All posts by Laura Kremmel

Laura Kremmel is Co-Chair of the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus. She holds an MLitt in Gothic literature from the University of Stirling, Scotland, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Lehigh University, where she also teaches. She is finishing work on her dissertation on the intersections between Gothic literature of the Romantic era and history of medicine, but her exam field covered Gothic literature from the Romantic to the Contemporary periods, and she continues to be interested in all facets of the Gothic in her work and teaching. Interests also include history of medicine, drama and performance, visual arts, depictions of the grotesque body, mourning and melancholia, horror films, and (most recently) zombies. She also runs the Gothic Reading Group at Lehigh.

How Iain Banks Helps Me Teach Romanticism

In the past week, dozens of tributes to Scottish writer Iain Banks, have appeared online— hundreds, if you count the smaller, no less poignant, expressions of grief and thanks via social media. Banks died of cancer on June 9th, two months after releasing a statement to his readers announcing his illness and the devastating news of his short life expectancy. Publishing consistently since the early 80s, he leaves behind a significant body of work, including both general fiction and science fiction under the name Iain M. Banks. Though we were “prepared,” the loss hits his fans hard and sooner than expected. Here is my tribute to this Great writer, one that I feel both unqualified and strongly compelled to write. Banks is certainly not a Romantic writer, so it may seem strange for me to write about him here. I discovered his novels only within the past few years, and I’ve still only read a handful of them. Yet, these works have made a lasting impression on me and, more to the point of this post, on my classroom, often paired with Romantic texts.

                  

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been analyzed and interpreted in many different contexts, providing endless possible readings and uses. For some students, the possibilities are exciting, but, for others, they are also overwhelming. Frankenstein is one of the most teachable Romantic novels for the college classroom, but it can be difficult to convince students not accustomed to reading nineteenth-century texts (or not used to reading much in general) to have the patience to tread through unfamiliar prose styles in order to appreciate the novel’s worth. I think I can assume that many of us have taught this novel and had this experience at some point. There are many strategies to prepare students for the foreignness of earlier texts, but one that I frequently use is to pair a Romantic novel with a more contemporary novel. Twice, I have taught Frankenstein with Iain Banks’s The Wasp Factory (1984) in my freshman literature and composition classroom, a combination that exposes students to two types of literature: both qualify as Gothic, but we see it from two very different time periods and styles. After a week or so of feeling their way through Frankenstein, keeping characters straight and starting to construct understandings of settings and major themes, students develop a tenuous relationship with the text. Then I introduce them to a character named Frank.

“I represent a crime…” (10).

The Wasp Factory tells the story of this disturbed, sixteen-year-old, first-person narrator and his daily routines as he recounts his experiments and murders (that’s right, murders) on his family’s isolated Scottish land. His father, himself a reclusive mad scientist of sorts, has been seminal in Frank’s unstable (my students use the word “insane”) character. Frank, a god in his domain, spends his time fabricating and performing private rituals involving small animals and insects, creatures whose lives and deaths Frank orchestrates in order to tell the future or reinforce his surveillance and control over his island. The crowning glory of these devises is, of course, the wasp factory, a machine constructed from a giant clock face that holds twelve possible deaths for the wasp Frank releases into it. The death chosen by the wasp holds a wealth of information for our narrator. Frank is a powerless character desperate for power, abandoned by his mother and brother. Sound familiar? Frank, despite his age, has killed three times, and the twist ending blows my students’ minds.

“My dead sentries, those extensions of me which came under my power through the simple but ultimate surrender of death, sensed nothing to harm me or the island” (19).

Following up Frankenstein with The Wasp Factory solidifies students’ understandings of both novels by comparing and contrasting. Both texts are inherently about the construction of monstrosity on different levels, as well as human agency in matters of life and death. The creature and Frank are both considered to be monstrous outsiders for their behavior and appearances, but both have also been “created” by their father figures, practically devoid of any female influence. They are not unlike Victor in this sense, as well. They generate power through manipulation of their limited resources with conventionally inacceptable (again, “insane”), behaviors. All three construct their own forms of justice and morality based on adversity, environment, self-delusion, and a striving for power. The students compare and contrast these elements with little prompting from me as Frank and his world accentuate the choices and characteristics of Victor Frankenstein and his creation, not to mention the common themes of nature, science, motherhood, destruction, revenge, madness, etc.

“The factory said something about fire” (23).

The Wasp Factory is not a Romantic text, and that is what makes it so useful in this context: accessible and entertaining, it acts as a stepping stone between the students’ own interests and experiences and those of the early nineteenth century. Students have told me that The Wasp Factory is “the first book I’ve read that has actually made me think.” Another student became so fascinated with the spatial descriptions of Frank’s island that he went out and found a map of the book online, then did the same for Frankenstein. Banks’s novel is incredibly visual, and students want to visualize other texts just as clearly. They squirm at the more graphic, gruesome parts in the novel, but they can’t stop talking about them. The book complicates their own assumptions regarding characters as likable/unlikable and right/wrong and what those judgments are based on. They find Frank frightening and (again) “insane,” yet develop such an affection for him, one that they find themselves extending to the Creature and even to Victor. Writing about both texts together, they explore the complexity of character motives. They learned that liking a character does not mean that they can trust him, and that brings them even closer to that character.

“The wasp factory is beautiful and deadly and perfect” (154).

The strangeness of Banks’s novel, set in a familiar time and told with accessible and beautiful language, opens up a door to welcome other types of strangeness into the classroom, even a strangeness going back almost 200 years. A monster and his creations are always in good company. Iain Banks, thank you for your monsters and your creations. They will continue to teach us so much, not least to enjoy brilliant and important literature.            

Banks, Iain. The Wasp Factory. 25th Anniversary Edition. London: Abacus, 2009.

                                                                                               

Alt-Ac-Attack: Thoughts on Preparing for the Job Market

The job market is not great right now. We all know it. We don’t always want to think about it. And, since several years pass between the first year of grad school and the last year, it’s very easy to avoid thinking about it: just put your nose to the dissertation grindstone until that last frantic year when you have to look up from your work and look around. The market can change a lot in five, six, seven years as well: when I left undergrad in 2006, it wasn’t horrible. Now… it is, and it seems like grad programs are realizing this and making moves to address it. We are just starting to really assess this issue in my own department, and we’re trying to do this in two related ways: focus on preparations for the academic job market earlier in a student’s career AND accentuate other options that we’re not often taught to consider: alternative academic careers, in other words. In this post, I’d like to describe some of the issues and possible positive practices we discussed in a recent meeting among grad students in my department. I’d also really like to start a dialogue about what other departments are doing to help their graduates prepare for a more positive future after all their hard work.

Alt-ac jobs unjustly get a bad rap: they’re spoken of with low tones, shaken heads, shrugged shoulders. We’re so focused on getting that increasingly unrealistic tenure-track professorship that anything else seems like some kind of failure. And it really, really shouldn’t. Jobs are hard to get in many professions, but variations using the same skill sets don’t seem to be looked down upon as much as they currently are in academia. So, one of the first problems to be fixed is this negative attitude towards jobs that require exactly the types of abilities at which we excel, jobs that would provide financial stability, health care, productivity, and a lot of genuine happiness. Concerns that interfere with considering these options early might include support from the department, committee expectations, discussions (or silences) amongst fellow grad students about such subjects, as well as simple confusion about how to market skills we already have or even how to find alternative career options. All these problems are fixable. My department has taken a first step by putting a recently-hired faculty member in charge to act as a go-to person to help students on an individual basis as they approach graduation as well as to hold various workshops and meetings related to academic and alt-ac job concerns. Overall, we’ve discussed some New School-Year’s Resolutions as we round out the end of our current semester:

Start early. As I said, it’s really easy (and, let’s face it, enjoyable!) to get wrapped up in your research and to forget about where it might lead you after graduation. I, myself, am incredibly guilty of this. Just starting to poke around at what jobs are available from time to time can create awareness (without panic) and can also give you a sense of the timeline for applying to various positions. Start making the most of what you’re doing right now. Have faculty come observe your teaching in preparation for letters of recommendation. Get involved with committees in which you may already have an interest. Use summers to explore short-term alt-ac jobs that might require editing, grant-writing, teaching, etc.  

Know what we have. We have so many skills that would make us fantastic professors. But they’d also make us lots of other fantastic kinds of professionals. We can speak in public and plan lessons and manage groups of people and think on our feet and make information interesting and read large amounts and synthesize and simplify and summarize and analyze and explain and entertain and proofread and edit and a hundred other things. But we don’t always translate what we do into these broader skills. Some of the future workshops we’ve discussed focus on this kind of translation: how to recognize our skills, how to use our writing skills for different types of writing, how to change a C.V. into a résumé, etc.

Speak and listen. Half the problem with both the impending trauma of the job market and the search for alt-ac jobs is that we don’t talk enough about them. We don’t talk about what we think about putting our skills to use in different ways, and we don’t discuss what those different ways might be. What we’ve done, just by having a meeting to discuss the new faculty position and what we’d like it to cover, is to allow ourselves to talk and to listen to one another. This is huge. What’s more, we’re hoping to be able to speak and listen to those outside our current student and faculty population by contacting alumni who have pursued various career options with our same educations. We’ve begun to bring in speakers who can help us think about aspects of professional development and alt-ac careers. We’re planning mock interviews and job talks amongst ourselves, as well as more informal discussions about other aspects of applications.

The job market is a sensitive subject for practically everyone right now, particularly for academics who have invested so much time and energy into a very specific career path. Yet, it’s also a concern near and dear to our hearts as we watch friends and colleagues struggle and prepare for struggles of our own. I am incredibly pleased and proud to be part of these steps to create a space for such an important conversation.  

But, I know we are certainly not alone. I’d really like to open up this discussion to my fellow blog-readers: what steps have your departments taken to think about the job market and alt-ac careers? What have you found useful or frustrating in regards to the leap from graduate student to job seeker? What have you found really helpful in this process?

Helpful resources:

http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/alt-ac/

http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/the-alt-ac-track-negotiating-your-alternative-academic-appointment-2/26539

http://www.higheredjobs.com/

http://academicjobs.wikia.com/wiki/Academic_Jobs_Wiki

On Starting the Dissertation: The Reading List that Keeps on Listing

A few weeks ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted a series of brief discussions about the third year of studying for a PhD. The title is what caught my attention: “A Common Time to Get Stuck,” by Julia Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong. The observation seems to be that the leap from coursework to exams or from exams to dissertation (typically the third year) causes a significant jolt in the way we’re used to learning and producing work, and I whole-heartedly agree. The third year for my department means that students have just completed their exams and are now faced with the daunting task of formulating a dissertation proposal and finally starting the long, hard work of diving right in. I thought I’d add my own two cents on what makes this such a pivotal, exciting, and (in some ways) frustrating and terrifying year.

Furlong says, “The familiar rhythm of reading lists, paper submissions, and semester-long deadlines gives way to a more ambiguous challenge—developing an original research project that meets the standards for scholarship in an academic discipline.” Familiar is the perfect word for it: we’ve all been in school for decades… we know what how class works, we know how homework works, we know how writing papers works. I don’t know that I’d call it easy, but we at least know all the dance steps and that, somehow, it all gets done no matter how many all-nighters it takes.

Vick adds, “It is also a time when students have to start answering to themselves more than to their professors and mentors. After comprehensive exams are passed they need to become their own taskmasters and work without, in many cases, external deadlines and demands.” So, suddenly you go from having packed schedules, syllabi, and exam reading schedules to… anything and everything. Or, at least it feels that way. Suddenly, you have years of work ahead of you without a set structure, constructing an argument that could take on a life of its own at any moment. Anything could be useful, so you must read everything. All the books. This leads me to my next point.

A few days ago, I came across a second piece of online writing—this one a blog article on Book Riot— which seemed to speak directly to the title of the article in The Chronicle: “When You Realize You Can’t Read All the Things,” written by Jill Guccini. All the frustration of this title realization comes through as she describes the many situations in which you find yourself acquiring new books… but not actually reading them as they pile up into “mini cityscapes on your floor.” This is especially true for academics in the humanities, for whom reading is both work and play, and getting new books is both extremely pleasurable and sadly stressful. What a crime to leave them, unread, to get dusty and yellowed on the shelf… but I know I am guilty as charged.

Now, bear with me: these two articles are related. When you’re working short term on coursework or exams, you can find some solace in that you only have to keep it up until the deadline comes and goes. We would all study for exams forever if there weren’t a deadline to stop us, and thank god there is. I’m wondering if part of the “getting stuck” Vick and Furlong talk about has to do with the few years of dissertation work begun in the third year feeling like forever and a somewhat narrow field feeling like “all the things.” So, if I’m writing about body parts in Frankenstein, then I have to read the novel and all the critical books and articles on it. Then I should read all about Mary Shelley and the Shelley circle and anyone who influenced that circle and maybe all of Shelley’s other work…and also follow up on this, this, and this footnote. Then, okay, body parts: I should read all the medical discourse when Shelley was writing and maybe what people thought before she was writing and also after she was writing, and maybe some of the current medical discourse on amputation and organ donations, and, why not, maybe some stuff on bodysnatching and army doctors. Now, what about any kind of literary theory: Kristeva and Lacan and Deleuze and Freud and Bakhtin. And theory on the history of the period and of novel form and novel circulation and the two different editions and where it was sold and how much it cost and what kind of paper it was printed on and who bought the first copy. And each article or book as an extensive bibliography that should be gone through with a fine-tooth comb. I’m being a little ridiculous, but see what I mean?

Beginning the dissertation is the ultimate in you-can’t-read-everything frustration because not only do you have a million things you want to read, but there’s the added pressure that you feel you need to read them in order to create something worthwhile. And Vick is right: yes, we’re answerable to our advisors and our committees and to future job applications, but at this point in the game, when all your work is chosen by you and made extremely important because of that, there is an incredible sense of self-worth but also a lot of nervousness in regards to living up to your own expectations. Can you ever read enough to satisfy yourself? The answer (and the point to this whole academic game we play) is no. I think what I’m learning as I’m still in this dangerous third year is that, no, you really can’t read all the things. Somehow that makes me feel a little better.

I would have loved to give better advice in this post rather than just some observations, but I feel too close to the beginning still to assess what is working and what isn’t. I’d like to invite fellow bloggers and readers to respond, though!

What worked for you when you were starting your dissertation that kept you from trying to “read all the things”?

The Monk (Le Moine): A Film Review

As I begin my dissertation chapter on Matthew Lewis, I try to think of not only what research I can contribute to the field but also what related teaching opportunities and activities could be useful in future classes. One possibility for teaching well-known literature is often to include a lesson on adaptation: how can a text change by portraying it through a different medium and all the different lenses that that involves? It helps me to reemphasize to my students the idea that the way a story is formed is a choice made by the author, director, artist, etc. This helps students to see literature as a crafted piece of art that invites multiple interpretations, not just a story that portrays objective, black-and-white facts. Particularly in the case of complex classic literature (or most literature, for that matter), the creator of an adaptation must make drastic sacrifices to reduce a 400-page text to an audience-friendly film under two hours. This is why we have so many different film versions of texts like Frankenstein, Pride and Prejudice, Oliver Twist, etc. (not to mention children’s books). Each one is different.

I know of three adaptations of Matthew Lewis’s 1796 novel, The Monk: two versions in English in 1972 and 1990, and the most recent and highly-anticipated French version, Le Moine, released in 2011. Those who have read The Monk would probably not be surprised to learn that all three versions are difficult to find: the novel is complex, with many simultaneous plots that would make a film version seem practically impossible without sacrificing some great material. In terms of the viewing experience of this film, it is a little on the slow side, though the scenery and atmosphere are beautiful and create a believable (if bleak) setting. It is certainly not an action film and involves a lot of contemplative silences and slow discussions. The English subtitles, while understandable, are probably not extremely accurate (or grammatical), placing more weight on the visuals to carry the film. However, while I would not say that Le Moine is a particularly fantastic film—especially with little or no knowledge of the novel—it does do some interesting things that could lead to a pedagogical discussion among higher-level students of what the Gothic does in the late eighteenth century and the way subtle changes in an adaptation help to accentuate those features.

(Click photo for trailer)

 

Warning: SPOILERS!

The central storyline of Lewis’s text follows the monk Ambrosio, who, seduced by the demonic Matilda (in disguise), proceeds to seduce the virginal Antonia (his sister), kill her (his) mother and eventually rape and kill her before standing trial at the Inquisition. He is then rescued by the devil, sells his soul, and is dropped off a cliff by Satan. Already, this sounds like it could be a Lord-of-the-Rings-sized trilogy! However, large parts of the novel deviate from this storyline to follow Antonia’s fiancé Don Lorenzo, his sister Agnes, and her lover Don Raymond. Agnes, a nun, has become pregnant by Don Raymond (after a long adventure of his own, involving banditti and the Bleeding Nun) and is imprisoned in the nunnery, where she gives birth and coddles her dead child in one of the most horrific scenes in Gothic literature.

Though it includes a few brief scenes of Agnes’s discovery and punishment and the growing love between Antonia and Don Lorenzo, the film, of course, focuses primarily on the relationship between Ambrosio and Matilda. Matilda, donning a stunningly-unsettling porcelain mask, enters the monastery as a deformed plague victim, who has an uncanny ability to quiet the “voices” in Ambrosio’s head. The devil is already among the citizens of Madrid according to this version, as an exorcism and the warning “It’s here!” foretell Matilda’s identity and Ambrosio’s fated association with her. The multiple layers of deformity, masking, and victimhood suggest an interesting link between illness/ misfortune and theatricality/artifice and (of course) the devil’s involvement in all of it. The exorcisms and the known presence of the devil suggest a more established and ongoing battle with evil that does not appear as strongly as in the novel, though corruption within the church is still present, notably in the Prioress’s dealings with Agnes.

One of the things that I found most interesting in this adaptation, however, is the emphasis on punishment. When Ambrosio turns Agnes over to the Prioress, he tells her that she should want and welcome punishment for her crimes. Yet, Agnes is the only one punished in the film (and she quickly dies of starvation, cursing Ambrosio’s name until the end). Romantic Gothic literature is nothing if not surprisingly conservative: crazy, evil, and scandalous things happen, but the ending is almost always about punishing those involved in some of the cruelest ways possible. In this way, it acts very much like Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque: controlled chaos turns peasants into princes and vice versa, but at the end of the day, order is restored and all goes back to normal.

In the novel, Agnes survives, but the Prioress who imprisoned her is graphically trampled to death by an angry mob. Ambrosio himself spends weeks in the dungeons of the Inquisition before he finally gives his soul to Matilda in exchange for his freedom. She delivers, but then she (as the devil) also brutally kills him. In the film, however, Ambrosio does end up crawling through the desert after his trial and is confronted by the devil. However, he markedly redeems himself (to some extent): when the devil offers to take him to paradise in exchange for his soul, he asks for the now-insane Antonia’s happiness, instead. He makes a choice to suffer, but that suffering is not imposed upon him, making him into a tragic hero of sorts. A martyr. Lewis’s monstrous and desperate villain of Catholicism has become a creature much more akin to later fiction starting with Shelley’s Frankenstein, in which the monster is not all monster at all… or at least provokes a great deal of pity and admiration.

Despite this, the film is disappointingly conservative in other ways for modeling itself after one of the most shocking novels of all time. Empire magazine says it best in its review of the film when its author says, “An austere, cerebral reading of a book which is unfettered, blood-bolstered and wildly sensationalist — Lewis is the father of torture porn, not a master of subtle chills. It’s interesting and unsettling, with a charismatic lead performance, but nowhere near as shocking as it should be.” The most shocking second half of the novel is condensed into about twenty minutes, taking attention away from Ambrosio’s depravity and giving instead a slow, quiet view of monastic life and one man’s psychological struggle within it.

Last-Minute Gift Ideas for Academics (or what to get with your holiday Amazon giftcards)

My department has recently introduced these two books to the grad students through reading groups and classes. Both give great professionalization advice for various stages in the studying, working, and writing processes.

Semenza, Gregory Colón. Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

This is a book that practically anyone involved in graduate studies, from newly-accepted students to scholars about to defend their dissertations, would find an invaluable resource. As its introduction boasts, it’s geared towards students who have already made the decision to dedicate their time and energy to graduate school, studying with faculty in order to become faculty themselves, thereby bypassing any discussion of applying to grad school or whether or not grad school is for you. The first three chapters focus on providing insight into aspects of the graduate education we deal with every day but that are rarely taught in any official capacity: how to negotiate department politics, how to field questions and misconceptions from those who don’t understand academia, how to use the different stages of the process wisely instead of just getting by, and how to structure and organize your time. Though the advice is detailed and helpful, the tone of the book is in no way warm or sanguine: Semenza does not sugar-coat anything. He knows the job is tough, and the process of getting there is even tougher. He talks about problems we all know about: the highly-competitive job market, the numbers of grad students admitted versus jobs available, the hiring of adjuncts instead of full-time faculty. He also criticizes the structure of graduate school itself, placing a lot of responsibility on advisors and faculty, who, even with the very best of intentions, simply treat their grad students as they, themselves were treated in grad school, thereby perpetuating the system. He offers his book as an extra advisor to supplement their guidance.

Chapters four through eight discuss, in-depth, the different stages of graduate school—the graduate seminar, the seminar paper, teaching, exams, and the dissertation. Some of the advice is simplistic and may already be part of your academic practices, like note-taking and organizing folders, but other advice simply helps you make sense of what you’re doing and why. Though Semenza recommends not reading these chapters selectively, I read the exam chapter and the section on the dissertation proposal while studying and writing for each, before I read any of the other chapters, and I still found the advice helpful. The next three chapters cover activities we engage in throughout our graduate career: conferences, publishing, and service. Some of the advice in the seminar paper and publishing chapters I even found useful for teaching writing in my own classroom, something that I found with the Belcher book discussed below, as well. The appendix includes several “professional documents,” such as C.V.s, job letters, abstracts, syllabi, and other important formats to guide you through seeking publications, conference presentations, and jobs.

I do highly recommend this book for individual academics, but I think the way that my department handled it was particularly effective: we gathered the grad students and a few faculty who were interested and formed a reading group, where we discussed one or two chapters per session. As I said, the book does not ease up on the harsh reality of the academic state of the humanities, and the dooms-day tone, though completely realistic and necessary (and appreciated for the respect it gives academics), could easily send grad students already on the edge into a serious panic. Reading the book as a group allowed for conversations that quelled this kind of panic and allowed us to measure our own experiences against Semenza’s and to make the most of the tough-love approach. This could be a book to hold onto through grad school, graduation, and even when we (fingers crossed) have grad students of our own to advise.

 

Belcher, Wendy Laura. Writing Your Journal Article in 12 Weeks: A Guide to Academic    Publishing Success. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc., 2009.  

Belcher’s book, on the other hand, offers a more optimistic “you-can-do-it” approach to one single aspect of being an academic, both for grad students and established scholars: publishing an article. This workbook-style text demarcates a chapter per week, giving you specific activities to do each day for a specified amount of time, ranging from half an hour to about two hours. For example, the chapter for week 5: Reviewing the Related Literature opens with this list of tasks:

Day 1, Read through the pages in the workbook, 60 minutes

Day 2, Evaluate your current citations, 60 minutes

Day 3, Identify and read related literature, 8 hours (this is very unusual)

Day 4, Evaluate the related literature, 60+ minutes

Day 5, Write or revise your related literature review, 120+ minutes

Theoretically, if you are able to stay on task for every day (only five days per week, so there is some flexibility), you should be able to complete and polish up an article and follow Belcher’s advice for choosing a journal and submitting your final draft. My department offered a one-credit class that followed this book like a syllabus, completing the tasks for each day and spending about half an hour per week workshopping one another’s work along the way. The book does seem to work best if you have a piece of work already in mind, like an old seminar paper or conference paper. There really isn’t a chapter that guides you through starting from scratch, which is obviously the most time-consuming stage of the process. For me, the most effective part of Belcher’s method is just setting time aside everyday to work on my article and sticking to a schedule (though, to be honest, there were many weeks were I was barely able to fit in an hour or two). Belcher is both adamant and realistic: she insists that you should be able to find at least fifteen minutes per day to work on your article, even if it’s just on the back of an envelope in an airport. In a section in which she addresses common obstacles to writing, she bluntly states that, “If you really are too busy to fit in fifteen minutes of writing a day, then this workbook cannot help you. I recommend that you plan, in the very near future, a weekend away from it all where you can really think about your life” (26). On the other hand, she begins many of the later chapter with the concession that it is very possible that you haven’t been putting in your time every day or every week and offers some (shaming) encouragement: if you haven’t been working, now is a good time to start—it’s never too late!

I think my fellow grad students would agree that this book is very helpful in just getting you to work and write every day towards one specific (and necessary) goal and that it provides some really solid writing advice and techniques. I personally found the chapter on structure the most helpful. Some smaller sections within the chapters, however, I suggest taking with a grain of salt at times to determine whether they are really helpful for you. Some of the anecdotes seem slightly unrealistic and out of context at times and may discourage rather than encourage, as I think happens in many of these academic advice books. Like Semenza’s book, Belcher’s book also seems to underestimate the extent to which academics make themselves visible electronically, through blogs, online journals, etc. Semenza mentions almost nothing about these venues, and Belcher treats them fairly condescendingly. Nevertheless, her book offers guidelines and tips that could also extend beyond article-writing to teaching and other types of writing, like the chapters on editing sentences and on presenting evidence. Also similar to the Semenza book, this text is another useful tool that I think is best read amongst a group of students and faculty in order to make the most of its advice through further discussion and personal experience.

You can access some of the forms and schedules, like this weekly schedule, at Wendy Laura Belcher’s website: http://www.wendybelcher.com/pages/WorkbookForms.htm

Getting to the Good Parts: Chapbooks and Blue Books

One of my favorite things about Broadview Press’s 2006 edition of Zofloya (1806), by Charlotte Dacre, is the inclusion of a chapbook version of the original text in the appendix.[i] Dacre’s novel, which occupies 216 pages in this edition, has been condensed into a 19-page document that speeds through the tale, sidestepping scenes of excessive emotion, dialogue, and prolonged action and cutting right to the barebones plot. A scene early on in the novel, in which the main character’s father is mortally wounded by his wife’s lover, the count, reads:

“Draw, monster, devil, and incendiary!” exclaimed the frantic husband, at the same time snatching his stiletto from his bosom.

“I have no sword,” cooly returned the count; “but I have, like yourself, a stiletto, that shall be at your service.”

The Marchese heard no more: he struck and struck again with desperate fury at the body of his antagonist; but his aim was rendered unsure by his thirst for vengeance, by the raging and uncontrouled passions of his soul. The count, calm, and self-collected, parried with hellish dexterity his indiscriminate attempts; but receiving, at length, the point of his adversary’s stiletto in his shoulder, he suffered an impulse of rage to nerve his hand; and, retreating for an instant, then furiously advanced, and plunged his dagger to the hilt in the breast of the unfortunate Loredani. (50)

In the chapbook, this same scene simply reads:

“Draw monster and defend yourself!” exclaimed the husband, snatching his stiletto from his bosom.

“I have no sword,” said the Count; “but I have a stiletto.” The Marchese struck at him with great fury. The indignant Count plunged his dagger into the breast of the unfortunate Leonardo. (280)

It sounds almost like an outline or as if recorded from memory. The chapbook, called The Demon of Venice: An Original Romance, By a Lady (1810), like most chapbooks, has been blatantly plagiarized from Dacre’s original, though Adriana Craciun speculates in her footnote to the Broadview introduction that there is a slim chance that Dacre could actually be the author (31). Regardless, the “borrowing” of plot details as the norm does not seem to bother either reader or author, and Alison Milbank claims that changing the names avoids any direct legal ramification for the often-anonymous authors.[ii] Milbank explains the difference between chapbooks and blue books (named, of course, for their blue covers): chapbooks are prominent in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and had begun to die out in the early nineteenth century, whereas blue books—Gothic in nature and featuring a more sophisticated illustration style—were prevalent in the early nineteenth century and dealt closely with booksellers (perhaps even those carrying the original novels upon which they were based). Though I have only seen reference to The Demon of Venice as a chapbook, I suspect that it qualifies more as a blue book for these reasons. While books and even library membership were expensive, blue books “provided racy, entertaining and cheap reading for the literate poor,” and like many other more accessible forms of entertainment, such as theater, helped to perpetuate and continue the Gothic legacy among both the well-educated upper classes and the lower classes hoping occupy their minds for relatively cheap (Milbank). Milbank describes two lengths of these small books or pamphlets: “sixpence for 36 pages, and a shilling for 72 pages,” though some were even shorter.

I am just beginning to enter the world of chapbooks and blue books, hoping that this may offer insight into many Gothic novels that have not survived through to modern publishing and digitalization. Even Ann Radcliffe’s monstrous tome The Mysteries of Udolpho has been squeezed into under a hundred pages and re-titled as The Veiled Picture. I’m also interested in these types of abbreviations and how they change the stories themselves as well as the reading experience. I like to think of them as similar to today’s comic books or the series of Great Illustrated Classics with which many of us grew up (the ones with a picture on every other page. You know the ones!). They provide a different type of access to great stories. As Milbank points out, even our most revered literary figures, such as Percy Shelley, had a fondness for blue books, particularly in his youth.

Finding these texts today, however, is not easy. One of my goals for this post is to share with you a recent discovery that’s trying to make such texts as they were intended: accessible again. Literary Mushrooms, a spinoff project of Zittaw Press, is in the process of reprinting and re-illustrating fifteen Gothic chapbooks. They have just set up a great project page here, in order to gather funding for this project, which supports the 50’s-style comic illustrations, printing, and hand-stitching costs. Both Zittaw and Literary Mushrooms are dedicated in revitalizing an interest in these forgotten texts and to combine both nineteenth and twentieth-century elements to create a new (truly Gothic?) reading experience. I’ve just ordered a slew of copies of The Bloody Hand for the Gothic Reading Group that I run, distributing cheap thrills to the (poor) grad student masses, and we are anxious, amidst our regular studies of lengthy volumes, to discuss the difference in shifting from plot-driven novels to plot-only chapbooks, full (I might add) of exclamation points!


[i] Dacre, Charlotte. Zofloya. Ed. Adriana Craciun. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 2006.

[ii] Milbank, Alison. “Gothic Satires, Histories, and Chap-Books.” Gothic Fiction: Rare Printed Works from the Sadleir-Black Collection of Gothic Fiction at the Alderman Library, University of Virginia. Marlborough, Wiltshire, UK: Adam Mathew Publications, 2003. http://www.ampltd.co.uk/digital_guides/gothic_fiction/AlisonMilbank3.aspx.

Vital Viscera

Though I have temporarily shifted my research from early nineteenth-century depictions of the body to contemporary zombie studies, I’m finding my previous research and the ideas of Romantic-era physicians to be astoundingly enlightening for this project in terms of the vitalism controversy: does materialism or vitalism—“the theory that life is generated and sustained through some form of non-mechanical force or power specific to and located in living bodies”—dominate the motions of the body? (Packham 1).[i] One of the things I find interesting about this controversy, however, is that both still locates the source of life and animation within the body itself (rather than an outside force, such as a higher power or cosmic force, or sometimes even a physician). I’m just beginning my research on vitalism, but, in my mind, the difference between materialism and vitalism seems to be this “unknown” factor. A mechanism can be explained, but the words used to describe the core principle of vitalism—force, spark, power—speak to its vague and elusive nature in such a way that reveals the physican’s awe for the body while materialists seem to claim more authority, even over the individual whose body is in question. The concept of vitalism also disrupts the mind/body dichotomy, as Catherine Packham points out in her excellent study of Eighteenth-Century Vitalism. “‘Life’ itself began to look rather different:” she says, “no longer a physical entity passively carrying out the orders of reason, but a fluid, constant, dynamic, changeable and ultimately elusive force, existing and communicating throughout a vitally animated body” (19). My goal in this post is to describe and discuss the infatuation with interiority of the body shared with some of the prominent vitalists and their interest in movement within even a body that does not appear to be moving.

In 1785, a Mr. James Whytt wrote to accomplished Edinburgh physician William Cullen of the dissection of a Mr. James Cochman’s abdomen twelve hours after his death: “The swelling of [it] increased gradually to a very great extent after you saw him; previous to opening the abdomen, when filliped, it gave the sound of a drum; when open’d…” and goes on to describe the shape and color of various organs.[ii] Cullen himself was one of the leading vitalists at the Edinburgh Medical School, along with his associate Robert Whytt (any relation to the letter-writer, I have yet to surmise) (Packham 6). There are a few things in this brief example to note. Firstly, there is a distinction between the exterior and interior of the body, but also a correlation: swelling indicates an internal change. An action against the exterior, a “fillip,” can indicate even more about the quality and condition of that interior, but Whytt does not seem concerned about such an action disturbing it. The description that follows (which is not something to read right before lunch) compartmentalizes the body to a great extent, describing where in the body things have settled, as if they were settled in an unusual way and had found their way there themselves. Things have clearly been happening within this (leaky) body in the twelve hours since life had animated it, things that remain animated for a time beyond its larger entity.

Physician Robert Whytt describes this kind of body-agency in terms of three categories of animal motions in his 1751 text on vitalism: voluntary, involuntary, and “mixed”. These last two classifications “are performed by the several organs as it were of their own accord, without any attention of the mind, or consciousness of an exertion of its active power: such are the motions of the heart, organs of respiration, stomach, guts, &c; which have been also distinguished by the name Automatic…” (1-2).[iii] Though these ideas precede the Romantic era, they nonetheless inform the kinds of observations made by James Whytt later in his dissection.  They also speak to the claim made by Alan Richardson in his article “Romanticism and the Body,” about the prominence of the body in Romantic poetry. He suggests that Jerome McGann’s theory that Romantic poets strove to transcend the physical and political upheaval of their world through their poetry “failed to account for the diversity of available ideological positions” (2).[iv] Instead, criticism has been seeing more emphasis on the Romantic body within literature (something Aaron brought up in his post on feet at the beginning of the month). Whytt’s sentient principle, which he uses to explain the reanimation (re-sensitizing) of the body after a period of inaction or even momentary death, claims that, since these body parts do not have the ability of stimulation themselves, there must be an “active sentient PRINCIPLE animating these fibres” (Whytt 242). In other words, there must be some kind of energy or substance that sparks this movement and contributes to the overall animation of the body, particularly its involuntary and “mixed” actions. This begs the question, what are our bodies doing when we’re thinking of other things, when we’re not commanding its every move? The poet’s body, then, proves itself a mystery more expansive and active than even the poet’s mind, able to move and act almost of its own accord… even for a short time beyond death.


[i] Packham, Catherine. Eighteenth-Century Vitalism: Bodies, Culture, Politics. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

[ii] Letter from James Whytt. March 1785. Sibbald Library.

[iii] Whytt, Robert. MD. An Essay on the Vital and other Involuntary Motions of Animals. Edinburgh: Printed by Hamilton, Balfour, and Neill. 1751.

[iv] Richardson, Alan. “Romanticism and the Body.” Literature Compass 1 (2004): 1-14.

Love Letter to Mr. Lewis

As I mentioned in one of my earlier posts, the original Gothic tradition met with some pretty extreme ambivalence from other writers and pretty staunch criticism from reviewers in the late eighteenth century. Matthew G. Lewis—the writer of The Monk, who also happened to be an MP—got the brunt of abuse from those critical of his stories of terror and gore.  He mentions in one of his many undated letters to his mother, “You will observe that the Morning Herald continues to call [me] Monk Lewis, and to abuse me as much as formerly.” Though The Monk and much of Lewis’s poetry push the boundaries of the genre he helped create, I have found much of Lewis’s drama, including his best-known play, The Castle Spectre, to be surprisingly cautious and even conservative in terms of the supernatural. [i] In the same letter, however, he describes the failure of his play The Captive, which “proved much too terrible for representation, and two people went into hysterics during the performance and two more after the curtain dropped. It was given out again with a mixture of applause and disapprobation….”[ii]  Lewis, persisting in his penchant for creating tales of wonder and terror, was, nonetheless, not writing from an ivory tower but seemed keenly aware of the reception of his works. His letters reveal him to be especially sensitive of the impact his scandalizing works would have on the reputation and sensibility of his family, and he apologized profusely to his father for the outcome of The Monk, blaming his misjudgment of its reception on his youth (he was only 19 when it was published). After that, he sent some of his literary endeavors to his mother or his sister to edit for objectionable passages and eventually released a censored version of his novel.

Attracting severely negative attention from critics, Lewis also attracted his fair share of parody and satire.  The anonymous collection of poems, Tales of Terror followed the publication of his own collection, Tales of Wonder, an accumulation of original poems by himself and others such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Southey as well as translations of German pieces. There is no evidence to suggest that Lewis is in any way associated with Tales of Terror beyond being the model for its creation: it is unlikely that he contributed to it in any way, and it is a mistaken attribution in an early biography and a later combined version of Tales of Terror and Wonder that instilled this misguided authorship through to the present time (Thomson 239).[iii] One poem in particular found in Tales of Terror, “Grim, King of the Ghosts; or the Dance of Death” is dedicated to Lewis, making it especially improbable that he was involved in its authorship. On the other hand, it is thought that Tales of Terror ridicules and reproaches Tales of Wonder by its exaggerated mimicry of it. This also seems unlikely or overly simplistic, at best. Douglass Thomson says, in his article on the relationship between the two texts, that Tales of Terror is “less an attack on Lewis than an homage to him, a carrying-on of the good fun that Lewis had with his own production. ‘Grim’ underscores the fact that that parody is, if not the sincerest form of flattery, at least a form of imitation and tribute” (17).[iv]

In a very roundabout way, this fine line between condemnation and appreciation is the point I want to make in this post, and it extends beyond these two published volumes. Lewis was a source of criticism and disdain, as well as humor and real adoration in many contexts. I recently discovered a fantastic little “tribute” to him in the National Library of Scotland, a fourteen-page poem entitled “The Old Hag in a Red Cloak: A Romance,” attributed to George Watson-Taylor.  On the surface, the moral of the story and last stanza of the poem seems to make it very clear that the writer disapproves of Lewis’s antics:

If you wish me the moral, dear Mat, to rehearse,

‘Tis, that nonsense is nonsense, in prose or in verse,

That all, who to talents claim any pretense,

Should write not at all, or should write COMMON SENSE.

However, if the writer disagrees with Lewis’s style or subject matter, it certainly does not stop him from reading more or less everything that Lewis has ever written.  Only half of those fourteen pages contain the short poem. The bottom half of each page boasts two or three extensive footnotes detailing each and every reference to a line or a character in one of Lewis’s works.  For example, the first page reads:

Matthæus was little, Matthæus was young,

Of wonders he chanted, and quaintly he sung; i

Thro’ fire, and water, and clouds could he see, ii

For this bard, a profound necromancer was he. iii

i. “Lord Ronald was handsome, Lord Ronald was young,  / The Greenwood he travers’d, and gaily he sung, &c.” “The Grim White Woman”

ii. The Cloud King, the Water King

iii. This spectre, the Grim White Woman she was.

Matthæus is, of course, Matthew Lewis, referred to for most of the poem as simply “Mat.” The plot follows the consequences of Mat refusing to give a poor old woman a sixpence to buy some bread. The old woman turns out to be Mother Goose, a witch-like figure who torments him for both denying her the money and getting her kicked out of bookshops. She calls on all of the creatures of her literature to accost him. He tries to call on his own creations, but they fail him, and he is forced to admit that she rules the “realms of romance” and to vow to write more appropriate literature. Most of the footnotes just relate the lines from the particular poem the writer is mocking, but others give more detailed information. One provides a laundry list of “ghosts and hobgoblins, and horrible shapes” found in popular romances of the day, with which the reader should be familiar. This guy has done his homework! As Thomson says, “as imitation of a pre-existing style comprises an essential feature of parody, this satiric mode especially depends upon a degree of identification with its satiric object” (2). It’s clear from the detailed lists of Lewis’s creatures throughout the poem that a real enjoyment went into describing them, even though it is hidden behind the guise of criticism. I might suggest that it feels like a guilty love-letter to a writer and type of writing that had become fashionable to criticize but also fashionable (among a different sort, perhaps) to read. Crafting a poem with such subject matter, despite the didactic symbolism and moral, also speaks to a writer who has learned a thing or two from what he has read. It speaks to the complicated love/hate relationship endured by the Gothic as well as the Gothic tradition’s invitation to parody and a little bit of fun.


[i] At least part of the reason for this caution is due to the censorship restrictions on drama and the uneasiness with showing the supernatural on stage. Jeffrey Cox has a fantastic explanation of this in his introduction to Seven Gothic Dramas, Ohio University Press, 1993.

[ii] “The Captive” closed in 1803, so this letter was sent sometime after March of that year. The letter is simply dated “Wednesday___”. Papers Concerning Matthew Gregory Lewis, 1792- circa 1834.

[iii] Douglass Thomson gives a thorough overview of this in an appendix about Tales of Terror in his 2009 Broadview edition of Tales of Wonder.

[iv] Thomson, Douglass H. “Mingled Measures: Gothic Parody in Tales of Wonder and Tales of Terror.” Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. (May 2008) 50: 22 paragraphs. http://www.erudit.org/revue/ravon/2008/v/n50/018143ar.html

Graduate Study: Abroad and at Home

Many of the top graduate programs in British Romanticism can be found in the United States. Some might find this strange: that, for many of us, our academic interests, geographically-speaking, lie so far from where we live, work, and study. Why, if we’re so invested in learning about the culture of another country, regardless of how far in the past it is, do we not all flock to the UK to study our Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats? The easy answer is that we don’t have to, especially as more and more unpublished and out-of-print manuscripts find their way to online archives and databases.  At the same time, for some scholars, a British education can provide benefits that studying at an American university cannot and vice versa. In this post, I will discuss some of the basic differences between the university systems in these two countries for prospective graduate students who may be considering options beyond their own country.

Drawing on my own experiences studying at the Masters level in both the US and the UK, my observations are, of course, limited to what I know of Lehigh University and the University of Stirling. There will be many exceptions to the systems in which I have participated, just as there are many variations on English or Literature degrees within the same country.  I know the structure of education in Cambridge and Oxford are fairly different from other universities, still deeply embedded in historical tradition.  However, these two universities aside, there are a few basic aspects that seem to consistently differentiate the British from the American experience of graduate (or postgraduate) education.

The US:

Though structures vary, PhD candidates typically take at least two or three semesters of coursework before taking the comprehensive exams, which cover two or three fields of specific study and include both written and oral components. These fields consist of areas in which the student wishes to write but also to teach. During this time, most American universities also require students to fulfill a language requirement in one or two languages in addition to English. Some programs also require a portfolio of writing before the exam process. After taking exams, the student develops a dissertation proposal, after which the student is classified as ABD (all but dissertation) and spends the rest of his or her time completing that dissertation. This typically lasts 2-4 years, bringing the total time spent at the PhD level to 4-6 years (in addition to the one or two years for the Masters degree). Give or take, anyway. Students generally support themselves by teaching one or two composition or literature classes per semester, usually at the introductory level.

The UK:

For the most part, postgraduate study in British universities is condensed in terms of time-commitment, placing more emphasis on writing and professional development than coursework and teaching. The Masters degree typically takes one full year: two semesters of coursework, and a Masters thesis (called the dissertation), which is produced by the end of the following summer. The PhD candidate, or research postgrad, then jumps right into thinking about a dissertation, and part of the application for admission includes a detailed dissertation (or thesis) proposal. The nice part of this, of course, is that there is no language requirement and no comprehensive exams (well, “nice”, depending on how you look at it), though there are similar hurtles throughout the writing process.  The program, then, encourages independent study right from day one. The first semester is spent mostly reading and revising ideas formulated in the proposal, and, at the end of the second semester, the student undertakes a transfer interview, during which he or she presents a piece of written work, including where that piece fits into the larger project, and an extensive literature review (similar in some ways to the comps reading list, from what I understand) that shows where the project will fit into the much larger field. After the transfer interview, the student typically spends an additional two-three years completing the thesis in order to present it to the examiners.  Students support themselves with some teaching, though these opportunities seem to be somewhat limited, depending on the university.

Obviously, there are very strong pros and cons to both of these systems.  In a practical sense, the British experience is much shorter and gets you out into the job market much quicker than the grueling American 7 years. At the same time, however, the practical thorn in all our sides, money, is much easier to come by in American universities, where undergraduates pay exorbitant tuition fees. In British universities, fees are reversed: undergraduates pay comparatively low fees, while postgraduate students pay tuition fees that are still relatively low for British and EU students, though funding opportunities seem less readily available. While full-tuition scholarships are not uncommon, extra stipends are much rarer.  For American students (non-EU), British tuition rates line up more closely to American rates and can be a challenge to cover without the safety net of teaching assistantships and university fellowships. This having been said, both countries have their strengths and weaknesses in particular fields, making the extra time or extra money spent in grad school worth considering.

Especially if you’re working in British literature, there can be obvious benefits to studying in the UK for archival and travel purposes: the ease of public transportation makes it easy to take a day trip to the Edinburgh Writer’s Museum, the Charles Dickens House, or the home of the Bronte sisters. For many of us, studying abroad as undergraduates has allowed us access to some of these places, but I think there is a lot to be said for importance of work environment. Who wouldn’t find writing a dissertation chapter about Northanger Abbey in a coffee shop in Bath a much more enjoyable experience, after all?

Personally, when I was deciding whether or not to return to the United States after completing an MLitt (Master of Letters) at a Scottish university, money ended up being the deciding factor, despite the fact that the UK is years ahead of the US in terms of Gothic Studies. Another consideration I had was a (perhaps masochistic) appreciation for the comprehensive exam process and the expertise it would help me achieve for teaching.  For scholars who plan to specialize more in research than teaching, however, the exams may not hold as much value, and sometimes it can be worth taking out loans if you think you can cover them later. It completely depends on the student and the student’s ultimate career goals.

If you’re currently looking into Masters and Doctoral programs, my advice is, don’t limit yourself to your own country! What works best for you may be found across the pond.

Helpful links:

http://www.prospects.ac.uk/postgraduate_study_1.htm

http://www.internationalstaff.ac.uk/education_in_the_uk.php

http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/postgraduates

On Starting a Reading Group

Once I’d finished my coursework requirements, I found myself really missing the chance to regularly gather with fellow grad students and talk about reading. Studying for exams and writing the dissertation can be isolating experiences.  Some large programs may have a few students studying or writing within similar fields, but smaller programs don’t always have this kind of ready-made specialized community. Even so, it can be refreshing to chat analytically and appreciatively about literature with others, even if that literature is outside your particular interests. Aside from just hanging around the office and asking, “Read any good books lately?” the best way I’ve found to foster this type of discussion is to start and join reading groups.

Planning your group:
Numbers are important. If you put out a call for interest and the entire department wants to sign up, you might want to split off into smaller reading groups with narrower topics. I’ve found that between three and ten members is best for good discussion that allows everyone to participate.  Choose a location that is comfortable and as far from a classroom as you can get: a more informal building on campus, a café or pub, or even someone’s living room.  You’ve all done your time in the classroom, and members will be more likely to show if they don’t feel like someone’s taking attendance. Choosing a day and time when people can feel more relaxed also helps, like a late afternoon after everyone’s taught for the day while still leaving time to do some writing or grading later that night.

There are a number of ways to decide what the group will read.  In some reading groups I’ve joined, a group leader knows the most about the topic and just chooses all the readings. If you don’t like a particular reading, you don’t have to show up that day. There are also more diplomatic ways. In my group, I usually ask for suggestions, make a survey of all the responses, and let the group vote on what they want to read. Sometimes, if someone has a text they’re particularly excited or knowledgeable about, he or she can lead that meeting. For the most part, though, discussion seems to run itself, with perhaps a few back-up questions in case of awkward silences.  In terms of book-length, everyone is usually pretty busy: shorter is better. Short story collections can work really well if the group chooses one or two to read together, letting members read around the rest of the book if they have the time. It also depends on cost. Department or university funding for reading groups is available at some schools, but not all.

When it comes to the meetings themselves, I really try to emphasize an informal atmosphere, as you can see. Not all groups I’ve been in have been like this, though, and there is something to be said for a structured group in the midst of unstructured diss-writing and exam-studying. Shoot for a middle ground: it’s not the neighborhood book club, but it’s not class, either (especially with so many teachers in the room). One thing that will come as no surprise is that grad students are more likely to show up to any event if there’s food and drink involved. Especially if you have a mix of M.A. and PhD. Students, this informal atmosphere can help everyone feel comfortable contributing to conversation and bring their own interests to the table.  You can also do some more creative things like readings of plays/poems or looking at film alongside other texts to make meetings social while still discussing the material. Starting a reading group can help you re-connect with the other scholars in your department, inadvertently bringing out the many different types of reading and discussion that can often be forgotten when you’re doing independent work… while, at the same time, having fun and relaxing with good books, good food, and good people.