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.


Remembering France Gall (1947-2018)

Related imageAlthough this blog is about literature, music is also an important part of my life. I listen to quite a lot of older musicians, and I sing in a church choir. For six years, I played hand bells in four different positions. Music brings me a lot of joy.

So it was with great sadness that I learned today of the death of one of my favorite French singers: France Gall.

I listened to France Gall’s albums throughout high school and undergrad. The lyrics of her songs introduced me to so much French vocabulary. I particularly loved the jazzy pop sound of her later music.

Her introduction to the music scene was as a teenage pop icon in the 1960s. She won a Eurovision competition for the song “Poupée de Cire, poupée de son”. Although the acclaimed singer Serge Gainsbourg wrote much of her earlier music, he also exploited her youth and naivete for his personal gain.

Later, she left Gainsbourg for Michel Berger. Berger was already an established singer and song-writer, having written music for Françoise Hardy and Véronique Sanson. But he soon became not only France’s song-writer but her husband as well. The song “Declaration d’amour” (1976) was composed by Michel Berger in her honor.

France Gall may have begun as a “Lolita” pop icon, but she soon became a mature, critically-acclaimed singer. My favorite performance available online was one of her last. In 1997, France Gall gave an acoustic performance of her greatest hits. “Elle a, Elle l’a”, about American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, is my favorite song on the Concert Privé album. She is accompanied by some famous jazz musicians.

I can’t stop listening to France Gall’s albums on Spotify. Her music had such an influence on my French education. Although she stopped performing in 2000, I always hoped that she would return for a few small concerts. Michel Berger passed away five months after I was born in 1992, and their daughter Pauline died in 1997. Although I will miss France Gall, she is now with the people she loved.

I still remember the lyrics of most of her songs. My dad was forced to listen to her albums on repeat during long car trips. She was a true class act!

If you are a fan of France Gall’s music, what’s your favorite song? 


Writing Introductions | Academic Writing

I probably spent about three hours today writing a 450-word introduction for a 15-page paper due next Thursday. This isn’t the first time that it has taken me so long to write an introduction. For longer papers, I usually start with a key scene in the text that demonstrates my argument. French literature tends to love the mise-en-abyme narrative technique, so I often know what passage to start with. Still, it takes me forever to determine the structure for my introductions. How should I transition between the scene and the thesis statement? What exactly does the scene show? In the paper I’m currently writing, I will be referencing the face-to-face philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. In the novel, the face is the locus of orientalist discourse. French and Algerian companies exploit images of Idriss’ face to sell products. La goutte d’or by Michel Tournier hits you over the head with its anti-orientalist message. I’ve been told that Tournier wanted to be a philosopher.

Introductions are hard because they are so important. The first few paragraphs of a paper are the most important because they set the tone. They help prepare the reader for what’s to come. The introduction is also important because it must grab the reader’s attention. In graduate school, the reader is the professor. She may or may not read the entire paper before giving it a grade, so the introduction matters a lot.

Finally, introductions are hard to write because arguments are hard to formulate. What am I trying to show in this paper? Why should the reader care? Questions such as these are hard to answer in a few sentences.

I was reminded today that I didn’t really know what I wanted to write about even though I had marked many important passages and had identified key themes. I knew the basics of Levinas’ philosophy and could apply it to certain scenes in Tournier’s novel, but I couldn’t explain why it mattered in the context of the book’s overarching message. I wrote and deleted sentences for hours before settling for an argument that I think is acceptable. I will probably revise it again after writing the body of the paper.

Good introductions signal good papers. They also remind the writer to stay on point. A professor once told me that it often takes him weeks to write a strong introduction. Well, I certainly don’t have weeks to write this paper, but I don’t regret spending three hours to write a decent introduction. I’m sure the rest of the paper will be easier to write, now that I know my argument.


I Blogged Every Day in November!

computer, hand, laptop

So today is the last day of my “Write 500 Words a Day” blogging challenge. I made it 🙂

I would like to reflect a bit on my experience. The hardest part of daily blogging is coming up with new ideas every single day. I wrote on a diverse range of book-related topics. Perhaps, that’s why readers haven’t been bored by my content (from what I gather, anyway). But I don’t always have interesting ideas. Even though I came across a lot of thought-provoking content in my school books, I often chose to write about “easier” things. I enjoy reflecting on themes in the books I read, but such reflections are definitely the most time-consuming posts to write. I’d rather vent about my day.

My readers probably learned more about me in the past month than ever before. I certainly don’t regret anything I’ve posted, but I am aware of this shift, and so should you if you are an aspiring daily blogger. Because I want to keep my blog book-related, I will not be continuing daily blogging in December. I will certainly blog regularly. But I am not interested in making public every last detail of my life.

Above all, this challenge taught me discipline. I had to write every day, even when I didn’t feel like it. Some of my posts were written at 1:30 am. Not ideal, since I’m a morning person. But I did it anyway. No one who is successful works only when he/she feels like it. Success requires discipline. Writers have to develop a writing habit.

I consider myself a writer because I am a graduate student in the humanities. I am not simply a professional reader. I encourage all graduate students to start a daily writing discipline and to consider themselves writers. Not all writers are novelists. If you want to know why I call myself a writer, read my recent post on writing in graduate school.

Although I will not be daily blogging in December, I will continue to write 500 words a day. Most of my writing will admittedly be school-related. I have a number of term papers due at the end of the semester. Writing 500 words a day is probably not enough to reach my word counts, but it’s the writing habit that matters. How many students binge-write their papers a few days before they’re due? I am not accustomed to writing drafts, but no one writes a good paper on their first try. I would like to have the time to rewrite my papers if need be, but that’s definitely a long-term goal that I may not meet in December.

Finally, I will try to schedule in my daily writing in the late morning when I’m the most awake and have the most free-time. We often tell ourselves that we will get to an activity when we have the time, but we never have the time. We have to purposefully make the time. I am not a great writer, but I now feel a need to write every day. I accomplished a self-directed and self-imposed project. I feel motivated to try new things.


Combating Elitism Through Education

It’s midnight. I realize that I have no blog post ideas. I could analyze something, but that would take too much brain power. This is the time of the semester when every graduate student finds him/herself in an existential crisis. Thank God for the medieval section of the research library. When I am down, I browse the third and fifth floors of the library for medieval books. I found a secondary source on medieval interpretation for my medieval course. Medieval rhetoric is fascinating. I hope to make more posts about it in the future – when I’m more awake.

It doesn’t help that my 20th century course is all about existential novels. The French sure love their absurdist fiction. While browsing the shelves for a good monograph, I was reminded of why I decided to do this program. A couple of students recently defended their dissertations, which has also given me encouragement. I love attending Works in Progress sessions because I learn indirectly about the dissertation writing process. I am also consulting self-help books and articles more than ever before. I need reminding that it’s possible to climb the mountain of academia.

I’m glad that the month is almost over. I’m sure many of you are tired of reading me complain about various aspects of graduate school. But some days, I can only think about the most obscure topics. My mom asked me last weekend what I study. She has asked me before, but I usually change the subject. How can I explain what I do? I only realize that I have obscure, highly-abstract interests when I try to explain my studies to non-specialists. This time, I taught my mom about the Algerian War and the resulting Algerian independence from France.

I am reminded that most people don’t share my interests. It’s not their fault. I know and don’t know why I am interested in late medieval rhetoric. It clearly excites and motivates me. But if I can’t explain to others why it matters, then I have failed as an educator. Professors can be excellent scholars and poor educators. I have, unfortunately, had my share of bad professors.

Academia tends to be elitist. I don’t like admitting that because legislators often cite academic elitism as a reason to stop funding the Humanities. Scholarship isn’t the problem, though. Scholars do some interesting work, but they only publish for a very small group of people. They have to publish for a small group of people, otherwise they can’t get tenure. The elitist culture of Academia looks down on popular nonfiction and humanistic outreach. It’s better to write about obscure things in obscure journals.

I don’t think the Humanities are dying. The old model might be dying, but hopefully a more public model will replace it. In the future, when my mom asks what I’m learning, I will tell her. I may not be able to tell her everything. I may even make some generalizations. But through teaching, I will remind myself that what I am studying matters.


On Graduate School (again!)

Every Thanksgiving, I intend to catch up with my work but I never do. I read a few things, but only one book was course-related. Tomorrow, my colleagues will also complain that they didn’t get anything done during the break. But it was an American holiday. I got to spend some much-needed time with my family.

I returned an hour ago from the Philadelphia airport. Thankfully, I caught the last trolley for the night. I forgot that public transportation is limited on Sunday nights. Although I can’t say that I have jet lag, flying always makes me tired, no matter how short the flight. I am also extra-alert during security and on public transportation. You never know who you’ll encounter.

But I’m back.

And now, I have a million and one pages to write by the end of the December. I’m glad that I have been writing daily for the past few weeks because I need the self-motivation to write every day in December. Of course, I am still in the planning phase. I barely know what topic I will be writing about, let alone what sources to cite. The writing marathon occurs during the last few weeks of each semester. I’ve been doing one for years, but this year’s will be the hardest one yet. NaNoWriMo participants don’t have to edit their writing, but graduate students have to write 15-25 pages for multiple classes AND write them well.

Marathon writing just doesn’t seem very efficient or practical. Why are we assigned so many books?

The truth is that I’m kind of tired of taking courses. I just want to start my dissertation research already. Most of us can learn from reading lists. It’s impossible to balance the writing marathon with regular coursework. Texts are still assigned during the last few weeks of classes. Of course, no one can balance everything. Something has to give. What matters more? Writing final papers or reading an assigned book that will never appear on an MA or a PhD exam list?

I know. I know. I’m complaining. Courses aren’t completely useless. I’m just frustrated by the inefficiency of the American graduate system.

Undergrads need to pass courses so that they can obtain a degree. Their professional development mostly occurs in the workforce. They are thrown into the “real” world with some skills and basic knowledge of their field. Aspiring academics, on the other hand, are supposed to receive their professional development in graduate school. Isn’t that why we get a master’s or a doctorate?

Programs should emphasize writing throughout the semester. Writers improve through practice. Humanities students are supposed to be writers. Maybe English students have more training in that area than foreign language students, but I am increasingly alarmed by the number of fifth and sixth year students who have never published a paper. I worry that graduate programs are so course-centered that they are blind to the academic market. In a publish-or-die industry, graduate programs should train their students to publish their work. Students should also be encouraged to write for non-university publications.

True, graduate students are adults. They need to be self-driven. But graduate schools should also care about the professional development of their students. We are more than cheap labor.


Review of Coco (film)

Related image

Yesterday, I watched Coco at a local movie theater. Because I hardly ever watch television, I didn’t even know there was a new Pixar movie until my brothers told me.

Coco follows a 12-year-old boy named Miguel into the Land of the Dead. The Day of the Dead is a Mexican holiday that, as the name suggests, celebrates the dead. On that day, living family members put up photos of the deceased. Multiple generations of Miguel’s family are represented on the family altar, but his great great grandfather is deliberately missing. This great great grandfather left Miguel’s great great grandmother to pursue his musical career. He eventually became a national sensation. Everyone loved the great great grandfather. Everyone, that is, except the great great grandmother who banished music from her family’s life as a result of her husband’s betrayal. She raised her daughter as a single parent and started a successful shoe business that Miguel’s parents continue to operate. Although Miguel loves music, his entire family has continued the tradition of banning music from the household. In his quest to become a musician, Miguel finds himself in the Land of the Dead. He seeks a blessing from his musical great great grandfather, so that he can return to the Land of the Living and fulfill his dreams.

Although the film follows Miguel, Coco is the name of the great great granddaughter. This relative is suffering from Alzheimer’s. She no longer recognizes her daughter. But she continues to ask about her father. She awaits his return.

The title of the film is very apt because the story is really about the women in Miguel’s family. They are the creators and the enforcers of the anti-music tradition. A woman started the family shoe business that saved her and her daughter from poverty.

But while the women are powerful characters, more time could have been given to their stories. I was impressed by the great great grandmother’s resilience and accomplishments. I sympathized with her anger. Single mothers don’t get much representation in Disney or Pixar films. I would have liked more backstory for the women.

The end is satisfactory, if a bit rushed. At 1 hour and 49 minutes, Coco is a fairly short film. But despite its length, Miguel’s friends and enemies are three dimensional characters. This is not a black-and-white universe. The viewer understands the villain’s motives, and appearances are deceptive. The bad guy doesn’t “look” evil. In children’s films, the villain often has a disfigurement, but Coco avoids any such ableism. For more on villains and disfigurement, watch this video. The film is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Despite my criticism concerning the amount of time spent on the women’s stories, the film does emphasize their influence on Miguel’s identity. I did not have an issue with the representation of Mexican culture in Coco. The animation is also quite impressive. I would love to rewatch the film at some point. Multiple plot twists add to the film’s thematic complexity. Families are messy and so is Miguel’s. I know that this film is being compared to Moana (2016), but I think Coco is far superior.

If you’ve seen Coco, what did you think of the film?


Reviewing Books by Fellow Bloggers

I am currently reading a book authored by a fellow book blogger. I am not going to disclose its title here out of respect for the author, but I am not enjoying the book. The prose is uninspiring and the dialogue flat. As a book reviewer, I feel a responsibility to review the books that I read. In the past couple of years, however, I have stopped trying to review every book I read. Not only do I not have the time to review everything, some books are so mediocre that I simply don’t see the point in reviewing them. Negative reviews can be very valuable, however. I have often been inspired to try a book because of a negative review. And of course there are only so many hours in a day. I don’t want to waste my time slogging through a terrible book. Debut authors need book reviews the most. An established author will be read by her fans, but a debut author doesn’t have any loyal fans.

I purchased the book blogger’s work a few weeks ago because I was intrigued by the premise. In fact, I had pretty high expectations going into the book because I had read some of this author’s writing elsewhere. Unfortunately, the book has been disappointing. I don’t want to recommend it to anyone, although the Goodreads reviews are generally quite positive (4 and 5 star ratings), so there’s clearly an audience for this kind of fiction.

I am very conflicted over how I should review books by authors I know. This blogger is not exactly a debut author, but this book is the author’s first major work of prose fiction. I feel a responsibility to review the book since I will be one of the few people who will have read it. I am also quite suspicious of books that only receive positive reviews on Goodreads. While I don’t know this author intimately, I feel uncomfortable reviewing negatively a book someone has written in the book blogging community. Shouldn’t we be in solidarity with each other?

This blogger is traditionally published and award-winning, which is why I had pretty high expectations. It is quite common for bloggers to self-publish, but self-published books tend to be poorly edited. I own a handful of self-published books, but I don’t expect them to be any good. I bought the books to support the author financially. I am honestly in no rush to read them. But regardless of how a book is published, it’s hard to be a reviewer when you know the author. I suspect that the reason why so many indie and self-published authors get so many positive reviews for their books is because readers don’t want to post negative reviews. Or maybe those readers feel compelled to give positive reviews to otherwise mediocre books. I don’t know.

I don’t think I will be reviewing the book I’m currently reading on this blog, but I will give it a star rating on Goodreads. It’s so much easier to give a negative review to a popular book. Won’t my silence on this blog and on YouTube be just as effective as a negative review, but less painful for the author?

Let me know how you approach books by authors you know. Do you review them? Are you more positive than you would be otherwise?


A Best of All Possible Worlds

First, a Happy Thanksgiving to all celebrating!

Since finishing Ken Miller’s upcoming book The Human InstinctI’ve thought a lot about humanity. The history of the Earth is unique. If we could rewind time, the history of life would not repeat itself. Even with the same early conditions, evolutionary history would be very different. We probably wouldn’t exist. There is a lot of uncertainty inherent in evolution.

Humanity is far from perfect. People suffer from incurable diseases and every kind of poverty. Nations war with other nations without any peace in sight. Still, it’s a biological miracle that we even exist. We are a young species, and possibly the only intelligent life form in the entire universe. And have you seen the size of the universe?

In the 18th century, Voltaire ridiculed Leibniz’s philosophy of optimism in a satire titled Candide. Pangloss, the quack doctor and pseudo-Leibnizian in the novel, suffers every kind of atrocity imaginable, but he somehow survives them all because this is the best of all possible worlds. Voltaire employed vivid descriptions of rape, murder, and natural disasters to ridicule Leibniz’s optimistic view of humanity.

But in a way, isn’t this the best of all possible worlds for humans?

My understanding is that Leibniz’s theory developed in an attempt to reconcile divine freedom and divine goodness. In his model, God created this particular universe out of an infinite number of possible universes (God was free to choose a different universe), and it was the best universe because God can’t create anything less than perfect. All sin is a product of human free will, a faculty God gave to his intelligent creatures. It’s complicated.

But possibility could also refer to the many Earths evolution could have but did not create. We don’t know what could have happened, but if conditions had been even slightly different at any point in evolutionary history, we would not be here. There is a lot of suffering in this world, but this is the only possible world in which we could exist. On a biological (not ethical) level, this is the best of all possible worlds for humans.

I believe that societies can improve. This is not a call for inaction or indifference. But I am thankful that I exist. I am concerned about the future of the planet because I know how miraculous our existence is. We are dust – like bacteria, ants, and giraffes. But we are self-aware dust.

Today, I am thankful for my existence as an individual and our existence as a species.



Reading Poetry

When did you get into poetry? Have you ever gotten into poetry?

I was first introduced to poetry in the eighth grade. The summer before classes started, the English teacher asked us to make a poetry anthology. I chose to focus on poems written about farm animals. Because I didn’t know any “fine” poets, I searched for fun children’s poems. I knew that Roald Dahl included poetry in his fiction, so I decided to start with him. Dahl wrote a poem called “The Pig” that is still one of my favorite poems. I recited it to my teacher before class one day, and I got a role in a school play with the poem. Even though my anthology focused on farm animals, the poems I loved the most were not about animals at all. I loved “Father William” by Lewis Carroll and “Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, so I recited both to my teacher. Nearly every week, I memorized a new poem so that by the end of the year I had memorized quite a few poems. While they weren’t necessarily the most sophisticated poems, I finally found poetry that I liked.

I dip in and out of poetry collections from time to time. Some poems resonate with me on a deep level like “Dirge Without Music” by Edna St. Vincent Millay. I first came across it in the short, young adult novel Baby by Patricia McLaughlin. If you want a beautiful but depressing book, read Baby. Millay’s poem goes perfectly with yesterday’s post since it addresses grief.

My favorite French poet is Paul Claudel. His “Chemin de la Croix” (The Way of the Cross) is a 14-poem meditation on the Stations of the Cross. Claudel was a very difficult person and a fascist to boot, but I find his poems particularly moving. I also love “Zone” by the surrealist, World War I poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

So many young people hate poetry because of the way it’s taught in school. They spend hours dissecting a poem line by line, but they don’t get the point. Students today feel intimidated by the genre.

I am grateful to my 8th grade English teacher for having assigned that poetry anthology project. I found poems that I enjoyed, which encouraged me to read more poetry. At one time, most children’s books included short poems. They were a part of a child’s intellectual development. But today, students only encounter poetry in school where it’s dissected and analyzed bit by bit. I am not denying the value of literary analysis. I am a literature student after all. And I do it all the time on my blog. But poetry should be fun. Students should be encouraged to find poems that they love, even if they’re children’s poems.

I can’t say that I really understand poetry. I don’t have much experience analyzing poetry. But I care deeply about the poems that I’ve enjoyed. I’m sure that formal poetry courses would help me better appreciate 20th-century poetry, but that doesn’t mean that I am ignorant of the genre. I appreciate my favorite poems more each time I reread them. We would never tell a non-English student that she can’t understand The Great Gatsby because she hasn’t studied it in school, so why do we assume that those who lack formal education in poetry are completely ignorant of the genre? Find the poetry you enjoy and read it.