Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dissertation Blurb, Take 2

So, in the month and a half since I wrote my dissertation blurb, I've memorized exactly two sentences of it. There was a reason I had to quit the one-act drama team after my sophomore year of high school, and it wasn't because of my horrendously unrequited and probably painfully obvious crush on Roger Blalock, who was a senior and, retrospectively, quite a pot-head.

Unfortunately, mock interviews are coming up on Saturday. These are by far more terrifying than the prospect of interviewing with actual people because a) these people know me and b) THEY'RE HAPPENING THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW. I mean, I guess that latter one is only terrifying because I'm woefully underprepared, but the first sentence of this post probably gave that away.

In any case, the point of all this is that I have come up with a new strategy for the dissertation blurb, which is bulletpoints upon which I can verbally enlarge. I was also on the speech team in high school (entirely coincidentally, so was Roger) as the extemper, which means I spent four years repeatedly making up five to seven minutes of bullshit on a given topic using only three out-of-date U.S. News & World Report articles. Outlines are my medium of old.

Key points:

  • How I came to this topic:
    Disconnect btn religious condemnation of incest and casual use as plot point
    Nobody was/is talking about daughters
  • My approach:
    Focus on the Family (but not in a James Dobson way)--personal and intrafamilial relationships to explore identity construction
    Combine close reading w/ historicization, sex/gender, and clinical-psychological theories
  • My texts:
    [These I remember off-hand, but for your edification: Genesis A, OE Life of Euphrosyne, Cursor Mundi, and Chaucer's Clerk's Tale]
  • What I've Discovered:
    Daughters crucial for intrafamilial identity formation: authors use them to interrogate both feminine and masculine subject positions and sexual behaviors
    Incest consumes feminine identity and shapes it as an extension of the father, BUT

    Daughters resist AND reciprocate incest, both of which open up possibilites for self-defintion
  • Why it's important:
    Suggests a more sophisticated medieval concept of "family" where the trope of the all-powerful father is under constant interrogation
    Moves daughters from periphery to center of medieval family life

So, problems, round two: I suspect that this is probably more than I can say in 90 seconds, even without extemporaneous rhetorical fumbles and flourishes. That last section probably needs more work, but it's also the hardest, by far. It's important because it is, in the same way that all knowledge is important. It (very partially) patches a hole in medieval literary scholarship. It challenges assumptions scholars have made about medieval sexuality, family life, and identities. I don't know; I'm working on it.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Erin Explains Her Dissertation in 400 Words or Less

We're getting ready to do mock interviews here as part of our general preparation for the job market, and we've been asked to prepare 90-second blurbs--an elevator pitch, essentially--about our dissertation that can be spouted off in any situation, but primarily in the interview when you need to be able to explain your work in a way that's fresh for the people who've read your materials yet still accessible and informative for those who haven't. (Longest sentence ever! Bad habit!) It's a weird exercise--it seems like it should be easy; I have at least three paragraphs in other job materials that explain my research in a concise and "exciting" manner. But this version has to be in my actual verbal/professional voice, something that I can speak without sounding like my corset's been laced too tight (i.e., I need short words and sentences because there's only so much air). So I thought I would work out a first draft here.

Side note: one of the early modernists in the group wanted to know if this should sound like "sprezzatura or something?" and now I can't get that word out of my head. Oh, early modernists. You're cute.

* * *

My dissertation takes on the question of father-daughter incest in the Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literary family, particularly in religious and exemplary literature. I was spurred by the story of Lot, whose daughters seduce him after the destruction of Sodom--I wanted to interrogate both how daughters resist incest and why they might instigate or reciprocate incestuous encounters. I discovered that oppressive patriarchal interest constructs female sexuality, and in fact often makes a woman's entire identity an extension of her father's desires--there's a systematic dismantling of feminine selfhood, rather than a simple lack of character development on the part of the author. However, incest narratives also reveal the constructedness of masculine sexuality and identity. Rather than depending on their wives, incestuous fathers depend on the exchange of their daughters to maintain their dominant masculinity. Incest narratives break down that exchange and expose the vulnerability of patriarchal construction, especially when daughters resist by speaking out, choosing their own mates and constructing their own sexualities. Therefore, daughters should not be relegated to the periphery of the family or of the narrative, as they are crucial in defining intrafamilial relationships. The four major works I explore--Genesis A, the Old English Life of Euphrosyne, Cursor Mundi, and Chaucer's Clerk's Tale--all suggest that daughters play a critical role in establishing and conveying medieval sexual mores, both within the family and within the larger community. At the same time, however, their moments of resistance, no matter how small or overlooked, help to complicate our understanding of medieval feminine sexuality, challenging the notion that unmarried women were sexual non-entities subject solely to the external desires of the patriarchal community at large. Wherever possible, I support this argument by consulting the visual record, which is often even more radical in its challenge to the notion of passive daughterhood. Ultimately, my dissertation works to expand our understanding of sacred and secular sexual mores on women, including the very genesis of those mores in the literary family.

* * *

Okay, do I sound smart and hireable? Do you at least want to talk to me for another 43.5 minutes? Or do you reallllly want to get off the damn elevator right now?

ETA: Stephanie timed me saying this, and it's 1 minute 59 seconds. And it gets a little repetitive at the end. Editing has commenced already.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Conference Post-Game Analysis

I co-organized a conference that finished today. Highlights:

  • Duration: 11 a.m. Thursday-9:49 p.m. Friday
  • Registrants: 80
  • Papers delivered: 59, plus two keynotes
  • Panels that included secret undergradutes: 1
  • Percentage of participants who claimed recognize my name "from the e-mails": ~50.
  • Pairs of shoes I wore throughout: 4
  • Blisters: only 1, but my toes really hurt tonight
  • Awkward cat stories revealed to me unprompted: 2
  • Times I thought "people MUST stop divulging personal information in panels": 3
    (times that was related to cats: 1)
  • Kisses—on the cheek, tres chic!—from keynote speakers: 1
  • Divas: 1
  • Times my co-organizer's wife thought I was calling my advisor/co-organizer a diva: 1 (I wasn't, but she was amused by the possibility)
  • People who confessed a deep love of creme brulee to me, and to whom I say, "Word.": 7
  • Men with a tendency to loom identified: 3. Knock it off, tall men.
  • Rooms I had to lead people to without knowing for sure where they were: 4
  • Papers I saw on things that don't normally interest me but suddenly did: 3 (Anglo-Scottish borders, Bowdlerizing, dogs in romance)
  • Hours it took me to find time to pee on Thursday: 9
  • Mini-emergencies faked to get out of conversations: 5
  • Best new fact I learned about Carolyn Dinshaw: she really likes her crockpot
  • Times I mentioned that the MLA job list came out Thursday: 6
  • Times that knowing what schools have English medieval lit lines made me the center of attention: 2
  • Restaurant recommendations given: 3
  • Microphones dealt with: 1.5
  • Times I thought, "This person is not as annoying as usual":4
  • Times I thought, "Ohmygod this person is EXACTLY as annoying as usual": at least 15
  • Topics that are hot right now in midwestern medieval studies, apparently: fathers, book history, hybridity, narrative theory, memory and time
  • Unfortunate jokes by others about my dad's reaction to my dissertation on father-daughter incest: 3 (Wrong to punish people who do by saying that he died when I was a child? Or that I was immaculately conceived?...Oh, fine.)

Monday, August 9, 2010

Already-Done List

There are less than 3 weeks left of summer, and even if I'm not teaching this fall (thank God and little green apples), I'm still feeling panicky about how much I've got to do before that magical and halcyon--riiiight--time elapses.

But because I'm trying to appease my conscience and convince my brain to give me a break, I thought I would make an "Already Done" List of academic-y stuff to celebrate not being totally incompetent at time management. And to explain where I've been, because it obviously hasn't been writing here.

1. Wrote 14,287 words of Chapter 3 (~5000 to go)
2. Cut down Chapter 1 to a conference paper
3. Delivered conference paper at Leeds
4. Drafted cover letter for job applications
5. Revised and sent out article #1
6. Finished reading for revision of article #2
7. Acknowledged and accepted 20 conference papers
8. Final Center for the Book certificate class (Letterpress, the HORROR, well-deserved A)
9. Drafted CV
10. E-mailed two outside recommenders asking for letters
11. Oh, yeah. Delivered paper at Kalamazoo

Okay, that list is a little shorter than I expected. I've got a few other things in progress that can't be considered completed (revising article #2, dissertation abstract, article abstract for submission, etc.), but that's the shape of the summer.

Next up: a discussion of Lacanian theory of the Nom-du-père and the debate about external vs. internal assignment of sexuality.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

On Chapter 2 and the "Process" of Writing

Ha-HA! This blog is not dead, despite the winter's best attempts to kill it. We're all cranky as hell around here, though, so the break was probably for the best.

I'm closing up shop on the first draft of my second chapter, which is due to my advisor by Friday but might get there a few days early because I am so. Damn. SICK. of looking at it. Pardon my French.

But before it gets shipped off to be torn to shreds like a baby goat staked out for hungry advisor-lions, I thought I would take a moment to reflect on writing it, because it was an experience unlike any writing experience I've ever had, and I think we all know that by the fifth year of English graduate school, you've had a FEW.

In general, I'm a very disciplined and organized writer. I'm not saying that to brag; I wasn't born that way. I had a professor in college who made me that way by requiring loads of pre-writing, including several days of "thinking about it." He suggested that every page of a paper should take an hour to write, and twice as long to plan—horrifying when you're 20 and taking five other classes and at least trying to feign having a social life (thank God I've given that up). He also demanded outlines. I fell in love with outlines when I had him for Postmodern Fiction my sophomore year (Hi, Dr. Doody! Sorry I never finished Ulysses!), and every paper I wrote between then and this chapter was written from at least a rudimentary outline. I believed then and I still believe that outlines are the only genuinely effective way to write an argument that progresses logically and hangs together cogently.

This chapter, however, refused to be outlined. It refused to be pre-written in any sort of useful way except for that four-page screed I gave you a few months ago about Euphrosyne and her horrible father. Eventually that became a shaky nine-page conference paper, presented in December to merciful colleagues who merely suggested that my reading was "somewhat grim." As it stands today it's a 54-page Frankenstein of a chapter. I literally added pieces to it as they occurred to me, wrote it piecemeal and at random and in despair. I'll be surprised if, when I print it out, it doesn't turn yellow and march around the countryside looking for revenge and a suitable mate.

I'm not entirely sure why this chapter was so hard for me. I think in part because it represents genuine growth for me as a thinker: the writing is not great, but the theoretical underpinnings are strong. I am grappling with actual ideas about sex and how sex affects our identities as human beings, particularly as women, and even more particularly as daughters. Maybe I feel sort of like a (very) poor man's Judith Butler? Good ideas, insane sentence structure, wild leaps of intuition. I'm also working more or less without a net, in that these texts are very little regarded as literary phenomena among medievalists, and certainly have never been viewed through the lens of contemporary psychological and feminist theory, let alone at the same time, let alone in tandem with one another. You can see how we're getting into kind of niche territory here.

You might ask, woman, what is your point? And indeed, this is the very question I expect from my advisor upon reading my draft. But my point here is just to say, writing is hard. I didn't really know that before. I knew it was onerous, laborious, time-consuming, and a continual struggle for improvement. But I didn't know, personally and in my very bones, that it could be fundamentally difficult for days and days and months on end. That I could want to burn not only my papers but the papers of everybody who's ever talked about these texts, as well as the unique manuscripts in which these texts appear. Also, my point is that I have learned that dissertation chapters are like pregnancies: they're uncomfortable, expensive, and open you up to all kinds of unpleasant and invasive feedback. Also, there's an unpleasant amount of work at the very end. Okay, we've stretched this metaphor juuuuust about far enough.

So when I turn this chapter in, it's going to be rough. Rough rough rough capital-oh-god-my-skin-is-exfoliated-to-the-bone rough. It's going to be rough, but I think there's a diamond in there. Somewhere. A beautiful yellow Frankendiamond.