All posts by Teresa M. Pershing

A Year of Growth

The passing of a calendar year prompts reflection among many folks, including the NASSR Graduate Student Caucus co-chairs. Looking back, 2014 was a big year for the Caucus.

The NGSC Board doubled in size. After putting out a call for board members, Jake, Laura, and I were overwhelmed at the response. Graduate students at all levels (first year M.A. students to doctoral candidates), enrolled in universities across the country, volunteered their efforts and energy to expand the Caucus. For the first time, the co-chairs and board members met using Google Hangouts. More than twenty-five people participated in the meetings. Many of the ideas and changes that fill the rest of this post are the result of these meetings and the giving, thoughtful folks who make up our Board.

Continue reading A Year of Growth

Comprehensive Exam Preparation

This is my exam semester. When I began my PhD in West Virginia University’s program “exams” existed in an intangible future; now, they are here. No matter the format, no matter the number of texts on your list, the comprehensive exams are one of the legendary hurdles of obtaining a literature PhD. Critical to your success, exams help prepare students to tame the beast that is the dissertation. At various conferences over the past 6 months I’ve discussed exam format with peers from Massachusetts, California, Illinois, Colorado and Oregon—all over the country in a range of programs and concentrations; each institution formats their exams differently. The exam narrative, however, is largely the same: a feeling of dread coupled with excitement about the prospect of reading the materials related to their project for those who have yet to take exams and for those who have completed exams: relief for having them behind them but a knowledge that the dissertation holds its own challenges and intellectual rewards. It is a rite of passage that seemingly few would ever choose to relive. As I’ve prepared for my exams the process has been incredibly educational—not just because I’ve immersed myself in critical discussions regarding the constructions of gender and sexuality in Romantic and Victorian England or varying theorizations of ‘error’ but also because I’ve (re)discovered a great deal about my work process and ability (and sometimes lack thereof) to deal with the anxieties and stresses of examination.

Here are a few things I wish I’d known beforehand or did know, but lost sight of in the process:

1. Keep track of how you spend your time.  One thing I found frustrating about the exams was the absence of tangible progress. Yes, I could cross a book off of the list. Yes, each book I read helped me to further understand what I wanted from my scholarship. Yes, I now have a clearer idea of what kind of book I’d like to publish in the future. All of these things are well and nice but they aren’t very helpful today. Reading and taking notes for your exams can feel like running in place sometimes. I like the tangible outcomes of my work, and I am sure I am not alone. A seminar paper, an article, a presentation, a talk, a curriculum: these are all concrete productions of the work many of us do. The comprehensive exams are disconnected from their outcome: passing the exams, writing the dissertation. To help you see how much work you are doing and how you are spending your time, keep a work log. A spreadsheet in Google Docs is ideal because you can access it anywhere through your Google account. It has been helpful for me to see how many hours I’ve devoted to exam preparation (and to other things like course preparation, grading, publication, conferences, etc.).

2. Letting yourself down is not the same as failing. When I wrote my reading schedule last February my plan was to finish reading by late May. I poorly estimated how much time it would take me to read the texts for my exams; I found the reading process to be different than what I’d experienced in the past. I wasn’t prepared for the additional hours I’d spend taking notes, trying to synthesize the texts and write cogent summaries that would serve to refresh my memory months after completing the book. I couldn’t have known about the reading rut I would hit in April. When I crafted the schedule in February I was enthusiastic about reading 12 books on the history of England from 1789-1850…and the semester had just started. My enthusiasm waned around book 7 and mid-terms distracted me with a seemingly never-ending stack of grading. I didn’t meet my schedule. I had to learn that this was okay. I had plenty of time to finish reading; I had plenty of time to study before my exams. I had not failed (even if I felt like I had). I’ve discovered through this process that while knowledge of the material is certainly important, the knowledge gained regarding my own habits as a worker, reader, writer, teacher, and scholar has equally useful and important value.

3. Help yourself avoid distraction. When I first started reading I found myself wandering down various research paths inspired by my materials. Rather than finishing a chapter I would investigate a footnote or, curious about a possible gap in research, look for scholarship on the topic. In other words, I would find seemingly productive (even tangentially related) ways to pass the time without actually working on the task at hand (finishing the book, preparing for the exams). About half way through Susan Wolfson’s Borderlines, the third book I read for my exams, I decided to keep a “Distraction Relocation” journal. It is a just a spiral bound notebook but in it are all of the questions and future projects that I’ve identified during my exam reading. Rather than finding all of the scholarship on errata sheets, a distraction I full-heartedly considered while reading Seth Lerer’s Error and the Academic Self, I jotted down a note about how it might be interesting to investigate how errata sheets were used in Romantic print practices (and whether their use differed between literary periods). The thoughts I’ve labeled here as ‘distractions’ are important and I’m certain that at least two things that made it into my “Distraction Relocation” notebook will find a place in my dissertation project. My notebook helped me to keep track of these thoughts without allowing them to derail my progress.

4. Stay in touch with your community. During exam preparation it can be easy to excuse hermit-like behavior. Fight against the impulse to hole up in your office or house; instead, stay in touch with your community. Do not feel guilty for spending time at lunch with friends. Keep in contact with your director(s) and mentor(s). Talk to people about the process and find out what works/worked for others.

5. Find healthy ways to release the stress and pressure of exams. Exams can cut off your social life if you let them; they can also be a catalyst to putting you at the bottom of your to-do list. It can be easy to excuse poor health habits because you are so busy: skipping out on your exercise routine, foregoing fresh food choices for easier, quicker options. I learned to love running as I prepared for my exams. It gave me a place to clear my mind, to release any of my anger, frustration and anxiety, and reminded me that exams are not everything (which can be a difficult thing to remember in the middle of the process).

6. Schedule the exams. Concrete dates on your calendar and on the calendars of your committee are an effective way to keep yourself in check. The earlier you do this the better, for at least two reasons: 1) Once the dates are set you can’t go back, motivating you to stay on schedule, and 2) Your committee members have busy schedules; the earlier you schedule your exams the more availability they will have.

7. Your committee is on your side. You have selected a group of people to support you and your project, to provide feedback and offer critical suggestions to improve your scholarship. They are all rooting for you; they want to see you succeed.

I’m sure there are other things that should be added to this list. What do you wish you knew about the comprehensive exam experience before you took/take them? Do you have any bits of wisdom to share?

What Does This Mean: Unanswered Questions about the Evolution of ‘Performance’

During the Performance Seminar at NASSR 2011 Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood gave presentations which resulted in fervent discussion about performance in the Romantic period and the development and growth of Romanticism(s). As the seminar continued those in the room engaged in a conversation about where performance studies is going (in and out of Romanticism); ultimately, the question was posed about just how valuable ‘performance’ is as a term, but I could hardly re-present those perspectives here. So, I’m left with my own reflection on the conversation.

I left the seminar wondering about particular facets of the conversation and spent some time since the seminar questioning ‘performance’ as a term; as I continued to work through my summer reading list I found performance to be central to many authors’ arguments. The discussion at NASSR (and my reading since then) left me asking, “Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Has the term lost its value and poignancy precisely because the field of study has expanded beyond those literal performances of the stage?”

I assure you, I do not have an answer. Instead, my hope here is to leave you asking as well, to share some of this blogger’s thinking following a NASSR seminar, and perhaps to continue the conversation that began in Park City (as there are numerous other ways to define and theorize performance beyond what I mention below).

When I arrived home from Park City I read Donald Hall’s Reading Sexualities: Hermeneutic theory and the future of queer studies; in his introduction, Hall summarizes Judith Butler’s “implication of individual agency in changing sexual and gender norms through disruptive performances” (10). He writes,

In [Gender Trouble], Butler argues famously that the specific critical and political task that her politically engaged readers should assume is to locate sites for subversion, ‘to affirm the local possibilities of intervention through participating in precisely those practices of repetition that constitute identity and, therefore, present the immanent possibility of contesting them’ (Butler 1999:188). She issued a call to arms, suggesting that gender parodies (such as drag) and other disruptive social performances might work to create a better world for queers. (Hall 11)

Lady Gaga as Jo Calderone @ the 2011 VMAs: Image from Getty Images at MTV.com

In other words, by removing the theater from ‘performance,’ Butler linked activism and the academy—she made an intellectual “call to action” which resounded beyond (and simultaneously within) the academic community, including within “social-action groups such as Queer Nation” (Hall 11). (Though, as Hall points out, Butler “backtracked quickly” just three years later in Bodies that Matter, disclaiming the political potency of parody and subversive performance [12].) No matter where Butler stands on the usefulness of her theorization, what is most valuable is Butler’s definition of ‘performance’ locatable in the every day—the unconscious and involuntary. I’ve found that thinking about and teaching social constructivism through performance—by discussing everyday life as a form of theater, by expanding the definition of ‘audience’ to those with whom we interact within our educational institutions, workplaces, and shopping malls—is quite useful for me and particularly accessible for my students. I do wonder if I could teach social constructivism without talking about performance in this way. Even if I could, would my students or I benefit from it? Why does this approach seem to resonate with students? To some degree, this notion of ‘performance’ is individually empowering.  Knowing that the way one acts out one’s life has an immediate effect on the ‘audience’ can lead to a shift in thinking about interpersonal communication—even if one accepts that these performances are involuntary and never has the idea or intention of purposefully manipulating self-performance.  This type of ‘performance’ helps some students understand that they can have agency over their performances and, to some degree, the ways that audiences receive those performances. For example, if they want to be perceived as a hard-worker they begin to act like a hard-worker, which is difficult to do without actually working hard. I think my students are willing to consider social constructivism this way because it helps them understand something more about themselves and the way they are seen in the world. (It also resonates with the materialist culture they are familiar with; after teaching  Susan Alexander’s “Stylish Hard Bodies: Branded Masculinity in Men’s Health Magazine  it became clear that the students in my Popular American culture course fully grasp this “You are what you buy” definition of ‘performance.’) However, in many ways this definition is limitless. It becomes possible to think of everything and anything as a performance. If everything is performance we (literary and cultural studies communities, those of us at the NASSR Performance Seminar) begin to question just how useful performance is, and for good reason, I think.

Even if we wanted to, could we go back to a pre-Butler definition of performance? I’m not sure that we could, though we can certainly limit the ways that we use the term to understand the histories and cultures which interest us. Kristina Straub employs a definition of performance which bridges the space between the performances of the theater and the every day. In Domestic Affairs: Intimacy, Eroticism, and Violence between Servants and Masters in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Straub “draws from performance theory, as developed by critics such as Joseph Roach” (111); her analysis in the chapter “Performing the Manservant, 1730 to 1760” includes “performances of masculinity” that “occur on both the London stage—in the dramatic characters of footmen—and in the theater audience’s sometime violent contention between these servants and their ‘betters’” (112).  Straub’s theorization of ‘performance’ “stresses the social formation of masculine gender and sexuality through repeated, publicly visible behaviors in the theater, ones that resonate with changing power relations that were more broadly played out in society” (Straub 111). This definition articulates a critical link between the stage and Main Street (so to speak); it organically connects the performances of both locations and again emphasizes the stage as a way of reading and understanding part(s) of the culture at large. It doesn’t limit the stage to a re-presentation of what is going on within larger cultural systems but makes cultural phenomena more visible to the audience/reader.

Straub’s definition offers a way of seeing the connection between the beginnings of ‘performance’ and its evolution into a concept that shapes a large number of identity fields.  With this evolution in mind, I find it difficult to restrict ‘performance’ to the study of drama. The performances taking place on the stage at my local theater are certainly not the same as those taking place in my classroom; however, understanding one paradigm has helped me to understand the other. Through its expanded purview, performance theory leads to tangible shifts in the discourse(s) of identity politics and births intellectual work that expands the fields of literary and cultural studies in productive ways. Has ‘performance’ become too broad? Perhaps it has, but I speculate that this broadness is a reflection of theoretical usefulness. ‘Performance’ isn’t a term devoid of value and poignancy; on and off the stage it has reshaped the ways that we think about identities, bodies, languages, and rituals for (at least) the last twenty years.

*Thank you to presenters Jeffrey Cox and Gillen D’Arcy Wood, moderator Angela Esterhammer, and all of the audience members who contributed to such a thought-provoking conversation!

The Myth of Summer Vacation

This time of year I am regularly regarded by my friends and family outside of academia as someone who is “off for the summer.” In my imagination, someone who is off for the summer gets a tan from working or playing in the yard during the day, kicks back on her front porch to enjoy a refreshing iced tea with her favorite lazy reading, takes her dog for hikes, and has the time to organize her closets and rid her house of the things that she hasn’t used since who knows when (and promptly takes them to the local Goodwill or Salvation Army to prevent further consideration). I often find myself frustrated when others imply that my job as a graduate teaching assistant affords me this sort of luxury. On the other hand, I recognize how fortunate I am to be away from the office for three months or so (that is, if I am not teaching a summer course or finding some other office to call home for a brief stint). If doing so is financially feasible, I do not have to teach a single class or report to the office for meetings until August; unquestionably, this is a privilege—a privilege that few fields offer.

Recent discussions here at the NGSC blog regarding the potential for academics to constantly be “on the clock” have me thinking about the relationship between work and summer (thanks Brittany Pladek!). Despite the seemingly popular notion that we all spend our summers “off,” as Kelli Towers Jasper pointed out, summer often means finding a way to pay the bills. We graduate students work odd jobs, pick up a summer class, tutor at Barnes and Noble and the local library, offer our skills at summer camps and so on. In fact, summer often means forcing ourselves to stick to a schedule even more stringent and demanding than that of the fall or spring semesters. We must find time to earn a(nother) living, continue our research, write a blog/article/chapter, plan for our fall courses, and the list goes on. This doesn’t seem to be exclusive to contingent faculty and graduate students, though; for full-time faculty the summer offers the chance to work on their own research and spend time away from the seemingly constant pile of undergraduate and graduate marking.

I recently crafted my summer reading schedule and found myself looking at a list of things I “must read by September,” rather than a list of things I’ve been hoping to read since…well, I can’t even remember. Here again emerges (at least the potential for) the always-working, always-on-the-clock academic. So, NGSC readers, I wonder, can we “clock out” just a bit this summer? Do the summer months afford you time away from the office, so to speak? If so, how do you spend your time?

Organizing 2,350 Minutes

For every single 3-credit course I teach each semester I spend approximately 2,350 minutes in front of the classroom. Like most of you, before I even step foot in the classroom or meet a single student,  I sit down with an assortment of desk copies—anthologies, novels and the like—and try to decide on the content of those 2,350 minutes. Before I meet my students, learn anything about their interests or goals, I must guess at what materials will interest them and help maintain active thinking and discussion throughout the 16-week semester. As the end of the spring semester approaches and I prepare for my fall course assignment, I find myself once again asking, “What does it take to plan a course? What principles guide the choices we make? How do we, as educators and students, decide what to include and what must be forsaken in the interest of time, depth and focus?”

When I received my Spring 2011 course assignment in November 2010, I was utterly elated; my assignment was English 262: British Literature II (1789-present), the latter portion of two British literature surveys taught at West Virginia University. I was wrapping up the last few weeks of English 261 (beginnings-1789), which had gone better than I expected: the texts I selected were of interest to my students and a narrative about performance and “Englishness” emerged through the texts creating thought-provoking, intellectually invigorating discussions for my students and me. (My students claimed to love the metaphysical poets…I was shocked!) The text selections for 261 successfully produced a dialogue amongst my students in ways that I could not have anticipated. (I can’t take credit for this; I had a group of students who were willing to challenge one another’s ideas in the interest of a deeper, more detailed understanding of the texts. If not for this attitude in my students, the course might have been an entirely different experience for all of us.) Because of the successes (and lessons learned) in 261, I felt confident in my ability to plan a successful version of 262; plus, I had an organizing principle: selfhood! I could not wait for the calm of winter break to organize a syllabus bursting with texts in which my soon-to-be students and I could trace the construction of the self (a national self, a Seigelian self, etc.) in Romantic, Victorian, and Modern British literatures.

As I flipped through the pages of various anthologies in mid-December, I realized I had an unexpected problem (a desirable problem, I’d say): teaching 262 meant that I was more familiar with the vast selection of texts. I hadn’t felt this way when planning most of English 261, particularly the Middle Ages unit which began the course (as the Romantic unit would in 262). I was less connected to the texts in 261, unlike the texts for 262 which are on my mind regularly. Wollstonecraft, Hemans, Keats, Wordsworth, Coleridge (to name just a few) all have a place in what makes me passionate about Romantic literature. I glanced through the list of names and works in the anthology’s table of contents and wondered how I could possibly give my students everything they’d need to be “good” English scholars in a single semester. Could I, in good conscience, skip Lord Byron in favor of Joanna Baillie? The part of me which reacts against the traditional canon screamed, “Yes! Of course!” while undergraduate me, who ached for knowledge of “the classics” and sought out courses which prepared for me the GREs (since I had hopes for graduate school) urged me to keep Byron. All of a sudden, the weight of literary history was on my shoulders; I felt like it was my responsibility to show my students why the Romantic, Victorian and Modern periods were worthy of their attention and reflection. I created one reading list and then another but found myself asking the same question each time: How can I select (and ignore) particular texts for a course which claims to survey the Romantic, Victorian, and Modern periods? What makes for a “good” survey course? I began to question selfhood as my course theme and considered abandoning the project.

I learned the hard way (while teaching 261) that many of the undergraduate students find British literature un-relatable and prefer the offerings focused on American literature. I was baffled by this division—how could students write-off an entire literary canon? Then, I realized: American literature is more popular because students are better able to connect with it! They view American literature as part of their selfhood—whether they articulate it in such a way or not, reading the literary history of their nation means something to them. It helps them understand who they are (as Americans, as future fiction/poetry/nonfiction writers, as American literary scholars). I had to find a way to make British literature relevant in the same ways without devaluing the separate (yet connected) British identity it helps to articulate. It seemed that “selfhood” might be a way in after all– a way to make the connections I was so desperately seeking.  I returned to the anthology’s table of contents and selected a list of texts I thought would help place American and British literatures in dialogue with one another–hoping to show my students that understanding one aids your understanding of the other. I then narrowed that list with “selfhood” in mind. As I stared at that list I again began to question my choices: Are these the texts that students want to read? Am I selecting texts that I am comfortable and familiar with because I am comfortable and familiar with them? Does this reading list prepare my classroom of English and English education majors for the exams many of them will take to continue on their career paths (PRAXIS, GRE)?

As teachers (and lovers of literature) we want to give our students all we can but sometimes doing so is just overwhelming (for them and us). If I forced Coleridge and Wordsworth into the same 50 minute class meeting, students would be introduced to both authors but would likely miss the depth each author’s works have to offer. In organizing our courses each semester we are forced to decide whose interests will shape the course. If we choose our own interests and the texts we prefer, then our students are likely to learn more about those particular authors and texts; our familiarity with the texts means we bring a deeper understanding to the classroom (as we will 10 years from now with a vast selection of texts [after we’ve taught a few surveys]). If we select texts that are only of interest to students then it is likely that we’ll overlook cornerstones of English literature; for example, few of my students would choose Felicia Hemans (if they’ve even heard of her). Most of us seem to find a middle ground; we teach the authors we love alongside the authors we wish we could skip right over in order to provide exposure to the various voices which compose the British literary canon and to allow our students to form their own opinions about the value(s) of such voices (politically, historically, aesthetically, etc.).

By using selfhood as an organizing theme for English 262, I made a decision about the focus of the course; there is a plethora of other themes (or lack of themes) which I could have selected. However, this particular theme fit my goals for the semester (which included showing students that British and American literatures are connected and can offer them insight into understanding themselves). Not only do we have to select which texts we’ll teach, but we must also decide which themes (or theoretical framing devices) will shape the way we teach those texts. No matter what we wish we could do, it is impossible to do it all; in a single semester we can’t offer all there is to know about genre, psychoanalysis, feminism, queerness, narrative, form, etc. in relation to the texts we finally decide to include in a syllabus. Oftentimes, class discussion in English 262 ignores selfhood entirely in favor of debate about how much we trust a narrative voice or what a particular lines or phrase “means.” More often, my students begin discussion with their ideas about the role of class, nationality, race, religion, gender, and so on in a text and by the end of said discussion, they’ve linked those ideas to selfhood. Theming English 262 has not limited how my students read literature; instead, it has enabled them to connect the various ideas their peers have about a text to a concept they are all comfortable with. It has allowed them to see literature as multi-faceted and empowered them to bring their own readings to the classroom. Our best hope as educators, as course planners, is to spend 2,350 minutes inciting our students’ desire to know more, to read closer, to take risks, and to learn to love various literatures and voices!

Bankrolling Education

I began my first post as a member of this blogging community as a reflection on course organization, but as the week progressed it has been impossible to ignore some of the larger issues facing higher education—Romanticists and non-Romanticists, faculty and students, graduate and undergraduate students alike. Public institutions around the nation are asking if they will have state support next year—support that (although less substantive than it was in the past) most state colleges and universities rely on.

Faculty members at various state institutions have made a stand this week, protesting the massive state budget cuts affecting education. For example, as reported by Slippery Rock University’s newspaper, The Rocket , students and faculty at Pennsylvania State School of Higher Education’s Slippery Rock University rallied together in protest of the proposed 51.4% budget cut. Meanwhile, in New York, thirty-three people were arrested during a non-violent protest. The proposed budget cuts in New York will reduce the budget of CUNY’s senior colleges by $95.1 million and community colleges by $17.5 million. Why should we all be concerned with the finances of these state institutions, you ask? Well, because these seemingly isolated incidents help to create a narrative about the importance of education in America. Educational funding is often framed as party politics or treated as an investment in some imagined future (raising/teaching the next generation, forming a future America). Perhaps those are both true but as a graduate student who learns with and teaches nearly 150 students a year, I’m most interested in how such changes dictate who is and is not able to attend college. State (and federal) funding opens or closes the doors of higher education for many Americans. If states’ education budgets are slashed in the ways proposed, universities must find a way to stay in the black. Who will bear the burden? How will our classrooms be affected by such changes, if at all?

I was recently asked a set of questions meant to provoke interesting material for a banquet introduction. One of the questions asked, “If you could rid the world of one thing, what would it be?” I thought through all of the typical answers: violence, bigotry, misogyny, hunger and disease. I even considered the entirely selfish answers: deadlines and comprehensive exams. In the end I decided my answer was college debt. Not only because I’d love to relieve my credit report of this particular burden but because I believe that education should be accessible for those of us who would like to learn. Education should come at a price—the loss of ignorance, some serious intellectual exercise– but it seems unjust that the cost of education should be a lifetime of debt. Many of us excuse such debt by calling it “good debt,” but deep down we know there is no such thing. If college loan debt were good debt then it wouldn’t prevent my cousin from qualifying for a home loan, especially since he works a full-time job that he is qualified for because of his college education; but that isn’t the case, he cannot buy his first home because his educational debts make it impossible for him to do so (and he attended a relatively low-cost state institution). The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reported on the Pell program, which provides “need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education” (which means that unlike loans, they do not have to be repaid). Even though the Pell program, through Congress’s continued support, has been able to

keep up with both inflation and a surge of new college students…low-income undergraduates are actually much worse off than equivalent students were 30 years ago. A student without a Pell Grant in 1980 paid less out of pocket to attend a public four-year university than a student with a Pell Grant pays today. That’s because between then and now, the cost of higher education has grown far faster than inflation. As a result, the federal government has gone from bit player to major investor in the educational part of higher education, to the point that it’s starting to rival states in the magnitude of support.

As state budget cuts continue, the reliance on federal support—through programs like Pell, FAFSA, and so on—will increase (as will educational debt). Students will be forced to make difficult choices about the financial viability of education. Whether we are (graduate) students and/or teachers at state funded universities or not, it is important that we advocate for education’s financial accessibility. None of this is new to those of us who annually navigate(d) those annoying, tax-like FAFSA forms in order to pay tuition bills. Even more familiar and heartbreaking are the pleas from students, “I just need a B in your course or I lose my (often state or federally supported) scholarship!” Robert Reich’s recent article might best summarize the importance of education, “Over the long term, the only way we’re going to raise wages, grow the economy, and improve American competitiveness is by investing in our people — especially their educations.” The ways that our governments approach, support, and finance education does and will continue to shape our classrooms.

Finally, hello! I am Teresa Pershing, another new NGSC blogger. I’m a proud member of the Mountaineer (West Virginia University) community and am happy to spend the next several months learning with all of you!