Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: May 2012

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Graduate Mouthpieces

     Do you think graduate students have a responsibility to the people in their lives to bridge the gap between their own academic interests and the current popular trends of knowledge in their field?
    My question of the day stems from a kind of dilemma I have been enduring during the last several years as an English Literature PHD student developing my dissertation. People in my life associate my line of work with reading books, and thereby the said people in my life expect me to know and be up on all the great new novels and biographies and poetry collections as they are published and released.  I always feel terribly guilty and ineffectual when I have not yet read the book that they want to discuss. 
    The despairing truth is, though, that it is very difficult to read anything at this time in my life except my dissertation materials. I can barely get through journals in my field let alone check out the latest American novel from my local library. My friends and family look at me with shades of disappointment, skepticism, and even disdain when I say, “No I haven’t gotten around to The Marriage Plot,” and “No, I haven’t read the new Abraham Lincoln biography,” and “No, actually I can not intelligently comment on the Pulitzer Prize board’s decision to not award a prize for fiction this year. The sad fact is that I haven’t read any of the nominated books, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you if there were other ones that were better this year anyway.”  Sigh… and the saddest part is, for me, the disdain or disappointment I see when I explain my lack of current literary prowess mirrors my own feelings. It just seems wrong.
    Partly, it’s obviously a problem of time. I just simply have such a limited amount of time in general, and so the first thing that goes out the proverbial window is reading for pleasure. 
    Also, I have come to think of this problem partly as an effect of specialization. As a graduate student gets further and further into her program, she is working to narrow her scope, to focus on a topic, to become a specialist in an era, a topic, a set of authors, a region. It seems parallel to perhaps what would happen if you asked the attorney in your family to look over your new employment contract only to be told that her specialization is bankruptcy and so no, sorry, she can not really help.
    I wonder if students across other disciplines in the GSAS have the same problem – do biology students who are studying the ecology of the wood turtle in the Delaware Water Gap feel badly when they can’t provide informed answers to Grandpa’s questions about the flesh-eating bacteria cases cropping up in Georgia? Do psychology students studying the psychological adjustment in pregnant orthodox Jewish women have to find ways to explain away their lack of intimacy about the various treatments for autism that their Aunt Sally keeps emailing them about?
    I’ve found a small way to cram in some popular literature into my life—on my commute, I listen to audio book recordings that I’ve checked out of the town library. I love a good story, but part of the reason I am doing it is to try to stay in the conversation surrounding popular literature. It feels like a good use of my time as a scholar – since I can’t exactly study or research in my car, at least I can do something to contribute to my perceived role as a mouthpiece for the literary world.
    And so, with real no solution in sight, I want to circle back to my first question – is it a responsibility of mine as a literature scholar to stay current with the works of literature that my friends, family, New Yorkers, Americans, etc, are talking about today? As graduate students, is it not only our responsibility but also part of our jobs to serve as interlocutors between our subjects and society at large? Do you face similar issues? How do you view these problems, and how do you view our role in society at large? 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Commencement Weekend Gems: "Get whacked, and bounce back!"

    Congratulations to all GSAS students for having completed another semester of graduate school! But I’m extending an extra-special congratulations to all those who graduated on Saturday. What a gorgeous day for a commencement ceremony!
    I myself partook in two undergraduate graduation celebrations this weekend.  One was for my youngest sister, graduating from NYC’s Parson’s School of Design at The New School, and the other was for my future sister-in-law, who graduated from my undergrad alma mater, Lafayette College. So proud of both of these young women! It was strange , however, going back for commencement to good old Lafayette, ten years having passed since my own! I was long overdue due for a refresher in Commencement-Speech Appreciation 101.
    For all three commencements, the speakers’ messages seemed to harmonize with each other beautifully. The speaker for the ceremony at The New School was Robert Hammond, one of the critical forces behind the creation and launch of the Manhattan High Line; he reflected on rejection as a stepping stone to creation: "Rejection can be a good teacher, and sometimes you almost need to seek it out to be freed from it," said Hammond. "When you see the High Line, I hope it reminds you that crazy dreams can come true."
photo by Chris Taggert. 
    At Fordham’s ceremony, the current deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism and homeland security, Fordham alumni John Brennan, ’77, gave the commencement address. Discussing concepts such as integrity and justice, he also made a point about determination similar to Hammond’s: "There is no free lunch," he said. "You will need to work hard and overcome obstacles, probably more times than you think you should." 
    Bronx native movie director Garry Marshall was the speaker at Lafayette’s commencement exercises – and what a refreshingly down to earth speaker he was!  His refrain, in accordance with both Hammond’s and Brennan’s addresses, was about resilience: “Get whacked, and bounce back,” he quipped, repetitiously for rhetorical effect. Marshall’s charmingly humble anecdotes reminded graduating students – and perhaps a certain graduate student in the audience – that success comes after many setbacks, many failures, and many, many revised drafts.
    Overall, it seemed to be an inspiring, lovely weekend to begin our summers and, for the members of the graduating class, to begin the next phase of their lives. 
    My question for readers: Can you recall a commencement speech from your life that has stayed with you? Who spoke? Where? What did it mean to you? What about graduation horror stories? Share your thoughts here!!
   Have a wonderful commencement to your week! -- Liza

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Top Ten Reasons That NY Rangers Play-Off Hockey Is (Only Slightly) Different Than Dissertation Writing

Hi All! Hope you are all having a great playoff hockey season in New York City as you are wrapping up your semester teaching duties and meeting seminar paper/ dissertation chapter deadlines! This year, we have two area hockey franchises going head-to-head in the NHL Eastern Conference Finals  -- all eyes on hockey across the Hudson! In the spirit, here are my top ten reasons that New York Rangers Play-Off Hockey is (only slightly) different than dissertation writing: 
10. NY Rangers Playoff Hockey takes place in a huge arena containing thousands of people who are wearing blue, drinking beer, and waving (actual) white towels in the air, in the spirit of victory; dissertation writing takes place in a small, closed space, containing only one person who is feeling blue, thinking about drinking beer, and thinking about waving a (metaphorical) white flag in the air, on the brink of defeat.
9. NY Rangers Playoff Hockey is fast-paced and energetic, with players pain-stakingly whipping up and down the ice at top speeds; dissertation writing is slow and tedious, with writers pain-stakingly trudging through material and drafts at life-halting speeds.
8. In a playoff hockey game, there’s “a lot of dump, a lot of chase, a lot of hysteria,”; in dissertation writing, there’s a lot of cut, a lot of paste, and a lot of hysteria.
7. NY Rangers Playoff Hockey has a defense that the other team dreads facing; dissertation writing has a defense that the writer dreads facing.
6. During playoff hockey, you second-guess the refs; during dissertation writing, you second-guess yourself.
5. While watching a NY Rangers Playoff Hockey game, you may give a high-five to someone every-so-often. While writing a dissertation, you may need to borrow five dollars from someone every-so-often.
4. During the playoffs, NYR hockey players hope for lots of goals and opportunities; during dissertation writing, students have just one goal, and not too many opportunities.
3. NYR playoff hockey will keep you awake until midnight in agony because of triple overtime; dissertation writing will keep you awake well past midnight in agony because of the triple lattes you drank three days in a row.
2. In NYR playoff hockey, your first draft pick is a rising star. In dissertation writing, your first draft is a pile of trash.
1. NYR playoff hockey will be over at some point, but hopefully not until mid-June!! Dissertation Writing will be over at some point, but definitely NOT by mid-June….. 
Happy Hockey, everyone!!! -- Liza

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Ghosts of Semesters Past

Hello Fordham Grad Students and Beyond!
Since it is the week of May that is the traditional last week of the term, today I’ve been thinking about my final papers from previous semesters. I was actually backing up my files yesterday and came across these digital documents. A while ago, I had organized all my files into separate folders for each course I had taken in graduate school, but I’d also created a file called “Final Seminar Papers,” in which I put the final draft, and even some copies that were graded and commented on digitally, of final seminar papers into their own folder. As I was backing up, I read a bit of some of them.  It was a trip down seminar-memory lane!

For me, now in my dissertation stage, most of these papers are not directly related to my dissertation, because I did not conjure my diss topic until after my comps,.  I actually haven’t looked at these or thought about these papers in a long time.
For others, their seminar papers and end of term projects may be feeding directly into their dissertations. This kind of focus seems rare, but in hindsight, I wonder if I should have been thinking long term earlier, trying to tailor my seminar topics towards some kind of overall goal – head start on my dissertation!
My thoughts about these final seminar papers now that I am dissertation stage?
PUBLISHING: I’m wondering if I can somehow, one day after this dissertation project is put to bed, use one or more of these capstone papers as a jumping off point for a new project or article. Of course, this revision and conversion might take a few months, but the seminar work already done might be a good kickstart to launch myself into something different once my dissertation has passed and I need a break from the material.
NETWORKING/ CONFERENCE CONNECTIONS: Maybe check out the CFP’s for upcoming regional and national conferences and see if any relate to my old seminar paper topics…. Maybe I revise one of them for a conference, and test out the argument in a panel discussion.
TEACHING: Or, perhaps they will be useful for creating lectures and class assignments for future courses I may design or teach.  You never know a text or a topic as well as you do after you’ve written about it, so why not consider yourself a growing “expert” on the topic and include it on your future syllabi?
It is interesting to me to look back and remember my trains of thought at the time, and to think about how I interpreted sources and texts years ago, and to compare and contrast how I might analyze those same texts now.
Of course, some are more relevant to my field than others – but some were connected to my most recent research interests in ways I hadn’t realized or remembered. For example, although I am concentrating on early American lit now, my Modern American Fiction class yielded a paper on The Pawnbroker which dealt with some of the very images I am looking at now in early American fiction – the contexts are different, of course, but there are parallel insights about the way fiction functioned culturally – parallels which I find to be stimulating and motivating to my current project, at least in some kind of intanglible energizing way.
I’m curious – what has become of your seminar papers and end of term projects and research? Are they still close to your current work? Have you strayed far? In terms of relevancy of seminar work to the disseration, how do the different disciplines compare and contrast? How do you organize your papers from your courses once they are finished?
For those of you still in coursework, are you thinking about building bridges from one seminar to another, within and across semesters? Should grad students design their seminar papers around a central theme to get ahead on their dissertation? Or, are our “coursework” years supposed to be about breadth more than depth?
Share your thoughts!!!