Reflections

Not Dead, Just AWOL (PhD and This Blog)

I am currently beginning the dissertation phase of my PhD. That is my excuse for neglecting to blog for the past few months, despite having read some great works. For most of the summer, I have read books related to my research interests (15th and 16th-century life writing). I have also begun turning a term paper into a journal article. “Begun” is the key word because I’ve only worked for two hours on the paper the entire summer. I tell myself that I’m early in my doctorate program, so it doesn’t matter that I haven’t worked seriously on the article all summer. Nevertheless, I need to adopt some kind of writing routine to reach all of the deadlines that I have set for myself.

But none of this explains why I have not written reviews for the books that I’ve read. The real reason is lack of interest. For some reason, I have not wanted to write reviews for by Luther Blissett or Orlando Furioso by Ariosto. I don’t think that I have grown tired of this blog. On the contrary, I have a list of posts about reading and writing that I’ve wanted to publish for the past six months. It is true, however, that I am less interested in promoting well-known classics than I used to be.

My blog has evolved over the years. I started in 2014, when I was 21 years old. At the time, the blog was called Exploring Classics. I even created a Classics Club list, with the intention of reading those 50 classics in 5 years. I’ve abandoned that project for the past three years. I am now 27, having completed a 2-year master’s program and 2 years into a PhD program. My intellectual and research interests have changed over the years. And of course, I have grown in maturity. Each time, I have adjusted the layout of the blog. Two years ago, I finally gave in and bought a domain name. So Exploring Classics is now Exploring Literature.

Perhaps, I am concerned about what people might think if I were to write about my academic writing struggles. Vulnerability is not my strong suit. But at this point in my academic career, I have experienced some challenges that I want to write about. Other academics may find them relatable. I will continue to post reviews of some of the books I’ve read, but I want to explore literature from a different angle than I have in the past. Rather than focusing predominantly on reviews, I will write more writing and research-related reflections.

I hope that making this post will encourage me to finally make the many posts that I’ve wanted to make for the past few months. Let me know if there are academia-related topics that you would like me to cover on this blog. Thanks for sticking around.

Reflections

5 Things I Learned From Presenting at a Language & Literature Conference

The Great Benefits of Attending Academic ConferencesI presented a paper at a major language and literature conference in the region. It was a great experience! I met scholars and was introduced to new texts in my sub-discipline (Late Medieval/Renaissance France).

Here are 5 things that I learned from the experience:

1) Never underestimate the importance of giving background information in a presentation. After spending nearly four months working on Louis de Berquin – the “Protestant” translator whose trial accounts I analyzed at the Kentucky Foreign Language Conference (KFLC) – I falsely assumed that Berquin was well-known to most Renaissance scholars. Thankfully, I provided a lot of background information about the political state of France in the early 16th-century because the early modernists in my panel had never heard of Berquin.

2) Present your argument clearly and near the start of your presentation. Listeners will be lost if they do not know what your argument is. In the first draft of my paper, I put my argument at the end of my fourth page but a fellow graduate student told me to move it to the first or second page. I’m glad I heeded his advice.

3) Bring a visual (either a handout or a PowerPoint). Not only does a visual keep people awake, it helps with the presentation of complex plot structures and ideas.

4) Speak slowly. Better to speak slowly and go under time by a couple of minutes than to speak quickly and barely make the time – or in the case of one presenter, get through only the first half of your paper and go over time by three minutes .*sigh*

5) Listen to questions and suggestions. Audience questions and comments can be valuable. It’s OK to disagree with someone’s claim, but please be respectful and open to suggestions. Talking over an audience member is rude and counter-productive. Conferences can be great opportunities to grow as a scholar, but you cannot grow if you are unwilling to listen and learn from others. Yes, comments-veiled-as-questions can be irritating, but even more irritating is the speaker who doesn’t know when to stop speaking.

If you have presented at academic conferences, what have you learned from the experience?

Reflections

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.

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

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.

Miscellaneous

Twitter for Academics

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

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

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

Here are some of my favorite Twitter accounts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hashtags
#AcWri
#phdchat
#phdadvice
#phdlife

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