Book Stacks

One of the benefits of being a student researcher (surprisingly) is that you gain a lot of upper body strength from lugging armfuls of books to and from campus on a weekly basis. I officially started my senior thesis project last March, but have also had other concurrent research since January 2009. This translated into a lot of trips to Young Library and a lot of gasping and wheezing as I carried books back up the Hill where I lived. Over the past year, I’ve accrued almost an entire shelf’s worth of research material (apologies to anyone trying to check out a book on “Queen Elizabeth I,” “Henry VIII,” or “The Revenger’s Tragedy” among other related topics – I’m pretty sure I kidnapped that entire section). And this is true of most of the other Departmental Scholars that I’ve spoken to. If we put all of our texts together, we could probably build a mighty fortress of nerdiness awesomeness.

Unfortunately, however, now that I’ve finally finished and turned in my thesis, it’s time to bid those books (and my dreams of building a book fort) farewell.

Thesis research with bookcase for comparison (roughly a dozen are missing because I've already started returning them).

And since I’m already doing a post on my propensity for hoarding books…

Texts from research on collaboration (picture taken last March).

I wish I could say that I’ll miss the giant stacks of books surrounding my desk, but I’m pretty excited for a non-research-intensive Spring quarter. (Although I did ask my American Fiction professor last week if I could do a research paper instead of a regular essay… O.o)

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“I go alone/ Like to a lonely dragon”

A conversation with the boyfriend –

Me: Did you know that Shakespeare made the word “lonely” popular? Like people didn’t use that word until Shakespeare. But that’s crazy ’cause its so common now.

Boyfriend: Maybe people were just really happy before and then Shakespeare came along and opened Pandora’s box. And everyone was sad. 😦

Well… not quite, although Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human does make a similar (controversial) claim. Whether or not Shakespeare was the first to discover or conceive of individual psychology (and then make that concept popular), he certainly left us with a great set of new vocabulary with which to describe our inner selves. One of the most fundamental things that I believe and love about literature is that language can change the way we think and see the world. Shakespeare was a great inventor of language and he was so good at saying “what oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed” as Alexander Pope would put it. (Although, to temper my bardolatry, I will also say that he produced some duds like “unfix”.)

A lot of non-English majors I know shrug off Shakespeare like a chore, something they had to read in high school, and they wonder how Hamlet or Much Ado About Nothing will ever be useful. Maybe its because Renaissance drama is my specialization, but I really do feel like Shakespearean studies is important precisely because Shakespearean language has influenced so much of Western culture since the 1600s. Ever use the words “dejected,” “ruminate,” or “pious”? Or even “abstemious” – which is usually the second or third word on any SAT vocab list? You have Shakespeare to thank for that.

Now that I’ve given my “why I love English” speech of the day, it’s time to get back to converting citations for my professor’s article on Shakespearean neologisms. It’s tedious, but also insanely awesome because it’s like I’m reading a top secret unpublished manuscript. I love my new job.

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.

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!

It’s the Hard Knock Life for Us!

This is why  I am up at 5 am, poring over Alfred Harbage’s Annals of English Drama, 975-1700: An Analytical Record of All Plays, Extant or Lost, Chronologically Arranged and Indexed by Authors, Titles, Dramatic Companies, &c. (among the 21 other texts stacked on my desk). 

I love research, I really do. I love wandering into deserted sections of the library and cracking open dusty books that probably haven’t been checked out for decades (or at least years). Sometimes I even like just reading off different titles and visualizing how much knowledge and insight exists in just that one library.  I find it really exciting that I get to learn so much stuff that we never even touch in class.

But no matter how you spin it, deadlines suck. Especially deadlines imposed by arbitrary school schedules. *Brain explodes.*

Life in a Cardboard Box

“What is research, but a blind date with knowledge?” – Will Henry

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As an English major, one of the questions I hear most often is: “What do you plan to do with your major?” and other variations of “What do you want to do with your life?” These well-meaning skeptics tend to appear in the form of Asians, pre-professional majors, and engineers. At Thanksgiving gatherings with family friends, I get either the sympathetic stares reserved for “Girl-Destined-To-Live-In-A-Cardboard-Box” or eager suggestions for me to go to law school or switch to business. It seems to me that most people look at college as more of a vocational school than a center of knowledge and exploration, intended to advance our understanding of the world we live in and acquaint ourselves with the greatest minds of human history.

Of course practical preparation for the real world is important. There’s no doubt that necessity and therefore money is a powerful motivating force. But I can’t help but think that there’s something more to life than “bread and butter.” Like the ascetics of Buddhism, I tend to believe that materialism and physical needs are paltry compared to our spiritual well-being and somehow, even though I understand the benefits, I can’t bring myself to forsake my intellectual interests for a bigger wallet (not that I’m against money in general – if you happen to love a subject that also brings in the big bucks, more power to you).

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However, despite the inconveniences of always having to defend my major, I do think that it is a valid question. Why literature? Why research? Why academia? There seems to be a strain of anti-intellectualism in America that discourages the life of the mind, the pursuit of the Ivory Tower. The common thought is that spending too much time in scholarly endeavors renders one useless in the actual society, but personally, I think this is an unfair stereotype. I don’t think there is anything more pure and beautiful than the pursuit of knowledge and truth.

A couple weeks ago, I bought a stack of books from an English Department book sale, one of which being The Art of Literary Research by Richard D. Altick (1975). The pages are yellowed and the book has that old library smell, but I like flipping through it whenever I’m having an academia-induced anxiety attack. One quote at the very beginning of the book I think sums up the attraction of studying literature:

“In no other subject is the pupil brought more immediately and continuously into contact with original sources, the actual material of his study. In no other subject is he so able and so bound to make his own selection of the material he wishes to discuss, or able so confidently to check the statements of authorities against the documents on which they are based. No other study involves him so necessarily in ancillary disciplines. Most important of all, no other study touches his own life at so many points and more illuminates the world of his own daily experience” – Helen Gardner, “The Academic Study of English Literature,” Critical Quarterly, I (1959).

These factors led me to the study of literature and they are also what keeps me here. I’ve been given advice to just fulfill my intellectual curiosity in college and then go out and get “a real job,” but I don’t really see how I can do that. You can’t really satisfy a thirst for learning in four meager years, or even in a lifetime. In the final (and my favorite) chapter, Altick describes “The Scholar’s Life” and every time I read it, I’m reminded of why I want to spend my life in academia.

“The scholar really never ceases being a scholar. He may firmly lock his office door at the end of the day, but he never locks or sequesters his intellect. Consciously or subconsciously he continues to mull over the problems his restless curiosity about books and history has set loose in his mind, and sometimes, at the oddest moments – at 3 A.M. or while taking a shower – a bright new idea may come to him from nowhere… The bookish excitement that has led them into the profession permeates their lives.”

“No other profession offers so legitimate an excuse for reading great literature. And though the siren song of research may lead us to spend many hours in realms far removed from art, if we learn our lesson correctly, they may sharpen our understanding and appreciation of the masterpieces to which we are devoted.”

“Though time is always short, we have the lifelong company of books; and what is more, we have good human companionship… Love of books and a consuming interest in the intellectual and esthetic questions they pose make brothers of men with amazingly different backgrounds and tastes. In scholarship there is no prejudice born of national origin, creed, color, or social class; we live in the truest democracy of all, the democracy of the intellect.”

I’m willing to concede that Altick’s portrayal of a career in literary scholarship may be a bit idealized, but I think its a beautiful ideal to aspire to. At its best, research can be infinitely rewarding.

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(Clearly, I have not been disillusioned yet.)

On a final note: Who else is really depressed about Pushing Daisies being cancelled? Let’s mope together with some pie (dosed with homeopathic mood-enhancers), knitting, and pop-up books. 😦