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.

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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.

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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.