Welcome (back!)

If you’re new to Writing Haywood, welcome!  There’s an about button at the top of this page for more on who I am/what I do.  I haven’t posted here since October, so clearly I have some catching up to do, but I was recently inspired by a couple of things to start posting again:

A) my ever-lovely dissertation partner, Alison Dean, recently vamped up her own professional site for a conference, and it’s gorgeous! You can swoon over it here.

B) I’ve been revising an article for The Journal of Early Modern Cultural Studies, and it has been an interesting (and hard! and rewarding!) experience, and one that I want to write a longer post on soon, so what better way than to write a mini post before I even write the post? [I have been a PhD student too long.]

C) I also fiddled around with the template for this site (the banner rotates when you refresh the page–fancy!), and I wanted to tell you about a review I have out in Aphra Behn Online.  It’s a review of an edited edition of Haywood’s The Rash Resolve and Life’s Progress, edited by Carol Stewart.  It was so great to see a scholarly, edited version out for the first time, and I enjoyed reviewing it.  You can read it here.  While you’re at it, check out the awesome project that is Aphra Behn Online!  With a focus on women’s writing in the long 18th century, ABO encourages open-access scholarship and other cool, thinking-outside-the-academic-box type things like articles on pedagogy and reviews of websites and art installations.

I guess that’s it for my welcome back, especially since I should be working on my revision [whomp whomp].  Thanks for stopping by, and more soon on applying to/editing/revising your first publication.  Comment below if you want to hear anything specific about the process (I’m looking at you, graduate students) or give any advice about the process (I’m looking at you, seasoned publishers).

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To Conference or Not to Conference: That is the Question

My first conference was SEASECS (South Eastern Association for the Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies) in 2008.  It was in Auburn, Alabama, and I was on a panel with my then advisor and two other prominent-in-the-field scholars.  I had no idea that the other two presenters (my advisor was chair) were Big Deals.  I was nervous about giving a paper, sure, but I didn’t know how nervous I should have been.  In hindsight, this was probably a good thing.  I’m sure I delivered a rather mediocre paper, got thrown some softball questions, and then just smiled like it was all a super fun time.  And it was!  I had a good experience; my advisor seemed pleased with me; and I met several people with whom I now have good working relationships.

I think what I liked most about my first conference was the sense of community conferences give you.  When you’re working on texts hardly anyone ever reads, and when your friends and family can barely explain what you do (let alone listen to you when you talk about it), it feels particularly nice to go to a place for a few days and have everyone speak your language.  Yeah, there are some super awkward moments that usually go down at these events (you can’t really put a whole bunch of awkward people together and not expect that to happen), but for the most part, I’ve found that people my age are generally willing to talk about the hell of grad school, their own projects, and yours.  There are also lots of junior and senior scholars who are genuinely helpful and kind.  Of course, there are also snotty grad students, junior scholars who would rather die than seen socializing with grad students, and senior scholars who make fun of student papers (yes, I’ve seen this happen).  But for the most part, conferences have always seemed like a safe haven of ideas and conversation for me, and I genuinely like going to them.

Which leads me to the point of this post: how much conference-going is too much conference-going?  As someone who is dissertating from afar, I find that the conference setting helps relieve my feelings of isolation and provides me (usually) with good feedback for whatever I’ve been working on.  And so I tend to go to conferences perhaps more than the usual grad student.  Since the start of this year alone, I’ve been to three.  This has been a bit of a strain financially, but it’s also been worth it in many ways.  I got back two days ago from my most recent conference (which was exceptionally collegial and awesome) and began to wonder if I’d over-extended myself.  I’ve been to two conferences this month alone (oops), and my actual DISSERTATION CHAPTER has been given very little, if any, attention (whomp whomp).  So here are some things I want to remind myself of (and maybe you, you young jedi) as I start thinking about the next year and the next CFPs start parading themselves into my inbox:

1)  This is just a draft, right? Wrong: My current advisor told me a while back that I should only go to conferences when I had something solid to present (read: not a draft) and that people would begin to recognize me at these events and string together my paper-giving performances (as well as gauge my level of scholarship).  While I think this is sound advice, I also think it can be really helpful to read drafts and get feedback from a larger collective group of knowledge.  Which is basically what I’ve been doing lately (and hoping for the best in the Q&A).  So how do I reconcile my advisor’s advice with my own penchant for procrastination and thinking that a draft will suffice?  Well, I think that maybe I need to STEP UP the level of paper I give at conferences, but I still don’t think it has to be an airtight argument.  At the conference I went to in March, I gave a fairly clean, mostly completed version of the first chapter of my dissertation.  It was received well.  The last two conferences I have been to, I have presented and co-presented on two difference aspects of my current chapter.  The co-presented paper was argumentatively sound and the writing was clean, but we didn’t get much feedback due to there only being a whopping 3 people in the audience (sigh).  At this most recent conference, I gave yet another version of this chapter, and again–almost entirely radio silence.  And I’m genuinely not sure if it was because what I was presenting (which has an art history bent) is so far out there from the usual, or if it was because my paper was not strong.  Which leads me back to the point of this paragraph: I think it’s important to find a good combination of thoroughly thought-out and draft-like.  I want to be better prepared and remind myself that conferences aren’t all about the socialization.  They are also about giving a thorough synopsis of your work, one that you can be proud of.

2) Professionalization: As I mentioned earlier, I think socialization is really important for me at conferences.  I’m sure other people feel this way, too (there wouldn’t be so many lunch plans hurriedly made in hallways between sessions, or dinners out with long-standing friends if that wasn’t the case).  But at my stage in the game (starting year five of the ol’ PhD), I think professionalization might be even more important than socialization (I can hear all you grad students gasping already.  Close your mouths).  I’m not saying that it’s a bad idea to go out and have a drink (or four if you’ve presented that day) at night with your friends, but I’m also reminding myself (and you) that it’s important to make contacts that you can call on later, too.  I carried my cards with me this time and handed them out to anyone who looked like they might want one.  I gave them to people my own age and even a couple to senior scholars who might be able to help me with my work on down the road.  But I wish I’d done more of this kind of thing.  I was feeling so self-conscious about my lack-of-paper-response that I think I failed to be approachable and interested when I could have made even more contacts and connections.

So for next year, I think I’ll choose my conferences more wisely.  I won’t apply to more than three, and those three must be fairly spread out (no more doing 2 in one month again…ever).  I’ll also make sure that the proposals I turn in have something to do with the research work I’ll be doing around the time of the conference.  I’ll prepare in advance and have a good hybrid between a draft and a well-curated paper.  I’ll make sure the paper is written before the conference so I don’t miss panels holed up in my hotel room writing (or rocking back and forth while weeping silently).  I’ll also make sure I’m confident enough in my own work that people not being able to respond to it doesn’t make me want to crawl up in the fetal position.  These are all strong exhortations for a girl who usually “does her best work under pressure,” but I think they merit a blog post here to remind me of exactly what I’m feeling now–and how to curb that the next time around.Image

I saw this in the back of the American Airlines magazine, which I was reading on the flight to the conference instead of writing my paper.  It’s pretty magical, though, right?

Playing School: Case Studies in Academic (Dis)Enchantment

A few days ago, I watched my four-year-old niece sharpen each of her #2 pencils and then choose brightly colored eraser tops for them. The sharpener crunched and brought back that familiar tension as I waited for her to turn it one time too far and break the point, but she didn’t.  She quickly caught on to the joy that is the perfect pencil point and the eraser top, much to my delight.  Then, she opened her puppy-themed notebook and began to print her name. I held my breath in excitement and waited to be asked for help.  A plea never came, and I watched in rapture as she continued to draw and write all sorts of things…her name, a mermaid, a list for the grocery store.  The afternoon stood still as I watched her big, bright eyes wait for a task.  She tackled drawing shapes, coloring little pictures I drew for her, and tracing her name over and over.  The whole thing felt kind of magical, like I was reliving a part of my own childhood and watching something unfold in her, too.

The fun of playing “school” continued the next day–the last day of summer.  In order to get ready for school, my niece practiced reciting her lunch number, her address, her birthday.  Prodded by my mom’s love for teaching (my mom is her pre-k teacher, and an amazing one at that) my niece made all of us (we each had different school roles: principal, teacher, lunch lady, janitor) play along. She sharpened. She completed tasks. She recited her lunch number for the lunch lady (her mom) and received crackers for her efforts. She beamed when we ooohed and ahhhed over her “work.” In that moment, it occurred to me that we were her audience in her own little drama; the people who would pass judgement on her drawings and writings (albeit never negatively…the kid’s awesome!).

My niece’s joie de vivre–even about things unrelated to school supplies–is catching.  But watching her light up over something as simple as sharpeners, #2 pencils, and new notebooks made me feel so nostalgic for those back-to-school shopping trips, for the Lisa Frank trapper-keepers (children of the 90’s say “yeahhhh”), and for all the positive feelings that attended a new school year.  But besides just being so in love with her and her intelligence and zest for life, I remembered that it must be so nice to only be accustomed to positive feedback.

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The other day, we were my niece’s fan club. Every square she drew correctly, we rejoiced. Every time she “punched in” her lunch code, we cheered.  What a thrill to know that you have a fan club, I thought.  If she wasn’t so durn cute, I’d probably envy her.  And I don’t wish her a lifetime of only having a cheering section, either.  When it comes down to it, I hope she gains positive and constructive feedback all along her academic journey–but only the kind that builds her up and makes her better, smarter, stronger.  I want her to be criticized out of love and out of a sense of betterment for her own sake–not because of a future teacher’s ego or position of power.  I hope each grade and each school and each college course builds on its predecessor and shapes and forms her into the kind of thoughtful, intelligent young woman she’ll grow to be.

I wish all of these things for her because I love her and because the experience of watching her play school these past couple of days has really touched on something I’ve been thinking about so much recently: the question of academic audience.  I have been struggling with the format of the dissertation for quite a while now: the hoops, the endless revision, the feedback, the hoops, the endless revision, the feedback (repeat).  I feel like I’m stuck in a washing machine that won’t finish a cycle.  Part of me knows this is par for the course, and several valued friends who are on the other side of the degree have told me to hold on and buckle down.  But at what expense?

All of this is really about my voice.  When I watched my niece so favorably received by her fan club (us) the other day, it occurred to me that she was actively articulating a new experience for a group of people who enjoyed listening.  I’m not saying that anyone who reads my dissertation must have a pleasurable experience (far from it, probably), but I am saying that it makes sense for me to want to please those who read it.  And when I take out my own voice for the sake of argument, or academic prose style, I lose something.  Some part of me is erased from the draft and replaced by a well-turned academic phrase or a dry reference to another source.  And so I wonder, is a dissertation really not a narrative of the years spent making it?  If I can’t put my own spin on it, if it really must be this hoop-jumping beast of THING, what does it actually do and whom does it benefit?

The first part of this blog, about my niece’s experiences with school, seems germane enough for a blog post at the end of August, but it was also an experiment with writing a tad more creatively about an academic subject (loss of voice/self in dissertation writing…in case that hasn’t come across).  And it was hard.  I labored over most of it.  I wondered if I was being clear, if the whole thing had a point.  I worried about offending the people who calmly and collectedly read every.single.draft I turn it.  But then I remembered that those people probably aren’t reading this, and I remembered that this is a blog, and here I have a voice.  This is about finding a way to make my experience better and more productive, and I know everyone involved in this process wants that for me.  So if I have to blog about finding ways to make this whole thing run more smoothly, then that seems fair enough.

So I’m trying to come up with ways to re-insert my own voice into my writing.  If that means journaling for a bit before I start writing every morning, that seems okay.  If it means that I ask other people to read chapters for a more positive experience with my audience, then that seems fair.  What do you think?  Are there any other ways to put myself back into my writing, to light up like a four year old the night before school starts?  I really want to know.

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PhD lifestyle guilt

I think this goes along nicely with my post about people asking me when I’ll graduate. For me, the PhD IS my job, and while there are times I dislike it, I mostly love it! I wish the guilt over “when I’ll get out” didn’t exist.

The Thesis Whisperer

This post was written by Paula Hanaszwho is currently writing a thesis on the geopolitics of water security in South Asia at The ANU. She is enrolled at the Australia National University but currently spends more time on her couch than in her office or the library.

I’m going to take a moment out of my busy study schedule to interrupt yours by telling you about my experiences with PhD Lifestyle Guilt. This is, as the name might suggest, the perennial guilt about having the sort of life where ‘work’ involves sitting around on the couch reading interesting stuff, and getting grants to go to international conferences.

easy chairOf course the PhD Lifestyle is not like that for everybody. I’m fortunate enough that, in Australia at least, writing a thesis in the humanities means no coursework. And no coursework means very little reason to be on campus. Ever…

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Catch-up, catch-all

Hello!  I’ve been a pretty delinquent blogger.  In fact, I don’t think I’ve posted at all this summer.  Apologies to anyone out there who cares.  May was a mad dash to finish a chapter, and June and July have been a mad dash to research and read for another chapter.  The circle is, unfortunately, unbroken.  But the good news is that I find this chapter moving along much more quickly after the slog that was the last.  I’m not sure my committee was entirely happy with the finished-for-now draft of the last chapter, but hey, it’s tabled for now (thank you, PhD gods!).  And the main thing I’ve learned from dissertating is that there will always be revisions.  My friend Ali calls the process “revisercising.”  And good lord is revisercising difficult.  It’s like  a small taste of Prometheus’s plight.  Except minus the liver being pecked out part.  Anyway, you, my target audience, probably already know all about this, so I’ll stop regaling you with tales of revisionary woe.  Instead, I’ll tell you about my recent trip to Vancouver.

As you may know, I dissertate from afar, so trips back to the motherland (Simon Fraser University) are precious gems in which I get to see all my advisors, close friends, and basically gain wind in my sails on which to float back to my isolated academic existence in Atlanta (it’s really not so bad, but it wasn’t very fun to be a little fledgling at first).  Anyway, I had a lovely time in Vancouver.  I had two meetings with my primary advisor, one with my second reader, one with my third, and two meetings with librarians.  I also had plenty of (in person!) State of the Union-esque talks with my dissertation partner, and lots of life talks with people who support me in this degree.  It’s amazing what a little sunshine (in rainy Vancouver!) and good talks will do for morale.  So here are some life and work pictures to bring my blog up to speed:

ImageChapter two is on Visual Representations of Haywood, and so I’ve been scouring various miscellanies from about 1700-1730ish to find uses of printers ornaments in texts that directly correlate to ideas of authorship (just thought I’d catch you up on what I’ve been up to before I launch into more narrative about being back at school).  This one is from Anne Finch’s Miscellany Poems, On Several Occasions (1713). These cherubs are quite obviously female, but my advisor pointed out (this is why we have advisors!) that they look like amazons–each has a smaller or deformed right breast.  This got me thinking about the correlations between Anne Finch’s proclaimed resistance to publication (“Did I, my lines for public view/ How many censures would their faults pursue…”) and the obvious authoritative nature of a printer’s ornament with two amazon cherubs clutching laurels.  There seems to be some sort of effort on the part of printers to use printer’s ornaments as narrative devices, and this next chapter will look at these ornaments and try to make such a claim.  I’m also co-presenting a paper with my colleague, Alison Dean, about printer’s ornaments and portraiture and the ways in which visual culture shapes our understanding of 18th century female authorship.  It’s so fun to use Ali’s expertise in photography (she’s a modernist who’s working on photography) to critically read these ornaments and portraits.  At some point, I’d like to write a post on collaborating as a PhD student, but I’ll put that one aside for now until we have some more experience under our collective belt.  Anyone with any tips on academic collaboration should feel free to leave us some advice in the comments!

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Here’s another example of the cross-over between representations of female authorship in text and in printer’s ornament.  This is a banner in Miscellaneous Works in Prose and Verse of Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe.  Doesn’t that profile of the woman in the banner just exude authority?  Framed by cherubs and scroll, this woman sits at the center of the banner and announces the beginning of a new text in the Miscellany.  On a pedestal and ensconced within her own frame, we can read the woman as both separate from the reader (the Author) and as intimate to us (the frame is indicative of a broach, an intimate little portrait to be worn at the neck).  Certainly, she demands our attention.  It’s been fun to look at these ornaments in works by/about Haywood and to expand this to ornaments in the works of Finch, Rowe, Pope, and Richardson.  I look forward to seeing where both this chapter and my collaboration with Ali take this idea of narrative and visual symbiosis.  But back to Vancouver:

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School flags at the downtown business campus

The connections between the visual and the textual seem to bleed off the pages of eighteenth-century texts and into my life.  Something about just getting to see things like SFU’s flags made me feel more hopeful about my existence in Atlanta and my dissertation in general.  Of course, this was bolstered by a lot of good support from friends and committee members, but sometimes you just need to be in a place, you know?  And speaking of being in a place:

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Ali took this one (^) of me in my office.  I still have an office because I’m a tutor marker for an online course, but it’s the same office I had when I was around, so it feels kind of like an office home.  And the weather was so sunny and perfect outside my window–not unlike another gift from the PhD gods.  Here’s me, the Vancouver Skyline, and a perfectly wonderful sunset:

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All in all, this was a perfectly bolstering trip.  Next up, the British Library in the Fall!

Happy world poetry day: “To Mrs Eliza Haywood”

I’ve been looking at the poetry both by Eliza Haywood and about her that is  featured in Miscellaneous Poems and Translations. By Several Hands. Publish’d by Richard Savage, Son of the Late Earl Rivers (1726).  My next chapter will feature representations of Eliza Haywood as an author featured in paratextual material, and commendatory poetry like this makes a great case for showcasing how others helped form (or tried to change) a particular image of Haywood’s authorship.  Here’s a poem by Richard Savage about Haywood’s amatory novel entitled The Rash Resolve, which was published in 1723:

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“Doom’d to a Fate, which Damps the Poets Flame”–“Fate” here refers, I think, to the negative attention that Haywood’s salacious novels would have garnered; dampening, as Savage suggests, Haywood’s poetic “flame,” or natural talent.

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Continuing to elevate Haywood’s status as prose writer, Savage commends her ability to apply a certain realism in sketching her characters and scenes: “in thy full Figures, Painting’s Force we find/ As Music fires, Thy Language lifts the Mind.”  Savage is clearly making a case for the value of Haywood’s writing.

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Savage then pairs his value judgement with diction that directly reflects Haywood’s reputation as Arbitress of Passion: words such as “yields,” “luxuriant,” “warm,” “heat,” “passion,” “sway,” “transport,” “rage,” and “pain” are all common amatory terminology and would have been very familiar to readers.

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“Can love from love retire?” I.e., can Eliza write anything else? The image of the female author at the end is especially interesting to me.  The writer (presumably female?) is sitting in a garden setting, with a cock to her left, and a lamp on her right.  I’ll let you guys unpack that symbolism.

The images are from Eighteenth Century Collections online.  The full citation is as follows:

Miscellaneous poems and translations. By several hands. Publish’d by Richard Savage, Son of the late Earl Rivers. London,  MDCCXXVI. [1726]. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. Simon Fraser University. 21 Mar. 2013
<http://find.galegroup.com.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/ecco/infomark.do?&source=gale&prodId=ECCO&userGroupName=sfu_z39&tabID=T001&docId=CW112956716&type=multipage&contentSet=ECCOArticles&version=1.0&docLevel=FASCIMILE&gt;.

DON’T EVER ASK ME THAT AGAIN: The Two Ways You Can Respond to Being Asked When You’ll Finish Grad School

Full disclosure here: I get really really testy when people ask me when I’m going to finish PhD school.  The question inevitably pops up at pretty much every friends or family gathering, from a regular Sunday lunch to Thanksgiving dinner with folks I don’t see very often (the latter is more laden with the dreaded question-askers; the former crowd is probably tired of asking).  It’s also just a general conversation starter that most people use with me after meeting me and finding out that I’m in a PhD program.  It’s like they think that finishing is *the* thing I want to talk about, instead of, say, my actual research.  In the event of being asked The Question, I oscillate between wanting to throw myself in the floor like a five-year-old and scream “I’LL FINISH WHEN I DAMN WELL PLEASE” and wanting to curl up in the fetal position and weep softly while explaining that PhD school is very, very hard, and I have zero clue as to when it will ever release me from its death grip. I haven’t actually responded to The Question in this way (yet…I make no promises here), but I have accidentally snapped at well-meaning friends and family before I had a chance to reign in the inner five-year-old threatening a tantrum of epic proportions.  But then I take a deep breath and remind myself of something very important: these people mean well and want me to finish because it’s what I want.  I think that (and I’m generalizing here) graduate students present themselves as modern-day Prometheuses, with the eagle that is the dissertation arriving daily to peck out our livers.  In sum: we whine a lot.  So, it seems natural that friends and family would actively want to play Hercules and free us from the chains that bind; hence, the question is a means to alleviate our pain, like presenting a light at the end of the tunnel.  “So when are you going to finish?” is a conversation starter meant to steer you toward the fact that you will, barring emotional disintegration or other reasons (that’s a whole different, and very serious blog post), finish this thing.  So while the question makes me want to rip something apart hulk-style, I think its roots stem from a good place.  I mean, I’m sure there are people who might be secretly mocking you for your perma-student status, but those people are just mean, and I’m choosing to deal with well-meaners here.  Now that we’ve established that the question-askers are well-meaning, how do we answer them?

I. THE “IT’S NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS” APPROACH

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I took a poll on Twitter of fellow grad students’ approaches to The Question (check out my Storify!).  Like directly naming Lord Voldemort, several took the approach that it just shouldn’t be done.  A friend even suggested that it’s like asking a woman her age: it’s just rude.  I think that perspective is easier to understand when you’re inside the academy, though, and it isn’t an etiquette rule that your friends and family are likely to pick up on.  That is, unless you explicitly tell them.  Which brings me to an epiphany of sorts: why don’t you just tell them, politely of course, that you’re not sure?  I’ve already been doing something like this, but I couch it in the fact that I’m still being funded, which I feel like gives an air of validity to my pursuit.  I shouldn’t have to do that, but I feel like if I couch my explanation within the idea that PhD school is my job, then the fact that I’m 30 and have been in the university system for 10 years (oh my god) seems like a more legitimate career path.  And you know what, it IS.  I love school.  I love what I do.  I may whine about it, and it may be difficult, but I know that this is where I want to be.  I just don’t feel like I should have to justify it, you know?  I think that’s where the Voldemort twitter response comes from: most of us love* what we do and feel like we shouldn’t have to justify it to others.

II. “THE PATH OF ACCEPTANCE” APPROACH

The twitter respondents seemed to be of two camps: the “that’s none of your business” camp and the “let’s use this to start a conversation” camp.  One person even suggested that, since he had been in a PhD program for ten years, it was a legitimate question.  Another person, Mr. Justin O’Hearn over at The Graduable, mentioned that having this conversation with a friend prompted a deeper discussion regarding whether or not he would finish the program.  I don’t disagree with the convo-starter approach; I think The Question can be a really productive one (although I’m not yet in that blessedly mature place yet).

One of the great things about the convo-starter approach is that it seems to generate really helpful discussion about the process of writing and balancing life.  It helps to acknowledge that so many things happen that are out of our control while writing this beast: we get married; we have kids; we move across the country a couple times (yep, that’s me); we experience loss; we undertake serious life changes.  All of these things can delay the process, and they are an organic part of any stage of life, but they seem especially suited to being in your 20s and 30s.  And I use “suited” because, guess what?!, lots of changes occur for most people during this time.  So balancing an actual life with writing the PhD can be really, really difficult.  And it’s important to acknowledge that to a Question-asker.  I’m not saying that you should launch into your life story whenever someone asks you The Question (and five hours later you’re done and you’re sitting in a circle braiding each others’ hair), but I do think that maybe it’s important for us to come up with a quick answer about all the things we’ve accomplished (because, yep, we have!) while writing this thing. We’re like lotuses.  Growing out of the mud.  So there.

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So what’s it gonna be: Voldemort or a lotus?  I don’t actually think you have to choose.  My friend Ann Gagne suggested that there’s a very fine line between the organic nature of writing a dissertation (it’s SO HARD to stay within a schedule because you never know what’s going to pop up–whether it’s something in life or some research-related rabbit hole) and the linearity that both your institution and those outside of it (friends and family) expect you to adhere to.  I guess answering The Question needs to respect both the organic nature of the process and the fact that you will, at some point in the foreseeable future, come away from this thing with a degree.  And it will be awesome.

*I’m using the verb “love” very loosely and to define my own experience.  Students have seriously varied experiences with their programs and some realize that it isn’t for them, and that’s okay.  I speak from what I know, y’all.

The State of the Union: A Lesson in Self-Assessment

This past weekend I had the awesome opportunity to attend the SEASECS (The Southeastern American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies) conference in Charleston, South Carolina.  SEASECS was my first conference in the field as a Master’s student (the conference was in Auburn maybe 5 or 6 years ago…I can’t remember! Time flies when you’re, er, having fun!), and it was a warm and congenial place for a first time presenter.  I found it to be much the same this go ’round, with lots of friendly advice given and contacts made and/or renewed.  I think the Southeastern aspect of the conference lends a particular, Southern air of hospitality and liveliness, and conference goers at all levels of the academic food chain are genuinely interested in, and supportive of, each others’ work.  That’s been my experience with the conference, anyway.

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(Battery Park, Charleston)

So after the fun-loving atmosphere of Charleston (we heard someone say that it was a classier New Orleans) and the collegial atmosphere of the conference, I find myself sitting in my office, answering the eleventy billion e-mails that have piled up while I was busy basking in the glow of SEASECS.  Basically, it’s like the morning after a big event when you wake up to see the remains of the party and think to yourself, “awww man,  I have to clean this up.” But the conference-induced enthusiasm that I find myself endowed with remains, even upon seeing the e-mail avalanche and realizing that I am, still, alone in Atlanta with little-to-no academic community.  This lead me to ask myself what I should do with this conference enthusiasm.  I usually shake off post-event excitement in a few days, so part of me thinks that I’ll just carry on with my normal routine and let the excitement infuse itself where it may.  But I think I’d like to be a little more proactive than that, and fueled by a conversation I had with my mentor, I want to actually take stock of where I am with my research/life/PhD.  What follows is a sort of State of the Union speech about just that, hopefully interspersed with some useful tips about how to gauge the state of your union.

I. WHERE ARE YOU ACADEMICALLY?

The first conference I went to after taking my primary qualifying exam on 18th century literature was CSECS (Canadian Society for Eighteenth Century Studies) in Hamilton, Ontario in the Fall of 2011.  I had literally just finished my exam, got on a plane and flew into Hamilton, then wrote/lifted the majority of my conference paper from my exam.  I had a raging, stress induced migraine, and I really hadn’t seen the light of day in about a week (we have one week to write a 50 page exam).  I looked like an academic feral child, but I managed to make it through my presentation and the rest of the conference (in retrospect, I will never sign up for a conference after a major deadline!), and over the course of it I realized something that I’d never experienced before: I knew enough about the scope of my field to know the context and basic conversation in every panel I sat in. What a lark! What a plunge! Suddenly, gaps were filled in that I didn’t even know existed.  I realized the point of the exam, and suddenly the effort I had exerted felt worth it.  That was the State of Sarah Creel’s Academic Union in Fall of 2011.

As I’ve mentioned before, particularly in that blog post about writing from afar, this past year hasn’t been a lot of fun for me.  I’m done whining about it and have tried to be more positive and upfront about the challenges I face writing from Atlanta (when my program is in Vancouver, BC).  What I noticed about SEASECS this year was that I have, however tentatively, turned a new leaf in terms of willingness to work toward change.  I saw so many positive things come from the conference that are the fruit of putting myself out there on twitter and this blog…and from just trying to be more approachable in general. People I met on twitter unfolded from twitter handles into actual people (postmodern craziness!), and it turns out that people are willing (and wanting!) to collaborate.  It’s funny how the moment I opened myself up to change, change happened.  And while I am still not feeling 100% positive about my actual work, I am feeling better about the working part of it.  I knew these things were falling into place, but seeing them actually manifest at the conference was definitely happy making.

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(At a delightful Charleston bookstore, Blue Bicycle Books, with my mentor)

I think this concept of figuring out where you are academically (addressing your own Union’s health, if you will) can be done without a conference.  Perhaps some serious mind mapping could do the same thing.  Or a long, honest chat with your dissertation partner or advisor, or just a friend or mentor.  Spending some time journaling or meditating also could work if you’re into that.  Whatever it is, just spend some time making a progress report of your studies.  Even if it isn’t pretty, you want to know where you’re at…so you know where to go.

II. WHAT ARE YOU WILLING TO DO?

One part of State of the Union Addresses always focuses on where the country can go.  Yes, problems are addressed, but the President usually focuses on what he (or she…someday!) can do to provide a solution to said problems.  My State of the Union this year acknowledges that there were some definite hitches in my giddyup (yes, I live far away from my program, now what?), but is now focused on being past that.  I think where I can go involves more community building on my part, even if that community is virtual.  More tweeting, blogging, being an active part of our crew’s academic writing group on facebook (we check-in throughout the day to see what everyone is accomplishing).  And, I’ve started taking my own advice (see writing from afar post again) about communicating. I emailed my advisor this morning to set up a chapter deadline (March 15th) and a Skype meeting (March 18th). Now that I’ve established where I am, it seems important that I know where I’m going.  Setting reasonable, attainable goals seems like the first step to accomplishing things. Right? Right.

And, while we’re talking about what you (and I) are willing to do, can we talk about getting out of our comfort zones a bit here? It’s par for the course to be asked to get out of your comfort zone when you move to a new place.  Adjusting takes time, but it also takes a certain extroverted effort to be able to make a new community for yourself.  That can be intimidating/exhausting, but it’s also really worth it.  A friend outside the academy (who owns a life coaching business) recently told me that she thought academics were the new, unsung entrepreneurs: blogging, tweeting, collaborating, writing and publishing wherever we can, we are putting our names out there (essentially) in order to better our chances of finding the golden chalice someday–the tenure track job.  While I’m doing these things mostly for community, I also think she’s right.  Putting yourself (your name, your project) out there into the internetosphere can’t be a bad thing (unless you’re, you know, not being professional about the whole thing).  That’s my assessment of what I can do to keep this post-conference enthusiasm up.  Strategies for accomplishing the things that come up in your State of the Union will probably vary (for instance, you might need to hole up and introvert and just get stuff done), and that’s okay.  I just think it’s a good thing to have a plan.  And, as type-A academics, who doesn’t love a plan?!

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(hey, because you’ve almost gotten through to the end of this blog post, here’s a cat picture! House kitty in Blue Bicycle Books)

Now that you’ve heard (in a relatively roundabout way) my State of the Union address; my goals for managing the problems dredged up in my address; and seen an adorable picture of a cat in a bookstore in the historic district of Charleston, tell me about the state of your Union. Do you assess your progress in your program/job in this way? What goals do you set for yourself and how do you accomplish them? Let’s do this, kids!

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(A celebratory, post-paper cocktail at Squeeze bar in Charleston)