Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Drive to Dissertate...

So on Thursday I start my drive cross-country once more… My friend Eve, and her pup Raleigh, are opening up their home to Blue and me in Bloomington, and on Friday I’ll drive from Bloomington to Erie (8+ hours).  And it’s dawned on me that long-distance driving is a lot like dissertating.  You don’t want to do it, it’s sometimes mind-numbing and lonely, but you need to stick it out in order to reach your destination.  Okay, it’s a rather mundane simile, but today I had to delete 10-15 pages and all I can say is that it physically hurt! I was trying to formulate an argument about Thackeray’s criticism of the British consumption of Indian goods, illuminated through the character of Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair and the silver cocoa tree in The Newcomes, but it was truly an argument going nowhere.  Can you imagine the depths of postcolonial theory I’d have to probe to try support such a broad point, plus how do I prove this was Thackeray’s intent? That it wasn’t just another aspect of English gluttony/green in general that he was moralizing against? So I took a wrong turn, had to back track, and just deal with the fact that I lost a few days…
Instead I’ve been writing about how Thackeray is challenging the fictions and nonfictions of empire (which I’ve recently learned where mostly written by British soldiers and surgeons) which both worked to compose “rose-colored” visions of the empire and the military’s valor abroad.  He exaggerates it to such a point of absurdity to make the audience reconsider their initial preconceptions on India.  Kudos again to Douglas Peers for his article on the military abroad: he quotes a CPT who felt Arabian and Nights and Orme’s history were the two texts every young man with his eyes on India had read.  And Thackeray seconds the notion! Both young Dobbin and the COL Newcome’s son(Clive) see India through the goggles of the Arabian nights (all silk tents, elephants carrying castles on their backs, and ruby-coated palaces).  Thackeray mocks this in The Tremendous Adventures of Major Gahagan in which he asserts the Maratha camp is complete with 383 elephants, each with a 12-room, two-story tent upon its back.  He enters one of these tents and tells the reader: “I suppose that the reader, if he be possessed of the commonest intelligence, knows that the tents of the Indian grandees are made of the finest Cashmere Shawls, and contain a dozen rooms at least, with carpets, chimneys, and sash- windows...” (46).  He’s mocking the absurd but established conceptions of India in the collective British imagination.   I’m rambling, of course, but all I can say is it’s finally coming together.  And it needs to be! I have a week by week schedule to get me through to my imposed deadline, and this chapter needs to be complete, clean, and submitted by May 7!
On the home front, just more health drama with poor Blue.  For a “doggie-dental cleaning” they shave a ring around the middle of a front leg (presumably for an IV), and the poor guy can’t stop licking and biting it, which will inevitably lead to infection… so… we’ve found the following solution (see the picture below…)  Otherwise, besides being terribly behind in calling my friends and loved ones, all is well.  More soon, and from Pennsylvania!

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Gotta Love Loyola!

So… what have I been up to? Flying, mostly, on planes with infants, mostly… First I went to Philly for a 36 hour visit for an adjunct interview.  As soon as I got back to St. Louis, I had a day to sort out my 14 hour trip to Chicago.  When the Victorian list-serve sent out an email that there was a Thackeray/Vanity Fair—Emily Bronte/Wuthering Heights conference I couldn’t believe it! Judith L. Fisher (who writes on Thackeray’s illustrations), Micael Clarke (who wrote one of my favorite works of criticism, Thackeray and Women), and Peter Shillingsburg (who has published on all things Thackeray) were all presenting and helped me to really reconnect with what I was doing and rekindle that sense of academic community I'd been missing.  Marianne Thormählen (who travelled all the way from Stockholm to give a fascinating paper on Bronte and morality) kindly told me “it’s okay, we like when you ask questions!” when I got a little tongue-tied. You always hear about those awful encounters with your favorite scholar/writer and they turn out to be horrible--a former professor once told me that she sent Jamaica Kincaid her dissertation on her fictions and Kincaid replied “I used it line my cat’s litter box!" But the conference at Loyola was a really positive experience and I’m trying not to send off emails too quickly to the folks I met too quickly; don't want to appear like too much of a groupie! The hardest part about the trip was the 4am wake up to drive to the airport, to take a shuttle, to a plane, to a rental car, to drive across Chicago (which I’d never visited before!), to drive back, to take a shuttle, to take a plane (complete with four screaming infants, yep, four!), to take a shuttle, to drive back… I get tired just typing it! But, again, totally worth it, and much love to Loyola University for a wonderful (and free!) conference.

Other news: I plan on finishing Chapter 2, in all its glory (meaning it's somehow longer than Chapter 1), by April 27! On April 28 I begin the journey back to Pennsylvania to set up shop at the cottage and start my shortest (thank goodness!!) chapter (on Thackeray & America).  What else? Noella’s visit was wonderful, Blue and I are hiking regularly at Castlewood State Park (yay for reliable 70 degree weather), and I’m in knots about his dental surgery on Tuesday.  Does anyone else get so upset over their dog getting mild anesthesia? Be in touch—keep me honest, ask about my progress!   I’ll post again before the trip back!

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Gimme a break

This last week I did very little regarding my dissertation. My routine has been disrupted by a big proofreading project. For the last week I have been hard at work as a freelance editor, proofreading a dissertation. I considered this a good opportunity to earn some cash on the side and get more experience editing. (Still looking for a job, so any non-academic experience should come in handy in that regard.) Also, I'd never read a dissertation from beginning to end (only chapters); reading this dissertation on modern American literature helped me to visualize better what a dissertation should look like, at least in my discipline.

Of course the guilt settled in earlier this week. But I beat it down by writing my random thoughts on Evernote any time I could. I already have a schedule for this upcoming week. And I feel motivated to get some work done after not doing anything "big" dissertation-related. I really missed my morning "dissertation hour," for I had to fit my proofreading work into different moments of the day, and I had to prioritize what needed to get done immediately.

I also put together an online reading group this week. After Jo VanEvery suggested to me on twitter that I reach out to my online buddies if I couldn't find any writing groups here in KC, I put the shout-out on Twitter. The idea of sharing chunks of writing at a time puts the pressure on, in a good way. Also, we're talking about putting together a schedule for sharing, so that way we know when we'll be posting and when to give feedback.

I'm excited about this! I really need to get detailed feedback on my work. I oftentimes feel dissertating is a lonely venture (and I'm not the only one to say that); although I like sharing my dissertation adventures with you, my readers, I need specific feedback too. I'm not sure about posting parts of my dissertation online--in the vein of open-access publishing by sharing works-in-progress--at least not yet. It's something I have considered though. On the other hand, I also enjoy reading other people's papers and giving them feedback. Not sure if it's the comp instructor in me or the curious intellectual in me, but one of those enjoys engaging the writing of others. Maybe both?

In other news: earlier this week in #phdchat on Twitter, folks were posting links to "plain language" versions of their dissertation projects. In other words, they tried to summarize in plain English, for all to read, what their dissertations were about. That made me think about my project too, for I am constantly thinking about the importance of my dissertation outside of just my degree and how to articulate it to people outside of, say, my committee. So here's the plain language version. Keep in mind I am not going to look back at my proposal or go over my chapter notes to write this. I want this to be as true as possible to what I want to do, not what I have done so far.

I am researching representations of urban space, particularly representations of New York City as a home. The body of creative expression I am looking at is twentieth-century African American and Puerto Rican literature: fiction, poetry, and drama. My main goal is to analyze New York City's potential as a homespace for these displaced communities who have migrated to New York City. Both African Americans and Puerto Ricans migrated en masse to New York City at different points in the twentieth century. The reason I am bringing different genres/media together is because these representations of home are not limited to one author or one genre, but overlap across genres and across authors. This shows a concern for finding and/or constructing a home in urban space. My first chapter focuses on Langston Hughes and Willie Perdomo and their representations of Harlem. My second chapter looks at Piri Thomas and Ann Petry and their representations of street life (also located in Harlem, mostly). My third chapterwill analyze Broadway as a place for these representations to be staged for a mainstream audience. My last chapter will close the project by bringing the Nuyorican Poets' Cafe into the conversation. This part is the one I haven't really fleshed out, but I feel like it would end the project nicely.

So this is my dissertation, in a nutshell. Any comments, feedback will be greatly appreciated!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Chi-town bound!

So I think I’ll follow Liana’s precedent: I’m going to blog once a week! Any more would A) take too much time and B) chase off the handful of friends and family who read!
Things are going well (I think!) I stopped at 14 pages into Chapter Two, trying not to make the same mistakes I did with Chapter One.  If you recall, I wrote a whopping 60 pages on Ireland.  And after a lovely brunch at my friend V’s home (who’s accomplished the task of completing her PhD) and her friend M (also a PhD, and fellow Victorianist), they broke it down for me: a solid chapter is 30-35 pages.  So instead of sending my patient dissertation adviser another chunk to help me whittle down, I want to do it correctly from the get-go.
The problem is for Chapter Two (which focuses on representations of India, Indians and the England’s relationship with its Indian Empire)… there’s so much I want to cover! 1) The theme of miscegenation of course; I’ve previously detailed Thackeray’s issues with his illegitimate, half-Indian-half-sister and his hostility toward interracial relationships in his fictions 2) how he satirizes the romanticization of the British military and contemporary literature of empire and finally 3) the notion of an idealized Anglo-English society that is somehow more pure and less corrupted than middle/upper class English society back in England. 
On another note, I’d like to send a big thank you out to Douglas M. Peers (and if he doesn’t get it, to the universe in general) for his incredible article on the British military presence in India in the early nineteenth century, the popularity of the biographies of British soldiers, and how British soldiers and surgeons were the ones who constructed England’s understanding of both Indian natives and her empire.  AND  I’m thrilled there is a Thackeray/Bronte conference taking place in Chicago/Loyola University later this month and I’ll be attending!! Whoo-hoo! I only learned of it recently and the names of those Thackeray scholars I so frequently cite make up the program!
Last bit of good news—my dear friend Noella, who moved to Philly from the UK in October—arrives tomorrow to spend a week with us! Blue and Grandma will be equally thrilled, and I can’t wait to show her the Art Museum, the Arch, downtown St. Louis, and introduce her to our traditions of happy hour  followed by a classic movie! Then my love arrives on the 8th—I’ve promised 20 pages by then.  

Thoughts on Revising My First Chapter

Ok, so March came and went, and so did my revised Chapter 1. I sent my revised chapter to my advisor at around 11:30 pm this past Thursday. I was mentally and physically exhausted. I had put in more time and more energy into revising this chapter than I did for the first draft. I guess that's why Anne Lamott calls them "Shitty First Drafts."

The chapter was not fully revised. In fact, there's a section there on Langston Hughes that is pretty much incomplete. It is the shortest section and it is the least developed section. I tried to force out something similar to coherent prose hours before the deadline, but it didn't happen. Instead, I added transition sentences and reworded parts of it. At 11:00 I decided it was time to let it go and move on. I was not going to produce 10 more pages on Langston Hughes. Not at 11 pm at night. I pressed "send," cried, and went to bed.

The problem was this: I worked on everything else in the chapter before I tackled the section on Hughes. In fact, it should've been the other way around. I should have worked on that section first and then revise, tweak, rewrite the rest. But I couldn't work on Hughes when I still had no clue what direction that section was going in. With Bremer and Perdomo, I (eventually) came up with some sort of focus that I sharpened in the revision. Hughes? Nah.

I've been struggling with that Hughes section, and it was only this Tuesday that I realized why. I was trying to tackle all of Langston Hughes's poetry. Yes. ALL OF IT. If you're wondering how much that would be, take a look:


So of course I had no clue where to go. But I thought I was just lazy: people write on huge texts like that all of the time. However, on Tuesday I had an epiphany. While reading some literary criticism on Hughes, I realized I should focus on Montage of a Dream Deferred. And suddenly everything was clear to me. However, I still had to sit down and revise the chapter AND write this whole new section from scratch. I panicked. Big time. (Actually, I was panicky all of last week.)

Yes, I should have done things differently. Yes, I should have had a plan of action. Yes, I should have handed in something more polished. Believe me, I had this conversation over and over Thursday night after I sent my chapter in. But I didn't do these things. Instead, I added new information to my chapter, gave it direction, and connected my ideas to a broader conversation. It's no longer at the "shitty first draft" stage. I can actually sit down to read it. And today's a new day.

My question is: should I continue researching chapter 2? I put that on pause to tend to the revisions to Chapter 1, and am eager to move on. (Rough draft of chapter 2 is due in two months.) Radioguy suggested I just take another week to work on the Hughes section, add it, then move on. But I'm not sure if that would be effective, since all I've been doing the past five weeks is chapter 1. So I'm torn here.

One thing I do know: I have a much better idea of how to work for chapter 2. It's okay if I start out with a shitty first draft, right Lamott?