real talk: candidacy exams (and after!)

The responses keep rolling in!  Here, OSU PhD candidate Victoria Muñoz offers reflection and advice on the exam experience and aftermath.

I am writing this blog in continuation of the tradition set forth by Kate’s fabulous post-exam response.

First, let me say that everyone’s experience is different. My exam went really well because, hey, I passed, but I just didn’t feel fabulous going through it. I read EXTENSIVELY for six months and I had a huge store of information in my mind when I went into the exam, but there were still questions that fell outside of what I had studied most strenuously. Ultimately, one cannot anticipate all the questions that will be asked. I was discouraged early in the exam when I received some “local” questions where there was essentially only one answer and I was not able to steer the conversation away to something that I did know. I was actually explicitly told not to do so by my examiners when I attempted to change the topic. The reason was that there was only one answer to these questions, and harping on these points rather than simply admitting “I am not sure” actually took time away from my exam and prevented me from being able to display my knowledge on other topics.

In total, this happened probably only three times, but it made me so uneasy that even though I did answer numerous questions well and display my understanding of the field, I walked out of the exam (awaiting the committee’s decision) fearing that I would not pass. In hindsight, I realize that my disappointment over the difficult questions clouded my judgment of the exam as a whole. After going over everything in my head, I realized that there were plenty of topics that I discussed just fine and my advisor also confirmed this to me after the exam.

I also realize that my committee must have known that I was perfectly capable of answering questions about general issues in the field, major trends, etc. As I later confirmed with others PhD candidates, my examiners were probably trying to test the upper limits of my knowledge rather than establish the baseline of my understanding, which they had probably already assessed according to my participation in past classes and in informal conversations. It was clear that I had read everything. The goal was really to see where the gaps in my understanding lay. I have personally identified those gaps through this process. So here are my weaknesses:

Major field: paratexts and dedications. I have a general understanding of how paratexts and dedications work, but I need to employ a more regimented way of incorporated these sections (which anthologies often skip over and I also tend to pass over quickly when attempting to get straight to “the text”) in order to better flesh out my expertise.

Minor field: Hispanists’ approaches to their discipline are intrinsically different from ours. Although both disciplines study literature, they ask different questions and position arguments differently. It’s not just a matter of understanding the texts and the history of their production; for the Spanish Golden Age, there is also a bit of a paradigm shift in thinking. This is essential for me to understand as I attempt to produce a comparative dissertation. I am glad to have learned this lesson now.

The adrenaline rush of the exam process lasted far longer than the exam itself. I found myself going over every answer, chiding myself over my shortcomings and ignoring my successes. At the end of the day, I PASSED! Moreover, I should feel proud because, difficult questions aside, I honestly feel that I studied hard enough to merit passing and I made it clear that I had prepared for this exam.

The best advice that I can give about the oral exam is the following:

  1. Make sure you review every text you mention in your written responses before returning to your general review. Some students don’t receive any questions about their written responses, but if they come up, you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself if you can’t answer a question you arguably could have anticipated. I was so worried about anticipating a random question about ANYTHING on my list that I did not dedicate enough time to simply going over the texts that I had discussed in my written responses. I should have drilled every detail.
  2. Understand that you WON’T know everything. Some questions will just throw you off and beating yourself up over the handful of details that stumped you rather than focusing on what you were able to answer perfectly well will just destroy your morale. You’ll get nervous and potentially forget things that you do know. I definitely clammed up and forgot things. A few of the questions that stumped me were actually questions that I knew how to answer after the exam. That’s part of the reason we get oral exams. Getting used to anxiety-producing environments will better prepare us for the dog-eat-dog world of the job hunt.
  3. Identify when examiners are asking you leading questions. If you don’t know the answer, try to gracefully indicate your uncertainty and let them decide what happens next. They will most likely give you a hint. With a few hints I was generally able to get there, but what threw me off was my fear that needing help meant I wasn’t prepared. I failed to recognize that sometimes leading questions are just confusing and that if you’re eventually able to get there, that’s all that matters.
  4. Make sure you have a good prospectus draft. Talking about my own work reminded me that I do know stuff, and it gave me another opportunity to talk about the field. Talk over the project with each person before the exam. If your committee believes in your project, they will probably also believe in you. This was honestly the most reassuring part of the exam.

After my exam, I attended the “Women in the Academy” talk and one idea that a panelist offered is that academia is all about challenging yourself. If you’re not feeling challenged, she explained, then you’re probably not doing enough. This advice really spoke to me. You may read a lot, but even so, you are going to be tested. Your committee wants you to pass and they will probably help you along (mine certainly did), but remember that the university isn’t just handing out PhDs. Expect to feel challenged. Expect to be pushed out of your comfort zone. Accept that you don’t know everything. Learn from it. Move on. Then, kick ass on your dissertation.

more real talk: candidacy exams

I’ve been getting a lot of really fantastic and interesting feedback from other grad students about their exam experiences, and I’m thrilled to have permission to post the following thoughtful reflections and pie charts on my blog.  The writer and I hope that the more perspectives and concrete “how much was enough” data we can collect, the more transparent and approachable the exam process can be for future examinees. 

In response to Kate and Evan’s discussion of their exam lists and exams, I would like to submit an analysis of my own exam experience. The three of us were examined on different periods within British literary history and had very different committees; hopefully this means that our combined experiences will give a valuable range of data. That said, all three of us are literature students, and this reflection, especially the proposal for a new exam structure at the end, reflects this bias.

What does “The Reading List” consist of?

Before diving into an examination of what from my list I read, and to what degree I read it, I decided to give a representation of what my list consisted of. The total number of entries on my list was 128. However, this is misleading, as several entries list an author with several two or more of their works listed as subsections, and thus are not represented in the total number of items. While this makes sense for short poems and essays, doing this for novels and long poetic works drastically increased the total number of pages I had to read for my exam. In short, the actual total of works on my list was 184. This exceeds the suggested limit for reading list texts (125) by 59 texts, and exceeds the limit for minor field texts (45) by 14. Thus, my ingenious plan of increasing the range and depth of my list effectively added another minor field of reading. Pro-tip: do not do this.

*In the below graphs, the term short prose refers to prose works less than 5 pages and the term short poems refers to poetry less than 2 pages.*

Primary Texts

chart1Actual total number of primary texts: 148

Secondary Texts

chart2Actual total number of secondary texts: 36

Exam Preparation

Like Kate and Evan, I used a number of strategies to remember texts and how they fit together. In addition to the strategies outlined by Kate and Evan, I also made a set of flashcards for key authors, aesthetic and historical movements and events, and texts; created and studied timelines, and gave myself closed book exams wherein I wrote a history of my major field focused on literary developments. All of these strategies were incredibly helpful in synthesizing the primary and secondary sources I had been reading (usually out of chronological order) and in situating them within historical and literary contexts.

Entire List

Now that I have presented a snapshot of what my list consisted of, it’s time to dig a bit deeper and see what I actually managed to read.

Primary and Secondary Texts for Major and Minor Fields

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Primary Texts for Major and Minor Fields

chart4Secondary Texts for Major and Minor Fields

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Major Field

Primary and Secondary Texts

chart6Primary Texts

chart7Secondary Texts

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Minor Field

Primary and Secondary Texts

chart9Primary Texts

chart10Secondary Texts

chart11The percent of texts that I didn’t read at all made me very nervous going into the exam. What shocked me the most, however, was how few texts I actually needed to discuss in the written and oral portions of the exam.

Texts Discussed in the Written Exam Only

chart12Texts Discussed in the Oral Exam (excluding texts also discussed in the written exam)

chart13I discussed only 9 texts in the written portion of the exam and only an additional 17 in the oral exam. This means that I passed my exams having discussed only 26 of 184 works, or roughly 14% of my entire reading list. While I am relieved and happy that the exam process is over, the tiny percent of texts I was examined on forces me to question the efficacy of the exam process in its current design.

A Modest Proposal

As the exam process under the new system is supposed to ensure that graduate students are qualified to teach in their Major and Minor fields, and the current system can allow a student to pass their exams without demonstrating a breadth or depth of knowledge of the texts and scholarship, I propose that the written exam be changed from its current essay form to course proposals that can later be adapted for job application materials, and that the oral exam be changed to a discussion of the written exam and dissertation proposal.

Written Exam Changes

In place of committee-generated questions that can be about any aspect of the field/list, I suggest that the examinee use the 72 hours granted for the written exam to design three courses for each field, to be divided up as follows: 1 lower-level undergraduate course (such as a Survey or Intro course), 1 upper-level undergraduate course, and 1 graduate course. The course design should include a written explanation outlining and defending the primary and secondary texts the examinee has chosen to include, as well as a discussion of the key points and questions they want to incorporate and/or emphasize in teaching this course. Also included should be an explanation of how their design for this course fits within larger goals for undergraduate and graduate instruction and with larger movements in related scholarship. The 5000 word limit could be altered to fit the new design of the written exam.

Oral Exam Changes

The Oral Exam could then allow for discussion of the examinee’s proposed courses and could address their choice of texts, interpretation of texts, possible teaching methods, and how these texts and themes fit into current trends in scholarship and teaching at the university level (e.g. teaching the canon/beyond the canon, general education requirements, how to use these materials on the job market). Allowing time to discuss a draft of the examinee’s Dissertation Prospectus would provide an opportunity for discussion related to the examinee’s growth as a scholar in their field.

The Benefit

I propose these changes not to shift the focus of the exam away from scholarship, but to redirect an exam already focused on preparing examinees for teaching in higher education and the job market towards a better integration of scholarship and teaching. By asking students to construct courses for a variety of courses and explain their reasoning for primary and secondary source texts, there is a higher likelihood that examinees will discuss a higher percentage of the texts included in their major and minor field reading lists and incorporate those texts into important discussions surrounding teaching in higher education and current trends in scholarship. The resulting discussions and exam documents would also serve as useful drafts for future materials graduate students need to create for the job market, and their discussion in the oral exam would better prepare examinees for job talks. Discussing the examinee’s plans for their dissertation should maintain additional focus on the examinee’s own growth as a scholar in their chosen specialization. This exam style should also ensure that graduate students taking the exam are asked to synthesize their knowledge of the primary and secondary texts, as well as place both within the larger context of current scholarship, teaching, and literary history. In short, it should ensure that students who pass the exams have achieved the breadth and depth of knowledge in their chosen fields that the PhD Candidacy Exams are meant to ensure.

 

real talk: candidacy exams

I have spent the last six months studying for my candidacy exams, which, two days ago, I passed.  It’s a good feeling, and I can see the temptation to simply carry on–to bury this experience in the debris of ongoing work.  But I’m not going to do that, because I think it’s important to be frank about the particular challenges of this task. I intend this to be an honest reflection on my candidacy exams and preparation–I can’t promise that my experience will align with the experiences of others.  However, I do hope that those of you who are beginning preparations for candidacy exams will take it for what it is worth.

Opacity

When I consider the challenges of my exam preparation, they basically boil down to opacity.  It’s not an intentional opacity meant to keep you in the dark, but because everyone’s exam is different–different committee, different subject matter, different expectations–it is virtually impossible for anyone (peers, committee members, program directors) to say with any specificity what the exam will be like.  There was a lot of speculation–Well, I would never ask you a question like that, but so-and-so might…–and a lot of wildly varying reports from colleagues in the cohorts ahead of me.  This I can’t do much about here, as it seems that there really is a wide disparity in the kinds of information students are expected to have mastered.

In addition to the opacity surrounding the exam itself, I encountered a serious lack of clarity regarding appropriate exam preparation.  My initial plan was to read everything and take notes on it, then go back to review those texts I found difficult.  By May it was obvious that there would be no going back to review, and by June obvious that there would be no reading everything.  Concerned, I checked with my adviser, my graduate women’s support group, and my friends, who reassured me that nobody reads everything.  But by September, with the exam date set, it became clear that I wasn’t even going to make it through the intro and a few selected chapters of all of my texts.  The vagueness of my friends’ and colleagues’ assurances–I skipped such and such a chapter and was fine! or Nobody reads every word or I’m sure you’re prepared–left me certain that the kind of selective skipping and skimming they were talking about was nothing like the fifteen pages here, book review there preparation that was taking up literally all of my available time.

The fact that I had no way of checking whether I was preparing sufficiently and correctly–that I didn’t know what others meant by ‘reading’ a work and they didn’t know exactly what I meant by it–was the hardest part of the whole exam process.  And this, I think, I can do a little something about, by honestly sharing in concrete terms exactly how I read for my exams.  I can’t guarantee that what turned out to be more than enough for my exams will be enough for yours.  But I can be open about this in the hope that frankness, even from a single source, will be of some use.

Nobody Reads it All

My reading lists consisted of a total of 132 items split between my major field (eighteenth-century British literature, 84 items), and two minor fields (histories and theories of form and histories and theories of the body, 24 items each).  An “item” is sometimes a single book-length work, sometimes a number of “selections” from an author’s oeuvre, sometimes three or four essays, and sometimes an individual essay or chapter. Here’s how I ‘read’ these works:

Slide1My major field list primarily included literary texts from the eighteenth century, although 21 of the 84 items are secondary scholarship in eighteenth-century literature. I read literary texts much faster than I read secondary scholarship and critical theory.  I also started with my major field list, reading through most of the primary texts while I still had energy and optimism.  So, the way I ‘read’ my primary texts is rather different from the way I ‘read’ my secondary texts.

Slide2Slide3The presence of 14 individual chapters or articles, almost all of which I read in their entirety (because they are short–so why not!) skews the chart to suggest that I “properly” read more of the secondary texts than I did.  Without the individual articles and chapters, it looks like this:

Slide4My point in sharing these figures is not at all to suggest that I did a shabby job preparing for my exams.  As I suggested above, the work I did was more than enough to prepare me to pass my exams with a committee of prominent scholars at the Ohio State University.  The questions I answered poorly were not due to inadequate preparation; reading that extra book, or extra chapter would not have helped. I’ve come away with a binder full of fantastic notes that will no doubt prove invaluable for teaching and research in the future (and were vital in the written portion of the exam).  And, most importantly, I am (you’ll have to trust me on this, as I can’t quantify it with a chart) way smarter about eighteenth-century literature and scholarship, literary formalism, and theories of the body than I was six months ago.

I know I’m not the only type-A perfectionist who went to grad school, and I know I’m not the only one who likes to know she is on the right track when devoting six months to something.  I want others in this position to know that in my case, it turned out that the way I was reading (or not reading) was OK.  More than OK.  But the way I was feeling about my reading was not OK; it made the past six months miserable.  My colleagues said to me that this was normal, that everyone is miserable when preparing for candidacy exams, and that things would get better when it was over.  But, while I do believe it’s probably normal, I think that kind of normalcy is bullshit.  Why should anyone spend half a year miserable? Miserableness just makes it harder to work efficiently.

If you have charts (or numbers) reflecting how you did your exam reading that you would like to share, let me know.  I’d happily post them (anonymously if you want).  My thought is that any little bit of transparency about this process is a step in the right direction.

 

london, 1665: zombie apocalypse

Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1722) is a chilling account of the plague that hit London in 1665. It is also, in places, bears a striking resemblance to twentieth and twenty-first century zombie narratives.

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For instance, there’s the rumor (which the narrator assures us is false) that those afflicted with the plague want to infect people who are well:

…those that did thus break out were generally people infected who, in their desperation, running about from one place to another, valued not whom they injured: and which perhaps, as I have said, might give birth to report that it was natural to the infected people to desire to infect others

And their method of infection is compared to the bite of a rabid dog:

Some will have it to be in the nature of the disease, and that it impresses every one that is seized upon by it with a kind of rage, and a hatred against their own kind–as if there was a malignity not only in the distemper to communicate itself, but in the very nature of man, prompting him with evil will or an evil eye, that, as they say in the case of a mad dog, who though the gentlest creature before of any of his kind, yet then will fly upon and bite any one that comes next him, and those as soon as any who had been most observed by him before.

zombies 1

…if by the shutting up of houses the sick had not been confined, multitudes who in the height of their fever were delirious and distracted would have been continually running up and down the streets; and even as it was a very great number did so, and offered all sorts of violence to those they met, even just as a mad dog runs on and bites at every one he meets; nor can I doubt but that, should one of those infected, diseased creatures have bitten any man or woman while the frenzy of the distemper was upon them, they, I mean the person so wounded, would as certainly have been incurably infected as the one that was sick before

The plague-afflicted wander in the fields:

…I seldom walked into the fields, except towards Bethnal Green and Hackney, or as hereafter.  But when I did walk, I always saw a great many poor wanderers at a distance; but I could know little of these cases, for whether if were in the street or in the fields, if we had seen anybody coming, it was a general method to walk away.

zombies 3

And there is an abundance of horrors, like this:

Sometimes the mother has died of the plague, and the infant, it may be, half born, or born but not parted from the mother.

And this:

…The houses in the same row with that house northward are built on the very same ground where the poor people were buried, and the bodies, on opening the ground for the foundations, were dug up, some of them remaining so plain to be seen that the women’s skulls were distinguished by their long hair, and of other the flesh was not quite perished…

In sum, Defoe’s account of the London plague has many of the necessary trappings of a zombie narrative.  What’s particularly hellish is that the account, while fictional, is based on a real event. I suspect that our pleasurable fear of and fascination with zombies is dependent on our general freedom from widespread infectious disease.  While there’s always the worry about new super-diseases, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, etc., there’s no illness we know of that threatens to wipe out a tenth of a large city’s population in a matter of months–knock on wood.

words about math about words

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One of my less attractive personal habits is an impulse to reject as “stupid” those things that give me great difficulty.  Non-melodic music is stupid. Certain lines of literary theory are stupid. Running long distances is stupid.  Etc.

When I was about 11, my mom tried to teach me to “cross multiply and divide”–a mathematical procedure that I immediately and emphatically rejected as stupid.  I pigheadedly refused to learn this (shockingly simple) procedure until–eventually, and after much struggle–I realized its practical utility.  “Cross multiply and divide” (possibly also known as “proportions”?) is, now, the only mathematical procedure I regularly use to solve real world problems.

As I gear up to begin reading for candidacy exams, I find myself needing to cross multiply and divide in order to satisfy my compulsive need to organize.  For example:

If a grad student needs to read a total of 29,000 pages, and has about 205 days in which to do so, how many pages does she need to read per day?
29,000p/205days : Xp/1day
29,000×1=29,000   29,000/205=141.46 pages per day, or (141.46×7) 990.24 pages per week.

If she wants one day off each week?
990.24/6=165.04 pages/day.

And, if this grad student can read 60 pages in 1 hour and 52 minutes, how long will it take her to read 165 pages?
60p/112min : 165p/Xmin112x165=18,480  18,480/60=308 minutes–which, divided by 60 again, comes to 5.13 hours.

These numbers are, basically, encouraging.  I can easily imagine reading 5.13 hours per day, six days per week.  Of course, I timed my reading with Defoe’s Moll Flanders, which is a considerably easier read than, say, Kant’s Critique of Judgment or Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman.  And, of course, there’s always the chance I’ve done the math wrong.

In sum (heh…sum…), this whole reading thing is going to be hard, but it’s also going to be both doable and awesome.  And if, some weeks in and some pages behind, the process starts feeling less doable and less awesome, I promise to try, at the very least, to make an effort not to call it stupid.

 

10 reasons why grad school is the best thing ever

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If you’re interested in keeping up with all the ways in which grad school is a corrupt sinkhole that gobbles up money, dreams, and potential, your reading load must be as interminable and exhausting as, well, a grad student’s.  The ever-cheery Chronicle of Higher Education, supplemented by blogs like 100 Reasons NOT to Go to Grad School and other posts, offers plenty material for pessimism.  Dissent is usually labeled naivete or denial.  But, to me, the biggest bummer about grad school (and academia generally) is our collective eagerness to dump on what we do.  After all, no one is making anyone go to grad school.  If people go to grad school, stay in grad school, and finish grad school, it is presumably because they enjoy what they’re doing.  I know I do.  So, at the risk of being branded an out-of-touch optimist, I offer a list of 10 reasons why grad school–in the humanities!–is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made:

I have a sense of purpose.  Because of the structure of the program, I’m always pretty clear on what my next step(s) should be.  There are usually several goals I’m working toward, and those goals are complex and difficult enough that I feel justifiably pleased with myself when I accomplish them.  And, particularly with regard to teaching, I actually feel like I’m doing some good.

The people I hang around with make me smarter. It’s more than just having remarkably smart friends (I had those long before grad school).  There’s something particularly great about crowding together a bunch of people who are actively accumulating knowledge of the abstract and esoteric.  The new things I learn every day are often properly weird (the long history of the jackalope, the plot of the Canadian novel Bear, the case for the USA’s founding by pirates, &c.) and thus properly awesome.  And, trivia aside, I have to work at it–hard–to keep any sort of intellectual pace with my friends and colleagues.  One could frame this as undue pressure, or unhealthy competition, but in my experience attempting to keep company with inveterate smartypantses is generative and exhilarating.

I have a job. Sure, it doesn’t pay much.  But being a graduate teaching associate helps me develop valuable future job skillage, waives tuition, and makes ends meet.  And, barring unforeseen weirdness, my job will last 6 whole years.  In a nation where postsecondary education costs an ever-increasing bundle, during a time of economic recession, I don’t think I can stress enough how badass it is that I have a paying job with a certain amount of permanence and security and that one of the “perks” of that job is that I get a free education.

My work schedule is hectic, but entirely flexible. Yeah, I don’t really have time to be writing this blog post right now.  But I can.  It’s my call.  And I can make up for the lost time at two o’clock on Saturday morning, or mid afternoon on Wednesday, or whenever seems best.

I have resources and benefits. Did I mention I have a job?  My job also has insurance! Really good, affordably subsidized insurance that includes free visits to university doctors, cheap access to university dentistry and optometry, and free sessions with university counselors.  I also get to use the fancy gym facilities, the big shiny library, and all the other institutional resources of a large university.  Grad school might make you sick, tired, and crazy, but it also makes available the antidotes to those conditions.

I still get to have hobbies. I’m actually more caught up on pop culture than ever before in my (admittedly pitifully out of touch) life.  At the end of a long work day, passive absorption sounds fantastic–so I’m able to talk knowledgeably about important topics like Mad Men, Girls, and Downton Abbey.  I do some piano plunking here and some picture doodling there.  I knit, slowly, and jog, slowly. I wouldn’t say I live a balanced life, but I do live an enjoyable one.

I’m fascinated by my work. Not only do I have a job, but my job is super interesting.  I get to read stuff from and about the eighteenth century, which is the best and weirdest of centuries.  I get to think about that stuff.  And then, I get to write down my thoughts and see what other people think about them.  It makes me stressed, obsessed, frustrated, and exhausted, but never, never, never bored.

I work in an environment that encourages me to be a better person. Have you ever worked in a place where racism, sexism, and homophobia are unremarkable commonplaces?  I have.  It sucks.  Sure, the atmosphere and internal politics of academic departments aren’t perfect, but at least the people in them tend to be critical thinker types, and there’s a high level of awareness when it comes to systemic power imbalances and such.  Not only is this environment a more comfortable one in which to work, but it also pushes me to be critical of some of the thinking I developed growing up in a very homogenous suburb, and to generally keep an eye on the ways I interact with other people.

Teaching has helped me feel like an adult.  Maybe this sounds like a silly one, but I was 22 when I came to grad school and 23 when I taught my first college writing class.  Especially in the company of my older colleagues, I felt very young indeed.  Adopting an authoritative persona and learning to confidently and successfully instruct people who are, in many cases, not much younger than I am, has been immensely helpful in making me feel like the grown up that I now (at a full 24 and 1/2 years of age, thank you very much) properly am.

I am constantly challenged.  I find that while my work gets more comfortable, it never actually gets comfortable.  Sometimes I’m confronted with tasks that are just too hard for me to do successfully.  And even when I am capable, I’m still aware of the ways in which I could be doing better.  As I try to tell my students, the recursiveness of good thinking and writing and the impossibility of producing work without room for improvement is a very good thing.  It doesn’t mean that you can’t do good work; it just means that you can’t stop trying to do better work.

If I had come to grad school to coast easily into a cushy job, I guess I’d be disappointed and disillusioned by the fact that I’m working as hard as I can toward an uncertain end.  As it is, I’m getting exactly what I signed on for, and I think it’s good for me.

fun with failure

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When I was a little kid, I came in second in Pepin Wisconsin’s annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Days Little Laura Lookalike Pageant.  I had come nowhere close to winning in past years, and that had been just fine with me.  The obvious point of the pageant was the fun of dressing up (and the subsequent parade, in which candy rained down from the floats like the locusts that destroyed Pa’s wheat crop in On the Banks of Plum Creek).  But coming in second made me realize that this was the sort of event that one could succeed or fail at: and I hadn’t succeeded.  I cried, publicly (but fortunately not on stage), like the sore loser I was.

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The outfit in question, but a different event.

I would like to say I’ve changed in the fifteenish years since I didn’t quite become the nineteen ninety-something Little Laura Lookalike.  Unfortunately, I’m still crappy at failure.  When I stopped to walk 3/4 of the way through my first 5K run last weekend, I cried a little bit again–not so much like a sore loser, since I was hardly in it to win it, but like a person who believes that falling short of a stated goal (to run the whole race) invalidates the entire attempt (including deciding to run even though I’m no good at it, the successful completion of the first 3/4 of the course, and the bit where I decided to start running again after a few blocks and was able to finish strong).

While there may be merit in holding oneself to high standards, consistently failing at failure is not an attractive or a productive quality.  My ideal self is (paradoxically?), an accomplished failer.  And at the end of an extremely long semester during which I’ve been rather sloppy about trying to be a better person, I feel like it’s about time for a new self-improvement project.

simpson-failure

Improved failing will require not avoiding things that might (or probably will) lead to failure.  (It’s obviously no good trying to fail at these things–that kind of failure is actually a success, which leads to all kinds of confusion. Also, it’s cheating.) I’ll need to try things that are really hard and potentially scary, and care enough about them that messing up is a proper disappointment.  I’ll need to be bad at things in front of other people.  And I’ll need to engage with my failures, rather than rationalizing them away and/or moping.

Some activities rich in potential failure include: sticking to a disciplined work schedule, running, trying to get stuff published, karaoke, playing piano in front of people, bowling, math, learning Spanish, sewing projects, all kinds of art, cooking and baking with complicated recipes, teaching, studenting, knitting things more complicated than scarves… [I welcome additional suggestions]

My hope is that this isn’t just a masochistic exercise (although it might be that, too).  I’m generally pretty good at thinking about gray areas, but I’m not very good at experiencing them comfortably.  Working on failure will produce gray areas–if I succeed, I fail, and if I fail, I succeed, and either way there’s an inseparable experience of good and bad.  Just putting myself in situations where I’m not sure whether I’ve succeeded or failed will hopefully, in itself, be a useful exercise in complexity and ambiguity, which, as I tell my students, we all ought to value and embrace.

i want you because no one wants you, or, reflections on two decades of emotionally manipulative personified inanimate objects

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When I was a young kid I didn’t like bananas, because of the strings (you know…the strings?).  But if I refused to eat, my mom would say that the banana was sad because I rejected it.  Sometimes the bananas would even cry.  I could never stand up to their tears–so I ate them, strings and all.

…banana strings.  ugh.

In junior high the vice principal sat in the lunchroom every day for about a month trying to sell these blue and yellow knockoff beanie baby lions to raise money for the school.  The lions were cheaply made and kind of ugly, but the utter indifference of the student body to the vice principal’s project–and the deep sadness of all those unwanted lions–broke my heart, so I bought one.
Later, in high school, my brother tried to get me to go halfsies on a discounted but still obscenely expensive Droopy McCool figurine by suggesting that it was on sale because nobody wanted it.  Despite a very low investment in marginal Star Wars characters, I very nearly gave in.

There was also that time with the big foam chair, which was moldy.  Like the bananas, the chair didn’t even have a face to recommend it to my sympathies.  But still, I choked up as we rolled its moldy carcass out of the basement on its journey to the dump.

Given the amount of real rejection and loneliness in the world, it seems stupid–and potentially unethical–to waste tears on the inanimate.  Confusion between things and people is, arguably, one of the Big Problems of the day.  We substitute images and status updates for people, political rhetoric for people, corporations for people.  This slippage is something I think we need to attend to and resist.  But, in defense of the knot that still ties in my chest when I see a thing rejected or abandoned, perhaps the old idea that our capacities for sympathy and compassion improve with practice might, in a small way, redeem my foolishness.  Maybe kids who have sympathy for bananas and their perverse, self-destructive desire to be eaten also have sympathy for people and their sometimes perverse, sometimes self-destructive desire to be wanted.  If we’re going to be mixed up about people and things, I think it’s better to fruitlessly apply sentience and vulnerability to things (as well as people), than to treat people with the carelessness and instrumentality with which we treat our things.

big bad: buffy and body

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I just want to say at the outset that I am a fan of Joss Whedon and nearly all his work (Dollhouse was a little meh, but whatever), and that I absolutely adore Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  I’ve recently been re-watching the seventh season for like the fifth or sixth time, and can honestly say that my love for the show is ardent and abiding.  But if we can’t point out potential flaws in the things we love, then what good is love, right?  Right.

So: Buffy and Whedon and feminism and the female body.  Whedon is usually–and usually should be–talked about as a feminist, although there are an essay here and a blog post there that scrutinize his pro-womanpower credentials.  These critiques focus primarily on the behavior of the female characters in his shows.  Personally, I think the fact that the characters don’t always act in perfectly empowered, perfectly feminist ways is fine, so long as we as viewers notice it.  Showing that traditional systems of power can influence even strong, independent women (and the men that ostensibly support their strength and independence) is not necessarily the same as promoting those systems.  Well-handled, it’s potentially an important way to portray the realities of twenty-first century almost-but-really-not-quite-there-yet gender politics.  That’s not, however, what I want to talk about.

What I want to talk about is how all the smart, strong, powerful women on Buffy are itty bitty.  S.E. Smith, author of the blog post referenced above, touches on this.  I would like to dwell on it.  Buffy: tiny.  Willow: tiny.  Anya: tiny.  Faith: tiny.  Cordelia: tiny. Dawn: tiny.  Frankly, it’s hard to notice how tiny everyone is because there’s no variety, no point of comparison….until Tara.  Tara is awesome, strong, beautiful, and has a slightly different body type than other Buffy women.  Wikipedia notes this difference, and some fan responses.  Notably:

  • Fans characterized actress Amber Benson “as fat and unattractive.”
  • Benson “was referred to as ‘astoundingly non-Hollywood’ by a Scottish journalist.”
  • Benson responded by “protesting that she was at 5 feet, 4 inches (1.63 m) and 118 pounds (54 kg), not at all overweight, although she appears heavier than her more petite costars.”

Tara

I noticed the difference, too.  When Tara showed up I was like, “oh, she’s chubby…wait, no, she’s totally not…hmmm…those other girls must be hella-skinny.”  Or something along those lines.  Unlike the more judgy (“fat and unattractive”?!) fans, I was psyched.  Tara’s body gave the show a (very) little balance, showed that there could be (a small amount of) range and variety to female beauty within the Buffyverse, and reminded viewers that some neat ladies have hips and suchwhat.

All well and good.  The thing that makes me grumpy enough to write long, disgruntled blog posts about the issue is something Whedon said in the featurette “Casting Buffy” on disk 3 of the Season 5 DVD set.  Speaking about casting Benson as Tara, he says:

I had always imagined her as, you know, very tiny and birdlike…Amber came in and physically was not the type, you know, she was more womanly and voluptuous, and she gave this incredible read…but physically it wasn’t what I had been thinking about.

Oh, yes, tiny and birdlike.  Because that’s original…

It annoys me that Whedon’s original scheme was for Tara to be just one more skinny girl.  Yeah, sure, there’s something cool about small, frail-looking chicks kicking muscly vampire ass–it’s important to represent as powerful the body that appears to lack power.  But if you want to empower bodies that really lack power–especially on screen, but really everywhere–you need to look at women larger than a size 4.  Writing a “feminist” TV show that depicts women as uniformly skinny and petite–with one anomalous 118-pound “big” girl cast despite her deviance from the character’s intended aesthetics–is extending power only to those women whose body types already meet society’s approval.

And certainly, I’m not claiming that this issue is exclusive to Buffy.  It’s been said a million times, but I’ll say it again: until we regularly see a greater diversity in actress body shape and size, it’ll be hard for me to see TV shows and movies as adequately feminist, regardless of their content.  Glee does an ok job with this: Mercedes (Amber Riley) and Lauren (Ashley Fink) both play larger women with a pretty powerful supply of confidence and talent, and character development that extends (to some extent) beyond the “issue” of their weight.  In addition, Glee’s Tina (Jenna Ushkowitz) represents that remarkably elusive being, a medium-sized lady on TV.  And despite its constant emphasis on the rampant misogyny of the ’60s, Mad Men too wins points for Joan Holloway’s (Christina Hendricks) attitude and extravagant sexiness.

Joan

We’re not nearly there yet, though, and not likely to get closer if feminist-y shows don’t take the lead.  Without body diversity consistently represented on screen, it’s too easy to narrow the range of “normal” body types to a ridiculously tiny wedge of those represented by actual female bodies.   It’s sort of like how my students fail to notice the presence of race in all-white shows/movies/commercials: the repetition and lack of contrast in an all-skinny female cast creates an unrepresentative sense of the female body for the viewer.  The thin body becomes the neutral body, and all other bodies–including the 5′ 4″, 118 lb. body of Amber Benson–are marked as Other.

willy wonka and the gothic chocolate factory, etc.

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My final project for DMAC is a series of assignments for my fall writing course that ask my students to engage in multimodal composition related to our course topic, the Gothic.  In addition to building a (not yet functional) website to publish the finished projects, I’ve also developed rough drafts of two assignment prompts, and examples of finished products to accompany those prompts.

Assignment one is fairly simple and quick.  It’s designed to provide an introduction to the Gothic, to visual design, to textual composition, and to fairly low-stakes public speaking, all within the first couple weeks of class.

My example for Assignment 1 defines and provides examples of “claustrophobia”.  I embedded sound with PowerPoint’s “record audio” feature, and used AuthorStream to upload the finished presentation to the web.  Although AuthorStream doesn’t deal perfectly with Macs, and thus there is some unintentional messing with the design (things like centering, image placement, etc.), it seems to be the best platform for embedding PowerPoint presentations in my Dreamweaver site.  Click on the image below to watch and listen to the sample project:

My class will then revisit multimodal composition at the end of the semester with a more involved, argument based modified PechaKucha-style presentation.  After a semester of getting familiar with the Gothic, this final assignment asks the students to apply this knowledge to works that fall outside of what is conventionally considered “Gothic.”

My example project for this deals with the 1971 movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  I chose this film, rather than the 2005 Tim Burton re-make with Johnny Depp, because the latter is I think too overtly creepy in aesthetic to count as “unexpected” Gothic.  This project uses the same technical processes as the first, but the thinking involved is a little more complex (this time students are asked to make an argument, and demonstrate their understanding of the Gothic) and the assignment requires sustained engagement with the PechaKucha form.  Click on the image below to watch and listen to the sample project:

For both projects, I will provide storyboarding worksheets on which students can plan out their presentations and consider the way text and image will work together in the finished project.  I will also encourage considered, feedback-based revision before uploading content to the website (which will, of course, be optional).

At this point, I’m pretty confident that these assignments have multiple and valuable pedagogical purposes (see “Objectives” sections of each assignment prompt).  What I’m less sure about is how my students will respond to the assignments.  Is image and text and verbal presentation too much to ask in the first couple weeks of the semester?  How comfortable are they already with the technology I’m asking them to use (basically just PowerPoint, but they will be asked to add embedded sound if they want to contribute to the website content) and will I have adequate time to instruct them on technology if necessary?  Will this be too easy, too hard, or just right?  Do I know how to teach visual rhetoric?  Are my assignment prompts relatively clear to the average student (they are in draft-form at the moment, of course)?  Are these projects my students will find useful and interesting, or tedious?

These are some of the questions I’ll be working through this summer as I plan my course, and inevitably also next fall as I teach it.  Of course, I welcome any feedback on my plans and materials that can help me have a successful course in the fall.

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