Miscellaneous

Blogging Less Frequently in November

Unfortunately, I have not been able to keep up with daily blogging. I simply have too many things on my plate at the moment. Furthermore, it is difficult to write 500 words of new content every single day. Not every idea is appropriate for this blog or even this platform. I also don’t want to share every aspect of my life. I’d rather keep this blog about books and writing.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I am taking a blogging break. On the contrary, I hope to post more frequently in November than I have in the past year. I have a list of topics sitting on my table. It’s also Nonfiction November here and on YouTube, so I will be sharing my nonfiction reads for the month.

I must confess to having mediocre time-management and organizational skills. Although I give myself enough time to complete a project, I neglect a lot of other important areas in my life, such as exercise and breakfast. One of the steps I am taking to be more organized is to consider my daily, weekly, and monthly priorities and then to schedule accordingly. Because I overbooked myself this month, I’ve been running around like a chicken with its head cut off. Sometimes it is necessary to remove a few obligations to be more organized and efficient. This is why I will no longer be blogging everyday in November.

Miscellaneous

Discovering Imagery| Teachers Open Doors (Part 2)

In the first part of this two-part series on teachers, I wrote about my introduction to poetry in middle school. Today, I will be recounting my introduction to literary analysis. My eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Korvne, not only inspired me to read poetry for fun but he also taught me to recognize imagery in books.

I still remember the day in seventh grade when I was asked on a test to explain the quote “He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind”. This verse from Proverbs 11 inspired the title for a play on the Scopes Monkey Trial: Inherit the Wind by by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. I sat there trying to figure out how houses and wind could be related to the play’s plot. What does it mean to inherit wind? I am pretty sure that I failed that test. There were too many analysis questions and not enough content-based ones.

Although I read for fun throughout my childhood, I did not know how to analyze the language or imagery of a work. When I was asked to analyze a passage from a book, I responded with a summary of the plot. But in eighth grade, Mr. Korvne actively tried to help me understand the difference between an analysis and a summary. He invited my father and me to a mini-conference one morning because I had just submitted an inadequate essay on Jerry Spinelli’s YA novel Stargirl. I thought I had done a good job explaining what happened in the book. Unfortunately, the teacher was not interested in a regurgitation of the plot.

After Stargirl, the class was assigned Lord of the Flies by William Golding. This time, Mr. Korvne brought our attention to the numerous images in the book and how they related to the work’s overall plot. I enjoyed those classes because they opened my eyes to a different way of reading. It also helped that I liked the bookDystopian fiction is quite popular today, but it was a little-known genre when I was in middle school.

Suddenly, I discovered a passion for close reading. I remember studying for my essay test the day before, with pages and pages of notes in front of me covering in detail each and every image in the book. I’m sure I would be horrified today by the quality of those notes, but I remember being amazed by everything that I had learned. When I mentioned the book to my father, he told me that he had spent spent an entire semester in high school on Lord of the Flies.

Imagine that! I lived with someone who was also familiar with the imagery I was learning to identify in class.

On the day of the test, were were asked to write essay responses to two of three possible questions. I don’t remember what we were asked, but I recall attempting to answer the first two questions. After 50 minutes of class, I had only addressed the first half of the first question! Thankfully, I was not the only one who was unable to finish in the allotted time. Because we were all new to writing in-class essays, Mr. Korvne gave us some extra time the following day to finish up.

But another 50 minutes came and went, and I had answered only one essay questions. I had tried to write absolutely everything that I’d learned concerning the characters in the novel. I remember writing furiously, but not really getting anywhere with my essay. There was just so much to say. I wanted Mr. Korvne to know that I had paid attention in class and that I had finally discovered close reading.

But I only had a 50% (an F) to show for my new-found passion.

I failed the in-class essay test not because I didn’t know how to answer the questions but because I had too much to say. I began borrowing classics from Mr. Korvne’s classroom in hopes of improving my reading skills. My first serious classic was A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. The following summer I attempted to read all of the books on Matilda’s reading list. To this day, I am surprised that Roald Dahl’s 5 year old character was able to read and understand Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It’s definitely not kid-friendly.

Grades can be helpful markers for tracking one’s intellectual development, but they are not always accurate indicators of proficiency. I failed Mr. Korvne’s test because I didn’t answer an entire question, but I had finally learned that there was more to a well-constructed novel than its plot. As instructors, we need to focus more on the skills we are teaching our students than on how well they can perform under pressure. Mr. Korvne was an excellent instructor because he taught me to think about literature in new ways.

The F I received on my in-class assessment no longer matters, but I am currently a PhD student in French literature. Close-reading is my job, and I am damn good at it!

Miscellaneous

Beyond “Productivity”

I am at the age when self-help books and motivational videos are the most appealing. Although I am content with where I am now, I know that someday I will need a “real” job. I will need to have employable skills. Knowing the minute details of late medieval French history is not exactly employable outside of academia. And I am perfectly aware that I probably will not get a tenure track position once I finish my dissertation. Self-help is currently teaching me how to accept failure and to better resolve conflicts in my personal and work life.

There is, however, a negative side to the self-help industry. First, the obvious. The time spent consuming motivational content could be better spent learning a new skill or developing a side-hustle. For self-help authors, “motivation” and “productivity” are products to sell. They make a living from presenting their ideal selves to the world. A full-time motivational YouTuber is literally doing her job when she shares her morning routine whereas your morning routine will not earn you a single penny.

But the aspect of self-help that I find the least helpful is the obsession with “productivity”. When I think of productivity, I think of a factory churning out as much product as possible at the lowest price possible. I am turned off by its capitalist connotation. A productive writer, publishes a book a year regardless of quality because nothing matters more than the bottom line for the author and short-term gratification for the reader. I recoil at the term “productivity” because I don’t want to be a cog in a machine.

Furthermore, focusing on productivity alone is…well…unproductive. Why should I be concerned about churning out a lot of product? What is in it for me? A person can only obsess over productivity for a limited amount of time before he experiences burnout and a lack of motivation. This is especially true for academics and those in the creative industry. There are so many financial and personal sacrifices that we make to remain in these sectors. If I wanted to make a lot money I wouldn’t be in a French PhD program. Instead of focusing on how to do more, maybe self-help gurus should focus on why someone might want to do more. What motivates an academic, an actor, or an artist to do all of the extra work necessary to get ahead?

Academics know that it is important to publish a lot to be in the running for a tenure-track post, but telling graduate students that they need to be productive is not enough. We need to have passion for our subject material, otherwise we will throw in the towel. Graduate students and early career researchers with low productivity might be behind on their deadlines because they no longer care about what they do.

I would like self-help and motivational speakers to teach others how to maintain passion for something after the buzz has died down. Passion matters the most because it drives everything else. When you are passionate about something – when you feel called to do something – you will necessarily be productive.

If we are deeply convinced that we are in the right sector, productivity will follow.

Miscellaneous

Reading Darkness to Find the Light

In times of crisis, what should we read? Should we read books that expose the dark side of humanity, or should we seek instead more uplifting books? Readers (and film-goers) today seem to fall into one or the other category. People are either going for Animal Farm1984, or It Can’t Happen Here, or they are indulging in more feel-good novels like Three Things About Elsie, A Man Called Ove, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. I fall in the first category.

I must admit that I am by default somewhat of a pessimist. I am not surprised by evil in the world because I believe that humans are tempted by selfishness. That being said, I have spent the past two years actively trying to be more optimistic. Consequently, I am much less cynical than I used to be. I’m certainly much friendlier.

But I am increasingly drawn to dark fiction and histories that explore atrocities. My current project explores responses to the trial of Louis de Berquin, a 16th century Lutheran executed for heresy. I have scoured Inquisition registers and read treatises in defense of the enslavement of indigenous people (such as Sepúlveda’s), in hopes of “understanding” and recognizing today the arguments people have historically given for violence. There’s nothing new about the rhetoric white supremacists use to defend their xenophobic, misogynistic, and racist beliefs.

I guess I feel a responsibility to put my linguistic and historical skills in the service of social reform. It is important to note that there have always been dissenters, like Bartolomé de las Casas or Erasmus, who challenged dominant perspectives on social issues. Still, studying the rhetoric of unpleasant treatises has made me more sensitive to the language politicians throw around in the public square. Perhaps it is because I am more informed that I am less cynical. When all arguments appear equally dazzling, you don’t know what is true and what is false.

Furthermore, literature has taught me to trust my heart as well as my mind. Over and over again, medieval/Renaissance treatises in defense of violence privileged reason over feeling. Sepúlveda appealed to Aristotle in defense of the enslavement of the indigenous people of the “New World”. When we tell others to suppress their feelings, we are asking them to deny a part of their humanity. The deeper I dig into history, the more I realize how essential pity and mercy are to good, ethical decision-making. I am also reminded that reform is possible. Those treatises didn’t have the last word.

Although I do not know what we should be reading in this period of crisis, I do know from personal experience that reading unpleasant works has made me less, not more, cynical. They have inspired me to take action in order to nip hatred in the bud. Consider that the far-right is populated with some of the most cynical people you’ll ever encounter. Their prejudices and conspiracy theories come from a place of fear. And predictably, they have a poor knowledge of history.

Miscellaneous

How Roald Dahl and St. Francis of Assisi Got Me Into Humanities Research

I am doing a PhD largely because I love research.

It all started in middle school. I suddenly fell in love with Roald Dahl’s writings in seventh grade. By my last year of middle school I had read not only every children’s book he wrote but I had also sought out every autobiography he wrote and every anecdote written about him. I even knew that his favorite color was yellow.

Unfortunately, this passion for researching Roald Dahl and his works (including some of his adult short stories) led me to some unpleasant discoveries. I learned that my childhood idol was antisemitic and a champion of British imperialism. Thus, I discovered from a fairly young age that research can be a lot like eating the forbidden food.

My eyes were opened to the complexities of history and the human person.

During my freshman year of college, my new obsession was Franciscan history. It all started with reading the vitae (lives) of Saint Francis of Assisi and a few well-known modern biographies about him. Soon, I discovered the important role friars played in the shaping of Western Europe during the Middle Ages. I was at one shocked and fascinated by the scandals in the Franciscan order. I began paying attention to the rhetoric of the stories, aware of the historical contexts in which they were written.

At around the same time, I discovered Paul Sabatier. Sabatier spearheaded the movement of studying the “historical” Francis – that is, the vitae stripped of their alleged mythos. Sabatier, a Protestant historian, attempted to reconstruct the life of the saint through the consultation of various documents in the Vatican archives. His Life of Saint Francis of Assisi contextualized the Order of the Friars Minor in the radical Christian movements of the 13th century. Thus, Francis was not alone in his decision to abandon material comfort and live in community. The Waldensians were doing it well before Francis started preaching. The Humiliati and the Albigensians also adopted radical poverty.

The merchant Peter Waldo abandoned all of his wealth in the late 12th century to start an evangelical ministry. Unfortunately, his request to preach was denied by the Pope for unknown reasons. When he and his followers persisted, they found themselves excommunicated from the medieval church.

The 13th-century reform coincided with the beginning of a long period of violent conflict between the papacy and religious nonconformists, such as the Waldensians, Albigensians, and Spiritual Franciscans known as the Fraticelli. In 1211, two years after Francis got official approval to preach in poverty and established the Order of the Friars Minor, 80 Waldensians were burned at the stake in Strasbourg for heresy. The Order of Preachers (a.k.a. the Dominican Order) was founded in 1216 to combat heresy – initially with words alone, but later with force, through the Dominican-run Roman Inquisition.

Needless to say, Paul Sabatier’s association of Saint Francis with 13th-century heretics earned him a papal condemnation. His book was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1894. But his condemned book only grew in popularity. Although some of his assertions (especially his more provocative ones) have now been discredited by historians, Sabatier inspired a movement of scholars interested in historicizing the lives of saints.

I, too, was inspired by Sabatier to study saints’ lives. If the field of hagriography was concerned in the 20th century with demythologization, scholars today are less interested in knowing the “true” Saint Francis than in considering the literary and historical contexts that gave rise to his cult. I prefer the latter approach because it is more culturally-sensitive. Sabatier assumed that saint veneration was superstitious and thus allowed his personal religious views to influence how he read the life of Francis, but the modern historian is trained to refrain from making judgments about a particular religious or cultural practice.

From obsessing about Roald Dahl to studying the vitae of Saint Francis of Assisi, literary research has taught me to appreciate the many valences of a historical event or person.

And most importantly, it has taught me much about humanity.

Miscellaneous

PhD Advice: Assess Your Priorities

Related imageDon’t feel guilty about having side projects or side interests. They may be more important than your main work.

Although I am taking three classes this semester, I value the most the casual Latin reading group that meets every Friday afternoon. The reading group encourages me to practice translating neo-Latin texts, such as Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris. The three courses are informative and enjoyable, but I find the Latin group to be the most intellectually rewarding and the most necessary for my field. A medievalist must know Latin.

In the U.S., PhD students have 2-3 years of coursework before starting work on their dissertation. It is so easy to ignore your intellectual and professional needs when you are in the process of fulfilling course requirements.

Of course, not every course is unrelated to your interests. The courses I’ve taken have introduced me to important texts and scholars in the Medieval/Renaissance discipline. I have had to write a lot. This post is not intended as a dismissal of coursework (I think it is very important), but as a reminder to evaluate how your courses influence your personal goals. Furthermore, there is no shame in valuing certain intellectual pursuits over others. Even though the Latin reading group is entirely optional, I take it very seriously because I want to improve my language skills.

Don’t neglect your assignments and responsibilities, but do prioritize the things that are most important (at the moment) to your professional goals. Learn a new language, practice creating a website, take a coding course in the summer, write for popular sites. Your future employer will not care what courses you took but what skills you acquired.

Don’t feel guilty for knowing what you want and working toward it. As long as you are fulfilling your teaching/research responsibilities and putting a reasonable amount of effort into your coursework, you shouldn’t feel bad for having a hierarchy of priorities.

My main priority this semester is learning Latin.

Miscellaneous, Science

What a book on wolves taught me about passion

For the next fifteen years, the farthest Rick ever ventured from the park was an occasional trip to the nearest movie theater, seventy-five miles away in Cody. He never missed another day watching wolves.

If he did skip a day, who knew what he might miss? The celebrated primate researcher Jane Goodall didn’t even have a college degree when she was assigned to watch chimpanzees in Tanzania, Rick liked to remind people, yet she was the first to record them using twigs as tools for fishing termites out of the ground, a discovery that upended the conventional understanding of primate intelligence. She had been in the field for months, much longer than any other observer, before she witnessed that startling behavior. And yet if you had approached her the day before she made that discovery and asked her if a chimp was smart enough to use a tool to get what it wanted, she would have said no.

It was all about showing up.

Image result for american wolf nate blakesleeIn many ways, Rick McIntyre is the focus of Nate Blakeslee’s most recent book on Yellowstone wolves, American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West. McIntyre, a National Park Service employee, voluntarily spent tens of thousands of hours following wolf packs in Yellowstone National Park. He witnessed the impact of U.S. Fish and Wildlife policies on wolf conservation. McIntyre’s favorite was O-Six, an alpha female with a knack for leadership. Of all the wolves chronicled in American Wolf, O-Six receives the most attention.

Unlike his colleagues, McIntyre was not a trained biologist. He just had an enormous passion for wolves. Blakeslee does a great job communicating McIntyre’s passion to the reader. Even when he was working in the Visitor’s Center near the Old Faithful geyser and far from wolf territory, McIntyre still made time to check up on his packs. Every morning, before work, he would drive 1.5 hrs. to and from the Lamar Valley. Soon, word went around that McIntyre was the “wolf-man”, even though he was not officially in charge of wolf conservation at the park. Visitors joined him in his daily routine.

Passion is very underrated in business and life. Yet, passionate people are some of the most successful precisely because they go above and beyond expectations in what they do. Passionate people have the internal motivation to push through setbacks and failures. McIntyre and his wolf-watching friends drove through the heaviest of snow storms in order to keep up with their favorite wolves. When the wolves were removed from the Endangered Species list in Wyoming, McIntyre’s passion inspired policy makers to reconsider anti-wolf legislation. Although he was never directly involved in politics, McIntyre inspired park visitors to care about the recently-introduced Yellowstone wolves.

American Wolf re-confirmed my belief in the importance of passion. It is, as McIntyre told a group of visitors, all about “showing up”. This doesn’t mean that a passionate person never works a day in her life. Even if you love what you do, work is still work. McIntyre’s wolf observations were not always “fun”. I’m sure most sightings were pretty mundane. But he knew that the only way to keep up with the packs was to show up regularly.

Finally, passion is contagious. A person who has passion for something will naturally spread that passion to others.

Many businesses and schools focus on competence and talent. They want to know about your educational background and work history. All of these things are certainly important. But nothing trumps passion. Even if you are not in a career that you enjoy, never abandon the activities that you are passionate about. If you have passion, others will care and you will see results.