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    Sobriquet 65.3: A Few Parting Words

    Monday, April 26, 2010
    Note: Since Blogger's free off-site publishing program is about to suspend operations, and because I have completed this blog's goal of chronicling my journey from A.B.D. to Ph.D., this post will likely be the final piece of material published as part of the blog project.

    As a final post, I thought it would be nice to address a few of the more frequently-asked questions I have received while working on my dissertation, so, without any further ballyhoo, here you go:

    What is the single most important bit of advice you can give someone about to write his or her own dissertation?
    I would have to say that getting oneself into the habit of working regularly is, by far, the most important thing anyone can do when writing a dissertation. For some people, especially those without teaching duties or other vocational or familial obligations, taking a 9-5 approach to the whole ordeal and working forty hours a week works well. I suspect such a schedule would have driven me batty, even if I did not have five classes to teach every semester. For me, I found doing one task each day, whether it be reading an article or a few pages in a novel, transcribing notes, outlining a bit of the chapter, or writing a page or two, worked very well. Now, I worked seven days a week, every day, for over two years, which resulted in a pretty severe case of burn-out, but it did work. If I set out to do it all over again, I would probably work at least one off day into my schedule each week. The key, of course, is finding a schedule that works for you and sticking with it. The ability to delay gratification, too, is very important because you will not finish your dissertation overnight. You have to be able to work every day -- or nearly every day -- with the belief that, even when it doesn't feel that way, what you're doing will eventually result in a degree. I found that limiting myself to doing a tiny bit of work each day enabled me to focus on the step in front of me rather than the whole staircase, or even the particular flight of stairs I was climbing. This often helped keep my stress at a manageable level all the way through.

    Why write a blog?
    Well, for me, blogging was a motivation for keeping up with my work. I didn't want to fail publicly, so I decided to start the blog. Over time, though, I found that it provided me with a way to organize my summaries of and ideas about various critical essays, so I began blogging about the the Coetzee criticism I encountered in order to help myself stay on top of things. Interestingly, a number of Coetzee scholars have found the blog to be a useful tool in sorting through the vast sea of critical material surrounding the author's fiction, so I eventually found additional motivation in trying to maintain a quality resource for my fellow students of Coetzee.

    Are you an expert on Coetzee?
    I have written a dissertation on the author, focusing on the fiction of the 1990s, for which I have read a good deal of literary criticism. Whether this fact makes me an expert or not really depends on your definition of an expert. Despite the fact that I have been called "a rockstar in J.M. Coetzee scholarship," I would hesitate to use such a definitive-sounding label. If anything, I would call myself a student of Coetzee.

    What is best thing you have gotten out of blogging?
    Other than manage to write a dissertation, I would have to say the most satisfying consequence of the whole blog project is having networked with Coetzee critics around the world. As a direct result of my blog, I have been invited to write articles for scholarly publications, been mentioned in major studies of Coetzee, made friends (including the person who ended up serving as the outside reader on my dissertation committee), and become part of a community of readers and writers. Put differently, my blog helped turn what could have been a very lonely endeavor into a social one.

    Why didn't you publish anything about your own research?
    Well, for one, my dissertation was a work-in-progress, so I didn't want to say anything that I might later want to amend. Furthermore, the amount of time it would take for me to write lengthy, analytical posts simply exceeded the amount of time I had to blog. Of course, graduate students are cautioned against sharing their ideas before their dissertations are published because, unfortunately, plagiarism is a very real problem and tales of graduate students having their ideas stolen by unscrupulous students and even professors echo throughout the halls of Academia, so we're kind of instructed to keep things under wraps anyway. It's a shame, really, because I suspect that blogging one's dissertation or other scholarship as one writes it could actually encourage some truly amazing collaborative work. Maybe in the future, someone will blog an entire dissertation and the comments will become an integral part of the whole document...

    What advice would you give a prospective English grad student?
    Make sure you know what you are getting yourself into. Right now, the are far more Ph.D.s than there are professorships and a disarmingly high percentage of brilliant scholars cannot find full-time academic jobs. Unless you get into a school that pays your tuition and provides you with a stipend, you will likely incur a lot of debt and there is no guaranteed employment at the end of the line to help pay off that debt. If these realities do not deter you, then grad school can be a very positive experience.

    What is going to happen to the dissertation blog now that you're finished?
    It's going to stay right where it is. I am honored by the amount of interest the blog has generated among Coetzee scholars and I will leave it online, in its current form, for the use of any future scholars interested in what I have here.

    Thanks again to everyone for reading this weblog and helping me as I struggled to write my dissertation. You may contact me at email (at) sobriquetmagazine.com.

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    ____________________________________________
    Sunday, February 28, 2010
    I received an email from my dissertation supervisor this evening informing me that the introduction I'd sent her late last week meets with her approval and that, as of 6:02 post meridiem this 28th day of February, 2010, my dissertation on J. M. Coetzee is complete. This is not to say that I do not have some polishing left to do; I have several typos to fix and some formatting yet to do, but the actual writing of the dissertation is behind me.

    Since there remains a good deal for me to say about the whole experience and because I have been asked to write a little bit about what I have learned about graduate school and dissertation-writing, this will not be the final post I make to the blog. I would like to devote some real time and energy to recording and sharing my observations on the dissertation and the blog project -- and I will do so in relatively short order.

    Tonight, though, I really want to thank my friend, Minxy, for having been such a tremendous support the entire time I have been blogging my way through my dissertation.

    On December 13, 2007, three days after I began my blog project, and before my dissertation had become a single-author study, I sent the following message to a few dozen friends and acquaintances:
    Dear friends,

    I am writing with a rather odd request, but one I hope a few of you will accept:

    I have decided to blog my way through my dissertation. My logic is this: if I make regular posts to my blog and give myself small assignments knowing my friends are watching me, I figure I will get more done. Basically, I am requesting peer pressure. Knowing that you're expecting me to be productive will help me be productive, so read my website, link to it from your website(s), tell your friends, tell your enemies, whatever...just make me feel like someone expects me to do a bit of work every day. Please be the proverbial carrot for this mule!

    Here's the address: www.sobriquetmagazine.com. The project begins with the post numbered 37.1
    While a handful of my friends have regularly visited the blog, and although I have picked up a few readers over time as people researching Coetzee stumbled upon this website, Minxy has been, by far, my most consistent reader and commenter. Day-in and day-out, through the excruciatingly boring periods during which I posted little more than "I transcribed notes today" for weeks on end, Minxy has always been there to cheer me on.

    And I needed that cheering. In the early days, especially, before a forced routine became habit, it really helped me to know that someone would check in on me to make sure I'd done a little bit of work. Now, more than two years later, when people are commending me on my dedication, I want to take a few seconds to thank Minxy for her dedication. It's a rare friend that will say "I've got your back" and, for literally twenty-seven months, have your back.

    So, thank you, Minxy, from the bottom of my heart. I honestly cannot imagine having written this dissertation without you.

    For tomorrow: Read a bit of Summertime. Because, you know, it'll be fun to read Coetzee for fun.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, February 11, 2010
    I've had a busy couple of days. I finished the second mini-section of my introduction late last night (or, rather, early this morning) and spent some time this afternoon reading over the many, many notes that I took in December and January. I anticipate spending another day or two on this preparatory phase and then, if all goes well, I should begin the third mini-section as early as the end of this weekend.

    In dissertation-related news -- indeed, in dissertation blog-related news -- I recently discovered, quite by accident, that Carrol Clarkson mentions my blog project in a rather lengthy endnote in her recently-published study, J. M. Coetzee: Countervoices, which I promptly ordered a few days ago. Still, with curiosity eating away at me, I did a "Look Inside This Book" search, and was delighted to see that Carrol described my blog as "an invaluable resource for Coetzee scholars."

    I am truly humbled by Carrol's generous assessment of this blog and I sincerely hope that it continues to be a worthwhile place for Coetzee scholars to visit. Indeed, while I am nearing the conclusion of my dissertation and, consequentially, the conclusion of this particular endeavor, I fully intend to keep the blog and its archives available on the Sobriquet Magazine website.

    For tomorrow: Read and prepare for the next mini-section.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, January 19, 2010
    I finished transcribing the notes on and quotes from the philosophy I spent the better part of a month reading earlier this evening. All told, I typed fifty-three single-spaced pages over the past couple of days, so I am, needless to say, pretty tired of looking at my computer. Still, I want to look at this glowing rectangle a bit longer, so that I can at least make a brief entry tonight, if only to to acknowledge that, had it not been for my desire to complete the task I assigned myself here last night, I probably would not have finished tonight. So, yeah. Once again, my blog project has helped me work my way through a tough spot.

    On a nice note, the frustration I have been feeling lately as a result of spending so much time transcribing stuff seems to have had at least one postive effect: I have turned to exercise as a means of stress reduction.

    For tomorrow: Read and/or hunt down the remaining bit of critical literature I need to review.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, December 10, 2009
    Today was the last day of the semester at both campuses I have been teaching at this term, so I find myself looking at a weekend of heavy grading and, following that, a few weeks of relatively empty days I will use to work on finishing my dissertation. There's quite a bit of (re-)reading and note-taking I'd like to get through before I begin writing the introduction, so I anticipate a pretty intense few weeks.

    On a happy note, upon investigating a spike in traffic directed to this site, I came across Effacement of the Postcolonial Subject, a new blog devoted to its author's process of writing a master's thesis on J. M. Coetzee. The author seems to have found some inspiration in my blog project and has some very kind words to say about it. I wish my fellow Coetzee-blogger-scholar luck in what promises to be an exciting, challenging experience!

    For tomorrow: Continue reading the theoretical material I checked out of the library today.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, December 9, 2009
    Today marks the last day of the second year I have been working on my dissertation, so, to mark the occasion, here's the third installment in my dissertation by the numbers series:

    Blog posts: 513.

    "Fans" in the Sobriquet Magazine Fan Club: 85.

    Courses taught: 19.

    Gray hairs sprouted: About six.

    Computers used: Five.

    Articles published: Four.

    Chapters written: Four, including the afterword.

    Trips to Vermont: Three.

    Short stories published: Two.

    Computer crashes: Two.

    Punk rock concerts attended: One (The Queers. They kicked ass).

    Dissertations written: Almost one.

    Sense of accomplishment: Better than a year ago.

    For tomorrow: Research or read In the Heart of the Country.

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    ____________________________________________
    Monday, August 10, 2009
    While I did get some reading done earlier today, I'm a bit too tired to discuss literary criticism, so I am going to put that off for another day. What I would like to say, however, is that my supervisor emailed me this evening to let me know that she has read my Disgrace chapter -- and she likes it. In other words, I can now say that I have doubled the length of my dissertation and can see, for the first time, the end of the tunnel. The Disgrace chapter, I always knew, was going to be the longest, most brutal section for me to get through, so being able to officially put it behind me is huge. I can now say, unbelievably, that I am almost finished with my dissertation. I could not say that yesterday.

    Before I sign off for the night, I want to stop and thank Minxy for her unstinting support, without which I cannot imagine having gotten as far as I have on this project. When I started this blog, I asked my friends to check in on me once in a while, so that I felt a certain amount of duty to complete my daily assignments. A few did, but none so consistently as Minxy, whose daily encouragement really helped me establish the work patterns that I needed to develop in order to start and push through my dissertation. She rules.

    For tomorrow: Read.

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    ____________________________________________
    Wednesday, December 31, 2008
    Having spent another long session of transcribing in front of my computer screen, I can finally sense the end of the pile creeping onto my radar. Seriously, had I not started this blog project last year, I seriously doubt I would have been able to muster the sort of patience I have needed to exercise in order to get myself through the monstrously long process of reviewing the literature on Disgrace. Still, I have a significant bit more to do and, with the new semester looming on the horizon, I want to finish all this pre-writing damn soon.

    For tomorrow: Transcribe or read and work on extra-curricular academic stuff.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, December 9, 2008
    So, today is the 365th day of my dissertation project and, to mark this ignominious day, I would like to do another rundown post like the one I wrote back in June:

    Blog Posts: 328.

    J. M. Coeztee Books Read: 10 1/2, plus sections of White Writing and Inner Workings.

    Total Books Finished: 35.

    Critical Essays Read: Well over two hundred.

    Chapters Written: Two, but none in the last six months (thanks to the amazingly large pile of criticism on Disgrace).

    Computers Used: Three.

    Computers Killed: One.

    Cars Wrecked: One.

    Courses Taught: Twelve.

    Coetzee Novels Taught: One.

    Literary Critics That Have Contacted Me: Four.

    Libraries Used: More than twenty.

    Articles Published: Two.

    Articles Published on Coetzee: One.

    "Fans" in the Sobriquet Magazine Fan Club: Nine.

    Best Place to Work on Dissertation: Ithaca Falls, Ithaca, NY.

    Least Pleasant Place to Have Worked on Dissertation: Emergency Room at the Community Medical Center, Scranton, PA.

    Sense of Accomplishment: Greater than in June, though the effect is blunted by the sheer length of time I have had to spend preparing for the chapter on Disgrace.

    As far as today goes, I will try to read a bit of The Rights of Desire before hitting the hay.

    For tomorrow: Read or transcribe, as usual.

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    ____________________________________________
    Thursday, August 28, 2008
    Okay, so I finally sit myself down with the intention of discussing some of what I've been reading the past few days and, just as I begin typing, I find myself suddenly feeling much, much more sleepy than I thought I would. I was up pretty late last night re-reading the Book of Revelation, preparing for what ended up being a lively classroom discussion this afternoon. Between spending the wee hours of the morning envisioning rivers of blood and other bits of Judeo-Christian eschatology and waking up early to prepare for classes this morning, I didn't get nearly enough sleep, so you'll have to bear with me if tonight's post is a little disorganized.

    That said, I would like to mention two of the articles I've read before succumbing to sleep:

    Brenna Moremi Munro: "Queer Democracy: J. M. Coetzee and the Racial Politics of Gay Identity in the New South Africa." Like Elleke Boehmer's essay, Munro's study of Coetzee's fiction finds the author's strikingly candid descriptions of homoerotic longing in Boyhood to be a compelling point of departure for an examination of queer themes in both Boyhood and Disgrace. Although I initially found some of Munro's reading to be a bit unconvincing, I think she makes some really interesting observations, especially in relation to "Twilight at the Globe Salon," the fictional play in which Melanie Isaacs performs in Disgrace. Read allegorically, Munro suggests, gay identity may form part of Coetzee's commentary on race relations and alterity in South African society.

    Patrick Smith: "'I Wrote Books About Dead People': Art and History in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." This extremely brief bit of commentary looks at the ways in which Coetzee's book presents the failure of artistic endeavors to improve the bleakness of life in post-Apartheid South Africa.

    I hope to use some of my not-so-sleepy weekend hours to review a few more essays at greater length.

    On a final note, I would like to draw my readers' attention to two particularly thoughtful comments posted by Mattias earlier this afternoon. Here is my response to the first comment:

    "Hello, Mattias!

    Thank you for what is probably the single most thoughtful comment I have received since beginning this blog project. Indeed, you cut right to the heart of several extremely key issues.

    Firstly, I think many readers would agree with your first paragraph. Levinas, of course, figures prominently in several discussions of Coetzee's fiction and the impossibility of the colonial masculine subject to confront the other, as you suggest, is undoubtedly a concern as early as Dusklands.

    Furthermore, I completely agree with you regarding Coetzee's "cold eye." I cannot imagine that a writer as text-conscious as Coetzee could possibly miss the currents you speak of. For someone as notoriously deliberate as Coetzee, one can only assume that he is only too aware of the implications of such thematic ground. This is, I think, precisely what interests several of the critics I've mentioned (Boehmer, Munro). Why he chooses to broach the subject when he does really seems to interest some readers. Munro, in particular, sees Coetzee's willingness to discuss gay themes in a time of tumultuous social upheaval as an especially important detail.

    Of course, with a writer as deliberate and intelligent as Coetzee, it is difficult to say with any certainty "this is a fiction" and "that is true." His texts often blur these categorical distinctions to such an extent that one must necessarily reflect on the very natures of narrative and knowledge. Also, in Boyhood (and later, during the episode in Youth when John has an awkward homosexual liaison), the reader is struck by the candor with which a famously reclusive author describes extremely personal encounters. This surprise, one must assume, is at least part of Coetzee's intent, for he must be aware of his reputation as standoffish and reticent. Thus, one might assume that Coetzee is playing with the notion of authorship. The public's perception of a writer as intensely private as Coetzee seems unable to accommodate such bold honesty. Then again, given the general belief that Coetzee's memoirs are fictionalized, one cannot help but to wonder if these are fictional episodes intended to bring about such confusion. Add to this Coetzee's comments on confessional narratives and you have one incredibly ambiguous, unsettling book...which, I suspect, is precisely the author's intent. That unsettling feeling, after all, runs through the entirety of Coetzee's oeuvre and forces us to ask the sort questions you raise.

    As for the "grotesque" eroticism, I do think Coetzee's texts present an uncommonly bleak view of sex. There is little joy to be found in any of the trysts in the author's work and violence is frequently a major theme. You raise an interesting point: does Coetzee drain these scenes of their essence and shock value in order to say something about the ways in which their real-world counterparts are treated? Quite possibly. There are, certainly, many readers who would agree with you.

    Thanks so much for reading!"

    And to the second comment, I replied:

    "Well, I do try to add some of my views from time to time, but the blog is more of an attempt to document the process of writing a dissertation than it is to present my opinions on Coetzee. Also, to be honest, I have kept myself from discussing the novels largely because I have so much to say and not nearly enough time to say it. I often intended to reflect upon the books but, as one who teaches full time as well as works on his dissertation, I found that I simply lacked the hours it would take me to express myself. I do, however, have an old review of Disgrace on this site, written a few years ago when I first read the novel.

    As for Coetzee's style...good Lord, what a question! I mean, there are certain elements that permeate many (if not all) of his books: linguistic and semiotic meditations, for instance, as well as literary allusions and metanarrative strategies, but the prose is often very different from one book to the next. You have the insane verbiage of Eugene Dawn, the Faulkneresque density of Magda in In the Heart of the Country and the ever-so-slightly accented prose of Juan Coetzee in Diary of a Bad Year.

    As for David Lurie's language. . .I can certainly see instances where one might say "hmm." I mean, I think Lurie can be read satirically, though I am not certain if he is intended to be so. If anything, I believe Coetzee does satirize academia (think of Elizabeth Costello's reflections on the role of the university) in several of his books, especially in Disgrace, so it would certainly be well within the realm of possibility that Lurie is, at least partially, satirical. Perhaps not so much so as, say, Jacobus Coetzee, but he does come across as pathetic, out-of-touch, and petty at times, traits often given to satiric characters.

    Your final question is a difficult one. Is Coetzee's style character-specific? Well, yes and no. You're right: each of his novels has a certain academic quality, a certain linguistic deliberateness but his characters do, often subtly, differ from each other. Paul Rayment, for instance, speaks a rather proper English similar to Juan Coetzee's because both men are foreign-born residents of Australia. Magda's vocabulary seems to burst with her desire to prove herself worthy of being preserved. You can almost feel her trying to present herself as something she wishes to be but does not necessarily believe herself to be. Jacobus Coetzee's words are clearly the bombastic hot-air balloons of a pompous, self-righteous buffoon while the Magistrate's language belies a gentle disposition quite different from that of, say, the narrator of Life and Times of Michael K, who describes the epitome of gentle as he becomes a pastiche of Kafka's Hunger Artist. And there's a certain indignation that's always just beneath the surface of the frustrated Susan Barton's prose while the narrator of The Master of Petersburg seems geared to describing the Dostoevsky in such a way as to heighten the reader's disgust (think of the choice to include descriptions of food flying out of the man's mouth, for instance).

    Unfortunately it is quite late, so I will have to cut this short, but I hope I made at least a little sense."

    For tomorrow: Read another article.

    Works Cited

    Munro, Brenna Moremi. "Queer Democracy: J. M. Coetzee and the Racial Politics of Gay Identity in the New South Africa." Journal of Commonwealth and Postcolonial Studies 10.1 (2003): 209-225.

    Smith, Patrick. "'I Wrote Books About Dead People': Art and History in J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace." Notes on Contemporary Literature 34.5 (2004): 6-8.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, June 10, 2008
    Since today marks the sixth-month anniversary of the dissertation blog project, I thought it might be fun to do a little retrospective thing. Unfortunately, I am having some difficulty publishing the blog this evening, so this may appear a day or two later.

    Okay, when I started this blog project in December, my understanding of what I would be writing was a bit different that it is today. Initially, I imagined that I would read Diary of a Bad Year and The Master of Petersburg and re-read Age of Iron (which I was in the process of doing at the time) and Slow Man to add some content to a brief essay I'd published on Disgrace a few years ago. I was hoping that the effort would yield a fifty- or sixty-page chapter. Since then, my focus has shifted entirely to J. M. Coetzee's fiction. Dissertations, it would seem, are highly mutable.

    Now, after six months of blogging my way through the dissertation, this is what I've got to show for it:

    Blog posts: 170 (171 including this one).

    J. M. Coetzee novels read: 8 1/2 (I was about halfway through rereading Age of Iron when I began. I also read The Master of Petersburg twice).

    Total novels finished: 17 1/2.

    Top Five Novels (in no particular order): Disgrace, The Road (Cormac McCarthy), Invisible Monsters (Chuck Palahniuk), Life and Times of Michael K, Waiting for the Barbarians.

    Critical essays read: 57 (plus a hell of a lot of rereading and consulting sections of books).

    Total pages written: 83.

    Chapters written: 1 (with a second pending supervisor's approval)

    Computers used: 3

    Computers killed: 1

    Restaurants in which I have done work: Barnes and Noble Cafe, Bob Evans', Cyber Cafe West, Denny's, Old Country Buffet, Friendly's (3), Iron Skillet, Soul Full Cup Cafe. And I am probably forgetting some.

    Libraries used: at least fourteen.

    Literary critics that have contacted me: 2.

    Reading groups that have contacted me: 1.

    Courses taught: 7.

    Sense of accomplishment: better after six months than before.

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    ____________________________________________
    Tuesday, January 22, 2008
    It's a bit after one and I want to get to bed relatively early tonight, so I will not write too, too much this evening. What I can and will say, however, is that today was a remarkably productive day for me, having written over three pages of the dissertation.

    I did struggle a bit with ennui again and ended up driving around the Southern Tier, looking for something, anything interesting to do. This is the weirdest thing I've experienced since beginning the dissertation: not knowing what to do when not working on the blasted thing. 'Tis peculiar.

    One other thing I have been thinking about on and off since I started this blog project is just how tremendously boring it must be to read. I've toyed with the idea of adding little features or occasional reviews to make it a teensy bit more entertaining, but I realized that I want this to be as accurate a record of my experience writing a dissertation as possible--and it is, in many ways, a boring, tedious, monotonous undertaking. I think that if this blog is to have any value for people other than myself, it should show, to the best of my ability, the real-time process of putting a dissertation together, even if that means repeating the same things day-in and day-out. Somehow, I think that the accumulation of such entries may be the most informative aspect of the whole ordeal.

    For tomorrow: Try to write a bit more.

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