Letting sleep(y) dogs lie

March 23, 2011 § 7 Comments

My home is incredibly quiet this morning. Except for the snoring of two sleep-deprived canines.

And the source of their sleep deprivation? Me.

You see, I stayed up until 2 a.m. this morning working on the finishing touches of my draft of Chapter Two (draft one, I should clarify). I woke up around 7:30 to Annie’s beckoning (she needed to potty, as puppies do), and sat down to do some quick proofreading (although I am confident I left some errors in the document…it’s fine, though–it’s just a draft), converted in-text citations to footnotes, and wrote a bibliography. And then…around 9:30, I e-mailed the draft off…and this is it in its current statistical form:

36 pages, over 10,000 words. The best part? Those 36 pages are really just the beginning. Those 36 pages are just to prove to my professor that I am going to make the kind of progress one needs to make in order to bang out a dissertation in time to graduate. I still have the depths of my argument to explore, which will probably take at least another 20-30 pages. Chapter Two is destined to be a long one, but why shouldn’t it be? It’s the foundation of my own argument.

Although I would love to say that my day’s plan is to just sit around and sleep, that is not the case. I have a great deal of grading left to do (most of my students’ papers). So, I’m going to work my way through those so that I can have those off my shoulders by tomorrow, return them in class, and then spend my entire weekend relaxing.

In the meantime, I’d like you to enjoy the view I’m enjoying this morning:

The saying may be “let sleeping dogs lie” (in other words “if there’s no problem rearing its head, leave it alone”)…but in my house, today the saying is “let sleepy dogs lie!”

Let’s Talk Semantics 5: I think vs. I know

March 2, 2011 § 6 Comments

Welcome to another installment of “Let’s Talk Semantics”! Before we begin, a vignette!

Ah! I think to myself. Spring has come early. Too bad for me I’ll spend it in the library. Oh well.
“Excuse me!” a shrill voice interrupts my reverie as I dig through my bag for my sunglasses.
“Hm?” I look up and find a young woman, frazzled and frantic.
“D’you know where the deli is on campus?” Her question comes fast and impatient.
“Uhm…,” I say intelligently. “Ah, the best I know is that we have one on campus. And…I think it’s near some dormitories. Maybe…that direction?” I gesture randomly to the right.
“Okay,” she says, suddenly confident in my unclear directions. “So, it’s over there?”
“Oh, well, I don’t really know. I just think it’s in that direction…but I’m really not sure. Maybe you should ask someone else.” I reply, realizing that I’m about to send her out into the wild blue yonder.
“But it’s that way? If I go that way, I’ll find it?”
“Uh…I really don’t know,” I say, trying to laugh to lighten her intensity. “All I know is that it’s near some dormitories.” (For the record: this is not like my little undergrad–there are dormitories everywhere here!)
“Okay, I’ll go that way, then.”
Laughing again, I stop her and say, “No, no! I don’t want you to go the wrong way. You really need to ask someone else. I’ve only been to the deli once and that was six years ago! I’m not confident in my memory.”
She scoffs scornfully at me and turns around to speak to a rather dashing young man. Soon, they’re laughing. At me? I don’t care. I’m going to the library.
Oh…that’s where the deli is….

—–

So, let’s talk semantics, folks. When did “I think” translate to “I know” for her? at what point do we as general listeners take someone’s thought and transform it into knowledge? Was it because I looked older than a freshman (god help me) that she just wanted to intrinsically trust me even though I was telling her that I wasn’t a trustworthy source on this point? I wasn’t wearing teacher clothes, so I looked like every other student schlepping across campus. What in my language/demeanor/dress indicated to her that I was the font of information and that I was just being modest when I said that I wasn’t sure but I thought this was true?

As a student of English studies for nearly over a decade (oh the horror!), I have learned the fine art of supporting my most outlandish claims with research and cold-hard facts. I have learned how to ethically, pathetically, and logically present a compelling argument for the purpose of persuading my reader to my side. I have learned to deliberately select specific words over others to serve a clear function. But, and let me be perfectly clear about this, if I do not know something to be true but I have a pretty good idea, then I will choose the phrase “I think,” instead. And I do so hoping that my reader or audience will discern the difference.

“I think” indicates that I have not conducted the research, have not gathered the facts, and indeed am not confident in my own conclusion to stand resolutely beside it should it be found wanting.

“I know” means the absolute opposite of the above. And I choose to use that phrase in specific instances.

This is a phenomenon I’ve noticed in increasing frequency–when I say “I think,” this sometimes translates into “I know” in the minds of my listeners. Hell, even when I say, “I don’t know” and am clear on that, sometimes my listeners hear the complete opposite. (I do know this because of recent conversations with students who have misquoted me during lecture to a surprising degree.) It is in moments like this one when I have that horribly wearying thought that my deliberate word choice is all for naught–have we turned into a society that just speaks for the sake of hearing the sound of its collective voice?

As it turned out, I ended up passing the little deli on my journey to the library. I had pointed that young woman in the exact wrong direction. Oops. Her life lesson: always get a second opinion, especially when your first source rambles on about how she doesn’t know for certain that what she’s saying is even true.

A fair warning to all readers, old and new

February 28, 2011 § 12 Comments

For some reason or another, these past four days have been turning up A.Hab.! Completely undeservedly, I am receiving recognition from a few sources, which has brought with it a ton of new readers (I’ve either gotten close to or broken past the 100-views-a-day barrier for three days). I am astonished and thrilled. So, to all new readers: Welcome! I hope you enjoy what you see here, and I hope even more that I can live up to your expectations! 😉

The places that I’ve gotten some recognition?

Well, it all started when the Social Media Coordinator for Martinelli’s, Warren, asked to share my story on the Facebook. Shock and awe! Someone at Martinelli’s saw my love-note to their apple juice in the glass bottles. It was…surreal. I’ve never been noticed by a company before, except, say, if I forgot to mail my bill payment on time or something. 😉

And then, in honor of the Oscars and yearbook season, Tori Nelson at The Ramblings honored me with the awesome superlative of “Most Likely to Rid the World of Ugly Words.” Shock and awe, again! I never received a superlative when I was in grade school. Ever. Sure, I was friends with the people who were “Most Likely to Succeed” and “Best Study Partner” (I wasn’t the friend of the “Best Dressed” and “Cutest Couple” recipients…class distinction, you know). So, many thanks to Tori for the sweet superlative! It means so much to me that you chose to recognize me for your first round of “The Sunday Paper” (where, weekly, she will point her own readers to her favorite blogs). So sweet! And, since turnabout is fair play, especially in the blogosphere: all my readers–go read Tori’s blog. Forthwith! You will not regret it! She is a hysterical, stay-at-home mom of 1-year-old Thomas, and invites her readers to laugh with (and sometimes at) her daily grind. She always puts a smile on my face!

So, then, after that stunning experience, I wake up this morning and find that the lovely Lisa Kramer at Woman Wielding Words (I loooove that alliterative title!) also gave me a shout-out! She credits me for being an honest writer–and I responded to her that it was a difficult choice to make, but one that I knew I would have to firmly decide. If I chose not to be honest with my experiences, then I would be faced either with lying or misrepresenting my life. If I chose to be honest, then I could potentially help someone else who is going through this…and also potentially get myself in some trouble. (That’s why I write this quasi-anonymously–you may notice that if someone writes a comment revealing my location, I will edit that comment. I have dropped the hint a few times, but it’s not something that I want splashed about the page…just yet. Give me until August, please. :)) It is greatly important to me that I honestly discuss especially my love-hate relationship with academia; it turned out that when I started to explore my true feelings, I discovered that I am not alone. I wish I had known that I wasn’t alone earlier. That’s the point of this blog. So, a huge thanks goes out to Lisa for recognizing that and for sharing my blog with her readers as well; it’s just amazing to me how far a little shout-out can go in this blogosphere of ours. And, with that in mind, please give Lisa’s blog a perusal. Reading her blog is like going through a private, personal stash of thoughts and mementos collected in a box. I thoroughly enjoy her writing–she’s a real writer’s writer; I don’t think she can help it! 🙂 Her writing style is accessible, witty, and enjoyable. Some of her favorite themes to revisit are her experiences as a professor of theater, her beautiful daughter Sarah, and her own fiction. Believe me: you will love them all!

Thanks again to all of these generous shout-outs in these past few days. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve the recognition all of a sudden, but I truly truly appreciate it!

Now, that said…I want to give my old and new readers a fair warning.

As many of you know and others of you will soon discover, I am writing a dissertation. This is a book-length project of torture. I have given myself a deadline of March 11th to complete the next chapter. That’s two weeks to write an entire chapter. This is not an easy task to accomplish and will probably require me to write more than 2 pages a day–probably to achieve my goal, I’ll need to write at least 4-5 new pages a day (around 1000-1500 words). This means two things: 1. I am going to continue to participate in the PostADay challenge, so there will be new entries every single day, but they may not be particularly riveting or insightful, and 2. I am going to fail hard at keeping up with commenting on new blog posts, and I will also fail hard at keeping up with responding to your comments on my blog as well. Please know that I am reading your blogs, I am loving your blogs, and that I truly appreciate your comments. I will try so very hard to catch up at some point, but please do not take my lack of communication personally. Give me until after March 11th, and I should be able to return to normal…at least for a little while.

In the meantime, seriously, check out my blog roll and fall in love with these same writers I adore. They will entertain you and bring you great joy and personal validation. 🙂

I’m no role model: why new ABDs should not follow my lead

February 23, 2011 § 4 Comments

Yesterday, I happened to run into (almost literally because I wasn’t paying attention to where I was going) one of my younger peers who is a freshly-minted ABD (that’s “all but dissertation” for the uninitiated). (She actually reads the blog–hey, L! :)) L is at that tremendously exciting and terrifying place in her academic career where she has completed her course requirements…forever (unless she chooses to get another degree, I suppose), and she has passed all of her written and oral examinations (comprehensive exams, or comps, we call ’em). She is now perched upon the tippy-tip of the graduate school tree limb and is gearing up to take her flying leap into Dissertation Land. L is currently drafting her prospectus, which is a smallish-to-largeish document that essentially outlines her future dissertation project. She will be asked to explain what her argument is while also foreseeing (to some degree) the direction each chapter will take as she develops her argument. She will be expected to compile a working bibliography that confidently says to her committee members, “See? I’ve done some research, and I’m really on to something here!” This gate-keeping document can set even the most stalwart academic a-trembling. And, sure, L will have her stumbling days, her days when she’s not certain her theoretical wings are strong enough to hold the weight of her ideas. But, as I’ve learned, the prospectus will change. It just will. So, L, and to all brand-new ABDs, I say this to you: just write it. Seriously, just bang it out. Let it be a little rough, not your most perfect work, but just get the ideas out there. Your committee members are absolutely going to have changes no matter how perfect you believe your document to be. So, don’t torture yourself to craft the end-all-be-all draft on the first or even second go. Your dissertation will also very probably diverge from the prospectus in some ways. Don’t waste your time agonizing over whether or not you know for sure that the points you want to discuss in Chapter Three belong there or if they’d be better suited in Chapter Four. All of that can be figured out later. What is important is pages. And forward progress.

When L and I were talking yesterday, she so sweetly (and I know she meant it genuinely) complimented me on my latest progress. “I can’t imagine writing two pages a day! That’s incredible,” she said…or something like that. I had to laugh. “Yeah,” I said. “But I’m at the stage now where I better be writing two pages a day or else I don’t graduate in August.” (Hell…I still may not graduate in August, but I’m sure as hell going to try!) As she remained surprised and complimentary at my self-inflicted torture progress, I continued to laugh ruefully and say, “Just don’t follow my example, just don’t follow my example.” Seriously. Don’t follow my example.

I am no role model.

Let me explain in very clear terms why I am not to be made a template of: I lolly-gagged for two years and am now forced to work at breakneck speed to finish or else I could lose funding (hell, that might already be gone) and I could definitely not graduate in August.

What happened to me? Well, I passed my exams and entered into the stage L’s in now at the very beginning of March 2009. Two months before my wedding. That’s almost exactly two years ago. Then, I struggled to write a prospectus. I finally composed a draft of…something…by August 2009. It went through several drafts (I think in the neighborhood of five…either the fifth or the sixth one was the one that received final approval), and my prospectus was approved March 2010 (a full year after I became ABD). And here we are, another year later, and I’m finally producing chapters. I don’t have another year in me. This is it. I’m done.

So why not follow my lead? Because I gave up. I admit it–I absolutely gave up. I felt miserable, incapable, and exhausted. I had the idea that now that I had finished my courses and my exams and my prospectus, I was entitled to a rest. (This is one of the signs to me that this is not the career for me. More on that later.) It was like I had a case of senioritis. I just wanted to be finished for a while so that I could take a break. What I have come around to realize, though, is that this break only hurt me rather than helped me. Sure, I was conducting research in that time. I was reading and writing notes and outlines and thinking, thinking, thinking. Always thinking. But pages were nonexistent. I finally composed over 25 pages of Chapter Two between August and September 2010 so that I could present a shortened version of it at the Sixteenth Century Society and Conference (SCSC for short) in October 2010. (Little factoid: this conference is HUGE for people in this field. There were so many meetings and presentations, and if I had not come down with the plague, I may have actually gone to some of them.) After I returned from my trip to Montreal to present a shortened version of my chapter, I took another break. Sure, I wrote a little bit here and there, but they were notes and nothing really worth getting excited about. But because I gave up, because I took a break, I forced myself into this specific situation.

It was in November, when I realized how unhappy I was, that I started to realize that I needed to make a decision. As my wonderful and amazing friend Dr. Amanda Morris asked me during her visit in October, I had to answer the question: am I having trouble hanging on or letting go? If I’m having trouble hanging on, then I need to rework my strategy so that I can get a better grip on my responsibilities and work requirements. If I’m having trouble letting go, then I need to come to terms with what it means to release this path and pursue another. At first, I concluded that I was having trouble hanging on. I wanted that to be the right answer so badly. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, no, I was having trouble letting go.

Now, let me clarify one point: I am going to get my Ph.D. I am not stopping now, although there is no shame in walking away from a program ABD. I know several people who have walked away from the program before writing their dissertation. I know several people who have walked away from the program before taking exams. There is a culture of shame around these decisions, but I have learned that these are not shameful choices to make. (Why continue the torture if it’s not working for you? Life’s too short!) The reason I am going to finish, though, is because I am months away (nearly five, to be exact), and I am too stubborn to be five months away from a degree and then leave it on the table. So, I’m going to finish, one way or another.

Back to why I’m no role model.

Writing a dissertation is hard work. It just is. It is not as simple as writing five or six seminar papers and cramming them together. (Who here has written that many seminar papers on the exact same topic? Not me! I’m not sure I even have two related seminar papers.) A dissertation requires a sustainable argument that can last for somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-ish pages. I want this point to be clear. Many of us won’t admit it until we’re safe from being graded (like I am), but it is not common practice to begin writing a 25-page paper at the beginning of the semester, or even a month before deadline. So many of us write our seminar papers within, oh, I’d say at least two weeks before deadline. (And let’s not kid ourselves–our professors know.) If this is your habit, let me be perfectly frank with you: you cannot write a dissertation the way you write your seminar papers.

They are not the same animal, and they do not share the same requirements. Begin early, stay on track, write every single day (okay, you can have weekends off, if you begin working early enough). One of my friends V was told by a professor (neither of us can remember who now) who gave her a clever response to the question, “How do you write a 300-page book?” The answer: “One page a day.” Literally. If you write one page every day for a year, you have 365 pages. And that’s far too many for a dissertation.

In the world of dissertation writing, pages are everything.

Yes, make time to do your research, make your notes, do your outlines. But also compose pages. A dissertation, while a milestone to be proud of, is not the marker that you have finished something but instead it is an indicator that you have one more task to complete.

L, and all you other ABDs out there, please don’t follow my model. Don’t torture yourselves. Keep a steady pace and stay focused. Regardless if you want to stay in academia or not, make a decision whether or not you want to get the degree. If you don’t care about the degree, then stop now. If you do want it, then let that be your golden fleece. You won’t get the degree without a dissertation, plain and simple.

And if any of you ever needs someone to vent to or to kick your ass into gear as A.Mo. did mine, I will be happy to fill that role for you.

Let’s Talk Semantics 4: Gay

February 22, 2011 § 12 Comments

I’ve been wanting to talk about this for a while. Apparently this ad campaign has been running for at least 2 years (at least, that’s when it was added to YouTube), but it hasn’t started making its rounds to this part of town until right around the Super Bowl.

Just in case you haven’t seen it (and, really, even if you have), take a gander:

I am sick to death of people, especially young people, using the word “gay” as an insult. I hear it at least once a day just by walking through the halls. More often than not, I hear it from the mouths of young men rather than from young women, but I am not foolish enough to believe that it’s just a male problem. In fact, before I left Facebook, I remember seeing young people attempt to “pretty it up” by spelling it differently. Surely, changing the spelling to “ghey,” for instance, entirely shifts the meaning away from a connotation to imply homosexuality and instead suggests that the meaning is entirely dependent upon spelling.

Of course.

So, to appease the Grande Wanda Sykes (who I utterly adore), perhaps the young men should have corrected her assumption and said, “No no, you thought we said G-A-Y. We actually said G-H-E-Y.” Yeah. That’s better.

When did this happen? I have no memory from high school of hearing people exclaim that something was “gay” when they thought it was stupid or weird or whatever. The scapegoat term then was “retarded,” which apparently has become so sinister in usage that I have even heard really young people (like…middle-school-aged) call it “the r-word.” It took me a while before I realized what word they meant. Obviously I would never condone the use of “retarded” to stand in to mean anything except in a medical sense preceded by the word “mentally” (although…is this no longer standard? I know the acceptable term is “developmentally delayed”…but as a former musician, I can’t help but be reminded of ritard to mean “slow” or ritardando for “slowing down”…”retarded” just has a different connotation to my ear, I suppose).

I suppose young people have likely always bastardized the meanings of other words to replace “stupid.”

There’s something rather despicable, of course, when the word derives original meaning from the description of a person or people. (Hell, even “gypped” is pretty disgusting, since it is derived from “gypsy.”) I suppose what makes the use of “gay” for this purpose topically offensive is that we are currently in a tumultuous, confused, and troubling argument in regards to gay rights. When young people use the word “gay” to mean “stupid,” they are not only insulting an entire portion of the world’s population (both past and present). Sadly, it’s not just about insults, Madame Sykes. Rather, the use of the word “gay” in this context degrades people while simultaneously shutting down the entire discourse before it has a chance to really get its legs beneath it. “That’s so gay [or ghey or whatever],” halts all discussion. Regardless if it’s said in a positive (which is rare) or negative (more common) context, that phrase at all generalizes, stereotypes, and ignores an entire group of people.

So, what do we do about it? We shut down the insulters. Like the ad campaign concludes, we tell them to “knock it off.” Even if it’s not our kid, not our conversation, not our battle, we make it known that that phrase is not appropriate.

Look, if you’re going to degrade something, really degrade it. And do it with class without dragging an entire group of people into it!

Methink’st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.
(from All’s Well That Ends Well)

That Shakespeare, he really knew how to zing ’em!

This is what 15,000 words and 51 pages looks like…

February 10, 2011 § 9 Comments

Go on, writer, blissed out of your ever-loving mind with a delightful heating pad on your back!

Boom! 15,933 words, 51 pages, and a fully drafted first chapter! Well…”fully” in the sense that I’m not going to seek out new sources of material to add to the chapter. Tomorrow, V and I are going to sit down with scissors, markers, and tape to put this thing into a cogent order. Right now it’s a glorified annotated bibliography, complete with reference citations and everything. It’s a bit of a horror.

That’s all I can share for today because I’m already late for my evening plans with friends. More later!

“Are you crying? There’s no crying in dissertation-writing!”

February 9, 2011 § 8 Comments

Uh, sorry Tom Hanks. There is. Lots of it. LOTS.

I don’t like excuses. I hate them, in fact, especially when they come from me. Especially when they’re true. It’s so much worse when they’re true. I hate them the most, though, when they’re true excuses about my personal life. As far as I’m concerned, my personal life should never affect my academic life. My academic life has a sort of free pass to encroach on my personal life, but in the meantime I resent it for doing that.

Here are my excuses.

1. I finished coursework in Spring 2008. I should have taken comps in Fall 2008. (Comps are comprehensive examinations, for the uninitiated. They’re the final hoop to jump through before writing a dissertation. They’re the devil.) I didn’t take comps in Fall 2008. I took them in Spring 2009. Why? Because I had to have back surgery. I had back surgery to remove a herniated disk that had been torturing me with increasing effectiveness for two years. In December 2007, my new fiancé took notice and encouraged me demanded that I visit an orthopedist who sent me to get an MRI in January and discovered that I had a fully herniated disk (L5/S1, for those curious–that’s right above the hips, and it was on my left side). I spent most of Spring 2008 in a hazy cloud. I barely remember those classes, but apparently I made an impression on some of my classmates (and probably on my professors as well…sigh). The reason for the hazy cloud? Because my surgery would require me to stay out of work for a few months, and I would not have been able to keep my teaching gig…which means no tuition waiver. (No medical paid leave for grad students, even when they can’t walk any more because of back/nerve pain.) I had surgery immediately after the end of classes on May 6, 2008. Then I spent the summer reading…and high as a kite on more pain meds…and subsequently forgot everything I read. Comps were pushed to Spring 2009.

2. I got married in May 2009, which meant that my focus shifted. I enjoyed the wedding planning process from the time when I was able to focus on it (March to May 2009), and then I thoroughly enjoyed being a wife for the first time ever. I thought about my dissertation a lot, but I didn’t do too much writing on it. I finally had my prospectus approved (the “planning” document that must be approved before the dissertation can be fully undertaken) in Fall 2009. It’s Spring 2011. Do you see a problem here?

My problem is this: I have allowed my personal life to take priority in these past few years (back surgery and marriage being the main two attention-getters). One I hated, the other I enjoy immensely (please don’t make me tell you which one is which). These past several weeks, though, I’ve worked to shift those gears so that my dissertation has taken priority over my personal life. And I hate it. And I hate myself for it. I am a miserable, crying, sad little dissertation writer. It means I’ve arrived, I think.

Take today for instance. It started on a good note. I was awoken early by the canines for breakfast and their morning constitutional. When I rolled out of bed (because I have to roll most of the time, post-surgery), I noticed that I wasn’t standing up straight. Something’s wrong with my back. My muscles are tight, painful, and distracting. To the point where sitting upright to, well, write is excruciating.

Today I got very little accomplished. I wrote about 200 words of what can only be described as nonsense…so I’ll edit it later. Tomorrow can only be an improvement because…

ROBERT BOUGHT ME A HEATING PAD! 😀

I am currently in an upright seated position, nearly blissed-out of my head from the focused heat pressing into my lower back. I’m going to bring this sucker with me to my office hours tomorrow. And then I’ll bring it home to use in my home office while I write.

Like I said, I hate excuses. I feel angry and dejected when using them, especially when they’re true, and especially when they’re about my personal life. I hate them so much. They make me feel like a lazy, no-good, lame-ass burn-out. How could my back pain keep me from writing effectively today?? It makes me so angry.

But now that I have this swanky heating pad…surely tomorrow is bound to be an improvement!

Undoing the damage done: learning how to write outside of Academia

February 1, 2011 § 6 Comments

Fairly fresh to blogging in the beginning of December 2010, I came upon the blog of a bright, hilarious young mother who challenged me (well, not me personally) in ways I never before expected to be challenged. I happened upon this blog when I was just coming to grips with what it meant to own the words “I don’t want to teach anymore.” The blog that was featured was Tori Nelson’s “The Ramblings“, and especially the post “War of (BIG) Words / Battle of Smahrt.” What Tori did in this post was something remarkable. Without meaning to, she held a mirror up to my own speech and writing patterns. In fact, I found myself on the side of pretentious speech, attempting to win the so-called Battle of Smahrt. But, Tori so wisely concludes:

“Do not feel trapped by these word-twisting, outsmart-ing whackos because, in the end, whatever you say can be said one hundred different ways, most of them better. But you say what you say the way in which you say it…. small words and all.”

I think we might even be able to play with her quote here a little (and only do minor damage by mangling the meaning…hope you don’t mind, Tori), and we can even apply it to the word-twisting, outsmart-ing, whackos themselves. In short: You pretentious linguistic snobbish pig-dogs, stop hiding behind those massively inappropriate and unnecessary words. Your meaning is all the more clear, your message all the more endearing, when you appeal to the broader audience who, by the way, is not mentally incapable of translating your words. You simply look verbally foolish.

The “you” in the above paragraph really stands in for “Mrs. H.” You see, as a graduate student I learned how to write. The right way. I learned how to verbalize my rhetorical arguments with such vigor and force of vocabulary as to purposefully leave my adversaries’ heads a-swimming. I was trained to dominate linguistically. Professors expected judgment, so-called “rhetorical discernment,” wherein I would exercise my intelligence and deem this argument worthy or that one dreck. Scholarly writing, it was demonstrated to me, is a style devoid of humor and “plain speech.” Unless you have “made it” and are a tenure-track professor at a top-notch university and constantly published. Unless you, like Stephen Greenblatt, have a veritable nine rings of an entourage, the degrees of which determine how intelligent you perceive the individual yes-man to be. (Oh, and yes. I have seen Dr. Greenblatt, premier Shakespearean scholar extraordinaire, at a conference…which is to say I have seen the cloud of people surrounding him all jockeying for a better position within the entourage. Those physically closest to Dr. Greenblatt are his intellectual near-equals; those further out are mere sycophants.) Only if you are Stephen Greenblatt or someone of his ilk do you even conceive of breaking the rules of Good Academic Writing. A young Master’s student who chooses to emulate his easy-breezy, personal style in the introduction of her thesis may be told at her thesis defense that such a choice was “interesting.” And that is not a compliment. For example.

And here I am facing the reality that I might not want to be an academic when I grow up. I might not want to emulate Stephen Greenblatt or Lisa Jardine or Valerie Traub. Sure, I admire the mess out of them. But I do not want to be them when I grow up. (And, ladies and gentlemen, I am near-grown.)

So, where does this leave me?

This leaves me trying out a new voice. Writing with a different purpose, a different edge. Finding a new audience. Hell, enjoying writing at all. I gather great inspiration from Tori’s blog in entries like “I still write.” (Tori’s honest look at herself as a writer, in response to a sort of call-to-arms issued by Kathryn McCullough…mentioned below.) And, also by Tori, “Man Van & The Hip Husband Demographic,” which is a hysterical analysis of recent ad campaigns. Tori represents to me the writer that I could have been had my humorous, creative voice not been so sufficiently stifled. Of course, I am really kidding myself if I have the gall to claim that I was ever as humorous as she is…but who’s to say I might not have developed more in this direction than in the academic one? Tori inspires me to try new things. To loosen up. To play with words and laugh. To invite my readers to laugh with me. I don’t believe I have accomplished this yet, and I am not so arrogant to believe it will happen overnight. After all, it took six years to become the proper scholarly writer that I sort of am. But there is an obvious unease in my academic writing; it is clunky…like a child plodding around in her father’s loafers. Maybe it will be easier to shuck this writing style that drapes over me in an embarrassingly pretentious way.

And then there’s Kathryn McCullough’s blog “reinventing the event horizon (notes from the edge).” In her current life, she lives in Haiti with her partner Sara, and she writes beautifully descriptive and informative posts about Haiti’s current struggle to right itself (if it ever was before aright); one of her most moving posts was one that left me shaking in my boots: “An Event Horizon for Haiti? Baby Doc’s Mind-Bending Return From Exile.” In this post Kathy not only informs her readers of the frightening and tumultuous political upheaval poor Haiti is now enduring, but she also makes this specific, singular experience relevant to the rest of us. What I love about Kathy’s writing style is that she is the perfect example of someone who has been where I am now, too. In her past life, she was an instructor of college composition; and, in fact, our universities are in the same football conference. Kathy is the kind of woman who not only taught strong writing to college students, but she demonstrates it in her own blog. She does not write in the voice of the pretentious, over-educated, Ivory Tower elite. She writes in a way that is engaging and interesting…and isn’t that the purpose of writing? In fact, Kathy devotes some time in her blog to exploring what it is to be a writer; when Tori wrote the post “I still write,” she responded to the questions that Kathy asks at the close of her blog post “Fear and Trembling in the New Year: A Writer’s Confession.” Thank goodness for Tori’s blog because it also introduced me to Kathy’s–I was doubly-blessed this day to encounter both of these women’s writing styles. She follows up this post with another that explores how writers defeat themselves with what she terms the “Writing Neurotic”–the part of us that sabotages our work before we’ve even had the chance to begin. This post is titled “Confessions of a Desperate, Writing Neurotic.” To give an example of Kathy’s Writing Neurotic (and I hope you don’t mind my reposting, Kathy), she bravely shared with her readers a piece of her personal brainstorming:

“When I have tried to journal recently I’m always bothered by the notebook I’m writing in—I know that sounds crazy—and surely it’s a mere excuse—but I truly believe I should be keeping my entries in another format—

Perhaps, typing them on my computer—if the paper is lined, perhaps, it should be unlined—if it’s plain—perhaps, it should be graph paper. If I write in blue ink, probably, it should have been black or green or gray—any other color than the one I’m using.”

And so she continues, finding fault with nearly everything she is using as a tool for expressing her thoughts on paper or in digital format. Finally, she concludes,

“Most everything about writing feels wrong—doing it—not doing it—doing it in the morning, in the evening, in the afternoon—equally problematic.

[…]

But I try to tell myself it doesn’t matter. It’s better to get it wrong than not to have gotten it at all.”

The perfect conclusion to the conundrum. It is better to get it wrong than not to even try to get it at all. My father used to tell me, “You might fail if you try, but you will absolutely fail if you don’t try.” Also true.

What does all of this have with “undoing the damage done”? Well, you see, whether intentionally on the part of my graduate school professors or not, I learned that some writing styles are better than others. That if you write in a relaxed, easy, loose, humorous way, then you are simply not taking your work seriously. And, as my immature early-20-something brain took it the next step further, if you are not taking your work seriously, then you are not taking your intelligence seriously. Whether or not it was said, I heard, “You must wear your education on your sleeve. Demonstrate to everyone that you are smart, you are educated, you are a budding scholar.”

Well you know what? Nobody cares. When I went home for Thanksgiving and Christmas the years between 2004 and 2010, none of my family members were impressed that I could elucidate on the valorous wordplay of Marlowe over Middleton. They wanted to know if I was close to graduation. If I was dating anyone. How teaching was going.

The training I have received to be a master of Academese (our very own language, really, replete with buzz words like “agency” and “gender” and “sophistry”) has served me to excel in my program, to be sure. But I am not comfortable with this language. Although immersed in the culture, I do not speak with the effortlessness of an Academic Native to the Ivory Tower. I have a funny accent, slow vocabulary recall, imprecise word choice. When I return to my natural home, however, my speech is tinted with an exotic tinge that smacks of long-term exposure to Academia. I struggle to communicate with my family while I speak a disjointed version of Academlish–occasionally I manage to piece together a coherent sentence in plain English but too often Academese breaks through and distorts my meaning.

I do not believe that all Academics have this problem. In fact, I know of several off the top of my head who are fully capable in their bilingual expertise, flowing easily from English to Academese with little effort.

I do believe, however, that as an Academic-in-training who does not intend to pursue her scholarship, I must relearn the proper method of communicating outside of the Ivory Tower. Maybe then my thoughts will be taken all the more seriously and less like elitism.

This is what 10,000 words looks like!

January 31, 2011 § 7 Comments

10,000 words and 31 full pages! Boom, baby!

I did it! I have officially written 10,000 words on my dissertation! I am super thrilled. Why does this feel so great? Because, after two years of being ABD (All But Dissertation), I can finally say that I am making some real and true progress toward completing my dissertation and graduating in August. Sure, I might cry all the time right now, but who cares? I wrote 10,000 words!

And…this is what 11,157 words looks like!

Do a little dance...write 11,000 words...get down tonight! Hey! Get down tonight!

Okay, I lied. I’ve actually written 11,157 words! Sure, it’s not pretty and needs a great deal of touching up to sound scholarly. Sure, some of those words are quotes from the texts I’ll be using, but they’re surrounded by my own thoughts and explanations…and, in many places, arguments. Like, for instance, I’m currently working on this one really fun argument about how physical location plays a major role in determining the appropriateness of cross-dressing (gender and social). Super fun! 🙂

And, with that, I am out of words for the day. I’ve got about three or four post topics jockeying for the position of forethought, so I shouldn’t run out of things to talk about in the next few days.

Here’s to 11,000!

(Oh…and yes…I had originally planned to take a screenshot at 11,111 words, but I just couldn’t stop typing, so, eh, you get an uglier number than I had planned, lol.)

I didn’t mean it that way

January 20, 2011 § 5 Comments

Earlier this week, Alabama’s governor-elect Robert Bentley made a true political gaffe. During his inaugural speech, he entirely alienated his non-Christian constituents when he made this little statement:

“There may be some people here today who do not have living within them the Holy Spirit,” Bentley said. ”But if you have been adopted in God’s family like I have, and like you have if you’re a Christian and if you’re saved, and the Holy Spirit lives within you just like the Holy Spirit lives within me, then you know what that makes? It makes you and me brothers. And it makes you and me brother and sister.”

Bentley added, ”Now I will have to say that, if we don’t have the same daddy, we’re not brothers and sisters. So anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother and you’re not my sister, and I want to be your brother.”

Ah…what?

Later, on Wednesday, governor-elect Bentley apologized for his faux pas:

“What I would like to do is apologize. Should anyone who heard those words and felt disenfranchised, I want to say, ‘I’m sorry.’ If you’re not a person who can say you are sorry, you’re not a very good leader,” Bentley said.

When I woke up and listened to the radio station today, the morning show host said that Bentley issued a statement saying that he didn’t mean what he said when he made his remarks on Monday afternoon. My ears perked up–why, not meaning what we say? That’s an issue I take great…issue…with! So, I went about my normal daily routine, turning this topic over and over, promising myself that I would blog about it as soon as I got home and could do so (and as soon as I added pages to my dissertation chapter I’m working on). It’s now 10:25 p.m., I’m finally sitting down to write my blog, and when I start digging around for quotes on “not meaning what he said,” I discover that my radio announcer made himself a little mistake. Turns out that the governor-elect actually did apologize for his words and did not offer just a lame little excuse for his miscommunication. Shame on you, radio, shame on you. Lamenting my blog post turned moot, I complained to Robert at 10:20 p.m. that I had a post left to write and no topic left to write on. Of course, I married a genius, because Robert said, “Well, no! You actually do have a topic. You can still write about how that phrase is used instead of an apology since the guy on the radio made that statement.”

Good point!

So, the blog post is back on, folks!

Here’s my question: when apologizing for a wrongdoing, a miscommunication, poorly chosen words, have we gotten to the point where we apologize by mere back-peddling? And are we apologizees (those recipients of the apology, of course) okay with this method of apologizing?

And here’s my answer: yes and sometimes.

When someone misspeaks and ultimately hurts someone else’s feelings, the typical response is, “I didn’t mean it like that. You misunderstood me. Don’t take it like that.” It just reminds me of, “No offense, but….” What? No offense, but you’re about to insult me? You didn’t mean what you just said, so we’re all cool now?

Sorry, but this chicky would much prefer those who are extending an apology to actually extend the freaking apology.

“I didn’t mean it that way” suggests, to me, two things:

1. I am a dirty liar and words come out of my mouth in the form of lies. So, when I called you a bitch (for instance), I was lying because I don’t actually think you’re a bitch.

2. I am a dirty liar and a damn coward. So, when I called you a bitch (for instance), I was telling the truth but now I’m lying by telling you that I didn’t mean it in the first place. Truth is, I meant it, I just don’t like that it pissed you off and I don’t want to deal with the consequences of my behavior.

I was raised in the House of Saying What You Intend To Say The First Time.

“I hate you!” was a phrase I savored in my mouth; the way it rolled around on my tongue and burst out of my mouth to the utter shock of my sister (for instance) was startling to me and a little bit exhilarating. I had the power of words! I could say things that would have an immediate impact on someone else’s feelings. I wielded big linguistic weapons.

That high didn’t last for long.

“Amanda,” my mother or father would intone with as much warning of imminent danger dripping from their own words as they could manage. I shivered. My parents also had power. They also could affect an immediate reaction in me by simply stating my name. I hated my name. But, man, it was mighty strong in the mouths of my parents. “You apologize to your sister right now. Words have meaning, you know. If you say you hate someone, you are saying that you wish they were never born. Do you wish your sister would drop dead right this second?” The mere image brought tears to my eyes. “No…” I would sob pitifully. “Then apologize,” they demanded. There was no question about the word choice.

If I said, “I didn’t mean it. You took it the wrong way,” then I was sure to get another talking to. And, sure enough, just as though I were hard-wired for it (which I’m pretty sure I am), I said, “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“What other way could you have meant it,” my father asked.

Well, now, that’s a great question, Dad. I guess I meant it in the “please don’t punish me for screaming at my little sister because she was breathing my air” way.

Yeah, not good enough.

With my parents’ help and guidance, I eventually learned to choose my words carefully and to apologize with even greater care. “Words are like bullets,” my grandmother used to tell me, “once they’re out of your mouth, you can never take them back.” So true. Words, she was explaining in just the right kind of shocking simile, can never be un-said. You can’t just wave the air and wipe them away. “I didn’t mean it that way” doesn’t make a lick of sense to someone like me. If you didn’t mean it, then why on Earth would you say something like that?

Why does it not make for a good apology, then? Well, simple. It redirects the blame back onto the victim. Take my second example, where I blasted my sister with the horrible “I hate you” phrase…for which I have apologized many times (and, just for good measure: I’m really sorry I ever said that to you, Lauren. I love you and am so glad we’re close). When I said, “I didn’t mean it like that,” I am essentially telling her, “You are wrong about the way you interpreted and feel about my words. It’s your fault that you feel so shitty because you obviously didn’t get my meaning.” How many you’s are in that sentence? I count at least five you’s to two my’s. Sounds pretty one-sided to me.

Making a real apology, however, the kind that really hurts to make…those are the only ones that I take seriously and that I even accept. I have been known to actively not accept a fake apology of “I didn’t mean it.” If you didn’t mean it, you wouldn’t have said it. Or are you a dirty liar? Either way, I’m not accepting until you come back with something better.

I am appalled by the language of governor-elect Bentley–he should not have said it, but the fact of the matter is that he did say it. Rather than say what the radio misquoted (that he didn’t mean it…or also as bad, he shouldn’t have said it), Bentley actually said, “I apologize.” It hurts to say “I apologize.” I still struggle with it. We were raised not to say “I’m sorry” because it implies that one is in a sorry state…as in an impoverished state. So, my parents raised us to say “I apologize.” But I still have trouble with it…so I still say “I’m sorry,” especially when I really mean it because saying “I apologize” is too painful. I’ll grow up eventually, I’m sure…it’s something I’m working toward. But I respect Bentley for being man enough to say those two words and for not taking the easy way out of it.

“I didn’t mean it that way” or even “I shouldn’t have said that”…those are such lame non-apologies. I would recommend all apologizees (those receiving the apology, remember) to hold the apologizers in our lives accountable for their words. Force them to own up to what they say. If they hurt you, let them know it and make them take responsibility for the hurt. On the flip side, if you hurt someone, take responsibility. Be a grown-up and actually apologize for the hurt. Don’t say, “I’m sorry if I hurt you.” No “if” necessary–if you actually hurt someone, you probably already know. “I’m sorry that I hurt you” is a good start, followed by, “I was wrong to speak out of anger. I hope you can forgive me.” Simple as that. No excuses necessary.

What say ye, Interwebs? Shall we make this a movement, or is ol’ A.Hab. chasing after a…well, you know?

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