Miscellaneous

Discovering Poetry | Teachers Open Doors (Part 1)

When I was in 8th grade, I had two experiences that have been pivotal in my intellectual development.

I will share one with you today.

______

The summer before the first day of class, my future 8th grade English teacher assigned a poetry anthology. It was an easy assignment. We were asked to select twenty poems relating to a topic of our choice. I selected my topic, “Animals”, easily because I have always loved learning about the natural world. Unfortunately, I was not a fan of poetry. The only poems I enjoyed were those found in children’s novels. Because of my obsession with Roald Dahl, I was quite familiar with his poems. Thankfully, Dahl had written a few poems about animals. My favorite to-date is “The Pig”. I later used it in my audition for the middle school play.

While I was curating my anthology, I discovered poems that I enjoyed but are not critically acclaimed. I couldn’t care less about meter or style. I was only looking for entertainment. If an animal poem was funny, I selected it for my anthology. Soon, I widened my reading to include non-animal-related children’s poems.

I was obsessed. Not only did I read and reread my favorite poems, I also memorized them. During the first month of class, I recited these “silly” poems before my teacher. “You are Old, Father William” from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “The Pig” from Roald Dahl’s short story collection Kiss Kiss, “Anabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, and some poem about the Easter bunny by Dean Koontz (yes, him!).

If it weren’t for children’s poetry I would never have discovered “fine” literature (poetry AND prose). I started to pay attention to words and the ways they disclose or conceal meaning.

The most successful teachers are those who can instill a passion for learning in their students. As you will discover next week, I was a weak language student for most of my childhood. I couldn’t analyze a book for beans, and my vocabulary was quite limited. Although I read a lot, my analytical essays were nothing but summaries of the work at hand. But Mr. Korvne’s simple assignment invited me to explore poetry at my own pace and on my own terms.

He also introduced me to imagery, but more on that later…

Literary Fiction, Wright, Richard

Review of Native Son

Image result for native son richard wrightOnly two pages into Native Son, I knew that I would love this book. The lush prose and dynamic dialogue sucked me in.

Published in 1940, Native Son by Richard Wright follows Bigger Thomas from the poverty-stricken Black Belt of Chicago’s South Side to the Cook County courthouse where he awaits his sentence for the killing of a white woman named Mary Dalton. The Daltons are an upper middle class white family who hire Bigger as a chauffeur because of their pity for African Americans. Bigger has a history of delinquency. At the start of the novel, he organizes a bank robbery with his friends. But despite his background, or maybe because of it, Mr. Dalton hires Bigger to drive Mary to the university. Unfortunately, Mary is not interested in school. Instead, she introduces Bigger to her Communist boyfriend Jan. Mary and Jan even invite Bigger to eat with them at a restaurant in the Black Belt. But as Bigger drives Mary home alone, he begins to feel uncomfortable in her presence. That very night, Bigger commits the fateful crime at the center of Native Son.

The death of Mary Dalton is only the first of many crimes Bigger commits during his escape. Bigger Thomas is a true-to-life criminal. Most novels I’ve read that address racial injustice center on an unjustly-accused, innocent black character. But Bigger is highly unlikeable. Even when it is clear that race played a central role in shaping Bigger’s character, Wright does not attempt to exonerate Bigger from guilt. Instead, he interrogates the nature of this guilt, exposing the myriad ways in which White America contributed to the creation of Bigger Thomas.

Native Son is a classic of African American fiction. Its analysis of racism in the criminal justice system is as relevant as ever. The last fourth of the book is, admittedly, a bit preachy, but Wright’s novel doubles as a manifesto. I expected the preachiness. My only criticism has to do with the novel’s treatment of women – particularly black women. There is a black woman in the novel who does not receive the attention she deserves. While I understand that the story is told from Bigger’s perspective, I cannot excuse the way Wright handled Bessie’s story. Her story was almost made out to be less important than Bigger’s. Considering the circumstances, I find that unacceptable. Consequently, I gave the book 4.5 instead of 5 stars.

If you’ve read Native Son, let me know what you thought.

Reflections

PhD Reflections/Tips After Year 1

Row of Books in Shelf

I recently completed my first year of a PhD in French. There are two major reasons why I have decided to post the following reflections/tips.

First, I believe that it is healthy to reflect periodically on one’s progress when undergoing a long-term project.

Second, my reflections may help current and prospective graduate students who come across my blog.

Reflections/Tips

Now on to the reflections. I have made a list of 10 PhD-related things that I have discovered about myself and about graduate school in the past year. All tips are inspired by personal experience:

1) Being a PhD student is very much like being a wannabe actor who has recently moved to Los Angeles, California. The odds of “making it” are slim but thousands of us try every year. PhD students and newbie actors are in their industries for one single reason: they love what they do.

2) Constructive criticism is so valuable. Most professors (across institutions) do not grade term papers, so take seriously any constructive feedback you receive. Constructive criticism from a professor who has taken the time to read and mark up a paper should be received with gratitude.

3) On the flip-side, nonconstructive criticism is not only demotivating but also utterly useless. Try to ignore anyone who criticizes you or your work without telling you how you can improve. They are not worth your time or mental energy. They don’t care about your success.

4) Make friends with the other PhD students in your program. Support each other. You are all in this together.

5) If you have been following my blog in the past year, you will be familiar with the following advice: Academic writing IS your job. This is especially true if you are in the humanities or the social sciences. Start thinking of yourself as a writer because you are one.

6) You are an apprentice learning a craft, not an artist trying to harness a Muse. In popular imagination, the image of an apprentice evokes practice and determination. The image of an artist, on the other hand, evokes a born genius who effortlessly produces one masterpiece after another while sipping a latte at Starbucks. The apprentice takes concrete steps to improve her craft. She knows that a poorly-constructed table is not a reflection on her character, and that practice means progress. For more on this, check out Joli Jensen’s excellent book Write No Matter What: Advice for Academics (I also made a video about it here).

7) Participate regularly in activities that take you outside of the academic bubble. You need frequent reminder that there is a world outside of academia and that this world can be just as fulfilling as the one in academia.

8) Mental health matters.

9) Attend local conferences in your field even if you are not presenting. You will learn a lot and meet other academics.

10) When a family member asks you what you study, try to explain. The act of trying to explain what you do to someone outside of academia will teach you a lot about yourself and the importance of your work for wider society. What you study matters, so share it.

Satire

Review of Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters

And now for something completely different.

Image result for sense and sensibility and sea monsters

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben Winters is published by Quirk Books, the same publisher that put out Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. If you have been following me for a while, you probably know that Jane Austen and I don’t get along. I have tried to get into her works, but both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility have bored me to tears. I thought reading the latter next to the Niagara Falls would spice up the reading experience. The woman who lent me her copy told me that she had reread Sense and Sensibility at least five times! What?! I don’t understand. It took me a month to finish the work.

But man-eating sea monsters can make even the most boring of works exciting. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters keeps the general plot of the Austen novel (and around 60% of the original lines) while terrorizing the reader with highly-enhanced sea creatures. Lobsters lop off heads and German shepherd-sized hermit crabs crush bones to powder. There are even pirates in this book.

At the start of the novel, John Dashwood’s father Henry is devoured by a hermit crab. Before breathing his last, Henry bequeaths his house to his son but insists that John’s half sisters and step mother get a share of the inheritance. Consequently, Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret, and Mrs. Dashwood are sent to live near Sir John and his indigenous wife Lady Middleton in a rickety shack by the sea.

If you are squeamish, this is definitely not the book for you. Ben Winters revels in violence and gore.

Despite the obvious silliness, the novel offers a refreshing perspective on Regency England. Sir John is an explorer, who massacred an entire population of indigenous people. Lady Middleton and her mother Mrs. Jennings were the only two women on the island whom Sir John spared. Many reviewers on Goodreads are appalled by this flippant treatment of genocide, but disregard for the lives of anyone not upper class and white is a running theme in the novel. The Dashwood sisters chat nonchalantly about their love interests  while servants are devoured before their very eyes. I believe that Winters pokes fun at these atrocities to draw attention to the social and racial inequalities of Austen’s England. In Winters’ novel polite society is built on the backs of the oppressed.

I understand why most Jane Austen fans dislike Winters’ book. It reads like a satire of the original. But I admit that Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters appealed to me largely because I found Austen’s work so frustratingly cloying. I wish I could appreciate Jane Austen’s social commentaries. I wish I could care about the men and women in her novels.

Maybe Northanger Abbey will appeal to me, since it is a satire on gothic conventions.

Maybe.

I obviously prefer to read classics in the original, but if I dislike one – especially a well-known classic – I will seek out a parody of it. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was a good palate cleaners.

Religious Texts

The Female Experience in a 16th C. Play

Image result for sarah and hagar 1500
The Story of Abraham (1543), Georg Pencz

Circa 1500, a 50,000 line play appeared called Le Mistére du Viel Testament [The Mystery of the Old Testament]. Although it has never been translated into modern French (let alone English), it appears to have influenced a few 16th century playwrights. I recently finished reading the section on Abraham because I am writing a term paper on Theodore Beza’s 1550 play Abraham Sacrifiant.

I was particularly struck by the female representation in the Viel Testament version of Isaac’s birth. Hagar, Sarah’s maidservant, gets a surprising amount of attention in the play. Although God promises to care for Hagar and Ishamael in the Biblical story, the Viel Testament Hagar demonstrates more agency than in the original. After Isaac is born, Hagar repeatedly asks Abraham to remember the promise he made to her and her son. Classism is also evoked in the play. Abraham and Sarah try to silence Hagar by bringing up her social class.

Abraham: “c’est ma femme, /Qui doit estre maistresse et dame,/ Et vous sa simple serviteure” [My wife must be mistress and lady, and you her simple servant.]

But later, Abraham allows Hagar back into his home and promises to care for Ishamel. When Sarah finally becomes pregnant at the end of the play, Hagar offers to help her deliver Isaac. She also comforts Sarah, who fears the pain of childbirth:

Sarah: “Bien, m’ayme, vous me ayderez,/ Car je craing la douleur terrible” [I would definitely like you to help me, because I fear the terrible pain].

After Isaac’s birth, Sarah is relieved that she will no longer experience societal shame:

 Sarah: “Et plus en la communite/ N’auray de brehaine l’injure” [And in the community, I  will no longer be insulted for being barren]

Even though this play is terribly obscure, I couldn’t help but share a few passages with you because it is rare to find medieval and Renaissance texts that mention the female experience.

I hope to read the other sections of the play in the future. Evidently, Le Viel Testament describes the deaths of Adam and Eve, as well as the fall of Lucifer. Sounds intriguing!

Miscellaneous

Twitter for Academics

Woman in White Long Sleeved Shirt Holding a Pen Writing on a PaperStill alive, just crazy busy!

I am currently participating in a game of “How many pages can you write in two weeks?”, which will be followed by a Master’s exam. I already have one Master’s degree, but hey, why not get another one? Right? In my program, the MA exam is basically a preliminary qualifying exam that we all take at the end of our first year.

For the past few months, Academic Twitter has not only helped me get through the insanity, it has also demystified academia for me. Many of my favorite accounts share academic writing tips.

Here are some of my favorite Twitter accounts:

Medieval (not strictly for academics)
Medieval Manuscripts (@BLMedieval): Not strictly for academics. Shares pictures of medieval manuscripts from the British Library.

Discarding Images (@discarding_imgs): Wacky, outrageous, and sometimes inappropriate medieval manuscript art. Welcome to the weird and wonderful world of medieval marginalia!

Damien Kempf (@DamienKempf): The wackiest, most inappropriate marginalia art of the Middle Ages can be found here 😛

For PhDs and Early Career Academics
Write that PhD (@WriteThatPhD): Do you have questions about academic writing and/or publishing? Look no further.

Dr Raul Pacheco-Vega (@raulpacheco): I couldn’t more highly recommend Dr. Pacheco-Vega’s Twitter account. He posts and shares excellent tips for PhD students and early career academics. His blog is also fantastic.

Writing For Research (@Write4Research): All about that academic writing. Prof. Dunleavy also has a blog.

Shit Academics Say (@AcademicsSay): If you’ve never heard of this Twitter or Facebook account and you are in graduate school, where have you been? It’s here to give you your snarky-pessimism fix for the day.

Inside Higher Ed (@insidehighered): Lots of useful information here. Unfortunately, some articles are behind a paywall.

For Wasting Time
PHD Comics (@PHDcomics): Read moderately! The comics just never get old. In my opinion, the second film was way better than the first one they made.

Hashtags
#AcWri
#phdchat
#phdadvice
#phdlife

I could name many more, but these are my favorite Twitter accounts. If you are in graduate school or are an academic, what are yours?

Miscellaneous

Book Buying Fail!

At the end of last year, I set myself a book buying challenge. I can only buy ONE book after I have read 5 books I already own (that are not school-related). I was quite good for the past few months, but I have bought three books in the past couple weeks that are not school related.

I’m torn between being slightly angry with myself for buying more than one book and somewhat understanding about the decision I made.

I realized earlier today that I am more likely to buy books if I’ve spent more than fifteen minutes in a bookstore. I feel obligated to buy a book to explain my presence in the bookstore.

Is that an excuse? Kind of.

Now that I know why I made the decisions I made, I will limit my bookshop visits to under fifteen minutes. I love browsing, but I haven’t felt an urge to buy books in months.

I am going to continue with this challenge. I could make myself read six more books I own before buying one new book, but I won’t. I don’t need any more stress in my life (school guys!).

Anyway, here are the three books I bought:

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West (The Wicked Years, #1)

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
Kintu

Shahnameh: The Book of Kings by Ferdowsi (Trans. Dick Davis)
Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings

These are all books that I look forward to reading even though I also need to stick to my buying goals.