And Now Back to Your Regularly Scheduled Program

A Letter from Your Host:

Hello Ladies and Gentlemen,

I can’t believe how long it’s been since I saw you last!  I’ve been gone far too long, and for that apologize.  As my previous posts have made clear, this past semester nearly did me in.  I’m rather disappointed with myself, actually.  During the Fall semester I managed to keep mostly on top of my blogging despite my PhD study and teaching, but for some reason I just could not do it this semester.  In my defense, it has been universally agreed among my fellow English grad students at UH that this semester was especially heinous for some reason we can’t identify.  For some reason the workload, the time-crunch, the number of things going wrong, the stress, were all WAY worse than usual.  Bad juju. Gypsy curse.  Karma biting us in the ass.  I have no idea.

Anyway, the semester officially ended for me a week ago.  I wrapped up three papers (I got an A- on one which I am particularly bitter – an A- is grad work is about equivalent with a B-, maybe even a C, in undergrad work, and I know for a fact that the prof simply did not AGREE with my argument).  I graded an enormous stack of freshman papers, and turned in my grades to the department.

The same day I turned in my grades, my mother graduated, receiving an Master of Science degree in Technology Projects Management, with a focus in Future Studies (pictures of which I have been forbidden to put online because my mother is paranoid about the internet, despite – or because of – being a computer programmer/engineer).

That was two Fridays ago.

I have spent the last week wrapping up a last bit of work as part of the editing staff of University of Houston English Department’s literature journal Plaza: Dialogues in Language and Literature.  It’s our second year doing the journal, so we’re still getting the hang of things, but we’re pretty proud of it.  It is free and (as far as I know) you don’t need an account to view it, so please feel free to take a look.  It showcases the work of my fellow graduate students, and is affiliated with the graduate student conference I mentioned early in the semester.

I also spent the last week with my mother, who took a week off her day-job to celebrate graduating and get a little bit of a vacation.  We’ve been up to a lot this past week, and it’s too much to cover in one post so I’m spreading some of the fun out over the next few days to stretch my blogging-muscles and get back into the swing of things.

Besides spending a lot of money at the mall as a belated birthday present to myself (my birthday was May 6th, right in the middle of finals, so I didn’t have much chance to celebrate), there were several highlights: a trip to Brenham, TX where Blue Bell ice-cream is made, my mother’s birthday (which was May 18th), and seeing the Irish alternative rock band Snow Patrol in concert (but more on all of that tomorrow, and probably Wednesday).

I have a lot of plans for this summer that I’ll probably be sharing with you as well.  I intend to start revising Midnight’s Knife, the novel I wrote a first-draft of last summer.  I want to start practicing the piano again (I say this every summer, and I always do for a while before it falls away again).  my mother bought me a fantastic painter’s easel for my birthday and I’m going to start drawing (again) and painting (which will be a bit new, despite a little experience from high school).  I have an ENORMOUS stack of books I want to read (I started Hunger Games – FINALLY – on Friday afternoon, and finished it on Saturday night).  And I’ll be doing a bit of traveling as well.

On top of that, I am planning to sit down and build a new syllabus/curriculum for my freshman writing course, which will incorporate a lot of student-blogging.  I was not at all happy with my performance as a teacher this semester.  I mean, I was admittedly extremely busy with PhD stuff, and I still did okay by my students – I didn’t completely slack off or anything.  But I had much more trouble this semester staying on top of things, and keeping my students engaged.  I firmly believe that what I do is important, but that only remains true if I do a good job, put serious effort energy into it, and I did not do as good a job as I could have this semester.  That’s going to change in the Fall.

I also have some ideas for ways I want to change-up the blog.  And I’ll be frank, that’s not so much for the benefit of you, my readers, as it is for my benefit.  To keep myself moving, to keep myself interested, to find a focus or a rhythm or whatever that will work for me, and will hopefully make it possible for me to keep this up through the Fall semester when things have gone upside-down-wacko again.  I’m fiddling with some ideas/plans, and I’m waiting on one major component before these changes will begin to take shape.  But I’ll keep you in formed about that.

In the meantime, I hope I didn’t lose too many of you during my extended absence, and I hope I can keep you entertained over the summer at the very least.  I’ll see you tomorrow!

Sincerely,

Amanda

Let Me Explain…

Let me explain…  No, there is too much. Let me sum up (bonus points to anyone who knows what that’s from):

1)     On Friday, Dec 9th, having completed one 20pg paper, one 10pg paper, one portfolio with various elements, one 20 min presentation, a final French translation project, graded approximately 50 student papers of various lengths, and compiled my final grades, I reached the official end of my first semester as a PhD student.  And survived!

2)     I spent yesterday (Saturday, Dec 10th) with my grandmother, as I had been too busy over the last month and a half to go visit her.

3)     I spent most of today (Sunday, Dec 11th) trying to clean the house, which became excessively messy and cluttered over the semester, so that I can start putting up Christmas decorations.  I will probably be cleaning and/or decorating all this upcoming week especially since we are Christmas-crazy in this house and I have four (count them, FOUR) Christmas trees.

4)     Beginning tomorrow (Monday, Dec 12th) I am participating in a series of blog tours with Novel Publicity. The first is for Terri Giuliano Long’s debut novel, In Leah’s Wake.  I am about halfway through the book myself (having started reading it the MINUTE I wrapped up my grading on Friday afternoon), and should have my own review up in a day or two.  The second is for Scorpio Rising by Monique Domovitch.  And third is for Emlyn Chand’s Ya novel Farsighted.

5)     I am planning some time over the next week or two to revamp a few things on the blog.  I’ll keep you updated on that.

6)     I have a list of 20 books I’m hoping to get through over winter break.  I probably won’t make it through even half of them, but I’m allowed to dream.  Be prepared for plenty of book reviews over the next month or two.

7)     I am also planning to get back to writing over Winter break.  I haven’t decided yet if I’m going to work on the story I started (and didn’t get far with) for NaNoWriMo 2011, or get back to editing Midnight’s Knife.  We’ll see.

In short, the hiatus is over.  I’ll be around for regular posting times again (MWF), through winter break.  When the Spring semester starts in mid-January I may have to adjust my schedule, but we’ll see what happens when we get there.  I look forward to getting back into the swing of things here, and to hearing from all you lovely folks again.  So please feel free to stop on by when you can.  The next few weeks are going to be fun!

Gerald Graff’s Many Blind-Spots, or, Why Professing Literature Is Problematic

Free-For-All Friday: Or Saturday… Whatever.

I know.  I’m late.  I’m sorry.  In my defense working on your PhD is not easy.   I have been frantically churning out a paper for the last few days, and simply haven’t had the time to catch up on blogging.  But, I thought some of you might be interested in seeing the kind of writing I do in my academic field.  It is not, actually, all that different in tone from how I write my blog (though, of course, the “Academese” jargon is still present).

So, for lack of anything better to do, and because I really do enjoy this kind of writing in a weird, masochistic way, here are some passages from the paper I am currently working on.  It is a critical analysis of a book called Professing Literature: An Institutional History.  And I’m pretty much ripping the book apart (as will become quickly apparent).

The paper is titled: “Gerald Graff’s Many Blind-Spots, or, Why Professing Literature Is Problematic

As Graff claims in the first sentence of the first chapter, “Introduction: The Humanist Myth,” “Professing Literature is a history of the academic literary studies in the United States, roughly from the Yale Report of 1828, which assured the primacy of the classical over the vernacular languages in American colleges for another half-century, to the waning of the New Criticism in the 1960s and subsequent controversies over the literary theory” (1).  By the end of this introductory chapter, however, it becomes clear that while the book is organized in roughly chronological order, it is not exactly a book about historical events or even, really, the development of literary studies or the English/Literature department.  Graff explains as much at the end of the chapter when he states that the history he is discussing is rather about a “series of conflicts” (13) such as that of “classicists versus modern-language scholars; research-investigators versus generalists; historical scholars versus critics, New Humanists versus New Critics; academic critics versus literary journalists and culture critics; critics and scholars versus theorists” (14).

Furthermore, Graff argues that the universities institutionalized the “field-coverage model,” in which academia is split into departments, fields, and sub-fields, and each subject is considered “covered” when the department has enough faculty teach each sub-field (6).  This system made the institution highly flexible, but also led to “patterned isolation,” which made it easy for the conflicts and controversy within literary studies to be hidden from view and allowed instructors to avoid the “need to discuss the reasons they [are] doing what they [are] doing” (Graff 7).  This led to confusion and fragmentation where, Graff argues, coherence would have been more useful.  Rather than teaching a fragmented array of various periods, genres, themes, and theories, with the assumption that these will add up to a coherent vision of literature which Graff states is based in the humanist myth that “literature teaches itself” (9) literature teachers should be “teaching the conflicts” so that students can more clearly see how all the various field and sub-fields hang together, and why they are taught they way they are (viii-xiv).

***

Graff’s ability and willingness to employ such a wide variety of texts allows him to reveal some fascinating elements of and thoughts about the development of literary studies.  The use, especially, of personal accounts from students and teachers, paints of a deep, personal picture of the cultural situations.  However, Graff exemplifies two of the problems that many New Historicists seem to fall into.  First, he has a tendency to view each “era” in his history as unified by and indicative of a particular zeitgeist (Ellis 96-97) in his case, each era is defined by what Graff points to as that era’s conflict of choice: in 1828-1876 it was conflict between Humanist and philological; in 1875-1915 it was investigator versus generalists, et cetera. Second, he, like many New Historicists, works under the assumption that politics is the most important factor, and thus has a tendency to ignore sociological and economic concerns (Ellis 96).  Thus, Graff’s New Historicist theoretical stance and his focus on the “conflicts” leaves him blind to many important aspects of the history of literary studies.  In fact, certain issues are almost completely erased from Graff’s account.  Two of the most important and most conspicuously absent elements of such a history are issues of class/economics, and women.

It can hardly be denied that class and economics have played an enormous role in the development of literary studies in general and English departments, yet Graff largely ignores the issue, excepting a few quick references mentioned without reflection.  For instance, despite the enormous impact the G.I. Bill had on colleges in general, and English departments specifically, war veterans are mentioned only a handful of times, and the G.I. Bill only once.  When discussing the changing behaviors and attitudes of students in the 1940s, Graff states “the postward student body, swelled by numerous beneficiaries of the G.I. Bill, was a peculiarly serious one” (155), as if the only influence war veterans had on colleges was to make the overall student body a more somber group.  He also mentions that college enrollment rose to 40 percent from 1940 to 1964 (a seemingly clear indication of the number of veterans coming to college), but then quotes Laurence Veysey’s claim that “war veterans made up only one segment of this dramatic increase, which more broadly reflected an awareness within a greatly enlarged sector of the middle and skilled working classes that some version of college was necessary” (155).  This quote is significant for a number of reasons: first, it allows Graff to diminish the importance of war veterans on colleges without having to actually say it himself; and second, it does not ask question of where exactly Veysey (or Graff) thinks this new “greatly enlarged” middle and working class is coming from, if not from the war veterans and, soon, their children.

***

One issue, however, is even more thoroughly erased from Graff’s history than questions of class and economics, and that is the issue of women.  That is not to say, of course, that Graff does not have a single mention of women.  There are a few.  He discusses women’s college in exactly four places (pp 37-38, 84, 102, and 211), but these are very brief mentions that usual center on the male professors teaching at the Seven Sisters colleges such as Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, and Wellesley.  On a few occasions, Graff even discusses the influence of a particular woman scholar, most particularly Vida Dutton Scudder of Wellesley, who preached “Christian socialism” (84).  Graff describes Vida Scudder as “one of the most remarkable of the forgotten figures of early American literary studies” and “virtually in a category by herself” (84).  However, even the impressive Vida Scudder is allotted only a single paragraph to herself, after which she is mentioned once or twice more when Graff mentions the generalist male scholars who happened to agree with her views as if being adopted by male scholars is what makes her views truly valid.

Beyond simply neglecting to discuss important women scholars, Graff also quotes and relates various attitudes and assumptions about women and effeminacy without any kind of reflection or analysis.  For instance, in the explaining why women’s colleges usually took on the same classical curricula as colleges like Yale and Princeton, Graff explains that “the decision to give women of these colleges [Vassar, Smith, etc] the standard fare for males ‘was dictated by the necessity to prove that women could undertake a serious course of study’” (37).  Here, Graff is once again quoting someone else so we may excuse his use of the word “necessity” rather than, say, the “perceived necessity.”  However, Graff makes no attempt to interrogate this assumption that women needed to prove themselves capable of the same coursework as men.  I do not mean, here, to imply that Graff actually believes this statement.  But he seems unwilling or unable to critically examine such statements, exposing only a vague understanding of why it is problematic.  He seems to understand that such attitudes about women are “wrong,” but he lacks the theoretical grounding to examine these attitudes, or to recognize when he is, in fact, replicating such attitudes within his text.

***

Finally, I would like to point to what I see as Graff’s underestimation (or perhaps misunderstanding) of how ideology works.  This is visible throughout the text, but I will point out just a few of Graff’s statements to make my point.  First, the only conception of ideology he discusses is that of deconstructionists, which while important and powerful, is not the only way to discuss ideology.  Second, even his representation of deconstruction is over-simplified, such as when he states: “I see nothing inherently self-undoing or illegitimate about all idealizations as the deconstructionists do, and I doubt that all institutional patterns can be explained as effects of ideology, power, ‘logocentrism,’ or subjugation” (Graff 11).  Graff’s understanding of deconstruction here empties out all the complexity of the method/theory, which Derrida developed as a way to examine all the complex, contradictory, but connected assumptions and meanings that lay at the base of a text.  The point of deconstruction is not to illegitimate all idealizations but to demonstrate how the many idealizations within a text contradict (and perhaps illegitimate) each other in ways that allow for multiple legitimate and meaningful interpretations of a single text.  Graff also accuses deconstruction of tending to “accept the same working model of institutional history as the traditionalists, merely ‘reinscribing’ it in an accusatory vocabulary” (11).  This is clear meant as an insult, even an attack on deconstruction, which is all well and good if he can support his claim with any kind of proof.  Yet Graff does not even take a moment to explain what precisely he means by this, and certain makes no effort to explain why he thinks so.

So there’s that!  If you were brave/crazy enough to read the whole thing, I applaud you!  Please tell me what you think.  I’d love to hear it!  Also, please come back on Monday for the Top 10 SciFi TV Shows, Pt 2.  I promise not to throw anymore theoretical jargon at you for awhile.

What Was I Thinking?

Free-For-All Friday: What Was I Thinking?

stressed like this

This week has been crazy.  Frantic, stressful, exhausting, and amazing.  As some of you know personally (and others know from reading my ‘About’ page), I began my PhD in Literature this week, after being out of school for a little over a year.  I was more than a little worried that after all that time off I would not be able to switch back into “school-mode” early mornings, heavy work loads, enormous stress, etc.  And the first week of class did not make it easier, that’s for damn sure.

I do not have classes on Monday, but I began the week on campus in order to fill out paperwork, take care of some logistics, finalize my syllabus (because I also teach Freshman Composition as a Teaching Fellow), and so forth.  I was greeted with ridiculously hot and humid weather (even for Houston), long lines, downed computers, and a screw-up that meant I would not be able to access the office I share with several other Teaching Fellows until NEXT Monday.  Not an auspicious beginning for the semester, to say the least.

Tuesday was my first day of actual classes.  For those of you who are curious, my classes are: French for Non-Majors (which I need to fulfill my foreign language requirement) on Tues and Thurs, teaching one Freshman Composition course on Tues and Thurs, Intro to Doctoral Studies on Tues, and Sociolinguistics on Wed.  By Wednesday night, having been to all of my classes once, I was already exhausted, stressed, and laden with homework assignments.  I already have to read two entire books and give a group presentation by Tuesday.

I guess my professors don’t want to give us any illusions about how easy the PhD is going to be.  “Welcome to the first day of your PhD. Now get to work!”  Part of me keeps screaming in the back of my head: WHAT WAS I THINKING???

One thing I can say is that my Sociolinguistics course, while extremely difficult, is going to be absolutely awesome!  The subject matter is simply so fascinating to me, and the professor seems understanding, friendly, egalitarian in her treatment of graduate students, and more than a little funny.  And seriously, I get to talk about language all day!  How could that be anything but a good thing?

I also think my students this semester are going to be wonderful.  After only two class periods the first of which was merely getting all that introductory stuff out of the way they seem to be mostly attentive and at least somewhat interested in the class.  Granted, these are all college freshmen in a composition class, and few of them (if any) really enjoy writing research papers.  But at least they were all willing to enter into discussions in class.  That is always a good sign.

All in all, I suspect this is going to be a very long semester.  I think (I hope) I can manage it, but it’s not going to be easy.  You may hear some exhausted whining on this blog, though I will try to keep it to a minimum.  I just thought I should give you all some fair warning.

surprised a little like this

However, what really made this week particularly insane, was being featured on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed page.  I’m not sure you can imagine my shock and glee when I was told on Tuesday morning by the lovely Piper Bayard on Twitter that she had seen me on the front page of WordPress.  I never saw it coming!

It was an absolutely wonderful feeling to check my email in between classes on Tuesday and see how many people had commented, liked, and subscribed to my blog.  Of course, I was far too overwhelmed by the sheer number of comments to do much more than sit back and stare at my computer screen in awe.  But it was (and continues to be) an absolutely astounding sensation.  Once again, I cannot thank you all enough for your interest and support.

I am currently trying to go through all the comments.  I read every single one of them, but unfortunately there is simply no way I can respond to all of them.  I am trying to respond to as many as I can, but I hope you’ll forgive me if I fail to respond to your comment.

I also hope you’ll forgive me if this particular post is a little too personal and boring to keep the interest of all my new readers.  But I wanted to get this out there.  I promise that next week’s blog posts are all written, ready to go, and far more interesting than this one.  So I hope you’ll bear with me and come back on Monday.

yeah, kinda like that

In the meantime, I need to read Professing Literature: An Institutional History by Gerald Graff.  And possibly put my head through a wall.  So I’ll be going.

Have a wonderful wonderful weekend everyone! Thank you again! And I’ll see you next week!