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.

28 September 2011

A Writer Writes

I spent my first writing session this morning--the session which I devote to writing about my process--reflecting on how much control I have over my writing. To put this more accurately, I asked myself how much control I like to have over my writing. I framed my writing around this question--once I got going--because I didn’t have a specific topic in mind when I began writing. This isn’t the first time I have not chosen a topic before hand. I have done that on a few occassions since I changed my approach to writing my dissertation. I also did this on a daily basis when I worked through The Artist’s Way with several friends a few years ago (during which I discovered that I like to draw). I had a lot of success with this approach, because I was able to get into the habit of turning my internal censor off and work negative thoughts out of my system. But I still find that not having a topic in mind can be a scary prospect. Such was the case at first when I began my writing session about process this morning. When I asked myself why I needed a topic, I hit upon the idea that I wanted to be in control of what I was writing instead of letting it control me.

I don’t know that everyone who writes feels the same about the writing process as I do or makes the same kinds of assumptions that I make. But by asking myself why I like to have control over my writing, I discovered that I make a great deal of assumptions about the writing process that are false. The biggest of these is that writing should come naturally and effortlessly. I know from experience that this idea about writing is incorrect. But somehow that hasn’t stopped me from unconsciously making this kind of assumption about writing even after spending the majority of my life in an academic environment in which I constantly write and write and rewrite and rewrite some more. In addition, despite training myself to write recursively in these sessions each day, I find myself--or at least I found myself doing so this morning--worrying that not having a clear topic in mind before hand when I sit down to write is a horrible strategy. I ask myself questions like, how can I possibly focus my thoughts if I don’t know what I’m going to write about in the first place? Or what if I am simply making things up that turn out to be not well thought out or down right wrong? What if I’m just spinning my wheels rather than making real progress towards finishing my dissertation?

Let me be clear. I did know that I was going to write about process when I sat down to write first thing this morning. But I didn’t know what aspect of my process I would focus on, if focus is the right word here. Was anything in particular troubling me? Were things going extraordinarily well? How was I feeling about my dissertation in general? Had any particular negative or positive thoughts about dissertating invaded my consciousness when I woke up?

As I wrote above, I think the anxiety I felt over not having a clear topic in mind beforehand this morning is largely about an unconscious need to be in control of my writing. But, of course, I am always in control of my writing in a sense. The difference is that instead of forcing myself to write about a predetermined topic that may or may not be worth pursuing, I force myself to write without any preconceived assumptions in mind, or, given that I have been making assumptions, as few as possible. This approach allows me to explore multiple possibilities instead of just one. And doing so usually takes me in unexpected and fruitful directions. That is precisely what happened in both my writing sessions today. For my writing session on process, I was able to not only see that the assumptions I had been making about being in control of my writing were false, but that a topic did emerge out of my thoughts. As for my dissertation writing session, I made some discoveries about the atmosphere of distrust of the foreign that the practice of translation creates in my primary texts (well, at least in one of them, since I only had one of them in front of me while I was working).

I also think that having made a pretty specific assumption about what kind of control I have over my writing misses the point of the writing strategy I have adopted. That strategy, quite simply, is that a writer writes. Having preconceived ideas about writing generally hinder rather than aid the writing process. And they stifle the imagination. By this, I don’t just mean that preconceptions about writing stifle my capacity to creatively work through issues that arise in my primary texts, though that is certainly a part of it. But, perhaps more importantly, I also mean that preconceptions block how I imagine the writing process itself. More often that not, those types of blocks lead to less writing, which is the opposite of what I am aiming for each day. Nor do I think--or at least I have to remind myself of this--that this kind of writing strategy prioritizes quantity over quality. Quality isn’t simply a matter of polished writing over poor writing. In my view, polished writing that doesn’t engage the topic at hand beyond the surface is not necessarily quality writing. And I think that the best way to get at the contents beneath the surface of my texts is to throw all my preconceptions about writing out the window and allow myself to imagine the possibilities that the text presents to me.

27 September 2011

Non Praescriptio

This evening’s blog entry will be a fairly short one. I also can’t come up with a meaningful title. The short version is that I’m pretty exhausted and don’t have much left in the tank. I also don’t have a strong sense of what aspects of my process I would like to work through at the moment. However, I did have a bit of difficulty writing dissertation pages today, so I’m going to focus on that.

The difficulty I experienced in my dissertation writing session this morning is fairly straight forward. I wanted to do a close reading of a passage in one of my primary sources that refers to Arthur’s use of foreign mercenaries to fill out his invasion force. Part of what I am interested in looking at in passages like this is how the foreign is constructed ‘in translation’. I am also interested in how the practice of translation in my texts plays into our understanding of ‘traditional’ Arthurian elements. One of the elements that I am working on is the role of the knight in my primary texts. I feel as though we take a lot of what the knight represents in any given text for granted. In much the same way that we are prone to generalize about race, gender, class and what have you (always, of course, to the detriment of our understanding of these ‘categories’), I think we generalize about the knight in Arthurian literature as men of ‘honour’, ‘virtue’, ‘courtesy’ and so on rather than focus on what knights actually do in the stories they inhabit. Some of the more sophisticated Arthurian tales do call these knightly characteristics into question, but I’m not convinced that we see a radically departure from these ‘core values’. And I think the practice of translation often underscores some of these problems.

To return to the difficulty I had in writing this morning, I do not always easily manage to articulate how components in my texts, such as the role the knight plays and the practice of translation, work together in the argument I am trying to put together. When I started writing this morning, I fixated on this problem. I had been thinking about the practice of translation in a different way over the last few writing sessions, so I couldn’t make sense of where that intersected with what I’ve written above about how I am coming to see the role of the knight in the passage I wanted to write about this morning. As a result, I felt like today’s writing session was going to be a slog and not generate any meaningful ideas. Nonetheless, since I am trying to form writing habits that are based on reaching obtainable goals rather than on what comes out of a particular writing session, I went ahead with writing anyway. And I decided I might best be able to stop worrying about my thoughts not coming together like I wanted them to by going back over two recent writing sessions for thoughts about how the elements I have been looking at fit together, if they fit together at all. I also considered the possibility that I was barking up on the wrong tree.

Going back over earlier writing proved to be a good move. I don’t want to go into much detail here, but I discovered there is a connection between the elements I have been looking at, though not the kind of connection I had been trying to force into today’s writing session. The short of it is that I think the practice of translation and the construction of the knight are deployed in the same discursive system, a system that, in my view, validates conquest. Once I was able to get past this difficulty, I had a pretty enjoyable writing session in which I was able to pose questions to myself and begin contemplating what these types of questions tell me about how I might look at the passage I chose to write about.

As is usual in these blog entries, there is no ‘mind blowing’ revelation here. In fact, I’m not entirely certain that the way I chose to solve the problem I was having today is the best method to employ. And I’m okay with all of that. What I do think is important, however, is that the habits I am trying to form are having a positive effect on my writing process. I did not panic or become irritated, upset, or anxious about my writing today, which is how I think I have typically responded in the past when writing has seemed difficult or overwhelming to me. I simply worked through the problem in a manner that felt intuitive. I also think it is a good idea to begin looking for patterns in my writing not just on a particular day but also over successive days. That, too, is hardly a significant insight in one sense. But in another sense I am learning that this entire process forms a kind of pattern that tells me how seemingly disparate pieces of information are going to fit together. And I take comfort in knowing this when I have often felt in the past that my ideas for chapters and what I envision my dissertation looking like in the end are a jumbled mess of ideas rather than a coherent and organic composition of those thoughts.

Well, I thought this was going to be a short entry, but it turned out not to be. I’m definitely okay with that, too.

26 September 2011

Cogitatio Omnis Est

In my last entry, I explored some of the bad habits I’ve formed regarding how I think about writing and some of the things I might do to change that way of thinking. For today’s entry I want to build on the idea of habit formation and discuss how I have been thinking about the end of this process up to now. I think a good way to get at my thought processes will be to examine how I think about graduating.

I don’t know how most graduate students feel about graduating and finishing beyond the obvious. The road to graduation is a fairly long and arduous one, and finishing brings a sense of completion (though I’ve also read this sense of accomplishment can be accompanied by one of anxiety about what comes next, since graduating is more of a transitional phase than an ending). I know in my case that I would like to be done already. I chose to get a master’s degree along the way. Most of the folks I came into graduate school with either already had their MA or came in as PhD students (thus bypassing MA requirements). As such, these people have finished their degrees and have moved on, while I’m still here. In addition, while I moved through my course requirements in a timely fashion, the dissertation process has been a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. That is one reason I started this blog, so that I could think through my process and voice my feelings about it while not denigrating it or myself.

I gave what I think about graduating some serious thought over the weekend. Despite feeling that I want to graduate, I’ve realized that I have not been imagining myself graduating. I mean a few things by this. In the first place, I mean the simple idea that I have not been picturing myself standing next to my dissertation director as she hoods me; walking onto the stage and receiving a symbolic representation of my diploma; seeing colleagues about me and friends and family smiling at me in the audience; and all of the happy feelings that should accompany such a momentous day. I also mean the more abstract ideas about graduating: starting a new phase in my life, which should be both frightening and exhilarating; becoming a fully recognized member of the professional academic community; working on new projects that have occurred to me as I have gone through coursework and the dissertation process; and so on. When I have thought about the end of the dissertation process, in fact, I have not had very clear images of what that will mean for me. I have felt as though there is some kind of post‑graduation fog that will come rolling in over me, and that I will be unable to find my way out.

I’m not going to write that these feelings of uncertainty have left now that I have begun to think about them. But I do think it is important for me to recognize what I have been doing to myself all this time without realizing it. It may seem obvious to point this out, but imagining the end of this process in such negative terms has been a hindrance: at best I’ve been confusing myself, and at worst I have been setting myself up for failure. Luckily, I think the first step I need to take is a simple one. I've already written it down in the previous paragraph, in fact: to begin imagining myself on graduation day surrounded by people who are happy for me and feeling happy for myself. This will undoubtedly take some effort on my part. I will have to devote a little bit of time each day to imagining myself as a doctor, as an expert in my particular field of study and as an educator who has something meaningful to contribute to academia. But it takes every bit as much effort, at least until it becomes a habit, to not imagine myself graduating. In the end, I think imagination is everything, by which I mean I can continue to imagine myself being swept away in the fog of the unknown, or I can choose to imagine myself standing on my own two feet with my diploma in hand.

22 September 2011

Old Habits Die Hard

Many of us are creatures of habit. I certainly think this is true of me. For instance, if my daily routine is disturbed for some reason, even if it’s just a tiny thing, there’s a good chance I’m going to be annoyed or cranky. This doesn’t mean I am incapable of changing. But it does mean that changing takes a good deal of effort on my part. And if I’m to break one of my poor habits, it’s likely going to be through forming a new, more productive one. Knowing what I know about myself as far as habit formation goes, I want to blog about how I’ve changed my writing routine and how this has been affecting me over the last few days.

When I first changed my writing routine, I decided that I would start by writing three times a day. I can always add another writing session later if I think I need to, but I don't want to subtract any. The first session would be devoted to free writing about process. The second covers dissertation writing. Finally, I write a blog entry, like I’m doing right now. I don’t do these writing sessions back to back. It’s not an optimal way for me to write, for one thing. For another, I have other obligations each day: working on projects for my Assistantship; walking my dog Jersey; running errands as they come up; exercising; preparing meals (and I mean really preparing them and not throwing something in the microwave); and so on. I also block out time each day to read material related to my dissertation (there is always more to read and reread, despite that I have already read more than I can possibly write about in a dissertation). Lately I have been devoting this time to going back through one of my primary sources to work through questions I am forming about how colonial subjects are constructed ‘in translation’.

This new routine in which I break up my writing into discrete sessions has been very effective so far. However, I’ve been noticing an unexpected side effect over the last few days. I’m usually done with the first writing session by 8 AM. After I walk the dog and have breakfast, I will head to a nearby coffee shop. I’m usually there by no later than 9:30 and will leave anywhere between 11 AM and noon, depending on how long it takes me to reach my page count or to realize I've written all I'm going to write for the time being. This means that I’ve finished the bulk of my writing before lunch time each day. What I hadn’t counted on was how much ‘free’ time this leaves me over the course of the rest of the day. Even though I spend time reading and writing when I get home and taking care of the other things I need to think about, I feel as though I have too much time on my hands. And this perception of my time is leaving me feeling rather anxious. So much so, in fact, that I’m pretty sure it’s affecting my sleeping pattern. I have slept poorly all this week. I have laid down to sleep between 10 and 11 PM each night, but I have not fallen asleep until around one in the morning. And despite that, I am generally waking up by 5 or 6 AM and spending some fitful time trying to relax so that I can have a good first writing session.

The reason I bring these feelings of anxiety up is not because I do not think my new routine is not working. As I’ve already written, I think it has been very effective. Also, even though I feel like I have lot of free time on my hands, I'm generally busy until at least 5 PM (and often later), which would make for an eight hour work day if I was working a regular 40-hour a week desk job. Rather, I think the issue I am having is that, despite having tried to shift the way I write each day onto a paradigm that is goal oriented (i.e., I write so many pages in each session, regardless of how long it takes), I have been unable to think of my accomplishments in non‑temporal terms. What I mean by this is that I think I have had the mindset that I should be spending so many hours each day on writing. And I don’t think this is a very easy habit to break. I’ll also add that writing isn’t always going to come as easy as it has been coming to me lately. There are going to be days when it definitely takes me longer to accomplish my writing tasks than it is taking at the moment. But in the short term, I feel guilty about the surplus of time I have had each day to relax. I feel like, if I have accomplished so much in such a short time, why can’t I accomplish double that amount each day? But I know that this would not be good for me in the long run. I have noticed, for instance, that although I have exceeded my goals each day since I started my new writing routine, I reach a point in each session where I lose a lot of steam. I might write for a little while after I hit that critical point, but this is usually a signal to me that I need a break.

I don’t think getting rid of the guilty feelings I’ve been having is going to be easy for me. I’m not even sure working through the reasons why I think that I’m feeling this way will make much difference. Certainly not in the short term. But I think it’s important for me to stick to this routine rather than change it up so quickly or, worse still, go back to my old routine. And I’m sure when I start shaping some of my free writing sessions into more polished dissertation pages that I will be spending more time in front of the computer than I am at the moment. And it will be equally important then to not panic or think about how much more time it takes me to accomplish those tasks each day.

21 September 2011

Legens Dense

There are multiple directions I could take today’s blog entry in. Quite frankly, I’m not sure what I want to write about. This blog is primarily meant to be about my dissertation process, but there are lots of different processes that feed into putting a dissertation together: thinking about what I accomplished on a specific day, thinking about what my long term goals are (these are not necessarily straight forward and are just as susceptible to change as daily goals, perhaps even more so), thinking about the specific dissertation ideas I wrote about that day and how I can build on them (or abandon them, depending on what came out of the writing session), and so on. I’m hesitant to write about my goals at the moment, which was the subject of this morning’s writing session on process. I would like to share some of the insights I’ve had on why I’m going through this journey, but I’m not feeling up to it at the moment. I was exhausted (in a good way) after I wrote about this morning and don’t want to tire myself out right now. I’d rather finish the day strongly. So I think I will write about the close reading I did in my second writing session.

The close reading of a passage is a mainstay in today’s research in literature, though it is not the only approach, nor necessarily always the best one. How to 'read' a text depends on the interests and purposes the reader/writer of the text has in mind when they get to the writing stage. The close reading would not be well suited, for instance, to a paper on how Chaucer is being taught in the classroom today, though a close reading of what educators have said about teaching Chaucer could be done. The close reading is a good choice for the book length chronicle written in verse that I am currently studying. It also lends itself to the kind of uncensored, raw kind of writing I am doing at the moment. I wrote several pages about four or five lines of verse, which is a very close reading indeed.

I chose to do a close reading of a passage that has been chewed over by scholars in my field and by folks interested in Arthurian literature in the context of Translation Studies in particular. Because I already knew it had received lots of attention (in fact I’ve written down ideas about it before, but I think it’s a good idea to rethink a passage after a while and see if anything new or different presents itself to me), I tried to throw out all of the assumptions I had ever made about it. Instead of writing down answers to what I thought the passage meant, I asked every question that quickly came to mind. And I tried to curb my impulse to quickly develop answers to those questions. Doing so it not always easy, and I did speculate at times about how I might answer the questions I was putting to myself. But I think the real pay from this approach was seeing a pattern emerge from the types of questions I was asking. Without realizing it, I had asked a lot of questions about what the passage was telling me about how ethnicity is constructed ‘in translation.’ I’ve written about this topic elsewhere, but I hadn’t had a chance to give it much thought as far as the primary source I am now working with goes.

(Re)Discoveries like this excite me. Asking questions instead of trying to supply answers didn’t just tell me something about what I think the passage is about. It also told me something about my research interests that I have been taking for granted. This kind of (re)discovery can be a great motivator for writing a dissertation, especially one that focuses on medieval literature. I emphasize medieval literature here because, even though we are ultimately separated from the read texts we read in space and time, no matter how recently they were written, the sense of distance we feel when read a text can be a bit overwhelming where medieval literature is concerned. I have remarked on more than one occasion to friends who are either writing or have successfully defended their dissertations that, because my primary texts were all written between 800 and 900 years ago, I do not feel any particular attachment to them. I don’t feel personally invested in them. Or it is hard for me to find that personal investment. And I’ve been really jealous of friends who have found that personal sense of attachment. I have event felt that their dissertation topics are more worthwhile than mine because they are personally invested in what they are writing about while I have not been, or so I had been telling myself.

I’m not going to commit the fatal new critical error here and state that all literature transcends space and time so that we don’t need to think about the specific historical and social circumstances that may or may not have influenced the writing of the texts I am working with. But, after seeing a pattern emerge in the questions I was posing today, seemingly of its own accord, I now feel as though I can find ways to relate to medieval texts by asking the kinds of questions that many of us ask ourselves today. What does ethnicity have to do with all of this? What about race? What about gender? What about colonial discourse? And I think asking those sorts of questions today helped me to relate to the text I’m examining in a way that I can make personal.

20 September 2011

Scriberens dissertationem in minuto quinto decimo per diem

I’m going to get this out of the way right now. If you’re struggling with your dissertation‑and even if you’re not‑I recommend getting a hold of a copy of Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker. The title is a bit of a misnomer, as Bolker recommends that you write for AT LEAST fifteen minutes every day, especially on days when you’re having trouble. I’ve only just started it, and I’m already feeling tons better about my writing process, though I was literally shaking when I began reading it, because I felt as though I had been going about my dissertation all wrong. But that sensation passed as I confronted and worked through that feeling and decided to rethink my approach from here on out rather than feel badly about my approach up to that point.

My job isn’t to plug books I’m reading, so I’m not going to give an in‑depth recap of the lessons that Bolker provides her readers. But I do want to spend some time discussing how my process has changed‑for the better, I think‑over the last several days. I’ve had quite a few issues with my writing. Most if not all of these issues are pretty typical ones. They’re the same fears that everyone I know who has gone through this process has had: fear that I am going to write a boring or unreadable dissertation; fear that I am not going to contribute to the body of knowledge about my topic (and it turns out the body of knowledge already out there is small, though it is not completely non‑existent); fear that I’m not going to finish in time (I have until December 2012, but I want to finish by June); fear that I don’t know what I’m writing about; and on and on. In short, I’ve been putting a lot of pressure on myself to perform. I know that I’ve been doing this‑I’ve had plenty of conversations with friends in my department and with my dissertation advisor about it‑, but I hadn’t directly confronted my fears myself, and I think what I needed to do was put them into writing, put them into my own words rather than simply listen to what everyone else was telling me, though that was an important step. I hadn’t asked myself why I had all these irrational fears and whether or not there was something about my process that was causing me to feel this way. And I believe my process was holding me back to an extent.

I think we all eventually figure out some tricks to forming dissertation writing habits. Some of these are picking a certain time of day to write (mornings work best for me); picking a good space or spaces in which to write (e.g., a coffee shop); deciding on realistic writing goals for each day, and so on. I had tried all of these things, but I was still writing very slowly, if I was able to write at all. Many days I would stare at the words on the screen with disgust, shame, guilt that I hadn’t written more, and so on. Even if I stopped to ‘organize’ my thoughts and write without censoring myself, the problem would quickly return once I tried to go back to the way I had been writing. Part of the problem was that, even if I took a break from my normal routine, I had established a pattern of thinking about my writing as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. Another stumbling block was that I had set myself a specific amount of words to write each day. This isn’t a horrible way to set up a writing goal, per se, but I had noticed that it took me quite a few more words per page than what is considered average. Each page felt like a struggle because I was focused on how many more words I had to write than what is average.

I’ve done a few things to correct these problems already. For instance, I’ve shifted from word count to page count as my writing goal each day. I’ve also started writing about my process each day in addition to my dissertation writing goal. This obviously means I need to write MORE each day than I had been, but I’ve also begun forming a new habit of not censoring myself at all whenever I sit down to write dissertation pages. This is a very new approach for me in terms of academic writing (I’ve done it with creative writing), as I’ve long been what a former professor of mine has called an eeker. I would eek out a page a day, sometimes less, and rarely more, but these pages would already be in pretty good shape and not require much revision. I’ve written this way for years, mostly with success. But it hasn’t been working with my dissertation, so I’ve decided I’m going to be what that same professor called a gusher. This type of writer gushes onto the page and doesn’t worry about style, format, spelling or anything that gets in the way of productive thought. I’ve always felt this kind of writing was counter intuitive or inefficient. And perhaps it is counter intuitive. But I’m not sure anymore that it is inefficient. For one thing, it allows me to directly engage my thoughts rather than worry about writing in a linear fashion, which is also one of the eeker’s habits (or at least it’s one of mine). And in many ways it is a much more creative approach to writing, because it allows me to slap down ideas and make connections that I might not have otherwise noticed. Writing that incorporates a creative element very much appeals to me, so much so that, even though I’ve only been writing this way for a short time, I’m not sure how I ever got by writing differently. And the best part is that this kind of writing is stress free. I’m breaking my writing up into manageable blocks: a few pages on process when I wake up; a short break; then a few pages on the dissertation. I’m adding writing a blog entry in the early evening to this routine. I’ll reward myself with the evening off once I finish said entry.

Another really important lesson I’ve learned in a very short time is to begin owning my dissertation. I’ve always known this dissertation is mine, but I haven’t treated it as though it is mine. Without realizing I had been doing so, I had been treating it as something to be turned in to my committee, chapter by chapter (and I haven’t yet turned a single full chapter in, though I am becoming much more confident that I can do so soon) and then a final draft to be judged, assessed, and so on. I think this view of my dissertation, as something to be turned in rather than as mine, is why I have been thinking that my dissertation is boring, not up to par (and, incidentally, the feedback I have received from my advisor so far has been positive), and all of those negative thoughts. For instance, it could turn out that MY dissertation is very straight forward. But why does that have to be a problem? Why does it have to be a weakness? Why can’t it be a strength? I think asking even simple questions like this says a great deal about what my mindset has been and what I need to do to change that. I don’t necessarily think overcoming that negative mindset will be easy, but I think taking ownership of whatever my dissertation turns out to be is a critical step, perhaps the most critical step, that I need to take. As cheesy at it may sound in writing, telling myself that this dissertation is my dissertation and that nobody can take it away from me is something I want to do and remind myself of on those days when, unlike today, I am not able to write so effortlessly. Owning it will also allow me to step back and look at the stumbling block(s) I encounter on a particular day, whether it is guilt or shame; worrying about things in my personal life and letting that get in the way of writing; wrestling with a particular issue or question (which perhaps can be approached a different way or put aside for a while).

I don’t think I’ve written anything particularly earth shattering in this entry. That was not my goal. Rather, my objective was to put down in words what I’ve been going through, to acknowledge it on the page, and to put it in the public sphere. In many ways, deciding to own my dissertation is about accountability. But even more importantly, I think owning my dissertation is about not having to apologize to myself or anyone else about what my dissertation is or turns out to be.

16 September 2011

One Possible Future: Star Trek and the Global Economy

I’m going to preface today’s entry with a few statements. Firstly, I confess that I frequently worry about how little money I make each month. Though this, in and of itself, does not negate the argument I am going to put forward, it is best to acknowledge that my personal situation has something to do with how I view the state of things world wide. On a related note, a big reason why I am writing this entry today is because I would like to work the anxiety and pessimism I am currently feeling out of my system so that I can get back to writing my dissertation.

Okay. Deep Breath.

As the title to this entry hints, I’ve been thinking an awful lot about the economic situation‑not just in my country, but also world wide‑and what that means for the future. By economic situation, I do not only mean a lack of jobs, though that is certainly a big part of it. To speak about my personal situation, the job outlook has been bleak for decades, and I have little reason to believe that things will improve in the foreseeable future. If I can find a teaching job when I graduate, I will likely be forced to teach 4 or 5 classes a term. There is a good chance I will have to accept an adjuncting position at a community college with a salary that is not commensurate with the amount of work and energy I will have to put into teaching. Let me be clear. By describing this kind of job prospect, I do not wish to suggest that teaching at a community college is beneath me and/or a refuge for substandard teachers. Rather, I want to call attention to just how little monetary value is attached to teaching in the humanities at present. This is especially true at the community college level, which has been marginalized by the four‑year university system for decades, despite that many four‑year colleges within state systems around the country are facing enormous pressure to reduce expenses (i.e., to fire instructors) and are essentially operating under the same stressful conditions that community colleges with more modest budgets have always had to deal with. The argument I have often heard for this state of affairs is that there is a far greater supply of educators in the humanities than there is a demand for them. My answer to this argument is hardly new, but little has happened to change the way things stand.

In the first place, despite the argument that four year universities have been churning out more PhDs than ever, they continue to bring in more new graduate students rather than fewer. The reason is straightforward but no less insidious. Four‑year universities rely on new PhD students to teach lower level classes, for much less than it would cost the university to hire fully qualified instructors and/or professors. In a sense, graduate student teachers amount to slave labor, since the reward is not the paltry stipend the graduate student receives in exchange for teaching (an amount which most graduate students cannot reasonably live on) but the degree which is supposed to lead to job prospects (which are virtually non‑existent) upon graduation. In short, the system is designed to create a far greater supply of educators than are perceived to be needed. At the same time, however, educators in the humanities are facing higher enrollments in their courses‑at my university I saw enrollment in composition courses shoot up from 18 to 20 students to 26 in a very short period of time‑which indicates that more instructors are, in fact, needed. Lastly, accredited universities like mine require every undergraduate to take composition courses that are largely taught by graduate students and instructors (but also increasingly by tenured faculty).

The rhetoric of the challenges the humanities departments are facing and the reality of how humanities departments are valued tell two very different stories. The false story is that humanities departments must accept the kinds of austerity measures that are now threatening the entire planet. The real story is that universities, like the corporations and financial markets that have put the economic health of the planet in jeopardy, are increasingly driven by profit or the exchange value that receiving a degree offers rather than by the educational value of same. As such, the humanities are increasingly not seen as profitable and, by this logic, are not as valuable as other departments to the economic health of any given university. I will put this situation as vividly as I can in marketing terms: when a university brands itself today, it probably does not brand itself as one that offers a great education in the liberal arts. Rather, it likely does so as a university that such and such famous persons attended, that is home to this or that college sports franchise, or that specializes in medical or scientific research or business or something other than the liberal arts. My university brands itself all three of these ways, in fact, and it is hard to blame our current Chancellor for doing so even while I think this approach is problematic. And although these kinds of brands (as opposed to branding the humanities) often generate a good deal of profit for the university, they too are only worth as much the university exploits them (e.g., by reducing labor costs and hiking tuition rates and other fees as well as by exploiting student athletes, many of whom will not find work in the professional sports world), as much as corporations are willing to invest in them (e.g., in research that will lead to ‘breakthroughs’ which the corporation then markets), and as much as consumers are willing to pay (not just sports apparel and paraphernelia but also tuition, the cost of books, food, and so on). In short, branding is geared towards a university’s exchange value rather than its educational value.

I must also face the real possibility that I will be seeking work outside academia upon graduation, since such little monetary value is placed on my area of expertise.

Of course, the kind of capitalization I am describing, one that exploits not just material goods but also cultural information and knowledge, is hardly limited to what is going on in the American University system. A perfunctory glance at the ‘booming’ technology industry shows the direction in which humanity is heading. To be sure, some of the technological advances that man has come up with in the last fifty years have undoubtedly made life easier for people in the West and increasingly in the East as well as other parts of the globe (by this fact I do not wish to imply that bringing such technological advancements to the third world so that the industrialized world can profit from it is a good thing). But there is little doubt that those who have seen the greatest improvements in their quality of life are those who have been able to successfully market and exploit technology. The iPod, to name one technological marvel, is truly a powerful and ingenious piece of machinery that has given people all over the planet nearly instantaneous access to information in the form of music. But we should not fool ourselves that the iPod was designed with only this purpose in mind, or that this was even its primary purpose. Rather, it was invented and later refined through networks like the iTunes portral (which itself very successfully though not exclusively controls what iPod owners can consume and at what price) with the express purpose of making Apple (and Steve Jobs in particular) immeasurably wealthy by exploiting both the West’s consumption of music and, much more insidiously, the cheap labor markets of the East who manufacture these devices for the benefit of the West. In addition, the controlled exploitation of information through linking technologies like the iPod and the internet has in many ways served to further divide the diverse cultures of the globe rather than bring them closer together. In much the same way that ‘history’ is seen as transparent by those who are in the position to write it, the ‘real‑time’ transfer of music is seen as a seamless process by supressing not just the artistic production value that went into creating any given musical track (transmitted as a digital copy of an ‘original’) but also the the value of the physical labor that went into putting the piece of machinery together.

The iPad, of course, takes this strategy several steps further by simultaneously controlling how we access visual data (video as well as text), audio data (music, voicemail and the like), and telecommunications. To be fair, Apple is hardly the only corporation interested in controlling information in ‘real time.’ Witness Microsoft’s latest build of the Windows OS, which is aimed at the computer tablet market. It does not seem like an accident that the feature of the new OS that has garned the most attention thus far, bearing in mind that Microsoft has encouraged this attention, is its purported 8‑second boot time. The faster we can access information, it seems, the more transparent and more beneficial technology appears. We should also consider the amount of patent litigation that corporations like Apple have brought to bear on information markets. Google has felt the pressure Apple is exerting through its litigation strategy and has been buying companies in an effort to shore up its patent portfolio, despite that Apple’s primary target in its patent war has been Android. Nor does the race to control ‘real time’ access to information not stop even here. A recent blog post at GinandTacos.com very persuasively argues that Accuweather is attempting to control access to up to the minute weather reports purely for financial gain. Accuweather’s lobbying the US government over who should control weather reports is a perfect example of the lack of transparency, considering that Accuweather relies on the National Weather Service to make its reports in the first place.

My point to these lengthy digressions, I hope, is becoming clear. Capitalism has insuated itself into nearly every aspect of life as we know it. I will freely admit (and I hope that this is the case) that I could just be overly paranoid from thinking about this too much over the last few days, but I feel as though we are quickly approaching a point of no return, though what direction humanity will go in remains unclear. But I am thinking, for instance, about the recent debt ceiling crisis in the US (only staved off for approximately 18 months by some estimates), itself the symptom of a much bigger problem that has much to do with capitalism, and the impending debt crisis in Europe via the fear that Greece is going to default on its debt. I state the situation with Greece this way for a reason. It is abundantly clear to me (and I’m sure to many others) that what is driving this crisis is not simply government nor the majority of people of this world who are only trying to make ends meet, although the people and their governments must necessarily participate in capitalism. But Statements about Greece ‘spending beyond its means’ by the media, which parrot what financial markets are saying about the situation, completely miss the point. So, too, do statements that Greece must enact further austerity measures‑it has already done so once and been bailed out once, with no appreciable effect-if its government hopes to continue to operate. Such measures will only hurt those who are already barely scraping by and will do nothing to strengthen Greece’s economy, since all economies depend on‑and have always depended on‑the ability of the masses to consume goods. And I’ll add here that the example of what is happening in Greece should warn the US that austerity measures are not the answer, but this has not been the case. The problem, rather, is the same fundamental problem that has existed since capitalism became a driving force in the course of human history, the impulse to accumulate wealth. By this, I do not only mean that the financial markets, which are largely based on greed and, as the case with Greece makes clear, fear, are to blame, though finanicial speculators are certainly some of the biggest abusers of the system, since the purpose of financial policy is obstensibly to regulate and safeguard the citzenry’s money, a task which has been largely disregarded and/or abused. But more importantly, I mean that we must change our impulse to accumulate wealth and posessions. The result of not doing so has been a history filled with not only physical violence (the actual battles for land and resources via the sword or less direct but no less violent means) but also with mental anguish and anxiety for both the have‑nots and the haves (who must always worry that they will lose what they have accumulated, whether they have done so through ethical or unscrupulous means). Indeed, I would argue that capitalism thrives on the threat of loss, whether that is the physical loss of goods, the loss of cultural information, or any variation of loss we can think of. And the threat of loss that captalism exerts on its participants is largely responsible for the divide that exists between individual people and whole cultures. To return to my own example, the ‘reality’ is that I will be competing with hundreds if not thousands of people for the same position(s) I apply to. I emphasize reality here because the mindset among educators is no longer only about educating the future (if that was ever truly the mindset; I honestly don’t know). Rather, it is just as much about earning some kind of living wage if not more so. This ‘spirit’ of competition that capitalism instills in us can only drive a wedge among educators rather than bring them together in common cause. And I lump myself in with this mindset, since I have written above that my chief worry in looking for a job upon graduation is being able to provide for myself. Much the same can be said at the national level. In the US, the recent debt ceiling crisis was clearly the latest in an endless string of fights over who gets to control the government, a fight that capitalism resoundingly won and which has done nothing to bring the two major parties in the US any closer together. In Europe, financial pundits are not saying much about what is best for the people of Greece if its government defaults. Instead, they are discussing what would happen if the other members of the EU turn their back on Greece or if Greece decides to abandon the Euro and go it alone. If this mindset is ever going to change, something fundamental about what drives humanity to do what it does first needs to change.

I am reminded of a few scenes from Star Trek the Next Generation that discuss what humanity could be like in a future that has shifted from a capitalist based system to a human based system. In this universe, there is no poverty. There is not even money, whether by this we mean physical currency or digital records of currency. One scene from the movie First Contact involves the Enterprise’s Captain Jean‑Luc Picard explaining that the accumulation of wealth is no longer the driving force in people’s lives. Instead, humanity has put aside its differences and begun to work solely for its betterment. Scenes like this sound utopian and more than a little bit hokey. They are also misleading, since this view of humanity is also used to show its superiority to alien species like the Ferengi (the ultimate capitalists with their ‘rules of acquisition’) still engaged in the kind of commerce that we engage in today. Yet Star Trek does posit a possible future that on its face would solve much of the economic and social issues that capitalism has created‑that it needs to create‑which are driving humanity to the edge of financial ruin. I personally don’t have much hope that humanity is going to make the kind of shift away from capitalism that is needed anytime soon. It certainly isn’t going to do so on on its own. In the Star Trek universe, it takes a nuclear war that kills the majority of the population plus first contact with a (luckily) benevolant alien race for humanity to finally get it together. I can’t help but think that violence is going to be part of the ‘solution’ if our ancient history and the recent riots in Greece, Egypt and England are any indication. In any event, I think something must happen relatively soon if we are ever going to affect change. Michael Moore has recently put the situation the US currently finds itself in succinctly: “If we don’t change, we’re doomed.”

13 September 2011

Perditum in Translatione

For those of who you don’t know Latin, today’s blog heading means ‘lost in translation.’ I haven’t chosen this heading because I want to discuss the ‘what gets lost in translation’ comparative model I mentioned in yesterday’s entry, though that subject does come up (albeit from a critical standpoint). Rather, I want to use it as a metaphor for thinking about where I am in my process. I also do not mean that I am ‘lost in translation’ in a negative sense. This is major component of how I am looking at my primary texts, after all. Even though I will complain about what a struggle the dissertation process can be at times, I wouldn’t be thinking about translation and the broader field of Translation Studies if I was not fascinated by them. More than fascinated, even. To borrow from one of the many excellent Latin teachers I have had as a graduate student, I am a word nerd. As such, I find it quite easy and pleasurable to lose myself in translation. Keeping both the ‘traditional’ way of reading ‘lost in translation’ and the positive, metaphorical way I want to read it in mind, I want to return to the topic of how my primary texts relate to one another that I briefly mentioned towards the end of yesterday’s entry.

I wrote yesterday that my three texts‑ and I want to point out now that I am purposely giving as little detail about my topic as possible so that I can focus on process rather than plug my dissertation topic‑ are closely related to one another. From a chronological standpoint, the ‘second’ text, in fact, a translation of the ‘first’ text. The ‘third’ text is a translation of the ‘second’. The ‘first’ text has not usually be considered a translation at all. Building on the expanded definition of translation that I mapped out in yesterday’s entry (i.e., the construction of human subjects and/or whole cultures), I argue, however, that this text translates cultural materials, some of which was transmitted to the author orally and some of which was transmitted in other texts the author was familiar with. I will also add that this ‘first’ text is written in Latin. The other two are written in vernaculars. Those of you who know Arthurian literature can probably guess which three texts I am talking about now. Good on you!

I’ve called attention to the chronological order in which my three texts were written for a reason. The natural tendency would be to think of the ‘first’ text as the ‘origin’ of the other two. If we take this assumption to its logical conclusion, we would be tempted to think that the farther we go from the ‘first’ or ‘original’ text, the more that is ‘lost in translation’. However, I’ve recently begun thinking that the relationship between these three texts is more complicated than this. Or rather, I think that although looking at these texts sequentially, with the ‘second’ building on the ‘first,’ and the ‘third’ building on the ‘second,’ is a valid approach, it nonetheless does not provide the most insightful reading of the three of them in terms of the way cultural materials were exchanged across cultural boundaries at the time. In some ways, the ‘second’ text more radically departs from the ‘first’ than the ‘third’ text does. And this occurs despite that the ‘third’ text is primarily based on the ‘second’ (some scholars, and I tend to agree with them, have argued that the ‘author’ of the ‘third’ text read the ‘first’ or at least read works by its ‘author’). That this non‑sequential relationship seems to exist between the three texts raises all kinds of questions and possibilities for me. I think one of the biggest factors that needs to be considered is the position of each of the three languages during that period. Latin was beginning to decline as the lingua franca. And much like English is arguably the most dominant language spoken in and written in today (or at least one of the most dominant), the vernacular of the ‘second’ text was in the ascendant position throughout the period I am dealing with. I also think we have to consider the geography‑ and I mean geography here in the very political way that Europeans use that word‑ of the period and the place where each of the authors of these texts resided. The author’s of the ‘first’ and ‘third’ texts not only composed their narratives in the British Isles. They also both spent time, each at different points in their lives, in close proximity to one of the key regions of the British Isles where Arthurian tradition was nurtured and flourished. The author of the ‘second’ text is not known to have ever visited the British Isles. He did live in close proximity to Brittany and explicitly states in his text that he is familiar with Breton stories about Arthur. But the continental vernacular tradition is very much different from the insular Latin and vernacular traditions. I don’t think we can ignore this fact when thinking about how each of these three authors responds to and constructs cultural materials about the British Isles in translation. I don’t think it’s an accident, for instance, that the authors of the ‘first’ and ‘third’ texts are much more willing to imbue Arthur and his retinue with the magical and folkloric qualities that are a big component of insular traditions while the author of the ‘second’ text attempts to eliminate this cultural material, not always successfully.

The situation is actually even more complicated than I am letting on here. There is necessarily some overlap between insular and continental traditions about Arthur, for one thing. But my goal in this entry has been to begin to map out how I see translation operating in my primary sources rather than go into every little detail. And I think even this rudimentary and incomplete map of the linguistic landscape I am dealing with illustrates how easily I can lose myself in translation. I feel as though I haven’t even scratched the surface of all the possible opportunities that Translation Studies offers me. That’s both the strength and danger with this approach. At some point I need to plunge into the contents and do close readings of my sources. And of course I have been doing just that. But sometimes that experience isn’t as enjoyable as looking at the bigger picture I am constructing. I also think it’s important for me to explore the things that excite me about my project in this blog, because there are definitely some days when I am not excited at all. Now that I am wrapping up this entry, I can say that today is not one of those days.

12 September 2011

Translatio Studii

Although I am now more than a year into my dissertation, I keep coming back to some of the basic questions that I asked myself when I started this process. I don’t yet have answers to a great many of them. The probability that I won’t answer some of them is high. This is not necessarily a problem. The best questions lead to more questions rather than answers. I’d like to think that some of the questions I’ve formulated work this way. But I am presently struggling to answer a cluster of related questions that need answering if I am to articulate a clear sense of my project, for myself and for my dissertation committee. Just what is the field of Translation Studies exactly? How am I engaging it? How does Translation Studies change the way I think about my primary sources, all three of which include statements by its authors about why they have translated their sources into the specific languages they choose to write in? How does Translations Studies contribute to our understanding of these authors, the culture(s) they lived in, and the cultural materials to be gleaned from their writing?

It’s not like I am completely in the dark on these questions. I have a good sense of what Translation Studies entails. In brief, Translation Studies departs from older models that compared two texts in terms of the word‑for‑word or sense‑for‑sense meanings of the ‘target’ language to the ‘source’ language (i.e., what is ‘lost’ in translation) and instead emphasizes in one way or another how human subjects and even whole cultures are constructed in translation. This more flexible approach to translation has been gaining currency over the last twenty to thirty years, though, as I have recently read, medieval scholars have not shown the same amount of interest in Translation Studies as their colleagues who work with more recent texts. Part of the difficulty is the marginalized status of medieval studies. I don’t want to suggest the field is dead or dieing, but it doesn’t carry the kind of prestige other fields currently enjoy. I am one of two or three graduate students in my department studying the Middle Ages. The others came in quite a number of years after I did. Another problem is that medievalists sometimes have a problem applying what are perceived as ‘modern’ critical models such as postcolonial theory to their texts. Some medievalists object that the people they are studying had no notion of the terms modern scholars use to describe their cultures, or they have a very different understanding of those terms. I’m not at all convinced of this as far as postcolonialism goes, since the Romans formed ‘colonos’ precisely to maintain their hold on lands they conquered. This colonizing program persisted during the Roman conquest of England and was adapted in varying ways by the Danes, English and Normans when they each conquered the island during the Middle Ages. As Translation Studies expands the definition of translation to include other critical tools like postcolonial theory, the reticence of some medieval scholars to embrace Translation Studies seems understandable. More and more medievalists are embracing postcolonialism these days, but, as I have recently read, this can cause some discomfort. Though I feel as though I am quite hip to the intersection between Translation Studies and postcolonialism, I often feel as though using these tools is hindering me from articulating an argument about what I believe is going on in my texts. I worry that I am spending far too much time setting up the issues I am teasing out of my texts via these tools. And if I discard them, I feel as though I don’t have anything worth saying about my texts. Where do I draw the line?

Going along with this problem with applying critical theory to my texts, I worry that I’m only managing to state the obvious about my primary sources or that I am not using what I have learned about Translation Studies to best advantage. A big strength of Translation Studies is that it allows the scholar to put distinct cultures into contact with another. In many ways, Arthurian literature by its very nature is about contact with other cultures, though the point of contact is frequently written in the language of conquest and domination. As I try to negotiate these zones of contact in my readings of my texts, I feel as though I have emphasized the position of the conquerors and their attitudes and thoughts about (primarily their) culture over those of the conquered (or, better yet, how the conquerors respond to the conquered and vice versa). This kind of scholarship is not fruitless, but I feel as though I am only telling one half of the story that I think needs telling, that I am not doing the type of work I have been trained to do; in short, that I am somehow failing to write a meaningful dissertation. Perhaps I am putting too much emphasis on the notion that a dissertation ought to contribute something meaningful and new to the body of knowledge that comes before it. By this I do not mean that I think a dissertation does not need to do that. But I do mean that my dissertation will do that if I worry less about the final product and think about the questions I am articulating here. If I am right about the problems I am having (i.e., it’s not just all in my head), then I also know what I need to do to correct them.

It takes a lot of energy to think about the dissertation process. I haven’t said very much here or gone into a whole lot of detail. Yet even this humble beginning at working through the difficulties I have encountered has taken much more time than I planned or anticipated. And it took me in directions I didn’t expect to go. I initially envisioned that I would spend some time on what I think about the way each of my texts relate to one another (they turn out to be translations of translations but do not ‘progress linearly’ from one to the next), but that doesn’t seem to fit with what I’ve mapped out here, and it can wait until my next entry. Like with asking questions that have no answers, going in unexpected directions is not a bad thing. But it can be just as unsettling, discomforting. Perhaps this is the only way through to the end of the process for me, to continually struggle, to continually ask questions, and to accept that the process is what matters most.