Notes from the Seventh Grade

Yesterday, I was in a hurry to go to a meeting/movie night for the English Honor Society so I grabbed a mandarin orange and ran out the door. The sun had already dipped just below the horizon and streetlights were lit up prematurely in the blue-grey of dusk. As I peeled and savored the bright fruit, I remembered an old poem that I had first read in the seventh grade – Gary Soto’s “Oranges.”

It’s a simple poem about young love, “the first time I walked/ with a girl.” On a cold December evening, the narrator takes this girl, whose face was “bright/ with rouge,” to a store and buys her a chocolate by trading in an orange because he didn’t have quite enough money. Like I said, simple. Seventh grade note-passing Pokemon-loving simple. But somehow, the words have always stuck with me.

I remember my literature teacher going on and on about the imagery. “Fog hanging like old/ coats between the trees,” she would quote. “Imagine that. Isn’t that beautiful?” At the time, I didn’t think that much about it. I liked the story and thought it was cute, but I didn’t see what the big deal was about the fog.

But now, when I see the misty fog as it hovers over Wilson Plaza, I imagine them to be coats, waiting to be worn by some fairy queen. And that evening, while I ate my orange, I remembered the words:

I peeled my orange

That was so bright against

The gray of December

That, from some distance,

Someone might have thought

I was making a fire in my hands.

I remember reading once that you meet your most important, most memorable books before the age of 12. To think that one’s reading career ended before high school seemed too sad and impossible to me, but to a certain extent, that statement seems to be true. The books that you like and the person that you will become are inevitably shaped by what you were exposed to as a child. When I walk to class, old lines of poetry come to me and a tiny orange becomes a bright orb of fire between my fingers.

Poetry makes the world more beautiful.

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Chaucer’s Revenge?

Hilarious email that I thought was worth reposting:

The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the European Union rather than the other possibility, German.

As part of the negotiations, the British Government conceded  that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a 5-year phase-in plan that would become known as ‘Euro-English’.

In the first year, ‘s’ will replace the soft ‘c’. Sertainly,  this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard ‘c’ will be  dropped in favour of ‘k’. This should klear up konfusion, and keyboards kan  have one less letter.

There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year when the troublesome ‘ph’ will be replaced with ‘f’. This will make words like fotograf 20% shorter.

In the 3rd year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more  komplikated changes are possible.

Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling.

Also, al wil agre that the horibl mes of the silent ‘e’ in the  languag is disgrasful and it should go away.

By the 4th yer people wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing ‘th’ with ‘z’ and ‘w’ with ‘v’.

During ze fifz yer, ze unesesary ‘o’ kan be dropd from vords kontaining ‘ou’ and after ziz fifz yer, vevil hav a reil sensibl riten styl.

Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech oza.

Ze drem of a united urop vil finali kum tru.

Und efter ze fifz yer,ve vil al be speking German like zey vunted in ze forst plas.

“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.

Don’t Blink or You’ll Miss It

Life for the graduating senior really moves way too fast. The last time I posted, I was happily savoring my second academic conference and dreaming about the pleasures of research. Unfortunately, literally the day after the conference, my life became consumed by graduate school applications. From ordering GRE scores to mailing two dozen transcripts to chasing down fee waivers, my days quickly became filled with frantic runs to the post office and calls to departments about tedious procedural issues. Not to mention personal statements and writing samples to edit and personalize for each program. Every school has different requirements and little details like “Do you send it to the Graduate Division or the department?” or “Official or unofficial transcript? (And all colleges attended or just your degree-granting institution?)” will slowly start to drive you insane. I think I really underestimated how stressful it would be to apply to twelve PhD programs while still taking 17 units worth of classes and working on a senior thesis. It definitely didn’t help that my first and second round of deadlines were during and immediately after finals. For the massive number of schools with a December 15 deadline (Tuesday after finals week), I basically ended up ordering pizza, making ramen, and working on applications around the clock. While I made all my deadlines and do feel like I represented myself very well, I would have appreciated having a bit more time (and being less stressed out).

So I guess my most important advice to future applicants who aren’t taking a gap year is this: start early and allocate as much time for applications as you would a core class. Take your GRE and subject test early – preferably during your junior year. Research and finalize your program choices over summer. During Fall quarter, take a light course load and ease off the extracurriculars. Of course there are a lot of other things you should do to increase your chances of getting into a program, but the bottom line is that if you don’t take the time to present yourself in the best light, then all the work you’ve done to make yourself competitive will be completely useless.

However, even though application season was like a hellish nightmare, there were also moments when the process really made me appreciate why I wanted to go to graduate school in the first place. While researching faculty interests, I quickly found myself immersed in the research of those professors whose articles I had cited and whom I greatly admired. In reading their works, you indirectly engage with the greatest minds in your specialty and you desperately hope to one day get the opportunity to learn anything and everything from them. At some point in the application process, it dawns on you that this time next year, you might be studying under the likes of Stephen Greenblatt, Jeffrey Knapp, or David Scott Kastan. And it’s absolutely thrilling.

Since the new year, I’ve given myself a few weeks to wind down, but recently things are picking up again. I’m going over the unit cap again with 22 units and 5 classes this quarter so there really isn’t that much room to slack off. My senior thesis (40-60 pgs!) is due in March (my tentative draft deadline though is February 15) so I think I’ll be focusing mostly on that for the next few weeks. I also just got a research assistant position under my Shakespeare professor this week AND I still have two midterms, a few quizzes, two papers, and three finals left in the next six weeks so it will be a hard run to the finish.

The view on the other side of this quarter is going to be great though. I will be presenting at the Sigma Tau Delta International Convention in St. Louis in March the day after my last final and at the University of Montana, Missoula in April for the National Conference for Undergraduate Research (NCUR). By then, I’ll have heard back from all my schools and the annual Westwind/Aleph Conference in May will be a nice cap to my senior year. Then graduation!

In four months and one week, my “college years” will be over and the days of just pretending to be grown up will be gone. Am I ready to be a grad student, live alone in a new town, and fend for myself? Am I ready to be a grown up? Just thinking about it takes my breath away.

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.

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?

sccur2009

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!

Pursuing the Life of the Mind

I’ve been taking an Information Studies seminar on “The University Professor and its Critics,” which is basically an easy way for me to do some job market research. We read about and discuss topics like peer review, tenure, and academic freedom. While I am getting a clearer sense of what I’m getting myself into with graduate school looming ahead, I am finding a lot of what we’re learning pretty depressing.

lecture hallThe state of our current education system and people’s perceptions of the “ivory tower” threaten the viability of the professoriat as it is today. Adjunct professors, who are typically employed part-time on a year-to-year basis without the job security (and academic freedom) provided by tenure, now make up almost 70% of university faculty (see Chronicle of Higher Education article). The advent of the for-profit university has triggered a move towards the university as corporation, where what we learn and teach is left in the hands of the market (look how well that turned out for Wall Street). Most tragic is the lack of respect for the life of the mind as a profession. Academics engage in the production and dissemination of knowledge; they preserve our cultural history and advance human intellect. It baffles me how such a noble pursuit has become so stigmatized in the anti-intellectual culture of modern society.

As much as I am in love with academia, it is obvious that the obstacles that stand in my way are very real. The treatment of academics, especially in the humanities, from adjunct-status to research funding cuts to teaching lower division remedial courses, inevitably affects my chances of pursuing the career path that I have chosen.

I was reading John Guillory’s article “The System of Graduate Education” today (as a way of procrastinating on homework) and was struck by this observation about students aspiring to become professors:

their chances of success in situations where the
odds are stacked heavily against them. (State lotteries
depend on this fact.) Those who labor intellectually
may be even more susceptible to
such hope, because they already possess some
measure of faith in their own abilities. These
persons are the least inclined to accept that mere
chance can determine their fate. We all know
this, because our students persist in pursuing an
academic career even after they have heard the
worst from us. In fact, they are often right about
their abilities, even if they are wrong about the
probability of success. Intellectual labor markets
can draw large numbers of very talented people
into what is essentially a kind of lottery, where
minimal differences in abilities will determine
very large differences in career outcomes.

“Human beings in general overestimate their chances of success in situations where the odds are stacked heavily against them. (State lotteries depend on this fact.) Those who labor intellectually may be even more susceptible to such hope, because they already possess some measure of faith in their own abilities. These persons are the least inclined to accept that mere chance can determine their fate. We all know this, because our students persist in pursuing an academic career even after they have heard the worst from us. In fact, they are often right about their abilities, even if they are wrong about the probability of success. Intellectual labor markets can draw large numbers of very talented people into what is essentially a kind of lottery, where minimal differences in abilities will determine very large differences in career outcomes.”

Like I said, depressing, right? But alas, it turns out that I am an optimist, hopeless romantic, naive undergrad, whatever. Maybe I should be running for the hills (i.e. law school). Maybe I should be changing my major to something more “practical” or participating in activities that will give me “real world experience.” Maybe I should just admit that I’m crazy and in way over my head. But my favorite Jack Kerouac quote always comes to mind:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”

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I’d rather explode across the stars than never have made it up to space at all. Besides, if we don’t risk while we’re young, when are we ever going to?