Saturday, August 26, 2006


Last night, I went to a party for a friend who successfully defended her dissertation this week. We called her the Patron Saint of Finished and toasted both her triumph and the possibility of our own. It was important that we demonstrate our joy for her, but it was also important to celebrate hope. Our program is small, those who complete it are few, and we need to know that there is such a thing as survival.

I drove into my driveway after midnight, making the slow, break, turn, break, stop by feel as much as by vision. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a ghost – a twisting white winged thing climbing and stumbling up through the trees and then into the light of the moon. I don’t actually think it was a ghost in the strictest sense, but it was a moment of haunting. It felt like the shadow of things I don’t yet know, a manifestation of all the possibility of the next few years, a spectral bird that carried everything I should reach for on its back. I turned off the car and killed the lights and closed my eyes and was thankful for it – for the gift of things not yet known and the ability to still be able to see them, turning summersaults in white gauze in the corners and treetops of a dark summer night.

The photo up top is an Ernst Haas.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

Monday, August 21, 2006


A conversation in the comments of one of Ancrene Wiseass’s posts has me thinking about academic writing, language and jargon. I’ve gotten caught in a lot of conversations while in graduate school about the importance of accessibility in academic writing. I find it frustrating because the arguments are often constructed in such a way that it becomes intellectual snobbery to argue for anything but the most accessible texts. What kind of elitist ass is going to argue that academic writing shouldn’t be accessible to all who want to read it?

Me. I’m the elitist ass. Actually, I think making academic arguments and information accessible requires incredible skill and that those who have those skills should use them. But I also think that there’s value in participating in an academic conversation that requires knowledge of the literature, language and jargon specific to a particular field. A lot can be lost in the attempt to make the ideas available to people who don’t have background knowledge and some of the most exciting advances in my field happen on a level of great specificity. This is the point in the argument when someone inevitably says, “But what’s the use if only a handful of people will ever read it?” Well, scholarship for its own sake is valuable. I can’t imagine doing this if you didn’t believe that true. But beyond that, part of the reason I read work in my field is so that I can teach it. If I read it, understand it, and believe it important to my students, then it is my job to translate that to the classroom. The ideas take on new life and can change the way a student understands her world. I take that part of my job incredibly seriously.

Of course—and here’s where the conversation over at Ancrene Wiseass comes in—academics sometimes use jargon and bulky language to hide sloppy arguments, unreliable sources, or just out and out bad scholarship. Far too often, academics don’t have the writing skills to wield the language and jargon effectively. The problem, beyond the obvious pain to the reader, is that education is very often imitative. Students read bad arguments and then try to construct one of their own by copying the already groan-worthy writing. They don’t often understand that academic language used poorly makes a paper worse. Language is one of the tools of academic work, but using it is a bit like riding a bicycle—things get very messy if you try to jump past the training wheels. I can’t tell you how many student papers I’ve read with the same words misused over and over in an attempt to imitate an academic tone without the skill to create it effectively.

Part of my job as a teacher is to make it clear to my students that some of what they read will not be good. It’s part of my job to encourage my students to question whether they have a hard time with academic prose because they need to acquire the skills to interpret it or because it just sucks. It’s my job to put the training wheels on the bike and help them develop their abilities so that they can one day ride on their own. They’ll never be able to question their own writing and critical thinking if I don’t let them practice. I’ll offer up my own work first.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Boots, Walking, Etc.

I realized this morning while reworking my dissertation proposal that I have a tendency to get up and walk off when the writing process is finally going well. I’m surprised about this, and I’m rarely surprised by random personal insights. I think it would take an entire team of therapists to figure out just exactly why, so I’m not going to be able to reveal the secret in just one blog post.

I also have a tendency to get up and leave the room right at the moment when a television show reaches its climax. It probably took me two hours to get through the season one finale of Veronica Mars. Once I saw it through, I could watch it again in one sitting, but at that moment when my heroine was on fire and the bad guy was stuck in a car with a pit bull, I needed to talk a walk. This, of course, only prolongs the agony. Until I sit down and hit play again, Veronica is in flames.

So why do I keep getting up and leaving my paragraphs in flames, waiting for rescue? I’ve often thought it was the result of a sort of academic’s ADD, what a writing partner of mine calls the “Did You See Something Shiny?” Syndrome. When you’re struggling, anything seems more appealing than what you’re trying to write about, even a piece of aluminum foil wedged beneath the fridge. But I realized this morning that it isn’t when I’m struggling that I’m most likely to bail. When things are tough, I can write pages upon pages in an attempt to work things out. The problem seems to come up when everything is working.

This seems incredibly freakish. Why not ride the synaptic wave? I certainly know the pleasure of letting my brain run away with me, delivering ideas like treasure before it zooms off to someplace new. But when I’ve got adrenaline pumping like a ball in a human pinball machine, when the sentences are flowing and finally, finally, things are making sense, I’m very likely to a) get up and leave, b) check my e-mail, c) start an entirely new file with new questions and problems. As in crucial moments of really good television, when things are connecting and surging, my system feels overloaded and I’m uncomfortable enough with the lack of control that I disengage, at least superficially.

Ok, clearly I’m a control freak. But I’ve never thought of myself as a control freak when it came to writing. Creative writing has always been something that unleashed me from my need to be in control. However, I’ve rarely felt the need to seek external approval for my creative writing. So perhaps the problem is that my internal censor won’t let me write my wildest thoughts for fear that my advisor will take one look and pronounce them idiotic. Perhaps I’m writing with too much an eye on the final pronouncement. Or maybe I’m so excited to get something done that I jump straight to my reward for working—positive reinforcement gone awry. Regardless of which is the case, this is going to require some Olympic-level navel-gazing.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Shutter Speed

When I was 16, I got a job at the local paper for the summer. I got a title (General Assignment Reporter and Photographer), which seemed like a very big deal at the time, and a desk and a phone and a computer that seemed aged for the time and now wouldn’t register as a computer at all.

The camera I used to take pictures was large and heavy, requiring both hands to hold it steady. It had a million and one controls and I only got decent pictures about 1/16th of the time. I was assured my eye was good, but that my technical skills pretty well sucked. (I’m sure that isn’t the word my editor used, but it translated to “sucked” pretty clearly. Newsrooms are not known as places of tact and diplomacy.) When the summer was over, I had to give the camera back, though I was still allowed to use the darkroom after school if I felt so inspired. I happily went back to my point and shoot camera and if the good photos weren’t quite as good, there were many more of them.

I’ve been more or less obsessive about taking pictures ever since, though I much prefer the kind of picture taking that finds me standing alone on a bluff and taking pictures of trees and rocks than pushing around a crowded group of people, making everyone uncomfortable by snapping pictures of their stilted smiles. But it’s only recently that I started trying to take pictures using manual settings instead of letting the camera make all the choices for me.

I can’t tell you how frustrating this is. Because my pictures have gotten much worse. It's to be expected, I suppose. After 15 years of taking hundreds of pictures each year, suddenly I’m starting over. I’m learning aperture and shutter speed and how to focus the damn camera and getting pictures that are, frankly, crap. Every once in a while, I get everything exactly right, and it’s very, very exciting.

But I lust for the combination of eye and technical skill that makes the pictures in the photo blogs I love so entrancing. Now I know just how many tiny building blocks of understanding go into making an image so complete it's capable of calling your heart to beat hard under the cover of thin skin. It’s good, I suppose, to go back to the beginning and build understanding and knowledge so the picture is deep. I’ve always been very good at delayed gratification, and I can wait, I think, for the perfect picture to leap through my camera lens and be translated perfectly, pixel for pixel on the screen. But, like any endeavor that requires that kind of skill and patience, in the meantime I’m questioning whether it will ever come together. Maybe, just maybe, I’m not meant to take those kinds of pictures.

My life right now seems to be about asking questions about what, organically, I’m capable of doing. I'm pushing into new territory. There are no immediate answers, though. I just have to keep building, block by block, skill by skill. In the end, I'll look around and decide whether these blocks are building what I've set out to build. In the meantime, I'll remain a beginner and try not to hurry right back to point and shoot.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

Monday, August 14, 2006


It's amazing to me how much depends on search terms. In these early stages of research, when my sources aren't yet settled upon and my ideas feel hopelessly abstract, knowing exactly which search terms will unlock the wonders of archive databases is like knowing which magic words will make a rabbit appear out of a hat.

Today, I quite accidentally said the magic words and poof! bunnies. Well, bunnies in the form of manuscripts and archival documents in places as far flung as Cheyenne and Toledo and Richmond. (Never, of course, Tahiti and Paris and Tokyo, but such is the plight of an Americanist.) Suddenly, this research started to be about possibility again instead of inevitable misstep and error. I stopped being terrified of having the right research plan and concentrated instead on the research. Tomorrow, I'll likely find myself petrified and silent again, but today it was lots of "yes!" and "whoa" muttered under my breath as I stood in at the library terminal.

This dissertation could still be anything. I don't need to know, just yet, what kind of rabbit I seek.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

There's No Place Like Home

What did Dorothy do when she got back to Kansas? When her yearning for home finally took her there, what happened next for her? Were the promises of that promised land fulfilled, or did she find herself right back where she'd started, looking at the horizon and calling for rainbows?

I'm finding myself, as previous posts attest, a bit at sea with the whole dissertation process. After four years of yearning for this moment, I find myself not at all sure what to do with each day. Part of this is just the challenge of breaking a dissertation into manageable bits. Though my proposal included a list of sources and a chapter outline, I laughed as I wrote it and promised myself that later, when there wasn't a looming deadline and impatient committee, I'd find out what I was really investigating. Now that time has come, and I find it more difficult than I'd anticipated to actually begin. It's as if I was standing at the starting line all this time, waiting for the gun to go off, and now that it has, I find myself frantically looking for my shoes.

I think the other component of this, though, is that for so long becoming a dissertator was the goal. The Land of ABD held so much promise that I made reaching it the journey's end. It's not that it didn't occur to me that the dissertation would be an absurd, challenging amount of work, or that I'd struggle with the research and the ideas. It's that it never occurred to me that being in this space would difficult in and of itself. I didn't know that I'd have to learn how to be a dissertator.

It was comforting to me, then, to read Ancrene Wiseass's August 9 post on making mental preparations for the dissertation process. Perhaps I didn't miss the dissertation equipment install on my first day as a graduate student after all. Perhaps learning how to mentally approach the dissertation is part of the process and I'm really doing work even while I feel like I'm spinning my wheels. The question of why I'm having a hard time is an important one, and answering it may be key to continuing to move forward.

As much as I'd like to believe that, upon waking in Kansas, Dorothy found herself full with the answers she's been seeking about what she needed in her life, I'm betting that rather sooner than later, she found herself wandering about, trying to learn how to bring the technicolors of Oz to her daily life. Once you've battled the wicked witch, feeding the pigs can't possibly have the same appeal. I imagine she must have struggled a bit without easy paths and clear friends and clearer enemies. Her days were just her days, and the work of understanding them was hers alone. There were no yellow brick roads to follow with certainty in Kansas, and try as I might, I'm not finding any in the Land of ABD, either.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

No Response

Earlier this week, I came home to find that the cable line that leads to my house (and carries within it the precious internet and cable TV signals) had broken. It was draped across trees like toilet paper at Halloween, its ends resting in my yard. I did not panic. Instead, I called my cable provider and was funneled to its automated tech support. I tried to remain calm, but before it was over, I was yelling at Ms. Robotron and feeling my blood pressure escalate to dangerous levels. A troubleshooting program is pretty much hopeless when the cable line itself has come down. No, checking the television's power cord would not help. The line was in a little puddle in the grass. Yes, all the channels on my television were snowy. The line was hanging, impotent, in the trees. No, I do not think that the batteries in my remote control need changing. Neighbors are walking over the remains of the cable line as they go about their daily business. And no, the VCR is not on. Who calls the cable technical assistance line before they check to make sure the VCR is off or the TV is on the right channel? I'd donate an organ to avoid calling a customer service line, so I'd surely check my VCR.

This entire exchange (and the five that followed before someone finally, three days later, came and fixed the line) was most frustrating because as I became more and more frustrated, Ms. Robotron remained calm and stable. When I demanded, loudly, to speak to an operator, she said in measured tones, "I understand you'd like to talk to an agent, but let's check one more thing." When I'd hang up and call back, trying to find a way around the automated system, she picked right back up where we left off, not at all insulted, by saying, "It looks like you've called before. Would you like to continue troubleshooting?" (By the way, screaming NO! did not get me anywhere at all. Turns out you have to demand an operator three times in quick succession before you'll be transferred.) I stormed around cursing the loss of personal interaction that came hand in hand with the computer age.

And then I hung up the phone and listened. My house was so quiet. It was as if the water in the pipes and the air in the vents and the very blood in my brain had stopped moving. There wasn't, actually, noticeably less noise than is usual in my home. I often have the television on, but not always. But being plugged into the internet means there's a constant stream of chatter in my daily life. I regularly post to an internet forum. I spend an inordinate amount of time e-mailing friends, students, advisors. I had no idea, until it was gone, just how much mental noise that provides. I had no idea how much I like that response to my thoughts, ideas, aggravations. I appreciate that the voices rise to meet mine in response. I even enjoy the occasional internet forum kerfuffle. It keeps me on my toes.

The silence is nice, as well. I've lived in places completely off of the grid, where you can hear your own breath echo. I'd choose that again, just like I've chosen this. But having made the choice to live in the world of people and television and internet signals, it felt like an amputation to have it all go silent and leave me twitching and looking hopelessly at my inbox. I wouldn't have said that I love the sound of the internet before, but now I know it has one and I do love it. I love the people and conversation the computer age has ushered into the walls of this house, originally erected to hold in people and the voices from throats and now vibrating from floor to ceiling with the voices of keyboards.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Friday Photo Blogging

A crookneck squash from the garden. It was quite tasty.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Neuroses Lotto

I’d like to think I’m complex. I’d like to imagine that the worries, obsessions, horrors I see as I gaze lovingly at my navel are, in some way, unique or novel or at least a little interesting. In part because I believe the neuroses that I both nourish and fight every day are enough a part of my personality that I’d hate to think they made me banal. In part, it’s that I think I still have an ego-driven investment in the idea that my pain in special, that my problems really are big and worth the energy I invest in them, that the experiences that have resulted in the capital-I issues that I struggle against with varying levels of grace and failure are important enough to leave me panting or giggling at the difficulties of my own psychology.

But I am not complex. I suspect most of us aren’t, really. I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine that was so funny that it left me gasping for air as she related her disappointment at discovering that some of her problems really were related to her relationship with her father. “I didn’t want to be that cliché!” she said.

I told her that I actually thought that Issues and Neuroses were probably like the little white balls in the lotto machines. Finite numbers in the box, a little vacuum extrudes five and then you’ve got your unique lotto number. The neuroses lotto spits out little balls with things like “afraid of success” or “daddy never loved her” or “can’t commit” on them, and we take them and coddle them like just-laid eggs. We carry them carefully, sure that ours are special and fragile, and that they’ll make a huge mess if they break. And then one day we bump into someone, eggs go flying, and instead of breaking, they bounce. We sit there in stunned awe and we have trouble sorting who this “fear of failure” ball belongs to, and try not to lay a brand new egg as we discover we’re all carrying around the same little neuroses after all. We have a choice, then, to gather up all our balls and carry them off like eggs that never bounced around or to give them a good toss and see how messy things really get when, eventually, they break. (Please expect extended metaphors here on this half acre.)

I can’t decide whether this little metaphor makes me feel better or worse. I can’t decide whether or not I’m glad to know and laugh about the fact that all my hopes for interesting complexity are for naught and that, just like everyone else, I’ve won the neuroses lotto. It is incredibly comforting. But I think I'm very invested in just how unique my problems must be, because then it means something bigger when I solve them. Either way, I’ve got lotto balls to spare. And when I broke a few open, they made no mess at all.


The fear of the day (really, most days of late) did not turn out to be unfounded. I'm likely to be my own worst enemy as I try to develop new ways of thinking about my time and the discipline required to get up every day and tackle the problems of writing a dissertation. My desire to get up every morning and watch an episode of Veronica Mars while I drink coffee and then wander through the park with my dog is not going to go away any sooner than my need to develop a plan of which archive to tackle first come fall. (I thought that part would be easy - you figure out where to go and you go there. I was wrong. I'm often wrong. It's not easy at all.)

Conquering my desires to both be a historian and a slackass has seemed so necessary. But it turns out that these things are not mutually exclusive. The process of doing research and writing a dissertation is going to take more than a single-minded decision to stamp out anything that interferes with my final goal. The idea that I can just be a machine that sorts through papers, letters, and completely random news clippings stuck to the back of a fifty year-old accounting invoice is so unrealistic (and boring) that it dooms me to failure. Not only am I unable to attack things with such focus, it would also just kill the creative process that I know is so essential to how I think critically about my topic. I need to bury myself in documents about book distribution mid-century and then walk the dog and let things percolate. I need to watch Veronica Mars (no, no, I do.) and then read that journal article. It's the dynamic interaction of the stuff of my life that makes my ideas mine.

Plus, I'm just never going to get going in the morning without a long sit with a cup of coffee. I'm never going to get out of the house before 10 am, and the advantage of life as a grad student is that I don't have to. There's no point in fighting a losing battle. My desire to spend the day on the couch will have to be quashed. At least, it will have to be quashed on most days. But in order for me to not just begin but also complete this dissertation, I'm going to have to figure out how to be a historian and a slackass. I can conquer some of my destructive instincts, but others I'll have to embrace.