Reflections on Class with Maya Angelou; In Memoriam
We know the great ones among us both by their presence when they are with us and by their palpable absence when they are gone. I write this still unsure how to respond to the death of Maya Angelou. I don’t know, except that I have some remembering to do.
In the spring of 2001, a few months shy of my graduation from Wake Forest, I enrolled in “World Poetry in Dramatic Performance.” The pass/fail course was exactly what its title sounds like it would be: students reading poems in a performance setting. Some might ask, what could be more useless? Is this not the very decadent navel gazing that has fated the humanities to irrelevance?
In fact, few courses have been as useful to me. This is because it embodied the very essence of the humanities: to passionately and effectively communicate the verse of another is to perceive for oneself and to share with others some insight into the human condition. Granted, this was a high risk/high reward scenario. A class on how to read poetry could be terrible. Fortunately, we were in good hands.
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Remembering to Stay Human and Stay Sane
I recently had a former student approach me for advice about applying to doctoral programs in the humanities. What follows is an expansion of that advice (apart from warning about the job market) for a general audience. If you come to me, asking about grad school, these are the core essentials of what I would say. This is what you need to know up front.
Doctoral studies will instigate a personal crisis. This is inevitable. This is especially true of the writing of your dissertation. Nearly half of all doctoral students in the humanities never complete their degrees and the dissertation is the usual reason why. Only rarely would coursework pose a hurdle because, frankly, courses are what you’re good at; otherwise, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Hopefully you have already overcome a significant personal crisis. It is not that I hope you have suffered; but we must all face our own struggles and my hope is that you have already developed the habits necessary to overcome one crisis. If not, the dissertation will be a crisis indeed.
You must face the austere horror of the blank page. You must sit down and create something from nothing; or, at least, you must sit down and fashion something functional and whole from a mass of raw material.
Yes, you must sit down and write. But in order to do so without losing perspective, burning out, and/or freezing in the paralysis that perfectionism can induce, you must achieve a certain balanced discipline.
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When and How (Much)
At the faculty lunch room (which isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, but it’s still pretty nice), years after the fact many of my colleagues continue to talk about what they wish that had done publication-wise after finishing their dissertations.
There are basically two schools of thought:
A. The Piecemeal (a.k.a. Maximum-Quantity-of-Articles) Approach
Publish as many chapters as you can before signing a contract to publish the whole, because you are not allowed to excerpt chapters once the full manuscript is under contract. This has the benefit of maximizing how much you can beef up your C.V. on the basis of that one document. Plus nothing counts toward tenure until you’re hired in a tenure-track job, so if you have confidence that you can get such a position without the full MS being published, then it might make sense to wait.
B. The Giant Step (a.k.a. Book-Sooner-Is-Better) Approach
Assume that this is the MS that will get you the job you want, that you’ll need ample new material to get tenure anyway, and that you will be able to produce such material expeditiously.
I subscribe to the latter. There are a number of reasons for this:
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A Series of Fortunate Events
After pontificating in my previous post about the process for selecting a dissertation topic in the humanities, I should clarify that my own process was far from straightforward. It was full of detours and unexpected surprises nothing short of serendipitous. At the same time, I had some significant work to do along the way.
“Serendipity doesn’t just happen,” a mentor once encouraged me. “You have to work for it.” I have been blessed beyond what I deserve. I don’t want to downplay that. But I have consistently striven to make the most of the opportunities I have been given – although in a few cases, opportunity had to knock a few times before I answered. I can’t take all the credit. I have received much help along the way.
I never would have written the book if I hadn’t known German. And I kept having more opportunities to learn German in spite of myself. In high school my language goal was to be proficient at French, but the exchange students I befriended happened to be German. Eager to travel, I couldn’t resist when they offered me a free place to stay for a few weeks and my parents offered to cover the airfare as a graduation gift. (I should add that this wasn’t really official until I received a generous college scholarship.) In preparation, as a senior in high school in the fall of 1996, I began learning German. I had space in my schedule. My high school did not offer it, but I got the green light to take courses at a nearby college for free.
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How to Select a Dissertation Topic in the Humanities
Whether you intend for it to or not, your dissertation will define your public identity as a junior scholar. You will devote at least a few years of your life to researching and writing it. You will become known or remain unknown in large measure by virtue of its quality. No pressure… but you do have a lot riding on that one piece of work. It had better be good. Here are some recommendations for setting yourself up for success by choosing the right topic.
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Helping Students Look Critically Within
This is the Age of the Selfie. We live in an image-obsessed society. A significant slice of the global economy is driven by individuals’ hunger to appear better: better than those around them or at least better than their current selves; better in their own eyes and better in the eyes of others. By definition, “image” and “appearance” are superficial things, as opposed to identity and substance.
Many of my students are rich with self-esteem. They look at themselves. Engaging in this autospection – sorry, nothing to do with looking at cars – and they like what they see. Yet far fewer demonstrate significant evidence of introspection or its fruit, self-knowledge, whether in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of their character or their reasons for believing what they believe about Ultimate Things.
I take for granted that we should work in the classroom to cultivate self-knowledge. No community of faith, liberal arts educational institution, democracy, or marriage can thrive without individuals who understand themselves. This is not the only thing that matters in such contexts. But a reflective attitude towards ourselves is a useful tool and a helpful curb against hubris. True self-knowledge is the antithesis of self-worship, for it imbues its possessors with a keen awareness of their own limitations, including their fragility and fallibility.
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Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Liberal Arts
Whether or not I am a conservative is irrelevant. In economic, religious, and political terms, there is a conservative argument to be made for the liberal arts and I am going to make it.
Just as fiscal, small-government conservatives hope, the liberal arts accommodate the variability of the free market. Just as religious conservatives of various stripes desire, the liberal arts empower individuals to care for their neighbors. And just as political conservatives profess, the liberal arts have the potential to produce the ruggedly independent citizens our nation needs.
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