Figs and Hedgehogs

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story.  From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked.  One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out.  I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose.  I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.

– The Bell Jar

Ever since I read The Bell Jar in college, this passage has haunted me. It haunts me because I am greedy and ambitious and picky about what I imagine my life will turn out to be. I used to have a list of alternative careers that I would pursue if I had more one life to live, but in order to keep the figs from wrinkling up at my indecision, I decided to choose just one and pursue it with all my might. I shut all the other options out because I was certain that I wanted to be a hedgehog and not a fox (a la Archilochus). I wanted to be the best at one big thing, rather than know many things. I didn’t want to be a jack-of-all-trades, a master of none.

But I am also greedy. And even as I hold the fruit that is already in my hands, I mourn the loss of all the other possibilities life could have held for me. I could have been a travel photographer. I could have been a screenwriter. I could have been an art gallery curator or a hot-shot editor for The New Yorker. But I was afraid. Afraid of picking the wrong path. Afraid of failing. “I wanted each and every one of them,” but somehow I felt that “choosing one meant losing all the rest.” And I think the indecision comes from the fear of choosing wrong, the fear that you can’t see where this narrative arc will lead you.

This is not to say that academia was a safe choice or a second choice. In fact, of all the figs, I probably picked the most ridiculously difficult one to attain (especially given current trends, i.e. the odds of securing a tenure-track job are at ~8% and dropping nationwide and the academy has begun responding by accepting fewer PhD students each year). And this is also not to say that I regret it or that I feel as if I’ve picked wrong. But to some degree, I feel like, in my fear that indecision and wavering would cause me to freeze up and stagnate, I failed to give myself the space to play around with different options and to explore what was really possible.

I chose the path that I am currently on my senior year in high school. And the truth is, I’ve been afraid to look back and reassess that decision, to open myself up to the entire fig tree again and say, “pick again.” More and more though, I think I see the necessity of facing that uncertainty and diving into new territory. In doing so, I think this will be more of a recalibration than a complete overhaul, an adjustment of sorts. But I want to give myself the option of pursuing other things, smashing unconnected topics and fields together, and seeing what will become of it all.

I want to allow myself to not plan because there’s no way I can possibly know where things will lead. I just want to be passionate about the things that I love and not worry just yet about how it will all fit together. And somehow, I think this will open doors that I didn’t know existed and – hopefully – lead to a happier me in the end. I think it’s time to stop doing what “makes sense” and just do what gets me excited in the morning.

This is all a very convoluted way of saying that the way I do my scholarship is about to change dramatically (starting with my oral exam lists) and I hope you (and my graduate program) will bear with me long enough to see exactly why this is the best move for me.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

– Steve Jobs

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.

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…”


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?

An Unforgiving Art

First entry of the new year! My schedule this quarter is pretty packed – I’m taking three English classes, continuing my work with Aleph, and embarking on an independent research project on early modern authorship. My GRE prep course also starts in less than two weeks so things are going to get hectic in Sophialand. 

One of the classes I’m taking is on the history of literary theory and criticism, which has been really interesting so far because it discusses the types of ideas that got me interested in literature in the first place.  I love literary criticism and the debates it has over genre, language, and the nature/purpose of fiction and poetry. 


Anyways, I was reading Horace’s Ars Poetica last week and this section really caught my attention:

“In some things, a tolerable mediocrity is properly allowed. A mediocre lawyer or advocate is a long way from the distinction of learned Messalla and doesn’t know as much as Aulus Cascellius, but he has his value. But neither men nor gods nor shop-fronts allow a poet to be mediocre. Just as music out of tune or thick ointment or Sardinian honey with your poppy gives offence at a nice dinner, because the meal could go on without them, so poetry, which was created and discovered for the pleasure of the mind, sinks right to the bottom the moment it declines a little from the top.” 

Horace’s opinions of his own profession strongly reflect my own views about studying literature and working in academia. There is no room for mediocrity in my career plans… which I think is just a little scary.

(P.S. Ushered for the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra this past weekend. Simply phenomenal. If you ever get a chance to see the “Cellist Twins” Pei-Jee Ng and Pei-Sian Ng in concert, do it! They’re mindblowingly awesome. :))

Life in a Cardboard Box

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


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).


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.


(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. 😦