Tag Archives: dissertation

The Inescapable Wordsworth

My dissertation began as an attempt to distill a current of Romantic writing that has no use for the elegiac or the morbid—a Romanticism indifferent to death. I wanted to dilate moments that seemed to stray from the program of what Frances Ferguson called Wordsworth’s epitaphic mode—a mode of remembrance that Paul de Man recast as the figural anticipation of death. My suspicion was that the coherence of Romanticism as the object of literary history relied, at least in part, on the fetishization of death. (I place this argument in a broader historical context here).

There is of course plenty of morbidity in Romantic-period writing (and eighteenth-century writing, and Restoration writing, to say nothing of Victorian writing…), but I hoped to show that death was by no means as essential or decisive for the period as literary history sometimes suggests. At core, I was imagining a Romanticism without Wordsworth—at least without the Wordsworth who was christened by Matthew Arnold the “English Orpheus.” Though the reception of Wordsworth’s engagement with death would shift from the Excursive Wordsworth of the Victorians to the Preludial Wordsworth of the twentieth century, the centrality of elegy and epitaph persisted. (Remarks on Wordsworth and elegy, and also James Bond, here.) So I was going to try to read Wordsworth out of Romantic-period writing. In the space I would clear by evicting Wordsworth, I wanted to sketch an alternative history in miniature that, I hoped, would be truer to the multifariousness of the period in its thinking—and not thinking—about death.

Midway through my dissertation’s journey, it occurs to me that it is a strange thing to build a project around an anti-topic. Such a project may find itself with no topic at all, or, even more ominously, it may find itself defined by the very topos it set out to undo. The result is so predictable that I am certain I must have desired it from the outset: Wordsworth and his epitaphic mode, in its most canonical instances, have steadily colonized my dissertation.

Continue reading The Inescapable Wordsworth

Brief Cuts: Epitaph Guidebooks

Brief Cuts: material that’s been cut from a dissertation chapter! 

During the 18th century, the epitaph was a malleable genre that performed several functions: it appeared on actual gravestones, but was also used in satirical verses by writers such as Alexander Pope. The epitaph was so popular, and so free-form, that writers began to compose guidebooks on how to compose the perfect epitaph (these guides resemble the epistolary guidebooks that inspired Samuel Richardson’s Pamela). One such guide is Samuel Johnson’s essay on “Pope’s Epitaphs,” reprinted in his Life of Pope. A more compendious volume, capturing the free-form nature of the epitaph, is John Bowden’s guidebook on the form, The Epitaph-Writer (1791). In this text, Bowden uses didactic epitaphs as models: Continue reading Brief Cuts: Epitaph Guidebooks

Brief Cuts: Romantic Hairstyles

Brief Cuts: material that’s been cut from a dissertation chapter! 

We can see how the interplay between post-Revolutionary politics, madness, and gender coalesced in day-to-day life by examining the semiotics of Romantic-era women’s hair.

English hairstyles after the Revolution had multiple meanings: loose, unpowdered hair meant democratic reform, while wigs carried conservative, aristocratic associations, and quickly went out of vogue. A short haircut, “in sympathetic imitation of victims’ hair before they were guillotined,” signified an informed protest against the Revolution. Continue reading Brief Cuts: Romantic Hairstyles

From Perish to Publish: Writing with Papers and Scrivener

I recently started writing my dissertation. Although it’s an exciting stage of my program, when I think of the daunting task ahead of me, I often think of Cowper’s “The Castaway.” We scholars are castaways ourselves, “wretches” writing and struggling alone, drowning in piles of papers and stacks of books.

One of the most daunting challenges so far has been figuring out the logistics of how to organize–and actually write–a research project of this scale. Since I imagine many of us are facing similar challenges organizing research and writing tasks, I’m outlining some strategies that I’ve found helpful so far.

Continue reading From Perish to Publish: Writing with Papers and Scrivener

Hacking Non-Romanticism Teaching Assignments

It’s almost March. The time of year (at least in my department) that we get our teaching assignments for the fall semester. Many of us greatly look forward to this, especially if it’s our first time teaching our own courses: there’s something intoxicating about finally getting to design your own class. The possibilities are endless.

Until you read the course description of the class you’ve been assigned.

Continue reading Hacking Non-Romanticism Teaching Assignments

The Resonance of the Veil: Some Thoughts about Methodology

For most of my academic career, I didn’t think much about methodology. I read, I think, I write (and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite). This changed when I took an introductory Digital Humanities course, a survey of digital tools and methods. My biggest takeaway from this course (other than that computers are frustrating) was that methodology affects not only the results of research, but also the way we think about our data and the types of questions we ask. This not a new idea for many scholars, I know, but for those of us used to the read-think-write strategy, it bears thinking about.

Continue reading The Resonance of the Veil: Some Thoughts about Methodology

Sleep, Dreams, and Poetry

Endymion is one of the funniest heroes in Romantic poetry, mainly because he is so frequently fainting and falling asleep. He sleeps so often that I struggle to separate his waking and sleeping, a common problem for Keats that I want to talk about in this post. I have written previously about shared feeling and cognition, and dreaming is a particularly interesting case study for these topics, I think.

Let me catch you up to the ideas I’ve been toying with for my dissertation. I have come to believe that for Keats communion across time and space is enabled by acts of reading and the shared feelings reading encourages. Feelings circulate, via a text, among the bodies engaged in acts of reading (or other aesthetic experiences), and feeling is always an embodied cognitive experience. Therefore communion is realized (not just imagined) in the embodiment of transferred or circulated affect, a reactivation or revitalization of feelings in the moment of reading. From these assumptions, I begin my study of sleep and dreams. Continue reading Sleep, Dreams, and Poetry

Trick yourself into productivity: the best technologies to keep you focused

‘Tis the season—to become a crazy hermit living under a pile of blankets and books as a tangle of charging cords threatens to spill your very full coffee mug or wine glass (or both, no judgment) onto your laptop. The worst time of the school semester is upon us as the holidays collide with final deadlines. Student grades need to be finalized and seminar papers written, all while family and friends  inundate you with invitations to various shenanigans. Personally, this is the time of year where I struggle to get everything done while still enjoying the holiday cheer and remaining sane. So I have compiled a list of the best technologies tested by yours truly to help you reach your deadlines, whatever they may be. Good luck! Continue reading Trick yourself into productivity: the best technologies to keep you focused

Rethinking Workspace

My husband got a new job as a software developer, and right now he’s working from home. I have found in the short time since he took this new position that we cannot both work from home at the same time. The work environment he cultivates to be productive does not jive with my own. I like to work from my couch, preferably with a dog or two sleeping next to me. I like to have the television on but muted, and the front windows open to let in natural light. My husband works in the adjacent room, our office, with two computer screens in front of him, listening to the comedy station on Pandora and holding videoconferences with his development team intermittently throughout the day. My threshold for how many stand up routines I can endure is severely low, I must admit. So in the last month, I have been transitioning to an on-campus work routine. Continue reading Rethinking Workspace

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”?