Friday, November 30, 2012

Light at the End of the Tunnel!


Yikes!  So here it is -- the end of November.  And let me just say .... I am feeling pretty good dissertation-wise!  Perhaps I have finally hit my stride because I am spending huge amounts of time (when I am not teaching or grading) working on Chapters 5 and 6.  And the best part is that what I am coming up with is at least okay (as far as I can tell!).  This week I pretty much focused in finishing up the Analysis (Chapter 5).  I have a few more small things to insert but I think that section is now pretty much done -- for now (because I am sure there will be some editing and changes that will be happening after that fabulous Dr M takes a look!).

If you all remember, pre-Thanksgiving Break I tried to think about these last two big sections as two 20 page papers (making this task not seem so impossible since I have written several 20 page papers in my academic life on many occasions, especially near the end of a semester!).  And maybe that was just the bee in my butt that I needed!  Right now, the analysis chapter is sitting at about 25-26 pages and the last chapter (the conclusion!) is at about 22.  I have so far just been "dumping" mini-discussions into my conclusion and I haven't had the chance to shape and mold it too much yet (the fun I am saving for this weekend and all of next week!).  So -- the point in telling you all this?!  I am not worried about page numbers at this point -- right now, I just want to make sure that I have something interesting (dare I say "intellectual"?) to share with the folks in my field.

My deadline to complete the basic chapters is December 21 and I think I should make that (though the superstitious part of me is knocking on wood as I say this!).  I am hoping, then, that I can finish a little bit early and join my friend Peggy for a short holiday in Chicago around the 17 or 18th of December with total relaxation in mind -- before I came back to the dissertation in January, make any needed big changes, defend (maybe in Feb or March?), and then graduate! (in May?).  I haven't been thinking about this stuff too much before now because I haven't wanted to jinx anything -- and maybe I am jinxing things a little but it is so nice to see a little light at the end of the tunnel -- finally!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Chapter 5/ Chapter 6 Update

If you look back at my last entry, I had high hopes for the days off during the Thanksgiving holiday.  And here I am on the other side of those days off with ... well, I am thinking not exactly bad news but not exactly good news either.  The goal -- if my dear readers might remember -- was to complete Chapter 5 (the Analysis Chapter!) and then I would be left with just one more section to write, Chapter 6 (Conclusion!).  And as far as pages are concerned, I guess I was shooting for about 2 twenty page papers (one twenty page chapter for each of these two remaining sections).

What I have right now is about 16 pages of Chapter 5 and about 20 pages of Chapter 6.  My unhappiness is simply in the fact that I wanted to be done with the analysis -- I wanted this section to be off my back 100%!  And it's not!  If I thought writing that darn methodology chapter was hard, I had no idea what was coming with these darn results!  But tonight I did a lot of brainstorming (which students do I want to mention?  Which sentences that they wrote?  What patterns to they fall into?) and I guess I just need to sit down over the next couple of days and just pound this out. I have a bunch of sub-sections (I guess you could call them?) but I am struggling with how to order all this information.  And I don't sound "smart" as I am walking through and explaining my interpretation -- that is probably one of the "monkeys on my back" right now that I need to get rid of.  It is so hard to write when you hear this whispered voice saying, "You are stupid -- they are going to hate this."

By the time, I attack  the conclusion I think it will be fine -- I have been dumping sections that I thought at the time were analysis into the conclusion (that is how that chapter just started growing and growing!).

OK, break over -- back to playing with the analysis ..... ugh ......

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

R.I.P. ModPo


So my ModPo class is over (for those not in the know, this was a free MOOC that I have been taking for the past 10 weeks at coursera.org).  I heard about the MOOCs on coursera.org via some conversations on Ted Talks and I am so glad that I happened to stumble on this web site -- and these opportunities for free, online courses.

What have a learned in 10 weeks?  One answer to this question has to do with teaching.  Al Filreis, the instructor for ModPo, was brilliant.  He does the kind of careful reading approach that I use in literature classes but ... he reminded me that I need to slow down.  Since I use primarily novels, sometimes I forget that slowing down and "playing with" passages can be a great activity to do.  For example, when my LIT 205 class was reading Maryse Conde's I, Tituba not too long ago (she is a fabulous, fabulous Caribbean writer!), I picked a few important passages (at least ones I thought were saying "something"), collected 10 dictionaries from around our building (for each of the ten students in the class), and gave each of them one of the passages.  I then asked them to look up any of the key words in the passage -- even if they thought they already knew the word in question -- and see what connections they might be able to make about this isolated passage.  The results were fabulous -- we had a fantastic conversation about language and words and power and all that good stuff!  I think I was doing something like this activity already but ... I needed that reminder to slow down even further so the students (and me!) get the chance to wrap our heads around that Conde might be trying to do with her novel.

So from a teaching perspective, I learned how to be a more effective educator.  But that's not all, of course -- the other new quality in my life is a renewed appreciation for poetry, a form of literature that has often scared me a little.  I think there is a part of me that has always been drawn to poetry (probably one reason I love connecting up with the St Louis Poetry Center) but -- since I don't see myself as a poet -- sometimes I have felt that (1) I can't hang out with poets since I am not one of the crowd and (2) that poetry is just one of those puzzles that I am never going to "get."  So the challenge in taking this course was letting go of the emotional turmoil that poetry often brings in the door.  And did I mention that I was taking this MOOC at the same time, of course, as trying to complete a dissertation?  But maybe there was something about tackling something hard (poetry!) and then taking that same energy to something equally hard (my dissertation!).  Certainly, the poetry we looked at has given me a new sense of the power of language and how it can be used and manipulated to capture "truth."  I have already integrated a lot of "classic" poems into my upcoming Spring 2013 American Literature class.

The information in ModPo altered the way I think about poetry.  Sure, I was already pretty acquainted with Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman but I love the way that our instructor brought these two poets together.  Now a lot of the more modern poetry we looked at (like Erica Baum and the imagists like H.D.) make so much more sense to me when you see the ancestry of American poetry in the way that Filreis explained (and set it up).  And William Carlos Williams!  Wow!  Of course, I knew "The Red Wheelbarrow" but this guy was/ is amazing!

Since ModPo became my hour or so of mindless television (since Jim and I don't have cable), I knew a few days ago that I was going to need to find something like ModPo to help me keep learning and writing and all that fun stuff.  So .....

I have already started another MOOC -- this time it is through udemy.com.  This professor - -Dr Amy Hungerford from Yale University -- is conducting a MOOC on the American Novel since 1945.  I can already tell you that this MOOC will take me longer than 10 weeks (especially with a looming dissertation deadline!).  I have already listened to the first lecture (about a 45 minute introduction to the course and the ideas/ themes behind the course) and I just finished the first reading (Richard Wright's BLACK BOY which I first read as an undergraduate many years ago!) so I will be able to tackle the next video lecture soon! (each lecture is about 45 minutes so I will need to be careful about putting this time into my schedule).

But for today?!  I am about to start and intensive four days of writing!  I WILL finish the analysis chapter!  (and then just the conclusion to go!)

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Erica Baum's "Poetry"


Yikes -- this was already a short week to begin with because of Veteran's Day (no SWIC this past Monday) but I am having one of those "Holy crap, it's already Thursday sort of weeks."  I have been pretty busy this week dealing with Annotated Bibliographies from my ENG 102 sections which take time to walk through carefully and help the students think about their research questions and how they are approaching their eventual research essays.  That means that I am spending little time on my own research and writing.  Which makes me feel stressed.  And tired.

However, I am working hard at focusing on the "good stuff" that happens in every ordinary day!  For example, we are "reading" the most amazing poetry right now in my (free!) online MOOC, Modern and Contemporary Poetry (or ModPo for those in the know!).  One of the poets in ModPo this week is Erica Baum, a photographer "slash" poet (or maybe it is poet "slash" photographer?).  Anyway, below is an image of one my favorite pieces by her so far:
As you can tell, Baum takes a look at "found language" -- why create a poem when there is so much language already out there?  This take on poetry, of course, leaves a person more time to focus on interpretation (versus taking all that time to actually "create" a poem).  At first, I wasn't sure what to think -- this isn't the sort of post-modern "stuff" that  I am usually attracted to.  But, the more I looked at the above picture (and listened in on the video discussion of the poem), the more I found myself drawn to it.  As you can tell from the image I hope, Baum took photographs of old card catalogs (a type of object that I suspect many younger people have no knowledge of!).  She then took some photos with the juxtapositioning of language and words.  Here, there are subject cards in the card catalog for Jacqueline "Jackie" Kennedy Onassis -- of course, our former first lady and wife to JFK.  I was a bit perplexed at first by the subject card "Once" sticking out.  What in the heck is that card doing there?  I suspect a librarian at some point decided to insert a subject card with "Once" for any number of reasons.  But what immediately comes to mind for me is "Once Upon a Time ...," evoking a fairy tale, a story of Camelot ... which then makes perfect sense when juxtapositioned next to Jacqueline Kennedy's name.  Weren't  JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy seen as the "stars" of their own Camelot, our American version of royalty?  The fact that the cards are repeated with her name -- something about that evokes movement for me (though I am not sure what to do with this observation!).

Anyway -- you get the point!  Who knew such a seemingly "simple" poem could do something so powerful for me?  Erica Baum is also known for her dogearing "portraits" like the one below:
Like the card catalog poem, there is something interesting about the words and sentences that are created when you do this type of paper folding.  The video in the online class alluded to something I hadn't thought of before.  If you look at any novel or book that I have read, you will often notice the dog eared pages -- even if I undo them for some reason, you can still see them!  You can still see where I highlighted a page for whatever reason.  Isn't that interesting how this "trail" might be saying something about you and what you value as a person and a thinker?

So in this busy and crazy week that I am experiencing, I am trying to find "gems" like this to stay sane.  Poetry is starting to be a daily reminder that language is, indeed, powerful and pivotal to how I see and think about the world.  I'd like to think that wrapping my head around poetry (and images) is helping me to think a little differently -- and maybe helping me write a better dissertation!

PS:  This last Erica Baum image I am leaving you with is also fantastic -- make sure you take a careful look at the words noting the "stuff" in this particular card drawer!  Fantastic!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Analysis Chapter -- Here I Come!


I think I am making progress!  Well, at least I am down to the final two chapters of the dissertation!  As you can see from the video below, this morning I first had to do a quick refresher as to what I need to accomplish here in the Analysis Chapter (Chapter 5 for me).  This past week, I finally completed the Results Chapter (Chapter 4) and now I need to take that next big step -- why is what I found important?



So as the above video suggests, this important chapter is perhaps one of the key parts of my overall discussion -- Why should someone care about what I discovered?  What is the significance of my findings?  According to Dr. Cheryl Lentz (the prof in the video above), I need to accomplish four tasks in this chapter: (1) Interpret the raw data that I discuss in chapter four, (2) return to the original purpose of my study as a whole, (3) integrate and bring these chapters together, and (4) offer recommendations for further study (though I think I may be completing this fourth task in my conclusion instead).  In essence, I need to "complete the story" of my research.

And so that is what I will be doing for the next two weeks -- my goal is to have this chapter completed by Thanksgiving, leaving me only one chapter to complete (the conclusion!).  What scares me the most about writing up my analysis is that I am not 100% that what I have to say is all that important anyway.  I have snippets of notes all over the place (completely disorganized!) and what I need to do is to try and bring all those notes together into one cohesive discussion.  On some level, I think I have been afraid to do this 100% because it is here, in this chapter, that I feel like the validity (or lack thereof) of my study will FINALLY see the light of day!  What if I don't have anything interesting to report after spending years of my life dedicated to this study?

So I guess I need to start with small steps.  What follows is one thought about what to include in my analysis chapter:

I know that I discovered on interesting "thing" with my data coding -- students who expressed rhetorical "linguistic moves" that I would consider "lower level" also sometimes expressed rhetorical "linguistic moves" that were (a bit) higher-level.  So, in other words, it is difficult to make a blanket statement about the quality of critical thinking in a student's written response because -- if you looked closely enough -- you could see something interesting that was being accomplished in the "small moves" that a student was making.

For example, Aaron in the Day Class wrote a statement that I categorized as "Treading Writing,"  In one sentence of a paragraph he submitted: "No single person holds any more God given value than another."  As I mention in my methodology, this sort of sentence refers to an easy or simple explanation for the resolution of difficult racial issues.  In other words, Aaron is expressing the idea that "God" is the "one" solution" to racial difficulties and if we all just got on board with this kind of thinking then racial issues would simply dissolve and not be a societal concern anymore.  However, just before the above sentence from Aaron, he wrote, "I recognize that there is undoubtedly a problem with racism in the U.S."  Aaron's use of the word "undoubtedly" is interesting -- he recognizes on some level that unquestionably the idea of race is something that is still wrestled with and unresolved in our country.  Thus, I categorized this sentence as "Acknowledging Writing," a sentence that reflects the knowledge that complexities are inherent in a concept like "race" -- indeed, there is a step towards critical thinking in terms of what Aaron was trying to write.  What is so interesting, of course, is that Aaron starts to wrestle with the critical idea of this touchy topic -- race -- and then backs down two sentences later by claiming that a belief in God (or any other spiritual entity) would solve this "problem" and lead to a better society.

So it's kind of interesting, right?  (I hope this is the sort of thing that I am supposed to be talking about in the analysis!).  I feel like this is where that online Modern Poetry class is helping me -- what I am doing with the data is what I am being asked to do with poetry -- slow down and interpret!  Look at the terms and words -- how, in fact, are the students talking about race?

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Part 2: Last Essay for ModPo


Well, I had about 20 minutes between classes today and so I used my time productively!  If you see the entry below, I started the assignment for my Modern Poetry class on Mesostic poetry -- and below you will see how I analyzed the poem I "made" (honest!  read below first before reading this entry!)  I talk about the original version of the Mona Van Duyn poem that I used and then I introduce the "new version" that I made by putting her poem into this link:

Moves 
YOu,
INklings 
A

OurselVes, 
ThAn
IN

Or Deal
Stumble Upon
BY 
MoNa


Though I was a bit nervous about approaching this assignment (I am not a creative writer at all!), something Al said in one of the video discussions stuck with me in terms of this week's poetry -- the pressure of poetic creation is off (whew!) but then the focus becomes more about interpretation (yeah!).  We are being asked to shift our attention and think about what we "hear" when the structure is "exploded" and then pieced back together.  I don't pretend to get "this" 100% but here are my thoughts:

This rearrangement starts with a verb "moves" which is then immediately followed by "you."  Saying "Moves You" is more insistent than a more traditional description, "You are moved."  The brilliant word which follows, "Inklings," refers to a slight suggestion or indication -- so is the "problem" alluded to in the original version now an "inking" and not this onerous, huge "problem"?  Is the emphasis now more on feeling (the harder thing to get at) than the actual problem itself (whatever that might be which, of course, becomes a moot point in the end anyway).

I love, love, love how the last line ends -- "stumble upon by Mona."  This version is in the present tense and it alludes to Mona "stumbling upon" the words/ ideas/ conversation instead of actually creating the poem itself (and the use of the first name indicates a closeness, a relationship).  I think of "stumbling" in terms of "pebbles" and not huge cosmic boulders (or the "planets" as mentioned in the original version of the poem).  So, again, this re-version of the poem gets at the "inside" of these hard to talk about feelings and emotions (the use of "ourselves" and the "V" being in the middle where our attention is also encourages this interpretation).
So what say you?  Climb into this interpretation with me!

New Term of the Week: Mesostic Poetry

The energy surge I have had since the weekend is still sticking around!  Yeah!  I think a combination of things happened in the same couple of days -- (1) Getting sick of sitting around and whining about a dissertation that isn't getting done when I sit around and whine and worry, (2) focusing on some fabulous poetry that is making my head think in different ways, thus resulting in a new enthusiasm for the written word and language, (3) being more conscious about some of the activities I use in my writing courses creates some interesting writing and thinking on behalf of both the students and me, (4) re-connecting with a huge assortment of fabulous friends who energize me with their enthusiasm, passion and encouragement, and (5) getting back to exercising and yoga-ing on a regular basis.


So there you go.  I try to tackle each day for what it is and make sure I do a little of each of the five activities above (and I try not to beat myself up when it doesn't happen).  This plan doesn't always work out, of course.  Today, for example, I teach a late afternoon class as well as my day courses so there won't be time to hit the gym or go to yoga since I won't be home until late (though, I suppose I COULD go to the gym in our building if I really wanted to.  But -- I consider Wednesday my day off from working out!).  I already have a plan for what I need to work on today in terms of the dissertation -- try to finish editing/ playing with the results chapter and continue with the notes I have already made for the conclusion (the one chapter I still need to work on from scratch).  I have already listened to one video from my online Modern Poetry class -- a conversation on John Cage's "Writing Through Howl" and I even started the last essay assignment for the class.  For the last essay, we are supposed to create a Mesostic Poem using a computer program online.

 

So have I lost you yet?  (and believe me, I didn't know what this was a week ago myself!).  A Mesostic Poem is similiar to an Acrostic Poem, you know the one's that write a word vertically like "POEM" and then each line starts with the first letter of each of these words.  Here is a quick example (and please keep in mind that I am making this up as a I go along!):

Party 
On
English
Master writers!

The one I just made above is called an Acrostic Poem and the only difference between this an a Mesostic Poem is that the letters don't line up on the left.  The "spine letters" are in the middle of the word(s) -- see the picture above?  We were asked to use this great web site: http://www.euph0r1a.net/mesostomatic/  and then do two things:  Determine the spine word and then give a URL for a poem (either from the course or another one that we just happen to like) and have the computer program create a Mesostic Poem.  Then, we are supposed to show what we came up with after we used the program and then interpret what we think about "what happened" between the original poem and the created Mesostic.

Since I am not deeply immersed in reading Mona Van Duyn (see the blog entry below about my purchase of one her books at the recent St Louis Poetry Center Auction), I selected her poem "Earth Tremors Felt in Missouri" since I found this poem online and would then easily be able to put the URL in the program generator.  If you are interested in the actual poem, here it is:

The quake last night was nothing personal, 
you told me this morning. I think one always wonders, 
unless, of course, something is visible: tremors 
that take us, private and willy-nilly, are usual.

But the earth said last night that what I feel, 
you feel; what secretly moves you, moves me. 
One small, sensuous catastrophe 
makes inklings letters, spelled in a worldly tremble.

The earth, with others on it, turns in its course 
as we turn toward each other, less than ourselves, gross, 
mindless, more than we were. Pebbles, we swell 
to planets, nearing the universal roll, 
in our conceit even comprehending the sun, 
whose bright ordeal leaves cool men woebegone.

And once I put the poem in the program noted above, this is what I came up with:

Moves 
YOu,
INklings 
A

OurselVes, 
ThAn
IN

Or Deal
Stumble Upon
BY 
MoNa

If a line has an extra word or so (like "Stumble Upon"), then these are called "Wing Words" (according to Cage).  Something Al Frieis (the prof behind this fabulous free online course!) said in one of the video discussions recently was that poetry like this takes the pressure off creation (I mean, all I did was put a poem in an online program!) and then puts that pressure onto interpretation.  So, though I was scared about this type of "crazy language poetry," I think I get it now!  Well, not "I get it all -- ask me anything" but more like, "OK, interpretation!  I can do that!"  So this is what I have to figure out by this weekend (when this "essay discussion" is due):  What does this new take on Van Duyn's poem MEAN?  Any takers to help me out?

PS:  Here is my quick interpretation of the original poem from Van Duyn: The "quake last night," which the speaker refers to in line one, may involve a personal problem, or else a problem in the attitude of the listener toward the speaker -- we don't know the exact circumstances. But a problem was expressed and to the speaker it has assumed the magnitude of "earth tremors felt in Missouri."  I don't think Missouri here has to mean Missouri exactly (just a location).  Personal circumstances become earth shaking and what might seem to be no more than a "pebble" to the outside world has HUGE importance (in fact, including "the sun). 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lovely Finds from the St Louis Poetry Center!


On Friday night, Jim and joined our great friend Mary Ruth Donnelly -- a fabulous poet, mind you, and you might want to click here to buy her fabulous book of poetry (and, for the record, she is one of the most stylish people I know!) -- at the St Louis Poetry Center Trivia Night at the Regional Arts Commission on Delmar (in U City).  I think this was our third year in a row doing this event with our team and this year we came in 3rd place!  (Yeah!  Our table had a blast!  And, as usual, I met some fabulous people including the fascinating and super friendly Virginia Slachman who will be signing her upcoming memoir at Left Bank Books later this month!).

Another high point to the evening is the Silent Auction of Rare Books.  Every year I pick up something but this year I picked up "somethings."  As you can see from the picture below, I ended up bidding on -- and winning! -- three books!  Since I have been taking the (free) Modern Poetry course on coursera.org, I am trying to wrap my head around poetry in ways I have never done before!  These three books will help me get started!


The first (the one on the top) is a novel (OK, so not poetry but hang on!) by poet Constance Urdang (1922-1966).  Urdang used to teach at Washington University and I was interested in the novel when I picked it up at the event for a couple of reasons:  I didn't know who she was AND the first few lines of the novel drew me in (I noticed after I purchased the book that she had signed this copy! It's a first edition from 1969).  Natural History is, according to the Saturday Review, "Not a novel. A series of images in the form of prose episodes. Their meaning, if any, to emerge when at the end one can look back to try and make out the 'significant patterns. . . ."' Muriel Haynes in that same Saturday Review article likens Natural History to a journal, or "thought book," in which literally, though not in other regards, "nothing happens; a succession of everyday people, men and women, old and young, dead and alive, move in and out, serving as metaphors for ways-of-being-in-the-world."  I might have to wait until the dissertation is closer to being done before I can pick this up, but it sounds interesting!

The book in the middle of the three in the above picture is called Poets of Today and highlights poems from Harry Duncan, Murray Noss, and May Swenson.  I mostly put a bid on the book because of the poems from Swenson.  I once read that just a few months before her death, she wrote: "The best poetry has its roots in the subconscious to a great degree. Youth, naivety, reliance on instinct more than learning and method, a sense of freedom and play, even trust in randomness, is necessary to the making of a poem."  This book was published in 1954 and has that beautiful old book smell!

The book at the bottom of the pile in the picture above I bought on a whim --  a collection from Mona Van Duyn. When I was browsing the auction items, I picked it up and fell in love with one of the poems, "Lives of the Poets."  It was the cheapest of the three that I purchased (this is a first edition from 1982).  Again, this is a poet I didn't know but .... it turns out that Van Duyn has won almost every award a poet can get and was one of our poet laureates for our country.  I am amazed that I didn't know who she was! (Imagine how many great writers I still have to read in this world!  Tons!)  I have already read several of the pieces in this slender edition and feel so fortunate that I have now encountered her!  (and for the record, she also taught at Washington University and became one of the St Louis circle of famous writers who called Wash U their academic home!).

I don't know if it was because of this wonderful evening of "talking poetry" but I feel more invigorated this weekend and I am trying hard to get off my ass and get things done.  Yesterday, Jim and I went to Johnson Shut-Ins (a State Park in southern Missouri) and I went to the gym for an hour after we returned home (even though I didn't really want to if truth be told!).  Today, I have cleaned my home office, worked on my dissertation, went to a 90 minute yoga class, and blogged!  And there are still a few hours in the day to go!  Who knew that poetry was such a wonderful form of motivation/ gas to the engine!