Writing while Researching, Researching while Writing

depiction of a library cart with my name
my very own research cart during a seminar at the BGSU Pop Culture Library in 2018.

Three(ish) weeks’ worth of updates

Almost a month after my first comprehensive exam readings post, and I’m finally back spewing words about my reading progress.

Of course, it’s taken me a month to realize why it’s so difficult to write consistently while reading and studying for exams. For one, it’s an amorphous, semi-lonely process, wherein I spend days at a time in my own head, conversing about ideas with the writers and characters and scholars of/in the books I’m reading. I am writing alongside these conversations but they are dashed off notes and fragments, marginalia scrawls, question marks and occasionally incoherent half-thoughts, ectoplasmic trailings of a possible dissertation idea.

All this brings me to a recent conversation from Rhet/Comp Research Methodologies, a class I’m auditing (and let me just say, auditing alongside this reading year has been my best decision so far). During a virtual conversation with scholar Brice Nordquist, we collectively asked for nitty-gritty tips on writing and researching during the dissertation process. His suggestion: write alongside the research. Write even if you don’t exactly know what you’re writing, because ultimately it will help in the long run, even if most ends up in the trash.

Write to help you think, to help you make sense of what’s swirling around in the brain cesspool, write to capture moments in the process that will be long forgotten by the end of it.

All of this was especially heartening to hear, in part because I am obviously terrible at writing alongside. Knowing that I’m not alone in finding the combination of writing/researching difficult, that in fact successful scholars also struggle with this, is reassuring.

I often forgot to use writing as a tool to think with, a tool to use alongside the research, not just as a tool to communicate with others. It’s good to work on this now, before the BIG DISS thing happens next year.

As for what I’ve discovered in the last three weeks, I’m going to make a quick hits list to wrap this post up, and then hopefully return next week with more cool anecdotes and ideas from this year of reading widely.

  • Marie Corelli’s Wormwood is the wild, absinthe-driven ride I hoped it would be. We get pages upon pages of murder as-it-happens, a visit to a morgue and a description of the bodies, and an all-around weird journey alongside the absinteur, Gaston. My favourite moment, though, is Heloïse’s takedown of Gaston, in which she yells: “The world is still open to you; but on her it is shut for ever. You may sin as she has sinned, without even the plea of an overwhelming passion to excuse you,—and society will not turn its back on you! But it will scorn her for the evil it endures in you and in all men! Such is humanity’s scant justice!” (Broadview edition, 220). A damn fine observation.
  • Patrick Brantlinger’s The Reading Lesson traces the effects of anxiety about mass literacy on novels like The Monk and Oliver Twist, among others from the 1790s-1890s. Most notable for me was his discussion of sensation novels, a form that makes reading corporeal. These works provoke anxiety precisely because they make contact with an “increasingly distant, unknown, and uncontrollable readership” (163-4).
  • Diane Fuss’s Sense of an Interior just astounded me. There’s almost too much to say, so I’ll just include this line from her coda: “The recurrent interplay of subject and object in the space of writing reminds us that if the writer’s interior is a memorial chamber, it is also a living archive” (214).
  • For that methodologies class I’m auditing, we’ve covered American by Paper by Kate Vieira and Brice Nordquist’s Literacy and Mobility: Complexity, Uncertainty, and Agency at the Nexus of High School and College. From a pedagogical perspective I enjoyed Nordquist’s work, especially for the on-the-ground data collection of riding alongside the students whose work he is examining. It puts that idea that we need to meet students where they’re at in stark relief. Vieira’s work is important, but I found myself wishing for more participant voices and more on the necessity of paper for immigrants in an ever-more-digitized world.
  • Feminism and Composition Studies: In Other Words, a collection edited by Susan C. Jarratt and Lynn Worsham, feels just as essential today as it must’ve in 1998. Highlights for me were essays by Eileen E. Schell on the “ethics of care” in the comp classroom, Christy Desmet’s on feminist jurisprudence and equity, and Nedra Reynolds on interruption as a feminist tool (#feministkilljoy). The overall composition of the collection, with response essays after each section of the book, makes me wonder why every text doesn’t practice that kind of reflection.

Till next week!

Murder, SJWs, and Literacy

image shows handwritten notes from the author's reading. clearest notation is the quote "solitary reading is rebellious."
my handwritten notes this week.

Reading for Exams Week 1

In the summer before I started college, I made myself a reading list of “great” works. I still have that list, a relic of my past filled with Greek tragedies, classic works of American literature (mostly by men), and a smattering of 1960s counterculture novels. I read almost nothing on it that year, but it hung in my dorm room, a gentle reminder of the kind of intellectual work I had hoped to do on my own time.

Now, as a PhD student, I am preparing for comprehensive exams, wherein I draft reading lists and spend the next academic year preparing for written and oral defenses of my proposed course of study. The eighteen year old me would have found this process exhilarating; the nearly thirty year old me finds it overwhelming.

I drafted a tentative reading list this summer, one that attempts to balance the interdisciplinary work I value in literature and rhetoric. It wasn’t easy, and a few health setbacks mean I’m about two months behind where I wanted to be. But part of this process is learning how to cope and sustain a massive research project, and I guess accepting any starting place, whenever it happens to fall, is a good first lesson.

The second lesson: love your advisors so even when they force you to make difficult decisions it’s okay. My first major road block led to my asking both my advisors: Which work should I read first? After all, to my mind, what I read first is both likely to guide my process and also perhaps be the piece I will remember the least! Neither would budge—it was my duty to pick my own starting point. So, I did what made sense and abdicated the responsibility entirely, asking B to pick for me. He did so (graciously), and I began this overwhelming endeavor with Jacqueline Pearson’s Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1835. It was, dear reader, a good starting point, for her work tangentially relates to my own interests in women’s literacy yet is removed enough from my time period (the long 19c) to not induce imposter syndrome. I list below a few noteworthy points:

  • Literacy is a fluid state, where reading aloud and reading privately develop literacy practices among women of all classes. (163)
  • Popular books of the circulating library were often “ruined” by women’s insertion of themselves (through dog-eared pages, the lingering smell of sprits and snuff, etc) into the texts, aka a literal insertion of the female body into the text. (165)
  • “Mrs. Taylor’s Practical Hints to the Young Females in the Duties of a Wife, a Mother, and a Mistress to a Family suggests that in ‘every kitchen there should be a library’ of books adopted to the comprehensive of ‘kitchen readers.'” (187)

From there I turned my attention to the Victorian novel Marcella by Mary Augusta Ward, which, to my horror, I’ve been mispronouncing for the last week (MARCH-ella is not correct, FYI). I knew little of Ward’s work before reading, which I found to be a good thing as it allowed me to grapple honestly with the feminist tensions represented in Marcella’s struggle. While she is an independent and headstrong woman of aristocratic birth who turns to nursing as a balm for her broken spirit after the hanging of a laborer friend, it ultimately ends with a questionable message for women, namely that a woman’s loftiest position is in subjugation to others. However, Marcella’s growth into her own intellectual capability, represented through her rejection of the various public figures that influence her in the beginning of the novel, implies Ward’s feminist stance, at least when it comes to the education (and literacy!) of women. I find myself drawn to works where the characters contradict themselves. It adds to the novel’s complexity (and page tally, with the Broadview edition of Marchella clocking in just over 500 pages). It also captures the messy realities of a socially-conscious life, and, if nothing else, is a good reminder that social justice has a long and fraught history beyond the #SJW world we live in now.

Finally, I ended this weekend with Marie Belloc Lowndes’s short novel The Lodger, which purportedly is the first to represent Jack the Ripper in fiction. The main character, Mrs. Bunting, struggles with the knowledge that her lodger (weirdly named Mr. Sleuth) might just be a Ripper knockoff self-named “The Avenger.” Lowndes’s work does do a nice job of illustrating class tensions (Bunting doesn’t want to give up her income from the lodger) but also how knowledge of criminal activity circulates in middle-class London and what that means as a form of entertainment/excitement for those readers. I’ll end with this curiously contradictory quote from Mrs. B, who seems not to recognize her own complicity as an accessory…

No, Mrs. Bunting had always been told it was very wrong to read in bed, and she was not in a mood just now to begin doing anything that she had been told was wrong. . . .