Thursday, March 17, 2011


I found out last night that the MLA panel I was helping to organize with a few other people got shot down. Unfortunately, I found this out after the deadlines for other MLA panels' CFPs had passed. Such is life, I guess. We're shifting our focus to ACLA and hoping the panel will run there.

On the brighter side, my prof liked the paper I wrote for him over spring break. It's nice to get some positive feedback after the feedback I received on the last piece of writing I turned in (for a different prof). I much prefer reading "The main stylistic item is the use of 'I/me.' While it isn't a mortal problem, it does weaken the authority of your voice" to "Ugly sentence," to take examples from the feedback I received on the two.

I've read back over the paper twice (I will obsessively read over anything when I get it back), and I'm a little happier with it now than I was when I turned it in (ah, the power of getting a good grade). What struck me as I read, though, was how different my writing is now than it was when I started grad school and before. I would love to be able to take a time machine back to three or four years ago and allow my younger self to read this paper. What would my response have been? I can only speculate, but I imagine it would involve some of the following:
  • Confusion: I had a (how to put this?) limited grasp of literary theory at that point. My knowledge of postcolonial theory was nonexistent. Poststructuralism was similarly outside of anything I knew. I have the feeling that my younger self might have been a little bit lost during the first half of my paper (and not because the writing makes the ideas obscure. I literally didn't know anything about the stuff I'm talking about in this paper). My grasp is still limited, but I've come a long way since those dark days.
  • Anger: My younger self would have had no patience reading through any of the theoretical stuff at the start of the paper. At that point, I considered the only worthwhile thing in any writing on a text to be a close reading of that text (yes, there are universities that are still pushing the New Critics as the vanguard of literary studies in the 2000s. I was at one of them). This is connected with the feelings above and below, but my younger self would have wondered what the point is of the parts of my paper that address what the (extratextual, larger, and more important) point actually is.
  • Fear: My younger self was a pathological abuser of using critics to prop up what he said so that he never really had to advance an argument (I imagine this is why I'm trying so hard to prevent my students from forming this habit). Everything my younger self said came with citations to prove someone had already been there and to suggest that if you had an issue with an idea, take it up with the cited critic. To be making bold claims in a paper that are the product of my own thinking? I can hear my younger self whimpering.
  • Pride (I hope): This last one is dicey. This paper really is so different from what I knew about literary studies and what I was writing three, four, or five years ago (hell, even last year, really) that it's debatable whether or not my younger self would have recognized any value in this paper. I like to think, though, that my younger self would admit that it's better written than anything I was then capable of. I would also tell him it's better argued and infinitely more interesting, but I doubt he'd concede that point. He's a stubborn bastard, my younger self is. 
Sometimes it's little victories that matter. I can definitely measure and see my own growth as a writer and thinker reading through this paper, especially when I think back to papers I wrote in undergrad (and even when I first got to grad school). This might not amount to much (it might only show how bad my writing was back then and still is now), but it is a tangible sense of progress, something that can be all too rare in this environment. I've decided to take this paper as an opportunity to celebrate small successes (something I constantly coached the members of the dissertation writing groups I ran to do but rarely have practiced in my own life). I'm not done with this paper by any stretch of the imagination. Now comes the painful and mystifying part: turning it into an article. Before that, though, comes a brief moment of celebration.


My good friend wondered recently how to be happy in grad school. I don't know if I'm happy, but thinking about how far I've come and how hard I've worked to get here, I feel accomplished. I feel pride. It's a rare and kind of new thing for me. I know my friend has stuff just like this to feel proud and accomplished over (even if she would laugh this off or tell me I'm crazy). This is uberlame, but I hope that she takes a moment to feel proud and accomplished for all the times she's kicked butt. I'm glad I told all my dissertation group members to celebrate the little things because it turns out they do matter, and it feels kind of nice to do that sometimes.


  1. And (b/c you know I can't only say that one line), my older self still doesn't have a grasp of all that stuff you mention up there in the post. I think I'd much much more enjoy reading papers with your younger self than with your older self (sorry, haha). Long live New Criticism!

    Except I do still need the Paper Idea/Thesis Statement Machine circa noon on Saturday . . . reserve it for me . . . please . . .