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    Sobriquet 42.22

    Wednesday, May 21, 2008
    If anything, summer vacation does make schoolwork easier to get through. I mean, I benefit tremendously from knowing that I will have a relatively open schedule, enabling me to work at my own pace, without having to worry about cramming things into whatever gaps there may be in my work work (as opposed to schoolwork) schedule. Of course, unless you have a particularly generous grant or an especially lucrative job during the school year, you'll have to work at least a little bit during the summer -- but, still, for folks as thoroughly institutionalized (I simply cannot understand the five-days-a-week, eight-hours-a-day, fifty-weeks-a-year thing. Work for me is kind of an all day, everyday thing but without the need to be physically present at a workplace for more than thirty hours a week or between mid-May and late August) as myself, there's a special kind of liberation and sense of completion (not to mention confusion) that comes with the end of the school year. Like the Literary Chica says, "a year is divided into semesters. Not seasons, not months: semesters."

    At any rate, I find myself more productive and less anxious now that the time constraints of work work have slackened. So, today, despite getting a late start (sleeping in, hanging out with Minxy, drooling over bikes I can't afford), I still managed to churn out a few more pages and I can finally I see the end of this chapter on The Master of Petersburg on my horizon. We will, for the time being, not mention the many doubts I have about the quality and effectiveness of said chapter. We will, instead, try to focus on the good stuff. Let's make Fred Rogers proud, I say.

    For tomorrow: Same old, same old.

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    Saturday, April 5, 2008
    Today sort of made up for yesterday, I think. I wrote more this afternoon than I did yesterday and, all things considered, feel fairly satisfied with the result. So it was a good day, a productive day.

    Today's internal struggle, unlike yesterday's, had relatively little to do with the writing process, though it is quite closely linked to the dissertation or, rather, to what the dissertation represents. It may have been the proverbial April showers that prompted the mood that swept over me this evening by reminding me of the cool drizzles I'd experienced in Bergen some twelve years ago or it could have been the Sugar (Copper Blue, to be precise) playing on my iPod, I don't know but, regardless of the cause, I've spent the past few hours really missing some of the places I've called home over the years.

    Nostalgia, that gross over-romanticizing of the past, certainly has a big role in the persistent, even stubborn, refusal of this mood to dissipate, but it extends beyond a mere dissatisfaction with my present circumstances. As I said earlier (like two sentences ago), a major contributing factor to this semi-wistful, strangely pleasant melancholy is my reflection upon the semiotic value of my dissertation. This paper, this huge, hulking beast of an assignment marks the end of my formal education and so, as I contemplate finishing it, I cannot help but look back on the events that led me to where I am.

    I've often said--if not on this blog, then certainly to my friends and family in person or on the telephone--that I wish I had never gone to graduate school, that I would have stayed in St. Paul, that I would have done something else with my life. I also know full well that had I not gone to graduate school, had I not worked my way through a master's program and a doctoral program, I would have spent those years regretting my decision not to go. So, essentially, when I say I wish I never attended graduate school, it sounds like I am saying I wish I wasn't me, which is ludicrous. I like being me. So, what am I really saying?

    What it comes down to is that, like Rod Stewart, I wish I knew then what I know now, namely that fulfillment in one area of my life can contribute to a significant lack of fulfillment in other, more important areas. So, while I was living in Montreal, reading Joseph Heller and eating smoked meat and poutine, my friends moved on with their lives. Sure, we stayed in touch. I even visited Minnesota a few times and welcomed old friends into my home, but I always felt as if I was putting my life, my "real life," on hold. A part of me always felt Minnesota and Norway, for a variety of reasons, were my real homes, that Quebec and upstate New York were merely places in which I would study for a few years before returning. On days like today, I still feel that way. Then I remember nostalgia is more about the present than the past. Longing for the past is really no more than a discomfort with the present.

    I also know that those people I love, those people whose presence made those places home, have spread out and live in New York City, southern Mississippi, Santa Fe, Oslo, and a slew of other spots even the most accurate of pushpinning cartophiles wouldn't be able to locate. Home, after all, is where the heart is and, in this case, home is both a place and a time. In other words--or, rather, in the words of Thomas Wolfe--you can't go home again.

    Another huge component of this mood is the fact that I never really took to the Southern Tier of New York. I mean, sure, I love the topography and the well-preserved Painted Ladies poking out of centuries-old deciduous forest. As someone who was born in New England and raised in rural New Jersey, the appeal of living among houses dating back to the Boston Tea Party and among woods and rolling almost-mountains has always been strong. The problem, for me, is that this particular swath of America is so economically depressed, so overpopulated and underemployed, that it might as well be called America's stretch mark. I mean, as the nation grew large and prosperous, places like Binghamton and Elmira boomed. Business thrived and the affluent population built stately homes and other monuments to their pecuniary status. Then, for a number of different reasons, the economy began to recede and once-proud industries went bye-bye, leaving factories and storefronts empty and sucking the population out of their homes. Now, thanks to the inevitable forces of entropy coupled with an inability or unwillingness to systematically renovate decrepit buildings, the area is the ugly scar of America's once fat belly too quickly made thin again by disease and age. In other words, the region is a poignant reminder that everything (including friendships and one's own happiness) breaks down when neglected.

    And now, having spent nearly five years here, I look back and really want to leave. While I could pick up and go, it is easier to stay here to finish my dissertation. So, to make a long story a bit longer, the dissertation represents the last wall, the final gate I must pass through before my life is mine again. What I mean by this is that, when I decided to take the route that I have taken, I made a commitment to myself to work and work until I finished my doctorate, no matter where it took me. That was my choice, but it set a course I could not allow myself to swerve away from. That's just tenacious ol' me, I guess. But when the dissertation is done, I will not "have" to stay away from the places I love. I will no longer have to live in a situation that feels more and more like exile. What the whole thing comes down to, I suppose, what it really amounts to, is that I am tired of being a student. I've grown weary of living paycheck to paycheck, of putting my life on hold until I can afford to live in a nice home with a bank account large enough to make visiting my distant friends possible. That's what the dissertation has grown to signify for me. I chose a path seven years ago, a road leading away from the places and faces most dear to me, and the dissertation is the last leg of that path, the part that will swing around and join the original road. And there's a freedom there that I've not experienced in quite some time: whereas grad school was more or less mapped out for me, point by point from master's seminars to the dissertation, the future is emphatically not planned, there is no set course and I welcome that. I can take a job or not take a job. I can choose not to take a job in a region I do not think I would like. I can apply for jobs only in places in which I would want to reside (this, of course, will be mitigated by the dearth of the sort of jobs I want, but let me dream for now). I could even, in a quixotic move, return to Minnesota or Norway.

    At the same time, I wouldn't trade what I have done or where I have been for the world. Sure, there are things I would rather not have seen, people I would rather not have met, far-away events I would have liked to have seen, but it's been a worthwhile journey. I'm just eager for it to end so I can start the next one.

    For tomorrow and Sunday: I'm gonna be busy the next few days so if I cannot get any writing done, at least get some reading out of the way.

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    Thursday, February 14, 2008
    Well, I met with my adviser this afternoon and I was amazed by how favorable her response was to my section on Age of Iron. We also discussed whether or not I should narrow the multi-author scope of the dissertation to focus exclusively on Coetzee. Essentially, I would be taking what was initially intended to be a chapter and fleshing it out into a full-fledged dissertation in itself. Now, this idea is not wholly unappealing to me. It would, for instance, shorten my reading list substantially. Other than some reservations about my ability to write enough on Coetzee to reach dissertation length, the only hesitation I felt heading into the discussion relates to my marketability as I head into the job search.

    The hard reality of the academic job market is that one must always consider how his or her scholarship will affect employment opportunities. Certainly, writing a dissertation on a recent Nobel Laureate would interest hiring committees considering offering me a contract but, as an Americanist, I wonder if writing exclusively on J.M. Coetzee would weaken my candidacy when applying for positions as an American literature specialist. I mean, it could work both ways: a potential employer could view a dissertation on Coetzee as either evidence of my working at the nexus of the critical discussion surrounding an important contemporary writer or of me devoting more energy to a global writer than of one more closely linked to the field in which I am attempting to land a job.

    The logical compromise, it seems, would be to write a multi-author dissertation including Coetzee as well as an American or two (Joseph Heller and/or Philip Roth), as I had originally planned, but working on the Coetzee section while bearing in mind the idea of possibly transforming it into a stand-alone work. That way, I can focus on writing the best section on Coetzee as I possibly can without worrying about de-Americanizing my dissertation to a point where potential employers would raise a perplexed eyebrow.

    Of course, one of the reasons I am glad I took one of my field examinations in contemporary global literature is because, as someone interested in ideas, I would like to teach books based on theme rather than nationality once in a while. I never really liked the idea of pigeonholing myself, taxidermically sorting my academic interests into areas that I can and cannot teach. I realize that it is a necessity in today's milieu, but such hyper-specialization can sometimes feel restrictive...In the end, though, I think I will be most happy teaching literature to bright, young people, so whatever it takes to get from here to there, in my mind, is well worth it.

    At any rate, speaking with my adviser really gave me a renewed sense of energy and purpose not to mention a boost to my self-confidence, knowing now that what I have written thus far is, in fact, good enough.

    For today: Begin rereading The Master of Petersburg so that I can begin writing a section on the novel sometime in the near future with the book fresh in my mind.

    For tomorrow: Read another twenty pages of the novel.

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    Wednesday, December 19, 2007
    Anyone who has ever attended graduate school in the humanities, especially those folks in fields where the odds of landing a tenure-track job are not particularly high, will be familiar with the phrase "publish or perish," the unofficial motto of academia. Essentially, we are told from the moment we set foot in our first graduate seminar that if we do not publish research in our respective fields, the likelihood of securing a comfortable living teaching at a college or university is essentially that of the Miami Dolphins making the NFL playoffs this year. In other words, your dreams of a twenty hour work week perish if you do not publish a sufficient amount of research to prove your worth as a scholar. Now, for some people, research is a great joy and the primary reason for attending graduate school. For others, the research is something to do in order to secure a teaching post. I place myself in the latter camp; though I genuinely enjoy reading and researching the authors and ideas I find fascinating, I am primarily concerned with teaching. That is where I find the most joy in life and, ironically, classroom discussion often inspires the critical thinking behind the articles I write.

    In any case, I find myself at a rather interesting place in my academic career. As an ABD student, I am qualified to teach at many schools and have, fortunately, not had a great deal of difficulty finding employment. As a fifth-year doctoral student, however, I am entirely off funding at my graduate school and must teach more classes than would optimally enable me to work on my dissertation at the pace I feel it deserves. (Note: the following passage is painfully cyclical and may make the reader dizzy). As a result, I find that I have to do the thing I most want to do (teach) in order to afford to support the completion of my doctoral studies (research), which I need to finish in order to land the sort of teaching job that will give me time to research and be an effective educator. Thus, teaching becomes the means to an end (that is, in itself, essentially, another means to another end) rather than the end to a means, which can be frustrating. I feel as if I am both where I want to be and about as far from where I want to be as one can be.

    Add the pressure to publish on top of all this and one may well find oneself taking on research duties unrelated to his or her dissertation in order to prove his or her scholarly value to a potential employer which, with the deadlines such extracurricular work carries with it, often pushes the deadline-free dissertation to the proverbial back burner's back burner. Having spent a significant time producing such "extra" research, I have been fortunate enough to forge good relationships with a number of publishers who occasionally solicit additional work from me. Naturally, I really want to keep writing for these publications. Unfortunately, I find that I am at a stage in my career where I actually have to decline such flattering solicitations if I am to free up the time I need to work on my own, increasingly burdensome, projects. Again, I am both where I want to be and, in being there, preventing myself from securing a comfortable position in the spot I am already in.

    This is the place I find myself in at the moment. I am slowly finishing up a few projects I took on, including a few for publications I am honored to be affiliated with. The reason I bring all this up is to justify why I will be assigning myself somewhat smaller dissertation readings for the next little while. In other words, I am not lazy, I promise! So, here's my plan: finish up the stuff pushing the dissertation back, work on the dissertation, focus on teaching. Makes sense, right?

    In any case, I did review the two essays I assigned to myself for today. The first article I read was Mike Marais's "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg." This essay, like the article of Marais's I reviewed a few days ago, devotes most of its space to a discussion of several key critical debates surrounding Coetzee's writing: those dealing with power, language, and their effects on one another. What I found most interesting, however, was Marais's discussion of the ways in which Coetzee uses the physical states of his protagonists to mirror and comment upon the social and political conditions of their respective environments, an issue I found myself contemplating as I re-read Age of Iron last week.

    A year or so ago, when the tiny academic journal I edit was assembling an issue devoted to Coetzee, several noted Coetzee scholars served on our editorial advisory board. One of the critics kind enough to work with our staff, Lidan Lin, penned the second essay I read today, "J. M. Coetzee and the Postcolonial Rhetoric of Simultaneity," a fact which sparked a bit more interest in the essay than I might otherwise have had. I am pleased to share my favorable impression of Lin's scholarship. This is another of the more accessible articles I have encountered and one with a pleasingly critical tendency to engage with poststructural and postcolonial theory in such a way as to problematize some of the more sweepingly poststructural readings of Coetzee's work while simultaneously acknowledging their value. Although the essay dealt overwhelmingly with Foe, Lin's exploration of Coetzee's "rhetoric of simultaneity" provides a valuable insight into the author's entire body of work. Whereas some critics fault Coetzee for seemingly avoiding a specifically South African literature, Lin rightfully praises the author for his "willingness to de-essentialize the uniqueness of colonial oppression by bringing it to bear on similar human experiences outside the historical specificity of colonialism" (43). Though brief, Lin's discussion of Age of Iron is insightful and adds to the discussion surrounding Curren's relationship with Vercueil by focusing on the role the other (the vagrant) plays in forming the self (Curren).

    For tomorrow: Read one article, work on the aforementioned "extras," and have a delightful evening socializing with my wonderful coworkers because, hey, I deserve a break!

    Works Cited

    Lin, Lidan. "J. M. Coetzee and the Postcolonial Rhetoric of Simultaneity." International Fiction Review. 28.1-2 (2001): 42-53.

    Marais, Mike. "Places of Pigs: The Tension between Implication and Transcendence in J. M. Coetzee's Age of Iron and The Master of Petersburg." The Journal of Commonwealth Literature. 31.1 (1996): 83-95.

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