Writing Introductions

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!

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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.

Obscure Fiction

Eléonor d’Yvrée (1687) by Catherine Bernard | Forgotten Fiction

Résultats de recherche d'images pour « eleonor d'yvree »Today, I created my first book entry on Goodreads. Eléonor d’Yvrée (1687) by Catherine Bernard was a highly-acclaimed novel in the seventeenth century, but I seem to be the only person on Goodreads who has read it.

Catherine Bernard wrote during the latter half of the century and was clearly influenced by Madame de La Fayette. But unlike La Fayette, Bernard was also a playwright. She was related to and trained by big names in the literary world, most notably Bernard de Fontenelle, who tried to take credit for Eléonor d’Yvrée. History likes to forget and downplay female accomplishments.

In Eléonor d’Yvrée, our eponymous heroine is raised by the countess of Tuscanelle because her father was defeated in a war against the English king. In shame, the marquis d’Yvrée abandoned his children and retired to a monastery. We only encounter the marquis once in the novel. From the monastery, he orders Eléonor to accept her brother’s caretaker’s marriage proposal!

Unfortunately, Eléonor is in love with the count of Misnie. The count’s mother goes to great lengths to prevent her son from marrying Eléonor because she thinks that Eléonor is beneath her son in status. The plot thickens when Mathilde, the countess of Tuscanelle’s daughter, realizes that she’s also in love with the count of Misnie. So, Eléonor and Mathilde are both in love with the same person, but only Mathilde is allowed to marry the count. The duchess of Misnie convinces the countess of Tuscanelle that Mathilde and the count of Misnie would make a great pair, and Eléonor remains hopelessly betrothed to the count of Rethelois (her brother’s guardian).

Mathilde tries to take charge of her destiny. She tells the count of Misnie that Eléonor has been unfaithful; she has willingly chosen someone else over him. Mathilde knows that she has lied about her friend, but she wants to destroy the passion between Eléonor and the count.

Eléonor, on the other hand, feels that it is her duty to marry the count of Rethelois. She has no choice but to obey her father’s wishes. When Mathilde admits to her selfishness, Eléonor encourages Mathilde to marry the count of Misnie. Indeed, she gives Mathilde to the count. The count, however, doesn’t love Mathilde back. He is devoted to Eléonor.

Eléonor may not be able to escape her duties, but Eléonor tries to be a master of her destiny. When she encourages her rival to marry her lover, she acts against her inclinations. She actively consents to a marriage that will make her miserable, but this act is one of freedom.

Mathilde also tries to be a master of her destiny, but in a different way. She lies to the count of Misnie about Eléonor’s character. For a moment, it seems like Mathilde will win. She is, after all, betrothed to the count. But the love isn’t mutual. There is no victory in marrying a person who doesn’t love you back. Eléonor is the strongest of the pair because she puts her friend’s interests above her own. Mathilde, on the other hand, tries to lie and cheat her way to love.

Eléonor begs the count of Misnie to stop seeing her. She no longer wants to be in contact with the count. The count attends Eléonor’s wedding, but Eléonor refuses to acknowledge his presence. The count of Misnie blames Mathilde for everything. “Are you pleased? Eléonor has married the count of Rethelois, you are now avenged.”

Mathilde catches a fever and dies during the night.

The End.

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Five Books On My Winter TBR

1) Bleak House by Charles Dickens

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I love reading Dickens in the winter. Big books are perfect for the long holiday, and Dickens’ dark humor goes well with the weather. While my favorite so far is Hard Times, I have not yet read the most critically acclaimed of Dickens’ works: Little Dorrit, Bleak House, or David Copperfield. I hope to enjoy Bleak House.

2) Ecclesiastes through the Centuries by Eric S. Christianson

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Most people have never heard of Ecclesiastes, but it is one of my favorite books in the Bible. I first read it when I was 14. I didn’t realize that the Birds’ song “Turn, Turn, Turn” was inspired by chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes. But I was the most surprised by the content of the book. I never thought I would find “there is nothing new under the sun” and “meaningless, meaningless” in the Scriptures. It has definitely become my obsession. I read it on the day Trump was elected. Anyway, Christianson’s book is a study on the reception history of Ecclesiastes. Jerome, Gregory the Great, Martin Luther, and even Voltaire and Henry James reflected on this book. This controversial book has inspired the most interesting biblical commentaries.

3) To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

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Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books, and I enjoyed Orlando. So, I look forward to reading To the Lighthouse. This will be a buddy-read with a fellow booktuber.

4) The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

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Everyone and their brother has praised this book. This is historical fiction set in 12th century England and centers on the building of a gothic cathedral. When I was a child, I read The Ramsay Scallop by Frances Temple for school. That story follows two children on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, Spain. While the other students found the novel boring, I loved it. This was one of my first encounters with the Middle Ages. If The Pillars of the Earth mesmerizes me the way The Ramsay Scallop did, I will consider that a success. I don’t expect brilliant prose. But I do expect an engaging plot with complex characters. And lots of sinful monks.

5) The Secret by Francesco Petrarch

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The 14th century Italian Humanist Petrarch wrote three fictional conversations with St. Augustine. This is my most anticipated read. Even though the translation by Carol Quillen has been out for a while, I purchased the book at the end of May. Augustine was a great observer of human nature. From my understanding, Petrarch suffered from depression and even wrote about it. I wonder whether Petrarch will mention his mental illness in The Secret. This dialogue series seems like a cross between an Augustinian dialogue like On Free Will and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. In the latter work, Boethius imagines a dialogue with Lady Philosophy. In The Secret, Augustine and Petrarch dialogue before Lady Truth. It will be interesting to compare Petrarch to Boethius. I definitely have high expectations for this work.


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)

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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?