Tag Archives: writing process

Interview with Atesede Makonnen

 

Atesede Makonnen is the winner of the 2017 NASSR Graduate Student Paper Prize. She is starting her second year as an English PhD student at Johns Hopkins University (MA in Shakespeare Studies, King’s College London, BA, Dartmouth College). Her research examines performance and race. Her winning paper will be published in the conference issue of European Romantic Review.

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What does a Romantic Classroom Look Like?

Reflections, questions, & forum for response.

The dawn of another academic year always comes with a slew of first year Teaching Assistants. Graduate students must now stand up in front of the classroom and, if any of them are like me, spend more time reflecting on their own learning processes than ever before in their academic life. Like so many gradate TAs I don’t have the option to choose which courses or syllabus to teach, but rather am assigned courses that vary between English Composition 100 and Intro to Literature. I’m not complaining as each opportunity provides the space to learn a new topic that otherwise might have slipped my academic history.

Continue reading What does a Romantic Classroom Look Like?

From the Fireplace to the Furnace: Journal Publishing from a Graduate Student’s Perspective

From the Fireplace to the Furnace: Journal Publishing from a Graduate Student’s Perspective

Devoney Looser’s recent article on journal publishing for graduate students and early-career scholars is as funny as it is informative. I certainly have fallen victim to imagining journal editors as either angels singing hymns of praise while reading my work or devils condemning my work and me to the furnace of eternal hellfire. As Professor Looser reminds us, however, editors are people—ones who sit at sometimes overcrowded desks rather than at fireplaces, and who do their best to balance the (far too often thankless) job of journal editor with myriad other professional and personal duties.

Continue reading From the Fireplace to the Furnace: Journal Publishing from a Graduate Student’s Perspective

“My Arcadia” and Romantic Creation in America’s Midwest

On a recent visit to the Chazen Art Museum located on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus I stumbled across a literal cabinet of curiosities. Sculptor Martha Glowacki’s mixed media sculpture titled “My Arcadia”, composed in 2000 [pictured below] is an eerie dark wood Victorian inspired cabinet of fifteen drawers and opening at the top that holds three plants preserved in smoky graphite. Viewers are welcomed to open each drawer, and when they do they might react on a scale of disgust to delight in seconds. Continue reading “My Arcadia” and Romantic Creation in America’s Midwest

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

Academic Writing & Emotigifs

We’ve all seen them.

Animated gif images, image macros, and memes on academic writing. You know the ones, like this:

“When a friend asks how the dissertation is going”
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Or, similarly,

“When someone asks you how the diss is going”
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There are even those created for inspiration, such as the “Shouldn’t You Be Writing?” meme.
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Whether we admit it or not,
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Even something as simple as finalizing a topic for this blog post, trying to decide on something that would benefit this community, was an enormous task. While I knew I wanted to discuss writing, that’s still a very broad topic. Should I write on the differences between writing to be read silently, such as for a journal article, or aloud, like a conference paper? What about whether we should include digital writing (ex. tweets, blog posts) on our curricula vitae? Tips on learning to write new genres like proposal abstracts and statements of philosophy? Is it okay to tweet about conference presentations? What about my own lessons in writing from that initial graduate course on “Writing for Publication,” to the various workshops I’ve attended and organized on writing for publication? How about the costs of writing perfectionism? Soon I realized that all of these topics share a common theme: struggling with the writing process itself.

Writing about the writing process also meant I could throw a mini gif party with all these writing related image macros and animated gifs I’ve been accumulating on Pinterest. Because let’s face it, these little animated gifs convey a strong, multimodal rhetorical message.  Scholars who study the linguistics of internet language have argued that emotigifs, hashtags, “Tumblr speak,” doge speak, etc. are all powerful language tools that help us communicate in more complex and nuanced ways than simple text or emoticons can. In the case of the academic writing genre of emotigifs, they express – in a highly creative and immediate way – that academic writing requires wrangling thought and idea into words on a screen (or page, if you prefer) that, with a great deal of work, combine into a persuasive and engaging argument. As Kerry Ann Rockquemore wrote in her article “Writing and Procrastination,” “The truth is that the road from the spark of a new idea to the submission of an article, grant proposal, or book manuscript is a long and winding path.

We get distracted

“The sort of progress I make on my paper when I read Buzzfeed instead”
AcademicCats-11Aug2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We get frustrated:

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Then there are the times “when we think we’ve finally trouble-shooted the essay”
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but then need to go back to the drawing board.

And those (hopefully rare) occasions when we worry about
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But despite all the frustration depicted above, it’s not all bad. In fact, there are some days when we just want to cry out 

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And remember “that thing you’re writing is awesome.” Tom Hiddleston said so.
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Monica Boyd
19th Century Colloquium
Arizona State University

Interview: Dr. Judith Page and Dr. Elise Smith

Dr. Judith Page and Dr. Elise Smith’s article, “Writing a Book Together,” featured in The Chronicle of Higher Education, documents their experience working on Women, Literature, and the Domesticated Landscape: England’s Disciples of Flora, 1780-1870 across the disciplines and across several states. Page and Smith explain that from the beginning, they had two objectives: To bring together the disciplines of art history and English, and to find a topic that would yoke their “mutual love of gardening.” These two goals resulted in their brilliant argument, that “gardens provided women with a new language and authority to negotiate between domestic space and the larger world,” while it simultaneously “offered expanded possibilities that re-centered domesticity outward” (2).

Page and Smith’s friendship is partially rooted in gardening. In fact, one of Page’s first memories of their friendship is planting her first vegetable garden with Smith and her children. “Our children were also friends,” Page says. “They grew up together and thought of her as a second mother, so it made sense for us to want to do a book together.” In this way, Page and Smith’s book is more than a well-researched, fascinating study of women and gardens; it is a carefully constructed document between friends.

INTERVIEWER

How did you initially meet?

PAGE

We met each other as faculty members at a small liberal arts college, Millsaps College, where Elise still teaches. I taught for a long time until I moved to the University of Florida. I loved the kind of collaborations that can occur at a liberal arts college because you really are very connected to people in other departments […] We became good friends and realized that we shared a lot of interests. At first, we actually team taught together. […] We taught a couple classes on images of women in art and literature. We went from very early images through the twentieth century and mostly focused on European art.

SMITH

It was a big change for the two of us because although we already had a lot of teaching experience, at that point, it was always just us in our own classes, me, as an art historian, and her, as a literary historian. […] Thinking about women was the baseline for what brought us together from our various fields. Those courses were such fun to teach. I think it was marvelous for the students to have a way to see alternative perspectives, not just in what they read, but in seeing us with our different viewpoints there in the classroom. That really helped later when we came up with this idea of writing a book together. It was an important foundation for us in terms of thinking collaboratively.

INTERVIEWER

How was this project similar to or different from your other collaborative processes?

PAGE

I would say that the project is different from the collaborative project of teaching together because when you teach a course together, you have to sit down and shape the course and perhaps make changes as you go along. When you’re writing a book together, you really have to read the work, collaborate, change it, revise for each other, and we found that process worked really well. People joked with us and said, “You’re such close friends. Are you still friends after writing a book together?”

INTERVIEWER

How did you come up with your idea?

PAGE

I think it moved from that very early amorphous images of women to something that was much more specifically grounded in the garden and what we might be able to do with that […] I don’t remember what actually sparked the initial idea except our love for the garden and our interest in writing a feminist piece on the garden and our interest in women artists and writers, so it all just came together. […] This was after I had left Millsaps. I’ve been at the University of Florida for 13 years. We both had finished book projects. I had finished my book on Romanticism and Judaism and she had finished a book on the Victorian painter, Evelyn De Morgan, which was her first piece of work in the 19th century.

SMITH

One of the advantages of us not living in the same town anymore is that we’ve got a lot of emails that relate to the project. One dates back to August, 2003. I had written Judy an email at 1:16 in the morning. I started by saying that I had been trying to get to sleep and just wasn’t able to because my mind was full of thoughts about this book that we had begun to think about. Initially, we had been thinking very broadly and loosely about something relating to gardens and landscape issues in the 19th century.

In this middle of the night email that I sent to Judy, I was sort of moaning about this article that I was working on about Gainsborough […] and I said what was really getting me a lot more excited was the thought of working with her on 19th century women gardeners or rather women and gardens, since some of the women might not necessarily be gardeners themselves […] She responded that same night at 2:51 AM, which is kind of bizarre. And she said, “This is so strange because I’m sleepless in Gainesville and decided to get up with hot milk, dry cereal, and a computer check. I love the idea of focusing on women and gardens although we might find that pushing back in the 19th century could be interesting too.”

The time framing of the book—that may have been one of the hardest things for us to figure out, because, of course, there was only a certain amount that we could do. But, any time we got ourselves a tentative beginning and ending date, one of us would kind of stretch an elbow out and say “Oh, but you know, if we just go ten years further or ten years earlier, I could include such and such.” It really was not until late in the writing process that we finally settled on the framing device that we had.  I think it was, in part, some of the frustration that both of us felt at having to leave out some of the later 19th century stuff that got us going on our second project that we’re working on now.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us more about working between the disciplines? Within “Writing a Book Together,” you touch upon the clash of verb tenses and working together to achieve a seamless writing voice–a “we” rather than an “I”.  What were some of your other struggles or victories? How did you approach them?

PAGE

We found it a very congenial process and almost always took each other’s criticism and felt that it was right. We’re coming from different disciplines. Elise is a trained art historian. I’m trained, of course, in English. […] There really were some funny moments in sharing our work where we would see different conventions that would guide us. For instance, in my previous books that were not collaborations with Elise, I had illustrations, and some of the illustrations were what she might consider to be decorative. In other words, I did not engage the illustration in the text. Elise’s ground rule was if you have an illustration in the book, you have to engage with it in the text. Of all the 75+, or however many it turned out, nothing was just gratuitous. We talked about each one of them. There was a purpose for having them. That is something that I really had not thought about before. When I wrote my book about Wordsworth and women, I had illustrative illustrations […] and I didn’t necessarily engage them. […] Some of the pictures of the home places I did talk about, but I didn’t have such a strict guideline that I was working with. I liked it. It makes a lot of sense and it’s a good way to justify the illustrations to your publisher.

SMITH

I was also particularly concerned about being sure that we incorporated images in all of the chapters, not just in the chapters that I was working on, and that we incorporated them in what I thought was a substantive rather than a relatively cursory or merely illustrative way. I wanted significant analysis as much as possible to be done with all of the images, rather than just having them there as an illustration on the page.

PAGE

There was that issue, and another one, which I also think is a disciplinary difference that we had. I’ll give you an example: I am the primary author of the chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth. That chapter had even more in it when I first shared it with Elise that was very speculative about Dorothy Wordsworth and her relationship to her brother. Elise wanted evidence. […] On what grounds are you making this statement? What can you point to? What evidence is there? I took it out when it was purely speculative and I didn’t really have the evidence. I worked according to that and I think it was good for me. It certainly made our writing more compatible because she is devoted to really careful scholarship and all of her evidence and references are very precise. It was a good discipline for me to have that because I think that we, as literature scholars, perhaps tend to have more flights of fancy and things that we can’t absolutely justify [with hard evidence], but that we still think we’re right.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us more about your collaborative process?

PAGE

We were collaborating from the very beginning. As soon as we would write a chapter, we would share the chapter. We agreed from the outset that each of us would write four chapters. The book has eight chapters, plus an introduction and a conclusion. One of us drafted the introduction—I did—and one of us drafted the conclusion. Then, we each revised them, so they were all truly collaborative.

I also think that our voice is pretty close. […] Maybe someone who analyzed the chapters with some kind of technological program could tell there are certain ticks or ways of writing that are distinctive, but I think we’re actually quite close in our writing styles and I think that it made for a greater harmony in terms of the voice.

SMITH

We assigned ourselves key chapters to draft up and then we would send that draft to the other person. I’d send my draft to Judy and would get all kinds of responses from her and vice versa. Often, something that I might have been working on, for example, related to images, I realized didn’t really fit in my chapter anymore but could easily fit into one of Judy’s chapters as additional visual material […] or a literary passage could really fit well into one of my chapters, so that worked well in the later stages of drafting.

PAGE

We were also both committed to the “we”. We were committed to writing the book together, so it was something that we accepted. I know at one point, Elise said, “I feel really funny using the word “we” in the chapter on Dorothy Wordsworth. It’s so clearly your chapter. You’re the Wordsworth scholar.” There were moments like that where we both chuckled a little, but even the chapters […] where one obviously wrote more of that chapter than the other, at the end of our process, we ended up taking some things out of one chapter and putting it in another with no regard for who wrote the chapter originally. I would say our process, if I had to have a metaphor for what it was like, was like making a quilt. We got the parts, we thought of the chapters, and then we pieced things together in them, so it’s quilt making, if you think of quilt making as an organic process.

INTERVIEWER

In your book, you mention collected specimens, exotic flowers, and how “the microscope suggested a hidden life rich with possibility and meaning” (58-9). If we consider female botanists collectors, can we compare them to famous male botanist and collector, James Banks? Could they be following his example, set in 1771, when he returned from Captain James Cook’s first voyage to South America with samples in tow?

PAGE

Some of the women that we wrote about, for example, Agnes Ibbetson, who is a very accomplished botanist, did have an interesting system of categorizing and collecting in that sense, but we didn’t find this grand design of women as collectors in the sense of Banks or some of those great collectors and adventurers. […] It’s almost a kind of gendered distinction. Male adventurers have a strong desire to conquer and collect and to bring it all back as a part of the empire and put it on display in Kew and other gardens in Britain.

We found less of that in women writers and artists. We found more of an interest in teaching that a lot of this knowledge goes into an educational function […] That educational interest that is very strong, so that you find women who have great knowledge of different parts of the botanical world. That knowledge takes the form of dialogues between mothers and children and various kinds of scenes of instruction in books, so that the botanical knowledge is often put toward that kind of advancement of intellect.

That said, I just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things, which was published a couple of months ago. The main character is a woman botanist who has an amazing collection of moss and becomes an incredible expert. I was fascinated by the portrayal of this character not just because she was a collector and wanted to get to the heart of it, but because of what she saw when she studied the moss really closely under the microscope. Gilbert’s character demonstrated this notion that we see in Chapter Two, this discovery of this interior world, an amazing world that was represented when you could actually see into the life of this species, this plant. I think there was this sense of wonder in the world. A lot of women botanists write about wonder, often putting it in a religious perspective too.

INTERVIEWER

Interesting! You discuss the garden as a liminal space of education and exploration, especially for girls before they become women. Did the garden have the same erotic connotations as other well known liminal spaces of education and exploration, such as boarding schools?

PAGE

We do indeed focus on the garden as a place of exploration and education, a place where women and girls can extend their sense of themselves. […] The garden for both men and women always has this erotic charge. It makes me think about the Garden of Eden and all of those kinds of metaphors that go with that. The book is not comprehensive and we didn’t talk a lot about that, but if I had added another chapter, […] I would’ve loved to talk about writers in that context—one of them is Austen. I did a paper for the Cambridge Companion to Pride and Prejudice that just came out last year on the landscapes and estates and gardens. One of the things I talk about there is not the garden narrowly defined as a garden per se, but certainly the outdoor space and the outdoor world in Austen’s novels is a place of freedom. It’s a place where many of the really important scenes and activities take place and discussions between characters that are highly charged and couldn’t take place in the drawing room. They take place out of doors.

Think about the moment in Emma, at the end of the book, where Emma is described as hurrying into the shrubbery. She’s overcome in that moment. She’s recognized that, “I’ve loved Mr. Knightley all along—Harriet can’t have him because I love him!” And she’s pacing the garden, the shrubbery. In that moment, Mr. Knightley appears. That moment can only take place out of doors. It’s highly erotic, and Austen handles it so beautifully.

SMITH

I think that you can particularly see erotic fears perhaps most prominently and ironically in children’s literature–this fear of the children escaping past the wall and the kind of punishment, the literal and metaphorical fall, that these children might have if they climb up on top of the wall. And, of course, the idea of the fall takes on so much resonance symbolically. That could be read as sexual metaphor. I have not made that explicit in the chapter that I wrote, but I think it’s a really neat way of thinking further about that work.

PAGE

We describe this in the beginning of the book that we use the term garden very fully and loosely and we take in botanical writings, landscape, and a whole range of ways that people can engage with the natural environment in the book.

INTERVIEWER

Can you tell us more about your next project?

PAGE

We decided that we loved writing this book together so much that we’re going to write one more book together. […] If critical books could have a sequel, I suppose it’s a sequel. […] What we found looking at the later 19th century is that if in this earlier period, we talked about the way that so many women writers and artists negotiate their relationship between the public and private, in the newer project, one of the things we talk about is an increasing professionalization of the way that women writers and artists talk about the garden, the garden as a potential profession. If women were amateur gardeners in the 19th century, and many of them did move into professional garden writing […] at the end of the 19th century, you have women thinking of themselves as professional writers, professional gardeners, and that there’s a kind of conjunction between women and the garden and women who worked in the city, New Women, if you will. The whole notion of the New Woman fits into this.

Some of the figures, for instance, that I’m interested in, begin to write important gardening histories. They see themselves as historians of what has taken place in the garden not only over the last century, but going back for many centuries. […] There are examples of women who have university educations and see themselves as historians of the garden. We’re going to look at some of those writers.

SMITH

Mostly, I’m working on the time between the very tail end of the 19th century through World War I. That’s where most of my stuff is leading right now. […] I’ve drafted a chapter on garden memoirs written by women who were gardeners themselves and were really thinking about how to create a space for themselves outside of the city. The city/country dichotomy is very important because many of these women travelled back and forth between their country retreat and the city. In fact, I’ll be giving a talk at the 19th Century Studies Association in Chicago in March, which is a conference centered on the city in the 19th century. I’ll be talking about these women in the country and the way in which they contrasted what they valued about their lives in the country, in their gardens, as opposed to what they saw as really problematic about the city, the noise, the dirt, and also the city as standing for some of the violence that they associated with the war torn years.

One of these garden memoirists wrote in defining this contrast between the city and the country, “Asphalt or turf? Pose or repose?” She was referring to the idea of the pose, the sort of artifice of the poseur life in London, as opposed to being able to let that all go when one is rooted in the countryside. That was a lot of fun for me to write. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the women before, but very few other people now have heard of them either. As an art historian, I’m finding myself pulled into text based writing and text based image making, because there is very little imagery involved as I dig into these memoirs and write about them. My other chapter, so far, is about an artist from the Bloomsbury group who knew Virginia Woolf. Her name is Dora Carrington. She was working in the 1910s and ‘20s before she committed suicide. She did a lot of paintings of the land around the three homes that she lived in. One was her childhood home and two were houses that she lived in with the Bloomsbury writer Lytton Strachey. I argue that these landscapes that she painted are really a way of attempting to make a psychological home base for herself because of the way she felt increasingly removed from friends and lovers, and even the actual homes themselves, which she didn’t own. […] She was afraid of being a hanger-on with Lytton Strachey. […] My next chapter will be on children’s stories and illustrations centered around Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Secret Garden, but I will also look into other children’s books written by women that deal with children in the garden in some way, which will be an extension from the chapter that I wrote about children’s literature in the last book. I’m not sure what my fourth chapter will be. That is sort of giving you an indication of how Judy and I are feeling our way into what we might want to write about.

 PAGE

I’m very interested in figures like Beatrix Potter and Vita Sackville-West, women who saw themselves in terms of a kind of mission that they had to revitalize the English landscape. Beatrix Potter is an example of someone who is best known as a children’s author. She wrote the Peter Rabbit books that we all grew up on. However, after she wrote the Peter Rabbit books and settled in the Lake District, she became a conservationist and someone who dedicated her life to the restoration of the countryside. […] Sackville-West wrote books where the garden features very importantly, but she also developed and designed with her husband and then worked in one of the most important gardens of the 20th century, Sissinghurst, which is still regarded as one of the great gardens in England. I’ll be looking at what the relationship between her life as an actual gardener and what she wrote about her gardening life. In this project, we’re also going to be very interested in looking at the effect of the First World War, but we’re going to take it through the Second World War and the effect of the war on the sense of the landscape, the place of the garden in the landscape, and women’s relationship to it in particular. One of the things that developed during the First World War is the Women’s Land Army, and women increasingly took the place of men as workers on the land as men were drafted into the army. Many of those women became committed to those skills and to that life, even after the war. Looking at those kinds of changes in how women contributed to the land and the landscape during the war years is something that we’re going to be very interested in.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have any advice for scholars interested in collaborative work?

PAGE

I would say that productive collaborations arise from shared interests and passions, and when each contributor brings a different knowledge or disciplinary perspective to the mix. Once you get going on the collaboration, think of it like other relationships that always require give and take—and compromise.

SMITH

I think my main advice would be that you have to give up turf possession. That’s a good metaphor to use when we’re talking about gardening. You have to give up the sense of, “Oh, I’m an art historian, and thus what I write has to be situated in art history.” I learned long ago by coming to Millsaps and being the only art historian here for many years, to give up turf ownership of any particular period in art history because I teach from ancient all the way up to contemporary. […] Now, by working with Judy collaboratively, I’ve had to broaden out beyond being just an art historian to being a thinker about the world, open to all kinds of questions, and then following those questions to whatever kind of evidence might come to bear on those questions. I think about texts as well as images. That advice is important advice for any scholar in whatever field, whatever they’re doing – go where the questions lead you.

 

 

 

 

NGSC E-Roundtable: Romanticism & Geology

Introduction: This piece comprises the first of a series of interdisciplinary dialogues that will appear quarterly on the NGSC Blog. The initial iteration finds NGSC contributing writers Arden Hegele, Jacob Leveton, and artist in residence Nicole Geary engaging with geology as a factor in the production both of Romantic poetry and contemporary sculpture. Towards this end, they collectively looked at a range of geologically oriented literary texts (Felicia Hemans’s “The Rock of Cader Idris,” Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head,” and Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”), works by the visual artists Robert Smithson and Blane de St. Croix, and literary, art-historical, and ecological criticism. Arden, Jacob, and Nicole then posed a series of questions for, and responded to, one another in a discussion that pivots upon a set of shared aesthetic problems and conceptual issues linking current critical and contemporary creative practices.

Roundtable:

Arden: On the subject of the nonhuman voice in Nature, in “Mont Blanc,” Shelley writes that the mountain’s “voice” is “not understood / By all, but which the wise, and great, and good / Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). How do you see Shelley’s mountain’s form in relation to poetic form, or, how might you relate the challenge of geological interpretation to the interpretation of Romantic literature?

Jacob: This is a great question with which to lead off, and I think provides an effective frame to derive some important points regarding the relation between Shelley’s poetry and politics. Of course, the lines to which you’ve directed my attention drive toward some of the liberatory aspects of Shelley’s poetic project at the time. The poet addresses Mont Blanc and posits that,“Thou hast a voice, great mountain, to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood by all, but which the wise, and great, and good / interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). The lines advance the point that Mont Blanc as a nonhuman geological form retains a voice to speak. That voice is comprehended by the “wise, and great, and good” who experience the mountain’s affective force at a high level of intensity (to “deeply feel”). Such a knowing-subject, indeed the Shelleyan poet, interprets the mountain’s geological form and communicates it in a way that effectively manifests itself as a field of social-critical potentiality. What I mean by this is that the poetic engagement with Mont Blanc, that itself generates the poem’s form, is geared to be mobilized in challenging and overturning social inequities. The poetic form that Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” makes available is one that takes geological interpretation as a point of departure for the purpose of social critique, and so relates to broader issues regarding interpretations of Romantic literature informed by historical-materialist theoretical investments, and the field of poetry and politics, more generally.

Nicole: Jacob, “Mont Blanc” seems to be written with a lonely and inhuman aura, one that puts nature out of the grasp of humankind. Do you agree that, as Heringman writes, it helped “mobilize the analogy between geological and political revolution” (13-14)?

Jacob: Your question is a wonderful one, as well–and, actually, while I’d agree that “Mont Blanc” is written with a profoundly inhuman aura I’m convinced it’s one that encodes a form of revelry in the nonhuman other. Ever since my first time working with that particular text, I’ve found it to offer a particularly energetic intellectual jouissance in its impellation that the reader recognize a significant interconnectivity with the natural environment. In this regard, the natural environment can be seen as deeply other and simultaneously co-constitutive of a self that is connected with all other sentient and non-sentient beings. This is why I found Heringman’s remarks so persuasive, with respect to how the “Romantic recognition of the earth’s unpredictability and difference from human interests” ultimately “permits progressive analogies to human agency” (13). One valuable concept the movement to posthumanism gives us (though one which the field of late eighteenth-century cultural production makes possible, by way of writers like Rousseau, Joseph Ritson, Erasmus Darwin, and others) is that the world in which we find ourselves is comprised of a rich myriad of human and nonhuman life and that to understand what it is to be human it is at once necessary to understand what it is to be human in relation to nonhuman life, the natural environment, and non-sentient matter. Geologically, it is the non-sentience of the mountainscape that Shelley’s poem engages with the utmost force, and its that difference between the human poet and nonhuman natural/geological phenomena that drives the poem. This is what I believe that poet is getting at when crafting the image of “The everlasting universe of things” which “Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves” (1-2). The poetic metaphor is taken from the Arve as the river that cuts through the ravine where the poet is positioned, with geological processes here comprising the primary factor of Shelley’s poetic production. Nonhuman geological and human subjectivities are differentiated, yet come together within the poem’s form as a zone of human/nonhuman environmental contact. They’re connected as Shelley’s poem draws out a vector of signification that links the Arve as an example of a formative geological agent that continually carves the mountainscape, the poet’s consciousness in writing, and the reader’s subjectivity in reading. These notions advance Heringman’s argument quite well. If geological formations like Mont Blanc make visible the way in which the earth is in a continual state of transformation–and it’s a given that species do best when they are adaptable to change and humans constitute one species position within a broader web of nonhuman life–then it follows that a commitment to progressive thought and engagement proves integral to the absorption of geology in Shelley’s poem.

Nicole: What I really fell for in “Beachy Head” was the long stretch of meandering we did through what felt like a mix of memory and storytelling. It’s as though we are briefly on the ground at this place, then suddenly no longer conforming to space and time. I find that it’s deceptive at first. Can you talk about how you find the form of this poem lends itself to the underlying story?

Arden: “Beachy Head” is such a rich poem, generically as well as geologically. Although it’s clearly working in the Romantic tradition in its description of sublime natural landscapes, it also looks back to an older genre — the loco-descriptive poem — which characterized eighteenth-century works like James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-1730). In the loco-descriptive poem, the speaker’s point of view moves fluidly between spaces through the act of looking, and the poem describes the different landscapes in view; importantly (and in contrast with most Romantic poetry), the energy carrying the poem isn’t so much the developing emotional charge, but rather the speaker’s changing observational position within a landscape. This active eye prompting topographical transitions is much of what we get in Smith’s 1807 poem, especially in lines like these: “let us turn / To where a more attractive study courts / The wanderer of the hills” (447-49). Here, Smith signals how her speaker’s eye carries “us” between geographical sites and their relation to her memories.

But, as you suggest, Nicole, Smith’s work is compelling because the landscapes in question prompt temporary flights away from the locations that she describes — including Beachy Head itself — as the speaker contemplates their relation to her emotional state. These jumps away from the landscape into recollected emotion is what feels most Romantic about the poem. For example, Smith’s denunciation of happiness is one of the work’s most poignant moments: “Ah! who is happy? Happiness! a word / That like false fire, from marsh effluvia born” (258-59). To me, this is an intriguing moment for the poem’s physical environment, since the simile associates happiness with a paranormal feature (a will-o’-the-wisp), in contrast to the many concrete landscapes of the poem — Beachy Head itself, the stone quarry, the cottages, the cave in the rock, and so on. But the ignis fatuus also helps to reveal the poem’s ongoing mechanism for the speaker’s nostalgic leaps: here and elsewhere, the ground gives direct rise to the emotions that the speaker experiences. (As a side note, “false fire, from marsh effluvia born” also invokes the miasmatic theory of disease popular during the period, which maintained that toxic gases would arise from the ground and spread contagion – a rather chilling way of describing “happiness”).

The historical and biographical contexts of “Beachy Head” are also quite interesting with respect to the poem’s treatment of time and space, especially in a scientific context. While writing was a source of necessary income for Smith (she was the only earner for her ten children), she took pleasure and relief in scientific practices like botany, and it seems to me that her somewhat loco-descriptive survey of the landscape of Beachy Head alludes to her personal practices of dispassionate scientific observation. An early reviewer of the posthumous poem remarked that

“It appears also as if the wounded feelings of Charlotte Smith had found relief and consolation […] in the accurate observation not only of the beautiful effect produced by the endless diversity of natural objects[,] but also in a careful study of their scientific arrangement, and their more minute variations.” (Monthly Review, 1807)

In keeping with what this reviewer notices, one of the poem’s main projects seems to be to classify different types of rock — the “chalk […] sepulchre” of the cliffs (723), the “stupendous summit” of Beachy Head itself (1), the “castellated mansion” (514), the “stone quarries” (471), and even the sedimented sea-shells, fossils, and “enormous bones” beneath the sea (422). But the poem also moves beyond classification by relating natural forms to poetic lyricism: for example, Smith describes “one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots / Form’d a rude couch,” where “love-songs and scatter’d rhymes” were “sometimes found” (581-84). At the poem’s conclusion, the rock of Beachy Head itself inspires verse, as “these mournful lines, memorials of his sufferings” are “Chisel’d within” (738-39); indeed, Smith’s own lines appear to have emerged from the physical rock. Moreover, supporting its thematic transitions between spaces and even outside of time, “Beachy Head” isn’t confined to a single verse form — the two sets of inset songs (in variable quintains and sestets) break up the sedimented quality we get with the long passages of blank verse. So the meandering quality that you notice between the poem’s specific geographies and abstract memories also applies to the fluctuating relationship between the verse forms, between the various locations and historical moments the poem describes, and, perhaps most importantly, between the relationship of scientific and poetic practices, which Smith ultimately tries to reconcile.

Jacob: Arden, I was particularly struck by the wonderful resonance between your suggestion that we read Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” and Nicole’s decision that we look at Blane de St. Croix’s Broken Landscape III (Fig. 1), since both works utilize geology as a means to think through the concept of national boundaries. In what ways might the ideas you find in Broken Landscape III  intersect Smith’s poem? Just as well, how might de St. Croix’s strategies as a visual artist diverge from those of Smith as a poet?

Blane de St. Croix, Broken Landscape III, 2012. Wood, plywood, foam, plastic, paint, branches, dirt, and other natural materials, 80.00 x 2.50 x 7.00 ft. (24.38 x 0.76 x 2.13 m.), as viewed at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. Photograph by Nicole Geary
Fig. 1. Blane de St. Croix, Broken Landscape III, 2013. Wood, plywood, foam, plastic, paint, branches, dirt, and other natural materials, 80.00 x 2.50 x 7.00 ft. (24.38 x 0.76 x 2.13 m.), as viewed at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. Photograph by Nicole Geary

Arden: I’m so glad that you drew my attention to the political similarities between Charlotte Smith and Blane de St. Croix’s works. Both artworks are connected in their different ways to the question of politically-charged national borders. Smith’s perspective can certainly cast new light on de St. Croix’s contemporary art, and I see at least two ways in which the pieces can work together in productive dialogue. First, their portrayals of their respective borders share certain formal similarities, in spite of the very different natures of the artworks. Second, the works diverge in the mechanisms by which they represent the borders as liminal spaces: while de St. Croix is invested in showing how the deep strata of the Mexico-US border’s geological formation acts as a barrier between the nations, Smith finds that the France-England border’s geology reveals similarity underlying the nations’ apparently radical differences.

Both artists engage with the idea of sedimentation as a formal tool for political commentary. In “Beachy Head,” Smith regularly draws the reader’s attention to Beachy Head’s distinctive white cliffs, the tallest in Britain, whose layers of chalk point to a long-standing geological history of increasing division from the opposite coast by means of marine erosion over millennia. For Smith, the continual geological breakdown between the two nations, through this process of erosion, is a provocative metaphor for their political relationship. In its allusions to the Norman Conquest, the battle of Beachy Head of 1690 (which the English lost), and the tensions between the nations during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the “scroll voluminous” of “Beachy Head” offers a versified representation of this erosion (122). Presented in chronological order, each incident of conflict with France gives way to the next until the reader reaches sea-level and England’s triumph: “But let not modern Gallia form from hence / Presumptuous hopes” against England, the “Imperial mistress of the obedient sea” (146-47, 154). In the political ramifications of its eroding structure, “Beachy Head” has much in common with Broken Landscape III, which is also interested in the sedimentation of a politically-charged international border. For de St. Croix, however, the formalism of sediment is not figured through erosion, but rather through accretion. Discourses about the border have, over time, accumulated in layers, just as layers of rock have accreted in the border’s geological history. De St. Croix’s representation of the border as a human-scale sedimented wall explores how its underlying discourses have built up to create an insurmountable barrier in the present (unlike the real border, de St. Croix’s installation actually prevents the viewer’s ability to walk across it).

At the same time, though, the two works differ considerably in the function of their sedimentation. As Lily Gurton-Wachter argues, Smith resists the idea that France and England were “natural enemies” (a term used pejoratively to describe their strained relationship at the turn of the nineteenth century), and instead finds a common ground for them in their shared geological past. The poet contemplates whether the bottom of the sea, cast up in cliff form at Beachy Head, serves as the area of continuity between the nations: “Does Nature then / Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes / Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling / To the dark sea-rock of the wat’ry world?” (383-86). While at one point Smith calls Romantic geology “but conjecture” (398), the general implication of the poem is that geology can help to locate a literal, deep-seated common ground between the opposed nations. De St. Croix, on the other hand, finds only political difference in the geology underlying the border. The human imposition of international boundaries on the surface of the earth is so metaphysically weighty that it actually carries downwards physically into its subterranean strata, in spite of the fact that each nation’s side is effectively the same in material and appearance.

Arden: Nicole, I’m interested in your thoughts on the materiality of landscape as a source for art. In Robert Smithson’s film about “Spiral Jetty,” the artist says that “the earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.” How do you see geologically-inspired works of art — especially an “entropic” project like Smithson’s, or Blane de St Croix’s meticulous topography — engaging with the materiality of literary texts? And, how does your study of Romanticism help you to understand this material relationship?

Nicole: It’s especially remarkable when you come upon stacked strata in the field and see rocks lined up like books on a shelf. This metaphor instantaneously becomes ingrained within you as you run your finger down the stack, looking for the book (rock) you want to pull out. In the history of the earth, pages, sometimes whole volumes go missing. We suffer those convulsions and catastrophes, and the earth rebuilds itself from the pieces. Spiral Jetty is made from rocks, water, mud, evaporites, and time (Fig. 2).

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water, 1,500.00 x 15.00 ft. (457.20 x 4.57 m.), Great Salt Lake, UT
Fig. 2. Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water, 1,500.00 x 15.00 ft. (457.20 x 4.57 m.), Great Salt Lake, UT

But not just that, it is a place. Spiral Jetty is difficult to reach, sometimes not able to be seen due to changes in the level of the Great Salt Lake. In reading romantic-period texts, I’m reminded of the overwhelming sense of the sublime that artists felt for certain places. Certain topographies, either remote or only able to be accessed by memory (as so wonderfully illustrated in “Beachy Head”) hold a history that engages and sometimes mystifies. So, too, does the Broken Landscape series by de St. Croix as it not only shows the surface, or present tense, but it digs into the depths of what came before our tense border anxieties. Broken Landscape III looks directly at ontological constructs upon the landscape that never existed before human-made activity, but doesn’t negate the rock record.

What I find fascinating is that this rock record is always around us, ever complex yet at our disposal to read. There is some comfort in the idea that we can make sense of the word, quite literally, by translating it like an ancient tome. I think that through Romanticism, I’m actually able to understand more about the emotional weight I give to rocks themselves. By reading through the Scottish Enlightenment and the geological revolution, I understood that what I was going through artistically was my own new science: a way of naming and identifying my emotions without feeling them – calling them the Other.

Jacob: This year, I’ve become increasingly influenced by Rebecca Beddell’s The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1865 in terms of the way in which, as Beddell explains, the division of labor between artists and scientists is essentially a discursive construction. Namely, here, I’m interested in how reading Bedell’s art-historical analysis might relate to, or gave you a space to imagine, your own work, perhaps in a different way than you had prior. In this regard, I’m drawn especially to the preface to her book, where Bedell suggests that in the nineteenth-century: “American landscape painters and geologists then stood on common ground. We now tend to consign art and science to different epistemologies, regarding them as distinctive pursuits, with completely different methodologies, directed towards completely different ends” while in the nineteenth-century art and science proved an interconnected spectrum of pursuits “in both popular perception and practice” (xi). What I’m wondering is how you consider about your own work within this trajectory. I’m thinking mainly of your 2011 Secondary Sediment series of prints that I think so powerfully evokes the relation between personal memory and geological space, and especially the play of text and image in “IX” (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Nicole Geary, "IX" from the Secondary Sediments series, 2011. Drypoint, type, and chine collé, 8.00 x 10.00 in. (20.32 x 25.40 cm.), Courtesy of the Artist
Fig. 3. Nicole Geary, “IX” from the Secondary Sediments series, 2011. Drypoint, type, and chine collé, 8.00 x 10.00 in. (20.32 x 25.40 cm.), Courtesy of the Artist

Nicole: Jacob, this is such a great question, because I specifically thought about this, too, when I was reading Beddell’s introduction. It seems a social construct based on educational or vocational pursuits has rendered art and science separate pursuits in our recent history, but the idea of a more common acquisition of knowledge and shared respect for these fields was in vogue during the age of Manifest Destiny. A different resurgence in this kind of thinking is afoot, with places like Science Gallery (https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/), the resurrection of LACMA Art + Technology Lab (http://lacma.org/Lab), and the CERN Artist’s Residency (http://arts.web.cern.ch/collide), to name only a few art and science collaborations.

To answer your question, my work does straddle both realms. It’s a mix of personal memoir related to the land it was experienced in. I find that the economic aspects of landscape cannot be separated from their role as passive backdrop to this “American dream” sedative. To deal with one part of the land or the space I live in requires me to seriously investigate all parts – it’s an element of knowing the land that I think a poem like “Beachy Head” deals with in a wonderful way.

The idea that we should mine the earth for its riches, or fight wars for those resources, the same principles that as a youth I could feel patriotic about, are now the ideas that I question in my work. What is worth exploiting (property, resources, and lives) and at what cost for the betterment of humankind? Who can really own land? In “A Place on the Glacial Till,” Thomas Fairchild Sherman writes a personal, historical, and geological history. A story of the animals and plants of his native Oberlin, Ohio, he writes of a place that is clearly familiar and dear to him when he says that: “Our homes are but tents on the landscape of time, and we but visitors to a world whose age exceeds our own 100 million times. We own only what the spirit creates.”

At what cost does the land stop becoming land?  I think Solnit shares a fine example of this in her essay (see “Elements of a New Landscape,” 57). The work “El Cerrito Solo” by Lewis deSoto was initiated by a friend’s remark that it was “too bad the mountain wasn’t there anymore.” Essentially, a small hill had been sourced for it’s material until it was no longer there – a story that’s full of what I think of as the ripping out of a page from one of the volumes in the rock record of the earth. Almost painfully, the artist says, “you could be in the landscape while driving on the freeway.” This reminds me of living in South Dakota and driving on pink-hued roads, colored this way because of the quarrying of local Sioux quartzite, the words of this story echoing in my thoughts. How many “little mountains” disappeared from the landscape to make these roads? At the intersection of art and geology, I read of a similar story that took place in Belize of the unfortunate destruction of a 2,000+ year-old Mayan temple, locally named Noh Mul, or Big Hill. A local contractor was quarrying the site for its limestone to create roadfill, but now embedded archaeological artifacts are totally lost and broken cultural relics have become part of the landscape.  Ultimately, the “otherness” of Nature is no longer a separate entity conceptually at bay but is a real, interactive part of our lives. I believe art can help us transform the way we think about landscape and its effect on us.

(Link: http://hyperallergic.com/71065/ancient-mayan-temple-destroyed-in-belize/)

(Link: http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/85391)

I think the time is right to invest in people. One of the biggest problems that I see with contemporary Western culture (as this is what I can speak to), is a lack of focus on local histories and real science, and an art world that seems fixated on the cult of celebrity, or too quickly moves on from one fad to another. I think the reason I became a printmaker was that somewhere at the core of my being, I enjoy the slow work and old-fashioned ethos of making something from an antiquated technology. It’s possible that I set myself up to be interested in history specifically because of that, but a lot of the work I drift toward or care about is art about the sciences and questioning the role of the author, or the authoritative voice. By this I mean searching for authentic stories of people so that they not be forgotten by history due to their gender, race, or sexuality. I look for things to have meaning and depth beyond their surface. Rocks and big outcrops, with their stony gazes, seem to have a lifetime of stories to tell, even if their faces are unyielding. I have to agree with Shelley on this point, where he ascribes a voice to Mont Blanc–in the lines to which Arden first drew our attention. What I read in this passage is the work of the artist and the geologist. To make the voice of the mountain known, through study and familiarity, through knowledge and wisdom, and to transmit that feeling through the power of metaphor, and of unity with the landscape. Who can say which job belongs to whom?

 

Works Consulted:

Poetry

Felicia Hemans, “The Rock of Cader Idris” (1822)

Percy Shelley, “Mont Blanc” (1817)

Charlotte Smith, “Beachy Head” (1807)

Art

Blane de St Croix, “Broken Landscape III” (2013)

Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970)

Criticism

Bedell, Rebecca. The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Gurton-Wachter, Lily. “’An Enemy, I suppose, that Nature has made’: Charlotte Smith and the natural enemy.” European Romantic Review 20, 2 (2009): 197-205.

Heringman, Noah. Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Solnit, Rebecca. “Elements of a New Landscape.” As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.

 

“I have a new leaf to turn over:” A Romanticist’s Resolutions for 2014

I think we can all agree that Keats’s Endymion (1818) was a critical and commercial failure. As Renee discusses in her post, Tory reviewers lambasted the poem because of Keats’s affiliation with outspoken radical Leigh Hunt. Although the poem’s most notorious critic, John Gibson Lockhart, notes its metrical deviations from the traditional heroic couplet form, he spends more time attacking Keats personally: “He is only a boy of pretty abilities, which he has done every thing in his power to spoil.” It’s no wonder, then, that Keats’s letters written in the months that followed show a recurring preoccupation with self-improvement, or “turning over a new leaf.” In a short letter to Richard Woodhouse (friend and editor) dated December 18, 1818, he writes “Look here, Woodhouse – I have a new leaf to turn over: I must work; I must read; I must write.” He’d repeat the phrase again that April in a letter to his sister, complaining that he had “written nothing and almost read nothing – but I must turn over a new leaf.”

Due to my unfortunate tendency to self-identify with whomever I’m reading (“OMG, Keats, I know EXACTLY what it’s like to have your work rejected and then mooch off your friends because you have no money. WE ARE THE SAME PERSON.”), Keats’s desire to “turn over a new leaf” resonates as I prepare for a new semester of graduate school in the new year. While our situations are slightly different – constructive criticism of a seminar paper not quite as devastating as the complete and utter failure of a published book  – his mantra for self-improvement sounds eerily like that of a graduate student: “I must work; I must read; I must write.” In the spirit of turning over a new leaf, and hopefully transforming that Endymion-esque seminar paper into a Lamia, I present to you my academic resolutions for 2014. I should note that many of these will be obvious to the more seasoned scholars among you, but for all of you newer grads out there, I hope you’ll find my mistakes instructive.

Resolution #1: I will develop arguments from texts instead of making texts conform to my arguments. 

This one seems easy in theory, but it’s something I’ve been struggling with throughout the semester. I’ll read one text – Endymion, let’s say – and then a bunch of criticism, and its reviews, letters, etc. Then, I’ll develop an idea about how Keats’s later poems revisit the same genre and politics as Endymion, but ultimately rewrite them. Except, I’ll form this connection even before I’ve read the later poems, just because it sounds so smart and will make such a good paper. Then, I’ll set about writing the paper and finally get around to reading Lamia, Isabella, The Eve of St. Agnes, and other poems (1820), and only then will I realize that the texts interact in completely different ways than I had originally thought. Of course, there’s not enough time to completely rewrite my paper, so I stick with the argument, praying that the reader doesn’t realize I made this crucial error.

So, simply put, I resolve to stop doing this faulty method of research. I’m going to let myself be confused by texts, and stop trying to develop beautiful, complex arguments before I’ve had time to fully read and think about them. If a brilliant idea pops into my head before I’ve done this, I’ll write it down, set it aside, and consider it later. As a wise professor once told me, “Always start with close reading. If you leave it till the end, it will always most certainly change your argument.”

Resolution #2: I will accept that I am, first and foremost, a student.

A wise man (Michael Gamer) once told a group of English majors, “graduate students are full of themselves.” I hate to say it, but I’m living proof of this. I started graduate school last August under the impression that I was a Romanticist. In my undergrad days I was merely an “aspiring Romanticist,” but starting a Ph.D. program gave me the right to crown myself with the full title. Once I was accepted, I thought that I had made the transition from student to scholar, and deceived myself into believing that I knew more about my field than I actually do. Thankfully, the enormous ego that Michael prophesied was soon deflated when I realized a few weeks into class that, in fact, I know very, very little about the period in which I claim to specialize. Of course, this realization was accompanied was a decreased sense of self-worth, doubt about whether I was in the right line of work, and a frantic conversation with my advisor in which I dramatically exclaimed, “I KNOW NOTHING!” “That’s ok,” he assured me, “you’re a student, and you’re not supposed to. Frankly, you’d be surprised how many people in the field don’t know much either.” So, for 2014, I resolve to remind myself that I’m not a scholar yet; I’m a student. I will accept the limits of my knowledge while doing my best to expand them.

Resolution #3: I will overcome writing anxiety.

This problem plagues many of us, and it’s one of my biggest areas for improvement in the new year. Sometimes, the sheer size of what I need to write, the nearness of the deadline, and difficulty of the subject matter create a Kafka-esque paralysis in which no writing is accomplished. I can tell I’m experiencing this when I go to extra lengths to avoid starting a paper, whether it’s extra research, extensive outlining, or a meticulously organized Spotify playlist entitled “Writing.” As many of us know, talking about writing and thinking about writing is not actually writing. The only way to overcome this problem is simply to write more. At the advice of many of my peers, I plan to write everyday, especially while I conduct research. There were simply too many times this year when I was tempted to end my seminar papers in the way that Milton ended “The Passion” (1620): “This Subject the Author finding to be above the years he had when he wrote it, and nothing satisfied with what was begun, left it unfinished.” I’m pretty sure only Milton could pull off that one.

Resolution #3.5: I will write my blog posts on time. 

This probably should’ve been number one. Thank you, Jake and fellow NASSR grads, for your patience.

Happy 2014!

 

 

Exploring the Genre of the Dissertation

During the hours that I assigned for my dissertation yesterday, I had a bit of a genre-identity crisis. I was editing and revising parts of a chapter in the morning when I discovered that I have been following no more than an idea *in my imagination* of what a dissertation should look like. Of course my prospectus outlined my chapters and my proposed argument, and has already been approved by my committee, but that piece of writing did not require me to think about the dissertation from within its draft or its guts.

I sought a model to consult — a concrete finished dissertation product to admire, toggle/flip through, and to orient my work in both form and content. Though I have read a small library of books and articles on the path to where I am now in my PhD, I have yet to read an entire dissertation. In fact, I haven’t even read a full dissertation chapter. In other words, yesterday I felt as though I was trying to compose a genre I knew nothing about and was not prepared to write. (Not true, I’ve since learned!)

The genre-identity crisis manifested in a swarm of questions. How much space should I allow to record the current critical conversation in which my argument intervenes? What belongs in a footnote and what belongs in my body paragraphs? Should my chapters be about 50 pages long and framed as long arguments/explorations of a single topic, or divisible into two articles of about 25 pages each, in order to make it easier to (try to) publish diss chapters as articles (the latter was my plan)? But is it prudent to write chapters as if they are articles, or multiple articles sewn together? How long should the arc of each chapter’s argument and investigation be? Why do I feel like I’m spelunking? Can I get away with writing shorter chapters that are the length of articles that I might submit to a peer-reviewed journal? In other words, what should the genre of the dissertation look like?

To prevent prolonged worrying and inefficiency during this busy part of the semester, I wrote to my dissertation committee co-chairs right away and posted some related questions on Twitter. I have received a collection of thoughtful and useful responses that I think are important to share.

I’m not writing a dissertation; I’m writing a book. This isn’t as pretentious as it sounds, I promise–I have no illusions about being able to produce a publication-quality book quite yet. However, I was advised to see the dissertation as the incunabulum, so to speak, of my first book project. “The dissertation,” I was told, “is a dead-end genre” and my future as scholar depends on my ability to write a good book. Furthermore, many scholars revise their dissertations to complete their first book project as a tenure-track professor.

Importantly, I was also cautioned against trying too hard to actually write a book –that is, a book both in form and content quality — while finishing my doctorate (see my disclaimer in the above paragraph). Efficiency and timely completion of my degree and entrance into the job market are important to me. While I strive to write a beautiful, organized dissertation that offers new ideas supported by a wealth of research in my field, I am also realistic about the time it would take (not to mention the learning curve) to do so as a proper book project and I’m cognizant of that fact that my funding will not last forever.

Numbers: The statistics I was given are the criteria for a book published by a university press: 75,000 to 90,000 words in length, and 4-6 chapters in length in addition to an introduction. Each chapter in typescript should run between 35-50 pages in length — I will lose about a third of my manuscript’s length when the book is typeset.

Chapters: Each chapter should focus on one major issue. Thus, it is unlikely that I will be able to derive two articles from a single chapter. Building this book project draft by thinking about each chapter as one slightly long article is a good idea, I was told. The difference between a chapter and an article is that a chapter allows for more exploration of a topic (so this is why I’ve been feeling a bit like an explorer, which I love).

Models: Find published books for models, not articles, dissertation chapters, or complete dissertations. These don’t necessarily need to be the books whose arguments I admire most–though they may be. Rather, they should be books that I would like my own book project to resemble when it is finished. The big questions are how do I want my project to resemble these works and how will my project differ?

The Department/Committee Factor: Each department has its own unique standards and each dissertation committee has its own set of expectations and criteria for what a good dissertation will accomplish within that department. These factors are more palpable during revision processes but it will pay off to consider them in advance as much as is possible and pragmatic. The expectations and precedents set by of the dept. and committee are also important when considering how to include or align work with digital projects or components of the dissertation. I do a lot of digital work on electronic texts and archives and will be putting a lot of careful thought into how my digital projects dialogue with my dissertation and how best to treat those projects to convey my argument and work as well as meet requirements.

Audience: One respondent on Twitter who is finishing her dissertation wrote that “a dissertation is for 3 people, a book has an audience.” At first, I found this depressing to say the least, but after some thought I have decided that I disagree and am therefore no longer depressed by this idea. Though the dissertation committee is the first audience that this project will see, it is not the only audience. As chapters will become articles and the work as a whole is an early draft of a book project, the dissertation’s components all “cook” together and will emerge to a larger readership than those on the dissertation team within the department. Furthermore, dissertation chapters are also the groundwork, potentially, for insightful conference papers as well as job talks.

Having solicited and received such useful advice, I have some reframing and planning to do with my current draft and I am on the hunt for five or so books that I hope to model my project on. What books would you pick as your models? How have you been conceiving of the form and content of your dissertation? As our department chair so cheerfully says, “Onward!”

 

Maze Image: By xOneca (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hand_made_dense_labyrinth.png