Tag Archives: dissertation

Mythologizing the Dissertation

In the spirit of Rousseau, I must confess. I confess that I have always held what is probably a peculiar interest in a rather particular narrative genre. This genre might best be described (perhaps also in the spirit of Rousseau) as “scholarly autobiography.” It is not quite the dissertation, or thesis, itself. Many of us, I’m sure, are already all too familiar with that genre’s idiosyncrasies, conventions, and requirements. In any case, the dissertation properly belongs in the realm of scholarship. Yet, neither is it really the conception, or account, that we all have in our minds of where we see our scholarship positioning us in relation to ongoing conversations with colleagues, or within our field more broadly. Nor is it even how we imagine our work will evolve in the future. Nevertheless, this genre pertains precisely to the dissertation, itself. Moreover, it is a genre that all of us, as graduate students, are deeply invested in. I speak, in particular, of the stories surrounding our dissertations. Often these are autobiographical, but many times they also take on the aspects of history, fiction, even myth: from whence our interests came, how they shaped our decisions to become scholars, and how they continue to guide us along what may well be for many of us our own personal “Quest Romance.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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