Conference Abstract

I did it! I finished my senior thesis, which topped out at 17 pages. I had to cut it down to 7 pages to read at the annual senior seminar conference, which wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be. As part of the class and the conference, I have to submit an abstract of the smaller paper. Here it is!

Magical realism is a genre that has been studied extensively in Latin America for its ability to blur the lines between reality and conjecture. In this way, magical realism seeks to confront perceptions of reality, an aim easily documented by research and criticism in the genre. However, there is not much research dealing with magical realism across cultures, especially as it pertains to the United States. Offering a cultural comparison of how magical realism manifests in both Latin American and American cultures provides a lens through which we can examine commonly held beliefs and views not otherwise apparent. Through a close comparison of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “Un senor muy viejo con unas alas enormes” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat,” the stark contrast between the author’s respective cultures comes into sharper relief.

Why Read?

This is a response to these two articles, both of which discuss, like last week’s post, the benefit and/or purpose of reading.

First of all, I much prefer Parks’s article because it automatically assumes that we read for a purpose, whatever that purpose may be. However, it seems to me that Parks end up preferring older books, giving unsatisfactory reasons as to the value of reading contemporary literature. For me, as a writer, I have to believe that new books have value. Each generation deserves to have a culture of their own, and literature is a hugely important part of that culture. Of course it’s important to read classics because they give us a glimpse into a past society, and that’s exactly why new books should be read and written—future Americans should be able to look back on us and how we lived.

Siegel’s article is, to put it gently, infuriating. Siegel talks about a study that shows that reading literature sharply increases empathy. You would think this is a good thing, but Siegel seems to disagree, saying that empathy is also the mark of sociopaths. Are you serious? The basis of Siegel’s argument is that he doesn’t want literature to serve a measurable purpose—it should be an accepted leisure activity. My question: why can’t it be both? Why can’t some relaxing activity also affect a positive change in those who undertake it?

Why Reading Matters

This post is a response to Simon Hay’s “Why Read Reading Lolita? Teaching Critical Thinking in a Culture of Choice.”

I’m a reader. I come from a family full of books; my father was a bookseller and rare manuscript hunter by trade, and my mom spent much of her career as an antique dealer shelving gorgeous, leather-bound classics. I grew up in a house filled to the stuffing with books, so much so that a contractor once told us our attic was in danger of caving in on the rest of the house due to the many stocked bookshelves we had. I’ve never once asked myself why I read. At the danger of sounding trite, asking why I read is akin to asking why I breathe. I’ve never had a choice—the act gives me life.

For Hay, it seems this would not be a satisfactory answer. Asking a group of literature students why they study what they do is hard, especially when Hay frames the question in such a way that giving an “acceptable” answer is near impossible. When students answer that reading literature gives us a glimpse into past lives, he believes they are calling English studies History-lite. The same can be said for each answer a would-be student could give Hay, which to me isn’t fair. Students of literature, in my experiences, come home when they study books. Books are a safe place—a place that makes sense amidst the ample chaos found in the world. Honest students of literature study their discipline because they simply have no other choice—they are held delightfully, helplessly captive by the allure of escape, understanding, and emotional connection that reading offers.

In the end, Hay concedes that it is the choice to study, not the discipline being studied, that matters. As far as I’m concerned, if it matters to you, it’s worth pursuing. If you are called to read, then read, even if someone has the gall to ask why.

Commenting on Craft: Part Seven

Seriously, this has been happening for a long time.

Is it cold in here? Maybe it’s just a draft… the first draft of my thesis. (Someone please make me stop.) It’s good as a draft but it sucks as a paper, so I’m going to have to do a lot of revising. Luckily, today’s installment of the Craft series deals with the sticky, slippery slope of revision.

When you have a draft and systematically revise top-down, from global structures to words, you are more likely to read as your readers will than if you start at the bottom, with words and sentences, and work up.

Once upon a time I was the editor of my high school newspaper. Because of that, I’m accustomed to copy editing—that start-at-the-bottom approach. This quote is helpful to me because it breaks me out of that habit and forces me to see my revisions in a new light, hopefully leading to an overall higher efficacy of my edits.

Each paragraph should have a sentence or more introducing it, with the key concepts that the rest of the paragraph develops.

I’m not sure if I do this or not, so I have to consider it carefully when I begin my revisions. I’m good at creating an overall structure (I’m a huge fan of headings), but when it comes to paragraph structure, I stop paying attention. Now’s a good time to start.

When Booth was in graduate school, his bibliography class was told to copy a poem exactly as written. Not one student in the class of twenty did so perfectly. His professor said he had assigned that task to hundreds of students, and perfect copies had been made by just three.

This is both terrifying and awesome—terrifying in that it’s so easy to make mistakes but awesome that everyone, then, makes them. While thinking globally is essential in making a coherent and relevant paper, care has to be taken with the details as well. I’m going to go over my quotations and make sure they’ve been copied correctly because, although I might not be great at math, three out of a few hundred are abysmal odds.

Commenting on Craft: Part Six

There are lots of other parts to this series. (It reflects the fact that research really is a never-ending process. Maybe that’s just how it feels from where I’m standing.)

Today’s installment is about intros and conclusions. I’m to a point in my life where I love writing introductions because it’s the only way I can give myself a blueprint to follow. Anymore I write an intro for me, not my readers. Conclusions, though? I still suck at conclusions. Because of that, I’m going to choose my quotes from the section on writing conclusions. Makes sense, right?

You may be happy to know that you can write your conclusion using the same elements in your introduction, in reverse order.

That’s all well and good, but that puts me in a trap where my conclusion sounds too formulaic and too similar to my introduction. I understand it’s good to have everything come full circle and tie together, but it’s boring as hell to write—and if it’s boring to write, it’s boring to read.

Don’t start grandly. If your subject is grand, it will speak its own importance.

I think I fall into this sometimes. We always want to feel like what we’re writing about is important, but we don’t have to say it’s important. If we as writers and researchers have done our jobs, the reader will already know that it’s important—and why.

You can bring your report to a graceful, even literary close with an echo of your opening fact, anecdote, or quotation.

This seems much more human to be than a standard intro-in-reverse approach, as seen in the first quote I chose. I love the idea of being able to have a literary close, especially since mine is a paper about literature. A novel concept, don’t you think?

Thank you, thank  you. I’ll be here all week.

(Not true. Easter break starts tomorrow. I’ll be here the week after, though!)

Analyzing English Curricula

In her article “Literary History and the Curriculum: How, What, and Why,” Jennifer Summit underlines some problems her graduated students have had with their undergraduate classes. More specifically, these issues have to do with literary history and a broad vs. narrow approach to literary teaching.

First of all, I have to be clear that I am not an English major in any traditional sense. I was, at one point, following the requirements for an English major, but after switching majors and concentrations so many times, I’m now in an ad-hoc program meant to take bits and pieces from both English and Spanish. So while I’ve experienced the English major curriculum, I’ve not had to follow it to the letter. That makes a huge difference in how I relate to Summit’s article.

I’m a details person. I like focusing on minutiae, the little things that make the big picture worth seeing. For that reason, I hated the only true survey course I took, but that’s just a personal taste of mine. I have very different needs from the English major than the typical student has, so my experiences, by definition, are different.

That being said, I can see the value, absolutely, of a class (or series of two classes, maybe) that concerns itself solely on a timeline for literature. ALL literature. I still don’t know where romanticism, gothic, classical, baroque, modernism, postmodernism, and all of the other movements of literature lie on a timeline, nor do I understand their historical contexts or, in some cases, their themes. I actually have a better idea of this from my Spanish literature classes–not my English ones. There is a lot of truth in what Summit is saying; we’ve come to be so specific that our details no longer fit into a bigger picture or context, but the context is what makes the details matter. As much as I would have groaned to have to take a literature history class, I feel that it would have been an invaluable foundation on which to build the rest of my literary studies.

But then again, I’m not entirely conventional.

Entrepreneurship in the Humanities

For this assignment, I was asked to read a segment of Getting from College to Career by Lindsey Pollak and a post on my English department’s blog. Both pieces of reading are meant to guide grads toward a job they enjoy.

Interestingly enough, both readings deal with the business side of things–the idea that an English major is a gateway to all things business and finance. Both authors talk about how great it is to be able to use your degree for so many things that are seemingly unrelated to your degree because an English major sets you up to be proficient in a lot of marketable skills, such as communication, critical thinking, public speaking, etc.

And while that may be meant as a comfort to those who get asked the question, “What are you going to do with your major?”, I don’t find it quite as useful. I don’t want to own a business like Pollak suggests. (In fact, my mom is a small business owner, and through her experiences–which were often my experiences–I’ve had enough entrepreneurship for a lifetime.) I have a lot of interests through which I had to wade in order to settle into the major I have now. I’ve chosen English because it offers me something no other major can give me, and although, ironically enough, I find that “something” difficult to put into words, I would never settle for a job that’s anything less than that elusive something. If I wanted to be in business, I’d major in business. If I wanted to go into pharmaceuticals (which I did, at one point, and picked up a handful of biology classes), I’d still be a biology major. I chose English because English–literature, language, and writing–is my passion. So while it’s nice to know that I could potentially fall into a lot of other careers if I needed to, that will never be my main focus as far as I can see.

Call me stubborn; you’d be right.

Poe in the Digital Space

For my senior seminar class, I’m required to present a “digital project,” which essentially means that I have to find some sort of online resource and present it to my class. I chose poestories.com because my capstone paper has to do with Edgar Allan Poe and Gabriel García Márquez.

Poe Stories is a website dedicated to archiving Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories in their entirety. Not only that, but the texts of the stories feature built-in definitions of antiquated words, making it accessible for any audience to read these stories. In addition to the stories, the site is home to a collection of Poe’s poetry, a compilation of other links to Poe-related sites, and a short biography of Poe, among other things.

I feel this website would be useful to anyone with an interest in Poe, whether that interest be scholarly or leisurely. The collection they’ve compiled is quite impressive, and it’s much easier to access the stories online—all in one place—than to carry around a huge anthology. The forums provide discussion, which can serve as a jumping-off point for the critical thinking needed in something like a research paper (sounds familiar…) and the biography gives context to the stories. I actually used this website in order to access “The Black Cat,” which is one of the primary texts I analyze in my paper. I loved reading the story there because of the definitions they provided.

So if you’re a Poe enthusiast, make sure you check out poestories.com! It’s a neat site with a lot of useful information.

Reacting to Perry’s Anxieties

This is a response to Imani Perry’s “Of Degraded Talk, Digital Tongues, and a Commitment to Care.” I was asked to respond to this article in terms of whether or not I share Perry’s anxieties about the digital space.

I don’t.

First of all, I felt that Perry’s view toward the increasingly digital world was not overly negative. While she expressed some fears at the beginning, she seemed to embrace the space at the end, viewing it as a vehicle to spread cultural awareness and musical appreciation. (I’m not really sure where that came from. On the whole, I found the article to be more about cultural studies and art rather than anxieties about the digital space.) Those anxieties she did express were ones that are a necessary evil when dealing with language; language, in order to be effective, must adapt to fit the needs of its speakers.

How does the evolution of language relate to the digital space? I guess because it means anyone can influence language, and with much more ease than before. This is something that fills me with excitement—not anxiety. I embrace digital life because it has brought me closer to so many things: friends, family, my studies, other cultures, and the vast world around me, much of which I would know nothing about without the Internet. Anything that has the power to educate as well as bring people together can’t be totally bad. So what if “selfie” is in the dictionary now? To some, as Perry points out, that shows a decline in the sophistication, so to speak, of the language, but I think that it shows how we shape our own environments. We are the creators of this new digital world, and that’s overwhelming—in the best way possible.

Commenting on Craft: Part Five

There are many parts to this series. Basically, I’m compiling quotes on how to do better research and scholarly writing.

Don’t try to find every last jot of data relevant to your questions; that’s impossible. But you do need data that are sufficient and representative.

I’m so, so guilty of this. In fact, I found myself doing this last night while combing over some secondary resources, though I feel to do something similar but slight different: I will take a tiny, relevant piece of a large article and use it for my purposes, even if the article itself has little to do with my subject. I’m not sure if that’s bad or not, but it seems a shame to read something and not be able to use it at all.

You’ll believe in your claim so strongly that you will see all your evidence in its favor.

Oops. This is true and speaks to what I described above. Perhaps I should have read this before doing my secondary research notes… though I think it’s important to use sources in a way that support–not contradict–your thesis. So this is a double-edged sword in a lot of ways. I’ve not yet found a source that directly argues against my thesis, but I’m going to look for one, just to make sure I’m not blinded by my own confirmation bias.

“If you come across secondhand data (data that your source reports from another source), do everything you can to locate the original source. Not only can you then be sure your report is accurate (you may be surprised to see how often secondhand sources are not), but you may find other data equally useful.”
I found myself wanting to do this when I was compiling sources. I made notes to myself to locate the original sources rather than to take them at face value when a writer is quoting them. The writer is citing these works with their own agenda in mind and therefore can be skewed a certain way. Locating the original source is more likely to give you a genuine idea of what the quote means in context. And context is everything.