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    Sobriquet 47.12

    Sunday, October 12, 2008
    I did not enjoy today. I mean, it was a beautiful, cloudless autumn afternoon and the temperature was moderate enough to make wearing a sweatshirt as comfortable as wearing a tee-shirt. The yellows, reds, and oranges blotching the mountainsides made for a spectacular view in every direction. Birds chirruped and neighbors made pleasant small talk. The light breeze was delightful. And yet, I still managed to ruin it for myself.

    At some point during the day I began reflecting on graduate school, something that rarely results in a sense of self-satisfaction, to say the least. Once the math (the number of doctoral students entering the job market, the growing percentage of non-tenured positions, graduate school rankings, the percentage of Ph.D.s with whom I am acquainted finding tenure-track jobs, the number of publications I have had, and so on) began swirling in my mind, my mood plummeted. In Looney Toons-style, I would go from frolicking around the bucolic splendor of a crisp autumn day to getting smacked squarely in the jaw with some exceedingly heavy Acme brand product. The sound of a record scratching would bring the Peer Gynt Suite to which I had so gaily been frolicking to an abrupt halt just in time to segue into a Maurice Ravel's "Prelude a la Nuit: Rhapsodie Espagnole." Clouds would then darken the skies, the wind would pick up, a desolate-sounding dog would howl mournfully in the distance, and a few heavy drops of cold rainwater would dampen my face as I trudged home.

    Seriously, thinking about graduate school can be mind poison, no matter the institution one attends. That hyper-competitive job market just doesn't bode well for many of us. I mean, second-tier students tend to worry about the relative value of their credentials while top-tier students now have to wrestle with the fact that employers are increasingly skeptical about hiring them now, too (so sayeth a New York Times article the LiteraryChica sent my way a while back) because of the sort of hyper-specialization encouraged by many departments.

    Still, despite the weight of the worry (and it was substantial), I brushed the fears away, tamped down the self-doubts as best I could, and read what turned out to be one of the better essays I have come across while working on Disgrace.

    John Douthwaite's "Melanie: Voice and its Suppression in J M Coetzee's Disgrace" picks up quite literally where "Coetzee's Disgrace: A Linguistic Analysis of the Opening Chapter" leaves off. Focusing on chapters two through four, Douthwaite applies the same rigorous linguistic analysis to the Melanie-centered section of Disgrace as he does to the first chapter. The result of Dothwaite's work, not surprisingly, is a stunningly revealing close reading highlighting, among other things, the role of the void in Coetzee's novel as well as the linguistic activities David Lurie employs in a vain attempt at filling it. What I found most compelling in the essay, however, is Douthwaite's rather novel reading of the novel as presenting the free direct thought of Lurie (as opposed to the almost-universally accepted critical assessment of the book as having been written in an overtly free indirect mode). Given that J. M. Coetzee delivered the Tanner Lectures by reading an account of Elizabeth Costello, penned two autobiographical works in the third-person, and accepted his Nobel Prize by reading a narrative centered on Daniel Dafoe, the possibility Lurie is the "author" rather than simple focalizer of Disgrace is a compelling and thought-provoking approach to the novel, indeed. In making his case, Douthwaite nudges open several hitherto unseen (and potentially enlightening) avenues for scholarly discourse. Normally, I do not enjoy linguistic analysis, but Douthwaite is a superior scholar with a genuine gift for literary criticism, making his two essays essential reading for anyone working with Coetzee's text.

    For tomorrow: Read another essay.

    Work Cited

    Douthwaite, John. "Melanie: Voice and its Suppression in J M Coetzee's Disgrace." Current Writing 13.1 (2001): 130-161.

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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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    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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