Joining the Conversation

Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.” – Richard Feynman

With this quote, Anthropology professor Jerry Moore concluded his keynote speech at the 17th annual Southern California Conference on Undergraduate Research (SCCUR), held this year at CSU Dominguez Hills. Moore’s point, in an address titled “Undergraduate Research in Difficult Times,” is that there is something wonderfully satisfying and pleasurable about university research that cannot be replaced by trade schools and technical training programs. People may see academic pursuits as a luxury in this slumping economy, but Moore argues that there must always be a place where people can learn, wonder, and discover. Research, as Moore puts it, is the best way to learn.

This weekend, Lillian (of Scientific Lillian) and I joined 400+ participants at SCCUR 2009 in embracing and celebrating the necessity and beauty of research, particularly at the undergraduate level. I got to sit in on two oral presentation sessions (including my own) as well as spend some time looking at posters during a poster session. I was impressed by the seriousness and dedication of the presenters as well as the creativity and range of the questions and approaches that they took. From 1950s Hollywood censorship to vanity sizing in women’s jeans, the presentations definitely ran a gamut of research topics.

During my own panel, the presenters spoke on Islamophobia in the US media and Renaissance rhetorical practices in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Presenting last, I talked about collaborative authorship in Renaissance theatre, particularly focusing on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen. I wasn’t especially nervous as I had already given a preliminary version of this presentation at a previous conference. But at the same time, there is always a certain amount of insecurity about how your ideas will be received.

I think academic conferences are important for this very reason. Research can be lonely, but it is so so important to find your own tribe to share your ideas with and get feedback from. In my honors research colloquia, we’re always talking about inserting ourselves into the scholarly conversation and showing our awareness of previous scholarship. Oftentimes in undergraduate literary research, this means responding to journal articles and critical theories. But at some point, we hopefully begin to engage in real life debates with the people we used to cite in our papers. We will struggle to meet their challenges and questions and eventually we will emerge the better for it. Fancy ideas are just fancy ideas until you test them against an audience and persuade them to see things your way.

Personally, I also find conferences to be a great source of motivation to get cracking on my own research project in the same way that Googling grad school CVs already makes me worry about getting published. You’re filled with a nervous energy, but its the good kind that inspires your ambition and excites the spirit. Going to a conference with 400+ presenters really hits home the fact that a lot of people are doing exactly what you’re doing so you better work harder than ever if you want a shot at the whole professor thing.

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Mental Pep Talk

Exciting news! I finally turned in my letter of recommendation packets on Monday! Which means I can stop fiddling around with my list of schools. I had a list of about 15 places that I liked, but finally narrowed it down to 12, which is the same number of schools I applied to for college (lucky number?). See if you recognize any of these places:

Surprisingly, applying for grad school has actually made me feel more confident about my qualifications for each program. I can be a bit of a perfectionist (especially about English) and I tend to beat myself up and generally have a bad day if I oversleep for class or don’t finish annotating the reading. There have been many many moments in my undergraduate career where I’ve felt like I wasn’t good enough for graduate school. But looking at the responses I’ve gotten over my statement of purpose and CV, I think I’m starting to realise that no one is harder on me than myself and that I need to be more confident about my abilities. If I work really hard, I can get into a top tier PhD program and the only thing stopping me is that silly part of me that says that I’m not good enough.

However, I also know that being a grad student means more responsibility, maturity, and accountability. It means doing what you promise to do and taking initiative to do even more. It means being excellent and engaging even on your off-days. Especially in a new city, it means being independent, taking care of yourself, and learning to endure a lot of lonely nights with a cup of tea and a book. But I firmly believe that life will force you to grow up and take responsibility. A lot of these things are just part of becoming an adult and I will be ready to cross that bridge when I come to it.

Remember to Breathe

This week I focused on finishing up my letter of recommendation packets, which meant that I had to finish writing my statement of purpose, updating my curriculum vitae, and opening online applications for each school. This process ended up taking way longer than expected. Even with Veteran’s Day holiday in the middle of the week, I am still not done. My goal now is to finish everything and get the packets out by Monday because it’s getting perilously close to crunch time.

The only problem is I can’t decide on which introduction to use of the four that I’ve written. I worry that one is too controversial, the other too naive. I don’t know if I should bring up a favorite childhood novel or mention this-and-that theorist. I want to sound intelligent, passionate about literary research, hardworking, and capable. I want to send out a piece of writing that I will be proud of, something that accurately represents me as an English enthusiast and budding scholar and as an awesome possum human being. All in 500-1000 words. Piece of cake, right?

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SCCUR 2009 at CSU Dominguez Hills

I think the pressure is really starting to get to me now that eighth week of Fall quarter is approaching. Next Saturday, I’m presenting my 199 research project at the Southern California Conference for Undergraduate Research (SCCUR) so my presentation has to be revised. I need to publish the latest issue for the research journal; my thesis advisor wants to see a good chunk of my senior thesis written up. And there’s quizzes, finals and grad school applications. Responsibilities are piling up. I just hope I’m not in over my head.

Its days (or weeks) like this when I need a nice pick-me-up. So here’s my happy list for today:

  • Taking a lovely stroll through campus (instead of the usual NYC power walk to class)
  • Eating spicy grilled cheese sandwiches
  • Getting a fast response from Yale about my fee waiver (brownie points from promptness!)
  • Having the whole weekend ahead of me to work on applications
  • Receiving a very nice kiss-and-make-up email from my Milton TA after everyone got mad at him for grading the midterm really hard
  • Reading Madame Bovary on my new Amazon Kindle 🙂
  • Being featured on the UCLA University Librarian’s blog (my thesis project is also the third one listed here!)

I was really excited about the last thing in a nerdy nerdy way. As an undergraduate, one sometimes worries about being seen as inexperienced, unreliable, or unprepared. You worry that people don’t take you seriously or respect your ideas. So it totally makes my day when I feel like I’m slowly being accepted into that shiny magical realm of scholarship.

Six Months Later…

Wow, so I haven’t posted here in a long while. It’s been a hectic few months since I last posted.

Back in May, I presented my 199 research project on collaborative authorship at my first academic conference, the 2009 Westwind/Aleph Conference for Undergraduate Research & Writing. I stayed up the entire night before perfecting my speech and was assigned to moderate for the morning session. All the presenters in my session, “Texts and Contexts,” were seniors presenting their honors thesis papers. It was nerve-wrecking, scary, and exhilarating all at the same time. Hearing each presenter’s research and talking about my own, I felt like I had finally joined the kind of intellectual discourse that I had read about, envied, and desired. And I knew that this was the kind of community that I wanted to be a part of for the rest of my life. I ended up winning a Dean’s Prize for my presentation. Afterwards, exhausted, I collapsed on my bed and slept the next 16 hours away.

The next morning, I woke up feeling tired, sore, and feverish. My lymph nodes were swollen and my throat felt scratchy. It was eighth week of Spring quarter, I was taking a 22-unit course load, and somehow, I had the bad luck of developing mononucleosis. The good news was that I only had a fairly minor case; after two weeks of nothing but sleeping, eating, and dragging my butt to lecture when I could muster up the energy, I was well enough to finish out the quarter, turning in final papers and taking my finals. However, my energy level (and more importantly, my motivation for work) took awhile to get back to normal.

I had originally planned on studying hard for the GRE Literature in English test and working on my senior thesis over the summer. I also wanted to get a head-start on the graduate school applications that were due in December. My parents, however, recognized that I was burnt out so when I moved back home for the summer, they really pushed me to get my health back to par. Over the next two months, I went running, hiking, backpacking, and camping. We took a week-long trip to Alaska, conquered our first “fourteener” (14,000 ft above sea level) – White Mountain Peak, and backpacked Mt. Whitney. I also got to hike my first class II mountain, Mt. Dana in Yosemite. I spent a great deal of my summer in the wilderness, rediscovering my love for nature and adventure. While I love the cultural opportunities that LA provides, sometimes I miss the Henry David Thoreau part of me that looks for the poetry in Nature and delights in walks by “Walden pond.”

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In September, I moved into the apartments right off-campus with my two roommates from last year and we’ve been having a lot of fun cooking and going on midnight grocery runs to Ralph’s. My boyfriend and his friends live next door so we do a lot of spontaneous potlucks where each person cooks one dish and we roll the boys’ dining table down the hall to our apartment so we can all eat together. (For example, last night’s barbeque chicken! Yum.)

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In other news, I’ve resumed my ushering duties with UCLALive, went to a Snow Patrol/Plain White T’s concert at the Wiltern, and made a visit to the Clark Library with Sigma Tau Delta. Academically, I finally started Latin 1 this quarter (yay) and just took my GRE Lit yesterday morning! Now that I’m halfway through Fall quarter and in the middle of application season, I figured I’ve neglected my blog enough. I don’t usually talk about my personal life on this blog (that’s not what it’s for), but applying for graduate school, deciding that its right for you and showing an admissions committee that you belong at X university, is a deeply personal process. And I’ve been thinking it might be worthwhile to share this experience with you, dear reader.

So prepare to hear a lot more about statements of purpose and nervous anxieties, apartment life and secret nerdy dreams about meeting Slavoj Zizek. I also plan to post a GRE guide (general and literature) for those of you looking to take the test within the next year so check back soon!