27 October 2011

Mapping Close Readings

Today was somewhat off of my usual routine. A good friend needed a lift to and from a Doctor’s appointment. I don’t begrudge her this, of course, and I knew about the appointment a day in advance, so I was able to reschedule my day accordingly. I also brought work with me and got a bit done while I was waiting. Calling today hectic or something of that nature would be misleading and unfair. But I do feel like it was rather packed. In addition to helping my friend, I’ve entered another publishing cycle at my job and have been editing news items. All this is to say that tonight’s entry is going to be a relatively short one.

Over all, I think this has been a fairly productive week up to this point, although I’m not certain how much I will be able to get done tomorrow, since I have plans for the evening that are going to require some preparation during the day. But certainly I’ve accomplished more over the last four days than I did all of last week and feel good about that. I’ve been spending most of my time the last several days writing zero drafts of what I think the chapter I am working on is going to be about (and I’ve tentatively decided it’s going to be a full blown chapter rather than part of one) and highlighting key ideas in all of the close readings I have done thus far. I had already done this one way by bolding items that I thought were thought provoking. Now I’m using colored highlighters in order to categorize the information into overarching topics and subtopics.

Deciding on how to highlight my close readings offered me a somewhat challenging task. It was difficult at first to know how I wanted to arrange the information. I only have five colors to choose from, so I needed to decide on rather broad topics. The three most closely related topics are ‘the conqueror’, the ‘conquered’, and ‘translation / theoretical concerns’. I chose red (for the aggressors!), blue, and orange for these respectively. I’ve also chosen yellow as a sort of hodge podge color for items I’m not sure how to categorize, as they could fall into one or several of these three categories, or none. Lastly, green is for ‘dialogue’, which I think ended up being one of the more useful tangents I repeatedly came back to in my close readings.

Something rather interesting has been happening as I’ve highlighted the already highlighted material from my close readings in color. I’ve seen that many of my sentences are organized in terms of several of the topics I have chosen. A sentence can begin by mentioning the conquerors, for instance, which I highlight in red. But it can end with discussion of translation (orange) and /or the conquered (blue). Instead of marking sentences in one color, I am marking them in several, as best I can, to reflect these distinct references. And what is emerging from this is a kind of map of the dialogue that seems to be going on between the way I think of the conquerors (mostly but not only Arthur and his forces) and the conquered ‘in translation’. Very often I’ll have a sentence where orange mediates between red and blue (or vice versa), so that I can see a definite pattern of thought in many of the paragraphs I’ve written.

Admittedly, the patterns that are emerging in my writing have a lot to do with the way I have decided to utilize the color choices available to me. In a very real sense, these patterns have been predetermined by me. Nonetheless, I find seeing a visual representation of how I have approached the topics I have been wrestling with extremely exciting and thought provoking. And I am gathering valuable information in a very quick way. Even if I decide that this arrangement does not make much sense later on, for instance, I have still cut down on a lot of the guess work at the beginning of the more careful drafting process rather than later. And I can more readily visualize how other topics like dialogue feed into my ideas about the conquerors, translation or whatever, which is important to think about as I attempt to put all of this information into a more less cohesive narrative.

26 October 2011

Performing the Dissertation Process, or Dancing with the Texts

I’m starting tonight’s entry with a digression. But I promise that it fits with what I want to write about.

I’ve been watching the UK version of ‘Being Human’ (there’s an American version as well, based on the earlier UK series). It’s about a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost who live together and are giving ‘normal’ life a go. It is easily one of the darkest programs I have ever seen. And what makes it so dark most of the time isn’t the fact that they are all something other than ‘human’, whatever that means. Rather, it’s the things the show tells us about how humans would react to these folks if they existed that is truly uncomfortable.

I bring this program up because all of the main characters must constantly perform being human. One of the characters in particular, the Werewolf named George, has a lot of difficulty performing, especially when it comes to his relationships with women. Let me be clear before continuing. George’s approach is pretty horrible, and the difficulty isn’t the women themselves but his belief that he must perform the role of the aggressive man who gets the girl. George is by his nature submissive. He can be kind, thoughtful, sensitive, but he is just as often narcissistic and hateful, perhaps even more so. He has a violent streak that cannot be explained by his lycanthropy. And he hates what he doesn’t understand, which includes not just women but himself. In fact, having written this about George, I’m not certain why I continue to watch the show. If I had to guess, I’d say there is something compelling and realistic about the dark side of all of these characters. Humanity really isn’t very pleasant when put in stressful situations, a point that George makes on one episode as he is consoling the ghost Annie. In addition, each of the main characters, even George, is trying to be something 'better', though they all continue to fail spectacularly.

George’s fixation on performance has had me thinking about how I perform my own life. I decided to explore this in my morning writing session. I won’t go into all of the various ways I think I perform on a daily basis here. But I do want to write a little bit about how I think I have been performing my dissertation process up to this point. I was thinking if it would be possible not to perform as I attempt to shape my close readings into a chapter. And the truth is that I find it very difficult not to do so. The particular way I have decided to go about writing my dissertation-- training myself to write every day, to not worry about how much I’ve written, to stop thinking of what I’ve written as ‘good’ or ‘bad’--is very much a performance, though one that is markedly different from the type of performance I had adopted for most of my academic life. But I also don’t think this type of performance itself is ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And it has the advantage that I am letting the material I’ve read direct the kind of performance I’m giving. I’m not going to say that makes the performance more 'organic' or something like that, since the point of all this is to radically break from the narrative of what I have thought a dissertation should or shouldn’t be. But I do think this approach leaves the performance open ended. It allows me to continuously ask questions and accept that many of the questions do not have answers (or that they have more than one) rather than pigeon whole myself into something that feels like a 'lack' or an 'absence'.

I think imagining the dissertation process this way may help to alleviate some of the pressure and anxiety I have been feeling lately. If I feel that I am replacing one kind of performance with another, then at least this type of performance entails having a dialogue with my texts rather than giving a monologue about them in which I force some kind of preset ideas and attitudes onto them. It’s a kind of dance in which the texts lead me just as much as I lead them. It centers on both myself and the texts as partners working together rather than subordinating one partner to the other.

25 October 2011

The Line Must Be Drawn Here

Today I finally finished reviewing everything I had written in that three week period of close readings. Despite knowing that last week put me behind by quite a bit, I can’t help feeling as though that stage of this process took far longer than it should have. Part of why it took so long could be that I did more than simply read entries each day. I sifted through what I thought was usable now and what could be used later or abandoned altogether. I looked for patterns and repetitions of key terms and phrases and highlighted passages. I asked myself additional questions about what I had written: does this make sense?; Do I still think this is valid?; and so on. Having started with something like thirty or thirty‑five single‑spaced pages I now have forty‑one, which means I’ve added quite a bit of new material, since I am not using everything I initially wrote. So I have certainly made progress. I have not been idle. At the same time, however, I can remember reading at least one hundred pages of material on a daily basis when I was still in course work. To have not even gotten that far in nearly three weeks feels very slow in comparison. And yet, I’m not sure how much more I could have done each day. The work isn’t quite the same as it was while I was taking courses. If I was reading one hundred pages a day, it was not all from the same book. It was not even all for the same course. Writing a dissertation, of course, is far more focused. Though I have attempted to categorize some of the topics and subtopics that have cropped up in my writing, everything still boils down to one essential thought: how the practice of translation circulates in the discourses of conquest and domination that pervade the texts I am working with. And it turns out that this one thought covers a lot of discursive space. It informs a host of peoples and ways of thinking about the peoples that inhabit this text, including ethnicity--itself a very complicated issue, social class--perhaps less complicated than ethnicity but still complex, clergy, and so on. About the only way of thinking about people that appears to be mostly (but not entirely) absent from my three texts is gender, since my writers are not all that interested in women. But that appearance is misleading, since the very lack of discussion of women in these texts tells us something important about their translators (not surprisingly all three are men), their audiences, and the way that the issues that arise in their translations are constructed. Indeed, women are so marginalized, so underrepresented in these texts that a study of the roles they are assigned on the rare occasions when they do show up would perhaps present us with the most accurate picture of how the practice of translation works. At least in my experience, it has been easiest for me to see what is going on in my texts when I am faced with that which seems most alien to the discourses that have been manufactured and maintained during the period of history in which I am working.

Everything I’ve just written--and I took my time writing it--feels rather convoluted. One reason for that may be because I am attempting to discuss the last three weeks of review in very broad strokes. Another may be that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to write about this evening, and I’m not quite comfortable with where this entry has been leading me, by which I mean I don’t feel as though I am entirely in control of its direction. But I think the biggest reason for this is that I can see that my interests in the practice of translation are rather scattered. Which topics and subtopics am I going to write about? I've come up with least twenty and probably a good deal more than that, though many of them are related to one another. Which topics are most important to me? Which am I going to get the most mileage out of? And should I be thinking in these terms? Perhaps those topics that will prove most fruitful are also those that are going to require the most extra research and work, so much so that I would not be able to finish in time? October is nearly gone now, and I feel a little bit panicky despite having made good progress over the last six weeks.

I know that what I’m feeling right now is rather normal. I’ve had enough similar conversations with friends and colleagues who have either finished their dissertations or are working on them to know that dissertation writing hardly ever feels organic. I’m not even sure if ‘organic’ writing is anything but a myth about what writing a dissertation (or any kind of writing) is ‘supposed to be like’. Just the same, it’s not a pleasant feeling when the goal is to bring clarity to a particular topic rather than confuse the issue. But I also know that the issue I am wrestling with is itself confused, diverse, and very much tangled in knots. And it occurs to me as I wrap up tonight’s entry that what we may mean today bringing clarity to an issue--or at least what I mean by it--is to show that reading, much like translation, is not a transparent or innocent process. Something is always left out for unjustifiable reasons. Indeed, so much is left out that is quite impossible for me to cover all of it. Nor do I want to try. But where do I draw the line?

In closing,, I realize that the title of this evening’s entry has very little to do with the topic of discussion. The reference to Star Trek First Contact, for everyone playing at home, simply occurred to me as I was writing the last sentence of the previous paragraph.

24 October 2011

Getting Side Tracked

I’ll get right to what’s on my mind as I sit down to write this entry. Last week was terrible. I only worked on my dissertation two days out of five. I normally don’t work on it on weekends either. I contemplated doing so in order to catch up, but I was rather frazzled by Friday. A dear friend is also preparing to move, and I wanted to make sure that we hung out together before she leaves the area for good sans the occasional visit. Not that hanging out took up the whole weekend. But needless to say, other things miraculously came up.

I briefly mentioned in my last blog entry from nearly a week ago that I had taken on a sizable project at work. This project was certainly the biggest reason why I got so little work done on my dissertation. I had to be finished with the project by Friday. I spent increasingly longer hours each day working on it as it became clear to me that the project--which was described to me as straight forward--turned out to be not so straightforward.

I’m going to avoid ranting about the project itself. Rants are not the goal of a blog of this sort, or at least that is not how I have envisioned it. But I do think I ought to be able to explore how I felt as a result. And the short version is that I greatly resented being side tracked for most of the week from my dissertation, since, ultimately, that is my primary responsibility at this stage. In fact, I wish it was my only responsibility. There have been periods where I have purposely tried to make it so. But I know that’s not a very realistic approach nor even a practical one. And I think attempting to make my dissertation my only responsibility has in some ways been detrimental. I might have been less upset if I had allowed myself to fully acknowledge that other tasks were bound to come up. I did, in fact, repeat this to myself as I noted that I would have to spend more and more time on the side project in order to meet my deadline. But that didn’t stop me from becoming more and more frustrated and upset each day. Had I not done so, I might have found the energy to work on my dissertation during the in-between periods where I needed to step away from the side project. Those periods became less frequent and shorter as the week wore on, but they were opportunities that I may have taken advantage of. But I did not. I felt that I was so exhausted that I chose to do nothing, by which I mean I chose to not continue to work but to occupy myself in some other way.

I think ‘choice’ says a lot here. But I want to be clear. I am not one of those who thinks that everything comes down to the choices we make in life, which is preposterous, hurtful, and insulting to those of us who have literally not been given a choice in some of the ‘issues’ that affect our lives, whether that is being LGBT, something other than white male (and I even take issue with what that means exactly, since not every white male acts like the ‘white male’ that we all think of when we hear those two words), under educated, uneducated, underemployed, unemployed, underinsured or uninsured, poor, or in some way marginalized. Nor do I necessarily think I had as much choice as I would like to have had over how last week played out for me. But I do think, or I want to think that I could have approached how I responded to being side tracked from my dissertation last week differently than I did. As I’ve already written, I might have been a bit calmer about things. Resentment is a pretty exhausting feeling. And though I did repeat a sort of mantra to myself about how things were not really in my control and that such periods are an inevitable part of the process, I don’t think I really accepted the situation. And that only added to my resentment.

I honestly don’t know where this leaves me for the next time something like this happens, as it is bound to happen. I like to believe that it is always possible to learn something from every situation, whether we make a mistake (the best way to learn) or if we do something that turns out to be effective (which is not the same thing as good). But what can I say I have actually learned here? Would I have actually done anything differently if I could do the week over again, knowing that I still would have had to prioritize the side project? I don’t think I could have done otherwise. I also know that I genuinely felt as though I couldn’t manage to squeeze any more work ethic out of myself each day.

I’ve written that I could have accepted the situation and minimized the amount of resentment I felt, but I’m not sure how I could have done that exactly. And I note that I didn’t resent spending what down time I did have during the week not playing catch up, nor for the whole of the weekend, which suggests to me that more is going on here than I am able to work out just now (partly because I’m exhausted, partly because I really hate how this blog entry is turning out, and partly because I’m avoiding ranting, although perhaps that would be really helpful to me). But what do I say at this point? Do I just move on? Do I just forget about last week and start over this week? Perhaps, but I have always been suspicious of the attitude that we should only live in and for the present. If I’ve learned anything from reading and rereading Derrida, it’s that the ‘present’ is every bit as illusory as the ‘past’ and the ‘future’, by which I mean that these constructs require a healthy amount of skepticism in terms of how we narrate our concepts of time to ourselves and to others. As such, all I can think to say in conclusion is that the lesson may be to play with how I felt, what I think that may or may not mean, and to leave what I think open ended rather than struggle for some sort of resolution which is probably illusory as well.

18 October 2011

And Now Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Blog

It’s been quite a while since I wrote an entry. The main reason for this is that I wanted to enjoy my Fall Break and not think about my process for a bit. This plan worked out for the most part. I was surprised at how excited I was to get back to work this morning.

I also want to add that yesterday--my first day back to work--was an extremely busy one. In addition to my ‘normal’ schedule of tasks, I’ve taken on a priority project at my job that is demanding lots of my attention. As a result of this--and perhaps because it was the first day back to my usual routine--I was not feeling up to writing an entry by the time the evening rolled around yesterday.

I’m not yet sure how much I’m going to cover in this entry. It depends on how much space the following topic takes up. But I want to begin by discussing how I felt over Fall Break, since ‘down time’ is just as much a part of my dissertation process as when I am actively working. Perhaps it would be productive to think of ‘down time’ as passively working, since, at a certain point, you are taking your dissertation with you wherever you go and no matter what you do, even if it’s tucked away in the corner of your mind.

My Fall Break started out innocently enough. I worked on Thursday, as I had planned, but I stopped reviewing my close readings earlier than I have been. I told myself that this didn’t bother me, that I had been working hard for quite a long while and that I deserved a break. In short, I told myself the things we all tell ourselves when we don’t feel like doing something anymore. I also didn’t blog that day. On Friday, the only dissertation work I did was to write about my process in the morning. Or that was the plan. As I recall, I wrote about the things I might do during break. I won’t go into details. Suffice it to say, I did some of those things, though not all of them, and not in any particular order.

I didn’t do any dissertation work at all on Saturday or Sunday.

I wrote in my last entry that I don’t like to have a particular itinerary when I am on holiday. So, although I had ideas about what I might do on my break, I didn’t keep track of when I did something or how long it took me to do something. I didn’t keep a formal list of everything I might do, and I tried not to be concerned if I didn’t do everything I though about doing. I simply tried to enjoy myself. And I did enjoy myself, at first. But I was bored by Saturday evening, even somewhat depressed. I also felt a little restless.

There could be several reasons why I started to feel off by Saturday evening. But I think the main reason is that not working on my dissertation for so many days in succession didn’t feel right. I think there may be an optimal time to spend away from this kind of project. For me, that optimal time is about two days. Perhaps three if a week of work has been particularly grueling, but I think more than that is too much. I began to feel that way over break though, oddly, I felt better on Sunday. That may also be because I was more productive on Sunday as well. I ran some errands. I did some painting. And I baked several batches of pumpkin and molasses cookies, a task which took several hours all by itself, including preparation of ingredients.

As usual, there’s no pithy lesson that somehow brings everything I’ve been exploring in this entry together. But I do think it’s important for me to keep in mind that the dissertation process has rewired me to a certain extent. I think a few years ago I would have been perfectly happy to do very little work for four days in a row. That doesn’t seem to be the case anymore. This isn’t to say Fall Break wasn’t beneficial. Being away from my dissertation did allow me to approach reviewing my close readings this morning and afternoon with fewer preconceptions about what I’m trying to do. But despite not being a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, I was itching to get up this morning. I practically jumped out of bed, which is not at all like me. And I’ve been going pretty steadily since waking and have handled quite a good deal more number of tasks than I usually do in the same stretch of time on a daily basis. Quite frankly, I’m surprised it’s only 17:30 now as I am writing this final sentence (and I’ve gone through the entry several times already to check for mistakes).

12 October 2011


I don’t have much else to report today about reviewing what I’ve written so far as I look for commonalities and question what I think is dissertation worthy and what isn’t, if what I’m writing makes sense or if I’m wandering down paths that can be left for other projects or abandoned altogether. I imagine putting up signs that say road closed or under construction J Because I am likely to simply rehash a lot of what I wrote yesterday if I talk about review (even the word review suggests that is what I’d be doing!), I’m going to write instead about what the rest of my week may or may not look like.

I mention the rest of my week here because tomorrow marks the beginning of Fall Break at my university. This may be a new concept to folks who are reading me who attend universities outside of the deep South. Or at least I don’t remember having a Fall Break at the universities I attended in the Northeast. But Fall Break is exactly what it sounds like, a holiday in the academic calender for Faculty, Students, and Staff (? I am actually uncertain about the latter group of people: how sad) to relax and not think about school for a few days. Or that is the theory anyway. Many of us use the couple of extra days off to catch up on work we’ve been neglecting, whether that is dissertation writing, conference paper writing, lesson planning, or any number of academic-related projects that have been on the back burner since the semester began. Some of us don’t see much change in our daily routine over these couple of days off as a result. Up until today, I have been thinking of my break like this, though I nonetheless look forward to this time each and every year since I’ve been a graduate student.

As I write this entry, I am thinking of the many possibilities that Fall Break offers me. Even though I do plan on working on my dissertation each day, I think that I can find ways to make this time enjoyable. I can sleep in, for instance. Like many of us do on the weekends, I consider the prospect of having a longer lie in than I am accustomed to a real luxury. I may even build some naps into my days. This is a trick I picked up from an article on vacations that I read in a travel magazine that I have taken to heart.

Or since I do not have to worry about work-related responsibilities for several days, I can devote some of that time to things I would like to do but otherwise cannot. I’ve mentioned that I like to draw in previous posts, and I’ve been missing that quite a bit lately. I like to cook and bake, so I could do something a bit more extravagant in that area. Autumn always reminds me of the pumpkin-n- molasses cookies the mom of a friend from my undergraduate years would make us at Halloween. I do not have the amazing recipe to those, but I am sure I could find something similar online and try my hand at them. Or I could take my dog Jersey on some extra long walks and enjoy the fine weather we’ve been having. I could do all of these things, in fact. But I’m not sure how much I will ‘indulge’ myself. I sometimes find that I enjoy the thought of thinking of all the things I might do rather than actually doing them. For once I have done them, I can feel a bit of a let down. What next!?! I’ve done everything I imagined myself doing! I don’t like the idea of a holiday being a check list of things to do, because that very much feels like how I spend my working days, as a number of tasks to be accomplished before I can relax. But the point of a holiday-or at least this is what I want the point of one to be-is to be able to break out of my habits and take a route through each day that I otherwise wouldn’t have taken. Some of the best holidays I’ve ever had are those for which I did not have a set itinerary. My first trip to Europe was like this. My brother and I participated in an exchange program at a university in England for the Fall term that year (so did the friend whose Mom’s cookies I mentioned above!). We took about three weeks before the term started to travel. Not only did we not plan which cities we were going to visit, but we also did not plan on how many days we’d spend each place we visited. This is not to suggest that we did not pack a lot into those three weeks. But we spent an extra day or two in places we had imagined only quickly passing through, while we decided to cut short our stay in other places because they weren’t as appealing as we had envisioned they would be. I believe we spent four whole days in Paris, though we had no intention of doing so.

I have always felt as though that first trip to Europe profoundly changed the kind of person that I was. With the retrospect of fifteen years, I am no longer certain just how much I changed because of that trip. I think graduate school has had a far greater impact on who I am, which makes sense, as we’re talking about nearly a decade of study as opposed to one semester of it (and I did not study nearly as hard as I ought to have during that term abroad). Which is not to imply that profound changes cannot hit you all of a sudden, because they certainly can. Regardless, I think that trip does say quite a lot about how I like to spend my down time and how I can get the most out of it. So I once again find myself with no concrete plan as to what I may or may not do over the next four days. And I cannot help but smile at that prospect, which is quite a change from how I felt when I wrote yesterday’s entry, since that, too, was about not knowing what the future holds for me. I suppose the difference is I am thinking of the unknown today as pleasurable, as an opportunity to enjoy myself rather than as an indefinite amount of work I still have to do before I can once again rest.

11 October 2011

The Long and Winding Road

Before I get to blogging, I want to take a moment and write that today is National Coming Out Day and that I’m coming out as a straight person who fully supports the LGBT community’s right to exist and right to voice that it exists without fear of physical or mental harm. Straight and LGBT people I know have been posting a similar message on their Facebook pages, so I wanted to state here in this space I have created that I am with them, unconditionally. Today and every day.

Today’s entry will not be terribly long (okay, I’ve now finished writing, and I’ve once again lied about that). I have begun reviewing material I’ve written since I changed my dissertation proccess. This is a fairly lengthy and time consuming procedure in which I won’t be doing nearly as much writing as I have been, though I am asking meta-questions about what I’ve written so far. ‘What’s going on in this passage?’ ‘What grabs my attention?’ ‘What was I trying to articulate?’ ‘Do I still believe this?’ ‘Is there an overarching argument somewhere in here?’ Do I keep coming back to any particular ideas or themes?’. I’m not quite sure how to write about this stage of my process. But I didn’t write an entry yesterday either, so I wanted to at least think about what’s going on in this stage thus far.

The short answer is that going back over everything feels time consuming. And of course I’ve written one of my red alert words there, ‘time’, since I have purposefully and mostly successfully been avoiding thinking about how much time I spend on my dissertation each day. So it might be better for me to think about the kind of energy it takes for me to go back through everything. And ‘going back’ might be another red alert word or phrase here, because I don’t feel like I’m moving forward at the moment.

At any rate, I haven’t made it very far in terms of how much material I have gone through over the last two days. I knew this was going to happen going in, so it’s not a surprise. I also know I will come through to something better in the end. But it’s hard to shake some of the feelings of pressure, stress, and anxiety I am currently experiencing, even though Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day prepared me for those feelings as well. I’m already asking myself, ‘Is this really what dissertation writing is mostly about?’ Is it, like Hemmingway said of creative writing, ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration? I suppose I have been perspiring quite a lot already. The difference is that it did not feel like perspiration to me. And now it does. I also realize that I don’t have a lot of patience for this stage of the process. Upon reflection, in fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever had that kind of patience at any point in my writing life. I very much want my polished thoughts to magically materialize out of the pixels on the screen.

There are ways of making this process more interesting, of course. Adopting a color coding scheme or something similar that helps me to visualize what I am working on. And I don’t only mean by visualizing what I have in front of me that I am able to see what is front of me more clearly, though that is a part of it. Rather, I mean, quite literally, to visualize my writing as something tangible and stimulating. A close friend and colleague of mine suggested a similar strategy to me a while back. Her idea was that I write my thoughts on note cards and create a visual map of my chapter (which is not the same thing as an outline). As someone who is about equally left- and right- brained, I find this method very appealing. I’m also not sure it would work today-though I was excited by the idea when my friend mentioned it-given the sheer volume of writing I need to go through at this point. But I think working with hard copy rather than a digital representation of what I’ve done so far is something I need to do.

I’ve only just begun this stage of the process, so I still feel like it’s too early to commit to any one strategy that is going to get me through it. In a way, this is a transitional step in my process, and I know from the way I have approached life and the countless number of dreams I have had about it that transition scares me. I had at least two such dreams last night, in fact. In one of them I was running a loop that would take me home, but I never got there. I kept going out of my way to find this dog that a friend was about to adopt but which somehow got loose. In the other dream, which was an extension of the first dream, I met up with a friend whom I haven’t seen in real life in while on my route. I wanted to show him this church on the route that had this amazing PEZ dispenser collection (I wrote an article about a person’s PEZ dispenser collection for my job last year!), which I thought my friend would enjoy seeing. From here we somehow ended up in the middle of Philadelphia. We spent the rest of the dream attempting to get to our respective homes. The trouble, from my perspective, was that I was unable to open the GPS software on my phone so that I could plot a course. Or it partially worked at some points, but my friend and I had to deviate from our course on several occasions: avoiding muggers; going around construction; making a side trip to a house where Ozzy Osbourne was producing an album (!), and the like. Each of this side quests required additional GPS plotting and resulted in additional malfunctions and frustration.

I think the point to these dreams is fairly obvious, as they both involve roads I must travel to get to a particular destination, as well as the unexpected altering the road. It’s very easy for dissertation writing to feel like the kind of road that has no final destination or that it is easy to get lost on. And that feeling can be scary and overwhelming. But I do know that the only way to wherever it is I’m heading is to continue walking. And to not be overly scared or anxious. Or at least to acknowledge those feelings in writing and to nonetheless resolutely walk into the unknown.

07 October 2011

Steve Jobs Legacy: Everybody Loves a Rebel

As I did at the beginning of yesterday’s blog entry, I want to preface my thoughts on Steve Jobs’ death with some statements that I hope show that I do not see the subject I wish to discuss as straightforward. I neither hated nor liked Steve Jobs. I did not know him personally. I also know enough about him to know that he was more than the longtime CEO of Apple. He was a husband and a father. He practiced a form of buddhism, though the details on how he followed the tenants of Bhuddism remain sketchy until his authorized biography comes out (and for those of us who read it, we likely will not get the whole story even then). He also made statements to the effect that the products he came up with are not as revolutionary as people make them out to be.

I also think nobody should have to die the way Steve Jobs died. Regardless of what we think of the kind of man Steve Jobs was or wasn’t, he did not choose to develop pancreatic cancer and to suffer from it as he undoubtedly did suffer.

And I want to point out that, like many people my age, I own Apple products and have used Apple software. I have even contemplated jumping ship from the PC to the MacAir and probably would have already done so if I could afford one. So it is not like I am not participating in the kind of practices I wish to critique.

At the same time, however, I have to question how many people have reacted to Steve Jobs’ death. People who did know Steve Jobs and the media are consistently describing him as genius, a visionary, an innovator. They are saying that the world has lost someone great. There is absolutely no doubt that Steve Jobs did have a impact on the world. But he didn’t do that alone. And just as importantly as that fact, I think we need to take a closer look at what we think made this person so great. What, in other words, we think made Steve Jobs the admirable man that he is being remembered as.

To get at this particular brand of genius that we are being told Jobs was apparently endowed with (and which we are being told, implicitly, most of us lack), I want to take a look a blurb that has caught the attention of a great deal of people in the United States if not worlwide (I cannot speak to the latter). The words come from a speech Jobs gave at the 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. They are the final words to that speech. They are ‘Stay hungry. Stay Foolish’. These are bold words, to be sure. They are defiant. They are rebellious. One journalist has said that those four words terrify him, because they are about taking big risks. I agree.

From what I know of him, and I have already admitted I don’t know a great deal, Steve Jobs spent his career playing the rebel. He was perhaps the first person to throw off the suit and tie persona of the corporate executive, opting for the black turtle neck that became his signature look and has now been emulated by CEOs when they are hawking their products at trade shows. In addition, he took a very hard line on the direction that he thought Apple should take early in his career that rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. That stance that got him fired despite being one of Apple’s Co-Founders, though, after a few unsuccessful attempts in the computer industry (does anyone remember NEXT?), it ultimately rewarded him as one of the lead persons who helped turn Apple into the corporate juggernaut it is today. And, of course, Jobs’ rebellious attitude made him immensely wealthy.

What I think is terribly important to think about here is the kind of rebel Jobs was, because that’s the kind of rebel we apparently admire and wish to emulate, the way that we should approach life if we, too, want to be rebels. And Jobs tells us how he thinks we should approach life: foolishly and hungrily; to be bold and aggressive no matter what the consequences of that type of behavior might be.

We have been seeing what the consequences of behaving foolishly and hungrily have been in this country over the last four years (and much longer than that, in fact. This is simply the latest manifestation of wreckless behavior). Banks invested wrecklessly. Mortgage companies gave foolish loans to would‑be home owners (by which I mean these loans hurt the home owners). State governments have attempted to bust teacher’s unions. State governments have attempted to turn women into walking baby factories and criminals if they do not capitulate with that very narrow definition of their worth to society. Bullies have coerced LGBTs into contemplating and commiting suicide. People on death row have been executed despite that their guilt was in serious doubt. And what all of this wreckless and destructive behavior tells me is that, in many ways, our society rewards the kind of aggressively rebellious lifestyle that Steve Jobs advocates with those four words ‘Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.’ Not only does it reward that kind of behavior, in fact, as the bailouts of the American banking system indicate, but it also punishes those who conform or those who do not rebel destructively. In short, everybody loves a rebel, or at least the kind of destructive rebel that Steve jobs thought he was and which his words indicate that he hoped the graduating students at Stanford would all become.

I have been focusing on this particular brand of rebellion because I think there can be value in rebellion if approached in different terms than Steve Jobs casts them. This is what I would call productive rebellion. We have seen these kinds of rebellions recently in Iceland, Egypt, and the growing Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States. I will also mention the protests in England, which I think are mostly productive but which have also been destructive. The same can be said of the rebellion of Algiers, though, to be clear, physical conflict seemed like the only recourse in that situation and in others like it. And, of course, the United States has a history of being rebellious. The country was born in rebellion. The fight to end slavery was born out of the rebellion of slaves. The civil rights movement was a rebellion against segragation and racism (as well as those things that the civil war did not resolve). Let’s not forget women’s suffrage either. All of these movements and movements like them tell me that we can admire rebellion, because we hopefully come to something better as a result of it. But there is a stark difference between destructive and productive rebellion as I see those terms. The productive rebel screams, ‘We are here! We will not be silenced! We are here even though that offends you!’ The destructive rebel, on the other hands, shouts, ‘I am here! I will take what I want even though that offends you!’

And I think that latter form of rebellion is the kind of legacy that Steve Jobs would bequeath us. The kind that emphasizes self-interest and self-gratification rather than emphasizing our right to exist and our ability to treat each other with fairness and kindness. It emphasizes the few instead of the many.

06 October 2011

I Am Not a ‘Marxist’

I need to lay out a few qualifications for tonight’s entry, which will be about an email my Mom sent me yesterday, my response to it, and my further reflections on the contents of those emails this morning. I love my parents. I know they mean well. Also, I’m well aware that just about everyone disagrees with their parents on fundamental levels and that these disagreements often lead to heated arguments where each side defends its view of the issue rather than come to some sort of understanding. I would consider it abnormal to have any other kind of relationship with my parents (though that does not mean that what I am calling a ‘normal’ relationship is unproblematic). Nonetheless, the very short, ‘well intentioned’ email my Mom sent me was both surprising and hurtful. Keeping that in mind, I want to make it clear that I am not writing this entry to attack my Mom or my family, though a constructive critique of the contents of my Mom’s email will be part of how I work through its contents. But the salient point I wish to get across before I go any farther is that I am writing this entry for me and to tell my story, because nobody else is going to tell it.

The contents of my Mom’s email to me and about me were as follows: a thirty-or-so-word personal message stating that my Mom read on Facebook that I am a Marxist, that she hoped I would read the chain letter she included (she did not use the words chain letter, of course, but that is clearly what it was), and that she hoped I would give serious thought to what I believe and what I am doing. She then added XOXOXO, Mom (there were a good deal more ‘hugs’ and ‘kisses’, I think, but I don’t know how many). The chain letter was a list of five so-called ‘cogent’ reasons why the government should not tax the wealthy.

There’s no need to go into the chain letter other than to note that I thought the argument it made was preposterous and a defense of corporate greed.

As I’ve written above, I was shocked and hurt after reading my Mom’s description of me. I’m not sure exactly what she meant by calling me a ‘Marxist’. If I had to guess, I think she meant ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’. I do have training in Marxist theory and believe some of the points Marx makes about capitalism are valid, but I do not think he is entirely correct, and in any case his solution to the problem of capitalism ends up participating in capitalism, as anyone who has considered how the former Soviet Union handled communism could tell you. There is also good evidence to suggest that some socialist programs work or can work, such as our fire department system. I point all of these things out because, whatever my Mom means by Marxist, she means it pejoratively. This misrepresents what Marxism, Communism, and Socialism are supposed to be about. And the the tone of her message clearly indicates that she does not approve of my being a ‘Marxist’. More than that, her suggestion that I think seriously about how I think and act implies that I should change how I think and act. And by change she means that I should think and act as she does. Or that is one way to read it.

What hurt me most in this message isn’t the suggestion that I change because my Mom wishes me to. In no case will I simply change for that reason anyway. Rather, what truly hurts are the implicit assumptions in this message that there is something wrong with me. At no point does my Mom’s message ask me any questions about me. Rather, it tells me who I am: someone who does not give serious thought to their beliefs and actions, a dangerous agent who may find himself in trouble if he continues on the path he has inadvisedly stumbled upon (rather than purposefully chosen), a misbehaving or astray child who has merited a scolding by his much wiser, more experienced parent.

I perhaps should not have been as shocked as I was when I read my Mom’s email. It is hardly the first time she has treated me this way, always, I am quite sure, with all the good will in the world. But those good intentions don’t erase the damage messages like this have done to me over the course of my life. For, of course, I do want my parent’s approval of who I have chosen (and not chosen) to be. And, to be fair, there have been times when my parents have praised me, supported me, and aided me when I turned to them for help and aid. But those moments do not stick out nearly as vividly to me as all of the half‑spoken signals of disappointment, disapproval, and presumed failure. At least they do not at this moment. And I think this is the biggest shock to my system, to discover, despite that I have not been a child for a long time, that I can still be a disappointing child in my parent’s eyes.

I’m not going to go through all of the details of the response I wrote to my Mom. Suffice to say, I attempted to tell her some of things I have voiced here, though not in quite the same terms and not at such length. I felt guilty for doing so, even though I believe my response was wholly justified, because my response puts me in the role of the misbehaving or astray child. I wondered if it would no have been better to call her and confront her more directly. But I ended up avoiding that. I’m not quite sure why. And I couldn’t help but begin to doubt who I think I am given the very specific and negative terms my Mom constructed me in, even though I knew those terms were inaccurate and said more about how my Mom sees me than how I see me.

And so I asked myself in my writing session this morning just who I think I am. I came up with quite a bit, much more than I’m going to discuss here. But as for the kind of thinker I think I am, one of the ways I would describe myself is as someone who is keenly interested in the way that we humans tell stories. We never tell our stories innocently. My Mom’s story about me is not innocent. Nor is my story about her story about me. And what this means and what interests me about how we tell our stories is the stories we try not to tell but which leak out of the story we are narrating. That’s what happened with my Mom’s story about her son the ‘Marxist’. Or it did when I asked the right sorts of questions. And it is what happens in the texts I am studying as I write my dissertation: the stories of the conquered peoples that inhabit them leak out ‘in translation’. Or they do when we ask questions rather than make assumptions that we are getting the whole truth or even a tiny part of it.

05 October 2011

La Dolce Vita

Getting going today was a lot like being The Little Engine That Could. I did not sleep well last night and woke up feeling very sick. I think perhaps I’m suffering from post nasal drip (also known as--I just learned--Upper Airway Cough Syndrome. I definitely didn’t cough at any point today). I’ve never had good sinuses, and the pollen count in my area has been rather high of late. Whatever the reason, my stomach felt sour. As a result of all of this, I had no desire to get to work as soon as I woke up. Feeling run down as I did, I began thinking that I couldn’t work today. But, as I have been doing, I forced myself to do so.

My approach was to take things slowly. I slept longer than I normally I do. I took care of a few mundane things and read a few news items before beginning my free write about process around 09:00. I wrote unhurriedly. I wrote about how I was feeling physically and mentally. This revealed quite a bit of non-dissertation related stuff that was whirling around in my mind that I needed to process. I then had a simple but tasty breakfast of waffles and an orange. I treated myself to a bath. Little by little, telling myself I couldn’t work today became I think I can work today.

I didn’t feel like being alone with my thoughts, so I called a work buddy who I knew could also use some company. We went to Barnes and Noble. I treated myself to a cup of hot chocolate. Although this doesn’t seem like much, I consider it an indulgence, partly because I rarely buy anything when I am out working (due to being very poor like every graduate student I’ve ever met), partly because I think over $2.00 for a small cup of hot chocolate is rather expensive, and partly because I try to watch the amount of sweets and sugary substances I ingest. I finally got started writing dissertation material around 11:00. I don’t know exactly when it happened, but somewhere during the next two hours, during which time I wrote almost non‑stop, I think I can became I know it can.

I think there is something to be said for the way I got myself to work today. Little indulgences like sleeping in, taking a hot bath, and sipping hot chocolate can be powerful motivators. So can a change of scenery, which is something I purposefully decided would do me some good after processing some of the emotional baggage I was carrying around. A big discovery I made this morning is that I’m a bit nostalgic for the area I grew up in. It’s now autumn, for one thing. Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. I associate it with the place of my birth and the place where I spent the majority of my life. I also think, as someone who enjoys self-inflicted wounds to an extent, that I like the nostalgic sense of loss that autumn seems to bring (which is actually paradoxical, if autumn is a time of harvest and plenty).

I miss autumn all the more keenly since we don’t typically have an autumn season in the deep south. But the weather over the last week or so has been very autumnal, and this has made me remember past autumns from a decade ago before I moved here. I even caught myself imagining myself driving down some of the roads I used to frequent before I left that place behind to begin a new life as a graduate student. But I’m not quite sure what these feelings really mean. I left the place I grew up for a reason. I was not happy with the direction my life had been taking, and, in contrast to autumn, which I’ve said holds a special place for me, I could not abide the crushing winters. During the last few years I lived there, each successive winter seemed to be outdoing the last in terms of misery. And that trend has not changed since I left either, if the status updates of my Facebook friends who still live in the area are any indication.

Beyond this is the cliché idea that you can never back to the way things were. I think that holds true for me. I don’t want to go back in that sense either. On the rare occasions that I have been able to visit the area, I am typically overwhelmed by all the reasons I decided to leave, though, to be fair, I have a good time with the friends I visit. In any case, I haven't visited in years, though this is mostly because I can't afford to visit.

I also think that a place can change after so many years as well. And I don’t simply mean that old haunts are gone and new, strange places have sprung up in their place. Rather, I mean the interests of the people who live in a place and make communities what they are can change. And from what I have read about the area via friends, some of whom write about it for a living, as well as local news, I think in some ways the place has grown a whole lot in the intervening years since I last visited. And I suppose that’s just it. Whether I focus on my perspective or the perspective of those who live there now, I would be a visitor. I suppose what it comes down to, then, is whether I approach being a visitor as a chance to discover things about a place and its people as well as about myself or if I get hung up on a past that no longer is and perhaps never was. I'm not sure I've quite sorted that out yet.

I’ve obviously allowed myself to be sidetracked from my goal in blogging today, which is to reflect on my process. But in a way I am still on point, since today seems to have been about indulgences, whether they have come in the form of easing into the work day, having something warm and comforting to drink, or imagining a space for myself that also feels comfortable and inviting. I don’t know exactly where that leaves me with thinking about my childhood home, but I like the idea that it can be entirely new to me, and inviting and comforting because it is new.

04 October 2011

And So It Continues

I have every intention of making this a short entry. But I have had that same intention before, and things haven’t gone to plan. We’ll see how things go this evening.

I’m still feeling panicky and anxious. I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised, though I am a little disappointed that those feelings didn’t magically disappear over night. I don’t know how these things go for everyone else, but for me, negative feelings don’t normally hit me all of a sudden (though that can happen). They usually build up over a period of time. It also usually takes a while for them to go away. Anyway, I continue to work through this. I was every bit as productive today as I have been on every previous day, if not more so. It’s just more taxing and mentally exhausting.

It’s been a pretty long day. It’s now close to 20:00 local time, and I’m still working and reflecting. I also plan to read after I finish this entry, if I’m feeling up to it.

I want to spend the rest of this entry reflecting on what I mean by a long day. For starters, I have not been working non-stop since I woke up this morning (around 07:00). If there are people out there who can log such long hours, I’m not one of them. Yet I can remember days when I easily put in more than twelve hours of solid work. This was pretty common when I was still taking courses. I had days where I was busy from the time I woke up until 21:00. Like most other undergraduates and graduates, there were times when I pulled all-nighters, because there weren’t enough hours in the day for me to prepare lessons, teach, grade, read for courses, write responses to the readings, not to mention commuting (even though I live close to campus, traffic can be abysmal), choking down meals, and all the regular stuff that is part of anyone’s day. I can remember walking into a class my dissertation director was teaching (she was also my MA thesis director), having only slept for about forty five minutes the night before. I apparently looked as tired as I felt, because she asked me if I had gotten any sleep. To which I responded, ‘Not much’. This was a perfectly normal response, and my dissertation director responded in a perfectly normal way.

Somewhere along the way I lost the desire to spend my days this way. Probably about the time I finished coursework. It’s not that I’m not capable of logging twelve hours or more a day on a regular basis. I’m creeping up on that number again as I get more involved with my dissertation. But working that kind of day over an extended period of time brings me no joy. I can already tell that I’m a bit agitated at the fact that I’m usually finished for the day by now. And I think it’s very easy for writing a dissertation to become a chore rather than a journey towards self‑enlightenment when we focus more on how much we think we need to do each day rather than on what we accomplished each day.

I also think a bit of perspective is needed at times like this. I’m not going to write that my dissertation isn’t important to me, because it is. I wouldn’t be pushing myself each day to make progress if it didn’t matter to me. But I think, given the way the doctoral system is set up, that the only person my dissertation is truly important to is me. This isn’t a knock on the system either, though I will add that I think the system is far from perfect. I just think that what this body of work I am producing symbolizes has much greater value to me than it does to the scholars in my discipline. When professional scholars who happen to be interested in the things I am interested in conduct their research, they’re not going to look at my dissertation first, if they look at it at all. They’re going to look at published works from other professionals. This tendency to ignore graduate work even exists among graduate students. I’ve been rather inconsistent about it myself. At times I have read dissertations and even masters theses. At other times I have felt that there was enough professional work out there that I could probably ignore doctoral student’s work.

I feel like I could keep going with this entry, but I promised myself I would keep it ‘short’. And it is short to the extent that I’ve only spent about twenty minutes writing it. I’ll leave off on this note and try to keep my justification to a minimum (for I think there is always some amount of justification behind our actions and inactions, after the fact). I don’t feel like doing anything else tonight, so I’m not going to read after all.

03 October 2011

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

The title I’ve chosen for today’s entry is a bit of an overstatement, since I’ve continued to move forward with my writing. But today was one of those days that tested my resolve to do any writing at all. My mood was vastly different this morning than from what it had been on Friday and Saturday morning. Instead of feeling exhilarated for having made some significant progress on how I am approaching the practice of translation in my texts, I’ve begun feeling anxious about where I am at and where I think I should be. This feeling began creeping in on Sunday morning. By the evening, I started to feel downright panicky.

I tried working through these feelings of anxiety and panic in my first writing session this morning. I think part of the reason for such a mood swing says something about my personality. As soon as I start feeling great about something, I tend to find a reason to sabotage myself. I felt guilty for having such a good time with friends on Saturday night (my day off), and I was not productive on Sunday (not a day off) because I felt like I still needed to recharge. On top of that, I realized as I continued to write this AM that I set myself up for these feelings by focusing on all of the tasks I want to accomplish today AND this month rather than on approaching each task individually. When I am going to turn in a chapter, I ask myself? How much more writing to do have to do before I get there? How many more close readings? How much more research on all of the questions I’ve come up with in those close readings? When and I going to find time to do all of that plus all of the other stuff I have to take care of on a daily basis? It’s not that surprising then, given the amount of work that I’ve been telling myself I have to do--not just in the short term but also in the foreseeable future--that I felt overwhelmed and stressed. Putting all of that on my shoulders inevitably leads to an amount of uncertainty.

My natural inclination when feeling overwhelmed is to flee. In this case, fleeing my responsibilities would mean not being productive. It would mean not writing. I know well enough at this point, however, that flight solves nothing. When I have avoided writing, my feelings of anxiety and panic have only deepened. About this time last year, I was in a very bad cycle in which I would become increasingly depressed at my lack of progress and be unable to make progress as a result. It took several good friends to recognize just how low I had sunk. I knew things were bad, but I didn’t know just how bad. In short, I was so demoralized that I had begun talking much slower than normal, if I spoke to anyone at all. I rarely smiled or laughed. I was often on the verge of tears without understanding why I felt that way, because I had gotten so used to avoiding thinking about what was going on rather than facing it and voicing how I was feeling to myself or to anyone.

I think the way that I handled the same kind of feelings that surfaced over the weekend demonstrates how far I’ve come since a year ago. Even though I felt awful this morning--I was literally sick to my stomach and developed a pain in my right shoulder-blade (though I’m not sure if that is from stress, poor posture while sitting at the computer, poor sleeping arrangements, or a combination of all of these things and feeling sick)--even though I wanted desperately to take the day off, I made myself write. I actually wrote more than I have on any previous day since I changed my writing process, in fact, though, to be fair, about three-quarters of one of the four single-spaced pages I churned out was a paragraph listing some of the weird descriptions of nobles who make up Arthur’s plenary court that I think deserve closer examination. But that kind of work is also often necessary, since you might find patterns in the weird descriptions that you can’t see otherwise. And that’s precisely what happened today. And once I began recognizing those patterns--I think there is more than one pattern to consider--things began falling into place.

So what is today’s lesson? I’m not sure. I don’t feel particularly better for having written anything at the moment, for one thing. But I also don’t feel any worse for having done so. And maybe that is the lesson, if there is one. Writing didn’t hurt me. Perhaps the problem I was having this time last year was that I thought writing would hurt me, because I was focused on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ writing rather than simply on writing. But perhaps not. There is always the possibility that there is no huge lesson or ‘secret knowledge’ that I’m supposed to unearth in these writing sessions. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. The idea of ‘secret knowledge’ bugs me in a way, in fact, because it implies that I need to find answers to all of the questions I have about my writing process and about me. But why should having questions that are unanswerable be a bad thing? Aren’t they the best sorts of questions, because they keep us moving forward rather than back?

01 October 2011

‘It will be an adventure!’

Saturdays are normally my day off from my dissertation. However, I was far too exhausted to write a blog entry yesterday. Nor did I write one all last weekend, for that matter. So I’m going to whip up a quick entry now before I get going on errands I plan to run this afternoon.

I feel pretty darned good about yesterday’s close reading. I decided to look at a passage I had not given much thought to before (I’ve read each of my primary texts several times over, so I know them pretty well). It’s an entirely new passage from my ‘second’ source, which means that its ‘translator’ completely made it up. Though, of course, whether you think Arthur may have existed or not, the extant literature about him and his exploits is obviously entirely fictional. Anyway, despite the fact that the passage isn’t that long--it spans perhaps 30 lines of verse, give or take a few lines--the translator imagines the common folk kissing and hugging each other and weeping tears of joy upon Arthur’s return. We’re definitely meant to feel good about this scene. Arthur spent nine years on the continent winning the various territories of Gaul before setting sail for ‘home’. Historically speaking, it was not uncommon for the Norman rulers of England to spend four years or more in France while their regents, chancellors, or justiciars took care of their ‘affairs’ in the British Isles. Richard I only spent enough time in England to be crowned and set his ‘affairs’ in order before setting out for the holy land. So it’s possible that Arthur’s loyal subjects if not everyone might actually have cause to celebrate. In addition to the fact that kings were often absent from their kingdoms, we might also be tempted to consider that, unlike the Normans, Arthur is coming home to ‘his people’, though the situation is not cut and dry given how many different peoples lived in the British Isles at the time.

I’m carefully bracketing off terms here because, regardless of the translator’s intentions, there’s quite a bit of constructing the people of Britain ‘in translation’ going on behind the scenes. There’s little doubt in my mind that, as the passage is written, the people are made to participate in Arthur’s conquests. Not only are they  overly joyful (one line about sweethearts getting carried away with the kissing and hugging is rather amusing), but they specifically ask the soldiers they meet in the streets and at crossroads how their conquests went--the phrase ‘lur cunquest’ is actually used--and whether or not they conducted themselves like good little conquerors.

Another suspect word that appears in the passage is ‘aventure’. We know this in English as adventure.

I got pretty excited about how adventure circulates in the discourse that underpins this passage. The word is Latin in origin: ad + venturus (future of venio), which translates as ‘coming to’ or ‘to arrive.’ For all you Latinists out there, the word advenio is part of the lexicon. But breaking words down into their constituent components can often tell us something we may have taken for granted. Given that adventure refers to a ‘coming to’ or an ‘arrival’, an adventurer is thus someone who arrives or who is a visitor. Knowing this, I started contemplating what being a visitor means in terms of conquest. Lots of other ideas about how conquest is carried out by the conquerors as well as how the strategies of conquest lead to unintended consequences for the visitors occurred to me as a result.

In some ways, adventure is the holy grail of terms to study. It’s become synonymous with our modern notions about Arthurian literature, by which I mean the average person who knows something about Arthurian tradition probably has in mind the romantic version of the story a la Le Morte D’arthur by Thomas Malory (who incidentally, was a great translator of French Arthurian tradition in his own right). However, even at this earlier period in the formation of Arthurian tradition--my source predates what we think of as the ‘start’ of Arthurian romance--the word adventure has romantic connotations attached to it. My concern with adventure is how the romanticization of conquest operates in the practice of translation. How, in other words does the romantic idea of adventure change our perception of not just the conquered but also the conquerors?

I’m taking a rather round about way to come to my point in ‘whipping up’ this blog entry. I normally try to avoid discussing the content of my dissertation if I can help it, but it seems like I couldn’t help it today. I’m not going to feel guilty about that, because not being able to stop myself indicates how excited I am about the directions my dissertation is taking me in. One of the biggest fears that scholars who think have come up with a great idea must face is that they are not going to come up with another one. In my opinion, I’ve written exactly one good paper in my academic career, by which I mean I think it is worth publishing. I’ve definitely wondered if I would ever write anything else that I thought was as good or approaches the level of quality that I think that one good paper achieves. But I think yesterday’s writing session indicates that I am still capable of generating good ideas.

I also think, in the way I have been thinking about the term here, that adventure is a pretty good metaphor for the practice of translation as well as how I am manipulating the meaning of the word. Translators are by their very nature ‘visitors’ to other texts. And I myself am a ‘visitor’ when I read their translations and write about them.

29 September 2011

'And Now For Something Completely Different'

I took a vacation from my regular writing routine this morning. Sort of. Instead of writing about process and writing dissertations, I…did some writing for my job! I work as the Senior Graduate Assistant for the Faculty Senate President at my university. We publish a monthly online newsletter. This takes up a lot of our time at the end of every month. I spent the majority of my week--when I was not busy writing about process, writing dissertation pages, and blogging, that is--proofreading and editing articles and columns that my boss writes and writing headlines for them. I also write my own column, the Administrator in the Spotlight. This involves setting up appointments with administrators (typically top level) to interview, drawing up questions, conducting interviews, and condensing the material I collect from these interviews into approximately 500 words. I usually exceed this word ‘limit’, in fact, though I keep it fairly close when possible. In some cases I’ll hit 650 words, but our publication template allows us enough flexibility that this isn’t a huge problem.

I hadn’t written an article for the newsletter in several months (we don’t publish over the summer). I’m also now getting quite used to the new writing process I’ve adopted in order to complete my dissertation. Switching over to a journalistic writing style was therefore pretty difficult for me. This is not to say I didn’t get the writing done on time. But I quickly found that I had to lapse back into habits I am trying to break: focusing on word count, writing as concisely as possible, worrying about how polished my copy is, and so on. I didn’t enjoy having to do that. I also worried that I wouldn’t be able to approach my column creatively, though that particular fear proved to be unwarranted. The column, which is about providing a window into the types of jobs and functions that make life at my university possible but which staff, faculty and students may take for granted, by its nature allows for some creative leeway. For this month’s column I interviewed the Director of Development of my university’s theatre (think box office here). I spiced the introduction up a bit by suggesting that if ‘all the world is a stage’, then the Director could be considered an Atlas of sorts. Minus the punishment and suffering for rebelling against the gods.

Writing my column took up my entire morning. Because of this, I opted not to write about process. My logic was simple enough: this is something I like to do as soon as I wake up. Since I couldn’t do that, and seeing how I had already written a great deal for the day, I felt that I could move straight into writing dissertation pages this afternoon. However, I made the mistake of changing how I approached my dissertation writing for the day as well. I thought it might be fun to do a side by side comparison of the ‘same’ passage in two of my texts and see what changed. It was not fun. Not even a little.

I don’t believe the writing session was a complete waste. In fact, I learned that the second translator adds and subtracts quite a bit of material and that these additions and subtractions say a lot about how the practice of translation circulates in the discourses of conquest and domination. But approaching my texts in this fashion is rather tedious. And I think that seeing how the practice of translation operates across texts is paradoxically much more difficult when comparing texts side by side instead of doing close readings of them individually. I found myself more concerned with how closely the passages I chose to explore resembled one another (or did not) rather than with what they can tell me about how culture is constructed ‘in translation’. Comparing passages side by side thus felt like a much more round about way to get to the point where I was asking questions about the practice of translation as I understand it.

I’m going to have to accept that there will be times when I am forced to change my routine for various reasons. If today is any indication, that doesn’t mean that I won’t be productive. But I also think that my process is going to be the most beneficial to me if I don’t tinker with it on purpose. I think perhaps one reason I decided to change how I approached dissertation writing today was because I was feeling exhausted from juggling all of the different tasks I had to accomplish this week. In addition to writing quite a bit today, I also found time to work out and drive a friend to the dentist (and stop for groceries on the way back). I think that I felt if I changed things up a little bit that I would break the monotony of my routine. But I think perhaps that it depends on how I think about my routine. I may be doing some of the same things day in day out: writing, reading, writing, reflecting. But I’m also discovering new things about my reading and writing processes on a daily basis precisely because I am following a routine that encourage me to reflect on those processes.