27 April 2008


Pages to read: 100. Eliot's Middlemarch. Rosamond and Lydgate are engaged, blithely ignoring the financial realities they'll face. Fred has just discovered he'll inherit nothing, while the stranger Joshua Riggs inherits all. And Will Ladislaw has returned to Middlemarch, much to Dorothea and Mr. Causubon's (who I always think of as Mr. Causubon, not Edward) surprise.

To accomplish: Email potential committee members to make appointments. Rough out C list.

26 April 2008

Why this blog?

A little over a year ago, I decided not to return to grad school. Not for the first time. I'd taken a quarter off (also not for the first time) for various reasons, one of which was that I had not finished an incomplete in time to receive funding for the fall quarter. But not finishing that paper was simply a symptom of much larger problems--problems to do with deeply rooted insecurities and depression. So I'd taken the quarter off and as my deadline loomed to finish the work and as I felt more and more stressed in the face of not having completed it, I decided that I'd had it with the strain of earning a PhD. I notified my department and started taking steps to pursue other options.

I knew I still wanted to teach, so I looked at available jobs in local community colleges. And I started filling out an application for a private school head-hunting firm. Applying for jobs requires letters of recommendation, so I contacted my supervisor for teaching and my academic adviser to ask for letters. And I called an old professor, J, from my years as an undergrad. He was the closest thing to a mentor I'd had. And we stayed good friends after I graduated and went on my way. He wasn't in when I called, so I left a message: I'm dropping out. I'm looking for a job. Would you write me a letter?

A couple of days later, J called me back. I wasn't looking forward to this call. I knew it would be difficult. He's always encouraged me to pursue my PhD and to teach at a university. And I was right--the conversation was not an easy one. But it was an incredibly rewarding one. In that hour spent talking while I sat in the shade on a friend's driveway, J recounted his own grad school experience to me. The hours spent shooting trashcan hoops instead of working. The guilt of knowing that his wife was supporting him while he made no progress. The self-doubt that constantly nagged at him. The power games his dissertation chair played with him. All in an effort to make me understand that I'm not alone in my discouragement and frustrations with grad school.

At some point in that conversation, J passed on advice someone had given him. "It's like being lost in the wilderness. Whatever you do--no matter how unsure you are about which way to go--you have to keep moving. Because if you sit down, you'll never get out of the wilderness. You just have to keep moving." That advice resonated with me. I knew I simply had to do what needed to be done--that nothing else could better prevent the negative, self-destructive thought cycles I caught myself in. And in the year since J shared that advice, I've heard it from several others--from Seymour, who started this program with me nearly 5 years ago; from 'The Dean' (JP) and 'The Doctor' (RAF), who Seymour introduced me to and who have been an amazing source of support; even from new acquaintances I don't know all that well. I intend this blog to help in my effort to keep moving.

And how will it do that? I anticipate it helping me keep moving in two key ways:

Obligation: If I know that others know what I'm supposed to be doing and how well I'm fulfilling those obligations, I'm much more likely to act. In other words, I don't always do so well when only accountable to myself. By making my progress public and easily accessible to those who may care, I'm applying a bit of pressure. I've particularly got The Dean and The Doctor in mind, as they have effective pointy figurative boots with which to give me a kick. But if any of the rest of you want to join in the prod-Amy-to-finish exercise, please feel free.

Recognition: One of the destructive thought cycles I find myself in is thinking I've accomplished nothing. This often happens because I think on a large scale about my projects, rather than thinking in terms of the small daily steps that must be taken. I find that when I have some means of recording what I actually accomplish each day--no matter how small it is--I'm able to break that cycle and continue moving. So this blog will not only communicate to others what I'm doing, it will also force me to recognize my own accomplishment. Something I need any help I can get with, as I'm my own worst critic (who isn't, really?).

I'm not entirely sure exactly how this will end up working. It's just an idea that occurred to me this afternoon as I was working in my office (yes--I spent most of my Saturday working in my 8x10 office; yay me!). I have a few ideas about what I can do here that will help others help me and that will help me recognize what I need to do and what I have done. A few things you'll see here:
  • Goals for daily reading. I'm prepping for my qualifying exams, which translates to a lot of reading. I'm going to try to set a goal each day and report on whether I met it.
  • A weekly (maybe daily?) task list of things I'd like to accomplish. This may show up on the side bar. Or it may show up in an entry. I haven't decided yet.
  • Reading notes. I really need to start keeping track of what I'm reading for my lists in a more organized fashion. I doubt these will be of interest to many people other than me, but hey--if you really want to know what I think about surveillance in Villette or preconception in Middlemarch, feel free to peruse.
  • Reviews of useful works of criticism.
  • Lists of useful web resources.
If you have suggestions for how I can make this blog a useful tool, I'd love to hear them. And if you have suggestions for useful research management devices, I'd love to hear those, too.

Wish me well as I renew my commitment to this venture. It's time for me to start moving out of the wilderness.

Research interests, or What gets me excited.

I'm not going to try to spell them out in great detail here--just give you a sense of where I think I'm heading. I've changed my primary field several times over the years (those of you who know about my undergrad career and its six or seven changes of major won't be surprised). But necessity has demanded a decision. Which led me to review what kinds of papers I'd written in my several years in grad school. What I finally determined was that although I love 20th century fiction, I find myself returning over and over to 19th century fiction. That I write regularly about issues having to do with gender formation and definition. And that I more often than not write about community in some form. So my first definition of what I wanted to study for my quals, and ultimately my dissertation, was: Victorian literature (I've usually tended towards British, more than American); women's lit/women's studies (which I envisioned including both British and American women from a long 19th century); and theories of community (to which I quickly added theories of the novel).

As I discussed these topics with faculty members and began doing my reading, I realized that I was seriously limiting myself on my secondary list (women's lit/women's studies) by not allowing myself to consider how male gender roles are formed and perceived as well as not considering more fully how male authors write gender. So the first significant change I made was to make my secondary list an American list from 1830 to 1900. Doing so will let me more fully engage with not only the literature, but also with the questions of how various communities conceive of themselves and of gender within their boundaries.

I also decided that rather than constantly fearing my own ignorance when it came to criticism in the field, I'd try to use my lists and prepping for my quals as an opportunity to become more conversant in that criticism. So my third list has shifted away from being a theoretical list towards being a criticism list. I'll still read some basic texts on community, genre, and gender, but I'll also read major works of criticism on 19th century British and American literature. I think the most important thing this allows is reading the literature in order to discover what's there, rather than bringing a preconceived theoretical approach to the literature. In keeping with that, I'm exploring various options for approaching genre, gender, and community at a slant rather than head on. I'm interested in them as systems of classification--how do we conceive of classes of people? How do we define communities? How do we acknowledge and allow (or ignore and disallow) difference inside classes and communities, which are by definition groups of like things? I've thought about using science as a means of approaching these issues, but I'd love to hear any additional suggestions you may have.

So those are my interests. Briefly. And here they are even more briefly:
  • Victorian literature, with a particular emphasis on the novel and prose non-fiction.
  • The Novel as Genre with an interest in how the novel has shaped conceptions of community and classification.
  • Criticism in those two fields of literary studies.
  • Theories of genre, gender, and community; or how humans make sense of themselves through classification.

Experiencing Grad School

After completing my B.A. in English at Brigham Young University, I happily went off to Charlottesville, VA, where I earned my M.A. in English at the University of Virginia. At the time, my education was more of a pasttime than a pursuit, which left me struggling with what I'd do with myself after graduating. I spent two years working--one in Boston as an assistant in a law office and one in Utah where I was a marketing/PR/creative jill-of-all-trades for my sister's new company. But I found myself hankering after more school and (more importantly) longing to teach, so I went through the arduous application process (not once, but twice) and eventually found myself enrolled in the English PhD program at UC-Irvine. Grad school has been an exercise in frustration and fulfillment, discouragement and discovery. In other words, it's been a bit of a rollercoaster. After taking time off, I've had a hard time getting myself moving again. This blog is part of a larger effort to move.