarded optimism that I can finish a full draft by the end of Winter Quarter.

The other good news on this front is that I’ve had very good feedback on my first three chapters, and have already made most of the revisions based on the comments from my committee members. If I can keep this pace (admittedly a big if), I shouldn’t need to make major changes from the first full draft to the final version I defend. Of course, I also haven’t yet settled on my third committee member, which poses a potential wild card. Then again, the third member is likely going to defer to my main adviser on most matters, so it might not be too bad.

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It’s been a month, or more, since I last wrote anything for my dissertation. The gap isn’t terribly surprising, though perhaps a bit longer than I’d hoped, since I’ve had other things to tend to in the meantime, like applying for jobs and putting together a presentation I’m giving at a conference next week (all about cartoons). Also, I’ve been revising the chapters I’ve already written based on feedback from my readers. I divided Chapter 1 into a Preface and Chapter 1, and I added a bunch of fluffery about theories of nationalism, because I have to show that I’m engaged with the theoretical literature.

As you might guess, I don’t care much for getting too engrossed in theory and historiography. They sort of feel like the academic equivalent of eating your vegetables because you’re supposed to, except that I like eating vegetables and they offer lots of nourishment. So perhaps “engaging the relevant historiography/theorists” is more like the academic equivalent of being forced to eat breakfast cereals marketed toward children. No, wait, everyone likes eating those sugary cereals, even if they’re of dubious nutritional value. Strike that. Addressing relevant historiography, theoretical literature and other scholarship that might pertain to your own research is more like being forced to eat the box the sugary cereal comes in: there’s some fiber and necessary roughage, but it tastes terrible and about the only thing you ever want to say is that it sucks and someone show try making it not taste like wet cardboard. Or something like that.

Fortunately, I inhabit a scholarly field that is scarcely populated, since few historians or academics write very extensively about Slovakia, and even scholarship that addresses Czechoslovakia is usually preoccupied with the Czech half of the country, relegating Slovakia to the role of red-headed stepchild. I’m fine with that, since it spares me much of the torture that historiography and situating your research in a larger body of scholarship normally entail. For the most part, I can usually get away with saying something like, “There are several works that nominally deal with this period in Czechoslovakia, but they all either essentially ignore Slovakia or are otherwise sorely deficient, which means there’s this big gaping hole for me to fill.” It’s simple, to the point, provides an obvious justification for my own work, and relieves me from having to pick intellectual arguments with potential colleagues.

Anyway, to diverge from my tangent, I think I’m finally ready to start writing Chapter 4. And, better yet, I think I should be able to crank out a full draft of it in about a week, hopefully before I leave town next week. Of course, in this case, I’m drawing on the tried and tested method of largely recycling a paper I wrote two years ago. Then again, when I wrote it two years ago, I approached it as if it would be a chapter of my eventual dissertation, or at least the crux of a chapter. And, perhaps motivated by scholarly inertia (laziness?), I organized and outlined my dissertation in such a way that it more or less slides in neatly as Chapter 4.

Still, it’s going to entail more than just copying and pasting from the old paper. For one thing, I did spend last year doing all sorts of research, some of which pertains to this chapter and needs to be incorporated. For another, I do need to engage some of those dull theorists of nationalism. But, I don’t need to rework substantially what I wrote two years ago, so I’m hoping to knock this out in the next several days so I can enjoy Turkey Day with my folks and move on with my life dissertation.

I’m hopeful that when we’re back east for a month over the holidays that I manage to write another couple of chapters or so. Mercifully, most of what I have left to write (the second half of my dissertation) gets to draw on papers I’ve not only written already, but have even published. Once again, I’ll have to incorporate research from the past year and figure out how to make the chapters flow into a seamless whole, but it’s one hell of a head start.

Naturally, even if I succeed in getting a complete draft of my dissertation done by, say, sometime in January, it won’t matter too much if I don’t have someone offering me a job. And, thanks (again) to the prescient economics of the Bush administration, the economy is in the tank (again) right as I’m finishing my degree and looking to enter the job market. It’s the same situation I found myself in when I finished my B.A. At least I have another year or two I can T.A., so I won’t be out on the street quite yet, but it wasn’t encouraging to read a story in the NYT last week about how universities are facing some belt tightening and many are imposing hiring freezes on non-essential personnel, including new faculty hires. Argh.

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It’s been quite a week, periods of high productivity mixed with no productivity.

My resolutions from a couple of weekends ago didn’t exactly pan out; it took me a good bit longer to get my outline for Chapter 3 done, so it took an extra day before I could turn to writing, and even then, I found it was easier most days to get more like five to seven pages written rather than ten. But, I did power through it all last week and through the weekend, finally finishing the draft late Monday night (I believe I’m now up to 123 pages).

Of course, just as I finished the chapter and could turn my attention to job applications, my laptop began acting up last weekend. I’d be typing in Word and suddenly the cursor would start jumping around and randomly highlighting text, to the point that every couple of letters it’d jump elsewhere on the page, completely ruining my rhythm. At first I thought maybe I was unwittingly bumping the trackpad with my wrists or stomach, but once I saw it acting as though it were possessed without me touching the trackpad, I knew it was a computer issue. I had the top case (the part with the keyboard and trackpad) replaced about a month ago, since the case itself had developed some minor cracks days before we left for Europe (it’s a design flaw, so Apple fixes it free, even without AppleCare) and I was only now able to send it in for repairs. I figured something must not have been done quite right with the recent repair, so I was going to need to get it fixed. It had been intermittent, and I had hoped to put it off for a week or two so I could get job stuff done, but it got pretty bad Monday night as I was trying to finish the chapter, and I started swearing and yelling a lot (probably not helped by the Angels debacle that night).

Since C couldn’t stand the shouting and cursing, she ordered me to take it in the next day for repairs, so I scrambled to get the chapter finished before I bade the computer adieu, thinking it’d have to get shipped to Northern California and would be gone for the better part of a week. I took it in to another Apple Store Tuesday afternoon and to my great pleasure, the Apple Store in Lynnwood was actually able to fix it in store and had the replacement part in stock, so I just had to come back about three hours later instead of three to five days later.

Once I got the computer fixed, I turned to job applications in earnest, and discovered the Pitt deadline is next week. Pitt is one of the jobs that ranks as pretty high on the desirability list among the jobs I’m applying for right now. The weather isn’t great, but at least it’s a good-sized city, close to C’s family, and it has a Slovak studies program, so it’d be a nice place for me, even if they seem really to want someone who does Germany. I had to scramble to find recommendations in time, and, of course, I had to dash off my own materials in a rush, especially since my recommenders wanted to see things like my cover letter and a dissertation abstract, neither of which I already had. So, I spent Wednesday putting that together frantically, along with a cover letter for a job at Cal State-Sacramento with a deadline in a couple of weeks. Then, I turned to finishing syllabi for the two courses I’m teaching later this year. I had the seminar syllabus for next quarter already done, but I had halted work on the syllabus for my Commie course because I found it too challenging without access to my books and the library, but I now had all that stuff.

I raced to campus yesterday morning to drop off materials for one of my recommenders, then came home intending to write some sample syllabi to include in upcoming applications (basically, stuff on German history since the job announcements implicitly or explicitly said they wanted someone who could teach courses on Germany, and I did do a field in it, even if it’s not my area of specialization). Alas, when I got back, I discovered our cable had gone out roughly about the time I left home to run to campus, and since I was going to draw on sample syllabi posted online, there wasn’t much I could do. And Comcast couldn’t get anyone out here till today, so I finally decided just to put it off, since it wasn’t explicitly requested from Pitt, and I at least had two other syllabi to use.

We did get our cable back on today, around lunchtime. It seems that Comcast finally got around to disconnecting service for the previous occupants of our apartment, only they screwed up and didn’t cancel the disconnect since we had already established a new account. (And this after they kept telling us for weeks we couldn’t even schedule an installation until the previous tenants canceled their service.) By that point I didn’t feel like doing much work, so I just didn’t do any today.

But, I’ve still got loads to do this weekend. I told another recommender who couldn’t write for October deadlines on such short notice but agreed to do the later ones, that I’d get him all the materials early next week so he’d have a good three weeks or more. That means I need to write cover letters for eight jobs. It probably won’t be too bad at this point. I’ve written two already, and since one’s for a more research-oriented job and the other’s for a more teaching-heavy job, it should mostly be a matter of moderate changes to customize the letters for each job. But, it’ll still take some time.

And I still need to put together some syllabi. I really ought to have one syllabus for a class on Germany and another for Central Europe/Habsburg Empire for the Sacramento job, since the posting said specifically they want someone who can teach German history (and also welcomed people who specialize in Eastern Europe). And there are one or two other jobs out there that are somewhat similar, except they want someone who can do Russian/Soviet history. I can do all these fields, since I did fields in Imperial Russia and modern Germany specifically so I could teach them if necessary. But I never created syllabi for possible courses in those fields.

In hindsight, it’d be a really good idea for anyone pre-candidacy to create a sample syllabus for each field for two reasons: 1) it means you have something in the can you can send off in a rush if you ever apply for a job that requests just such a syllabus, and 2) you might well get asked in an oral exam how you might design a course in your field (I got such a question).

So, I’ll either be writing cover letters or syllabi this weekend. I also need to do one for a European history survey, but I at least did create a mock syllabus for such a course in the pedagogy class I had to take a couple of years ago. It needs some tweaking, no doubt, but I don’t have a lot of work to do there.

Hopefully I can get all that done by early next week, so I can turn my attention to creating the presentation I’m giving at a conference next month. In theory I should be presenting a paper, but my topic only pertains indirectly to my dissertation, so it’s not like I can just pull out a chapter and present on that. Eventually I’d like to write something scholarly about my topic, since it’s about Slovak political cartoons and I’ve collected a ton of them with an eye to doing something more on it some day, but for now I can get away with an outline and lots of fun images to display.

So, with a little luck, I can get cracking on Chapter 4 in another week or two. As it currently stands, my dissertation will have seven chapters (and that’s what I’m saying in job applications). I may well tweak that, especially since there are a couple of big issues that might be worth making into stand-alone thematic chapters separate from the sort of chronological narrative. Probably if and when I revise my dissertation into a book I’ll go down that route. But at least as presently outlined, I’ve written drafts of three chapters, and I’ve already written articles or papers that cover much of the material that will go into three of the four remaining chapters. If I’m really diligent, I can probably get six of the seven chapters written by the end of the quarter, maybe even all seven. I’d love to have a complete draft of the dissertation in the can by the beginning of next quarter, since I’ll be teaching but it’ll only be a seminar, and thus I should still have a good bit of time to work on revisions. Of course, by that point I should have a good sense of my prospects on the job front, and if they’re bleak or non-existent, I probably will just put the dissertation on the back burner for the rest of the year, at least once I have a full draft written. If it looks like I’ll have another year to wait before getting a job, then there’s no sense in me killing myself to get it all done.

On the other hand, if I’m actually going to be employed in a real job, it’s worth the grind. At this point I’m just trying to make sure I can do that if the stars align properly.

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Falling off the wagon

It’s been almost two months since I finished my orgy of dissertation writing where I wrote two chapters and seventy-odd pages in two spurts during July.

Since then, I’ve done relatively little on the dissertation, aside from sifting through the first drafts, making a few changes and sending them off to my adviser two or three weeks ago.

My original time line counted on less productivity over this span, since we’d be returning to this country and spending extended stretches with our respective families. I had hoped to get a third chapter knocked out by the time we got to Seattle a couple of weeks ago, then a fourth one done by the end of this month. Oops.

I did try to get writing again back in California about a month ago. Unfortunately, I decided to send in my laptop to get the crack in my case repaired (the plastic is too thin, so Apple fixes it free under my extended warranty), which cut into prime writing time. And then, when I got it back and set to work again, I only had a couple of days before it came time to pack up the van and drive up the coast. I did manage to get three pages written, bringing the cumulative total to seventy-six, but I haven’t touched it since then.

Until yesterday. I hadn’t been able to do much work until about this week, since we spent a good week or more getting moved into our new place. It’s more or less in order now, except for some odds and ends and some yet to be retrieved items, but it’s in livable condition. But I kept dragging my feet. Classes started on Wednesday (not that it has any bearing on me, since I’m not enrolled this quarter), so I attempted, vainly, to get started again. But I finally cracked it open again yesterday.

I was actually spurred, finally, by getting comments back (all favorable) from my adviser on the first chapter. So I read through those, then read through the first two chapters again to get a pulse on where I was going with this.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much further than that. Part of it is because it takes a couple of hours to read as much as I’ve written, but mainly it’s because I’m just having some difficulty summoning sufficient focus.

I’m not really sure the best way to get back into a spurt of high productivity, except, perhaps, by plotting a series of goals. So, here are some small chunks to try to get going again:

  • Get to eighty pages total by the end of tonight (or possibly tomorrow)
  • Finish the rough outline for Chapter 3 by the end of the weekend
  • Write at least ten pages a day next week until Chapter 3 is finished
  • Rinse
  • Repeat

We’ll see how it goes.

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