Reflections

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.

Reflections

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.

Reflections

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.

Reflections, 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.

Reflections

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…

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.

Reflections

I’m Binge-Reading Again! | Grad School and Writing

adult, blur, booksThe binge-reading-only part of the semester is about to end in a few weeks. I just feel it in my bones. Soon, I will have to add binge-writing to an already full workload. This semester, I have three 20-page term papers due on the same day, plus a Master’s exam with an oral and a written component!

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love what I am doing. But because I am interested in becoming a scholar, I am also concerned about how what I am learning will help me long-term.

On the one hand, I understand why we are assigned so much reading. Professors expect students to have a basic knowledge of the course texts before class so that lecture-time can be spent analyzing themes or learning related theory. I am glad that my MA exam this April will require me to know the major works of the French canon because professors need to have a generalist knowledge of their field.

But reading is not always the best use of my time.

There are so many 16th century, 18th century, or 20th century texts that I should know, but no graduate student has the time to read everything that is considered “canon” for a given century or sub-field.

The problem, as I see it, is that reading is NOT scholarship. It is only the prerequisite of scholarship. No hiring committee cares how many books a candidate has read but how many major conference talks she has given, how many peer-reviewed articles she has published, and whether or not her dissertation is being turned into a book. I can read all of the books in the world, but if I can’t write or do good research, I am not a scholar.

In the American graduate education system, not enough time is spent writing and revising. We try to do all of the research for our term papers during the last month of the semester, all while trying to keep up with the weekly readings. I am currently binge-reading without a goal because I know that I will not be writing about most of the texts that I am assigned.

Published authors know that writing is rewriting, but graduate students only learn about the revision process in the last years of their program, when they suddenly have to learn how to write a 300-page dissertation.

Writing papers may be every graduate student’s least favorite activity (mine included), but it is also the most important activity. I wish graduate programs would encourage students to make writing a habit.