The art(ifice) of Language

For whatever reason, when I hear the word “jargon” I imagine an intricate set of gears inside a handheld pocket watch. I think this is because I often think of disciplinary jargon as complex and difficult to wrap your head around (though I know there must be some kind of logic to it).

As a general rule, I try to stay away from jargon in my own writing. Instead, there is a certain level of discipline-specific language I think allows us to get at difficult ideas — and this I prefer to think of as a discipline’s vocabulary. In Comparative Literature, we are constantly told not to try to write like the theorists we find hardest to understand, but to find models of clarity to follow. After all, if our goal is to share our knowledge with others, we should strive to write in a way that is accessible to those who are both within and outside our field, and I feel very passionately about the importance of making sure as academics we share our knowledge with as many people as we can. Instead of relying on jargon, then, I try to think about the clearest way I can get my ideas across, bolstering my thought with terms that clarify rather than muddy the waters of my writing.

That being said, I really do get a kick out of websites like UChicago’s Academic Sentence Generator, which lets you chose among a set of academic discourses and pumps out a long (but still intelligible… to lit students anyway) sentence you’re likely to find in certain theory-heavy journals.

What I like most about that site is that it pokes fun at academic jargon, even while finding in those kinds of sentences an opportunity to explore language and argument construction. So, although I certainly try not to write like that, I find it useful to be able to parse through those bits of text, if only to marvel at how much I’ve learned to translate academic words into everyday language.

Teaching with YouTube: Creating a Classroom Community

Although my first teaching gig at Rutgers won’t be until next year, I did have the opportunity to TA for a film class and teach English 101 (Intro to Academic Writing) at University of Maryland, where I earned my Master’s in English Literature. Being in the front of a classroom full of undergrads for the first time can be both exciting and daunting, so here are a few lessons I’ll be sure to keep in mind when I start teaching again.

As soon as you can, try to create a sense of community within your class. If you can get your class to think of themselves as a class rather than a set of individuals fighting for a grade, you’ll have a much more enjoyable and productive time together. I tried to foster a community among my students by frequently having them work in groups during class (perhaps discussing a particular passage of the reading) and then presenting their findings to the rest of us. Not only did they love working in smaller groups (less pressure), these activities provided variety during lessons and gave me a few minutes to set up the next portion of class. I also saw many friendships grow through this process. Go Teamwork!

Make Yourself Available. Setting up mandatory conferences with students EARLY in the semester was a great way to get one-on-one face time with each of my students. During these meetings I would ask what they were hoping to get out of the rest of the semester, address any concerns, and — believe it or not — just by virtue of having a conversation with a student I found they were much more attentive and engaged during the next session. I guess they could tell I was paying attention!

Remember to have fun. Although it is important to have a plan for what you all need to cover during a particular class session, do not underestimate the power of spontaneity as a learning tool. Case in point: One English 101 session, after we’d thoroughly discussed some key elements of rhetoric (if you’re curious: ethos, pathos, and logos), a few of my students asked if I’d heard the newest, awful song making the rounds via YouTube. I hadn’t. It turns out Rebecca Black’s infamous “Friday” was all the rage, and let me tell you — as we watched the music video, my students broke into an impromptu, spot-on (and hilarious) rhetorical analysis of what we were watching. Needless to say, I was very proud of how well they had mastered the material.

How do you create a sense of community among your students? How else do you make sure your students know you are there for them? And has YouTube made an appearance in your classroom yet? What are you waiting for?!

Collaborative Hunting and Gathering

When I try to describe Comparative Literature to those unfamiliar with my field, I think back to the way one of my undergraduate professors put it. Comp Lit, she said, is like a mad scientist’s laboratory, except for the humanities.  Working and thinking in such an interdisciplinary field means that I am encouraged to think outside of the traditional boundaries of thought (in my case looking to Sociology, Caribbean Studies, critical theory, novels, film, and medicine). So how do I conduct research? The short answer is “Read a lot and write a lot”, but thinking about how I’m going to approach writing a paper on Ralph Ellison this semester, I intend to:

  1. Ask myself questions: What are the key themes and issues that have come up for the authors? What do I find most confusing/interesting? This is an important step, since the last thing I want to do is impose my theories onto a text or author. In the case of Invisible Man, I’m really interested in how the trope of invisibility is linked to blackness, and I wonder about the way the author portrays history.
  2. Make connections: This is what brought me to Comp Lit in the first place! How does what I am reading relate to my larger research interests? How can I make this useful as I think ahead to my dissertation? Is there a particular theoretical model that is useful in thinking about the topic? I’ve also noticed some similarities and differences between this novel and writing by authors from the same time period in the Caribbean.
  3. Meet with my professor: Our professors are an incredible source of knowledge and experience, and the earlier you meet to discuss you ideas, the more focused your ideas will become: they can steer you toward key texts and theorists and advance your thinking before you begin to dig in the stacks.
  4. Hunting and gathering: Sometimes I prefer to do more free-writing (my idea of “gathering”) to really hone in on what I care about;  other times, I really need to dig in and find out (“hunting”) what has been said and done on a topic first. With my Ellison paper, I’ll probably  go the library route first: a) the Rutgers library website, b) the MLA Bibliography, c) my subject librarian, d) Google Scholar, e) for larger projects, traveling to archives to access relevant original documents.
  5. Writing! One of my mantras is “writing is thinking.” The only way I can really know what I think about something is to write about it, so after completing steps 1-4, I’ll begin writing my paper.

Although there are certainly times when my work revolves around my own relationship with the texts I’m exploring, the process really is collaborative…having a conversation with the authors and filmmakers I’m working with. As the conversation gets larger and the stakes higher, the sources you tap into may take you farther than you expect.

Green Scenes

With a heatwave hitting the northeast and summer underway, I find myself just a bit nostalgic for this year’s cooler spring. But only a bit.

I took these on a beautiful afternoon this past semester when I still needed to do some reading for class but wanted to get outside of the library. I stumbled upon this oasis, complete with benches, shady trees, and even a couple of ducks swimming around as I ate my lunch and finished up some research. Next time you’re on Cook campus on a nice day, head over to Passion Puddle, where you can enjoy the greener side of Rutgers.

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GradFund, or, How to Stop Worrying and Start Writing Grant Proposals

Well, it’s finally gotten to that point in the semester. I think you know what I’m talking about (especially if you’re in the humanities): class presentations, expeditions to the library to secure any last minute arrivals from E-Z Borrow, and that final push to finish off seminar papers.

Before I hole myself up in my apartment and get to writing, I wanted to give a quick plug for Grad Fund Rutgers’s incredible (and free!) resource center for graduate students seeking external support. Not only do they run workshops to help you become a better grant writer, they also maintain a vast database of fellowship and grant-offering organizations to help you find the right one for you at each stage of your research. Did I mention they offer free one-on-one sessions with  knowledgeable fellowship advisors to review your proposal drafts?

What’s more (yes, it keeps getting better!), each summer they run a Graduate and Postdoctoral Mentoring Program which provides incoming and current students the structure and support to go from identifying a “funder” to completing a proposal before Fall deadlines.

I participated last summer, even before setting foot on Rutgers, and through constant feedback and practical advice, GradFund provided me with the information and guidance I needed to make my application as competitive as possible. While I didn’t get the fellowship this time around, the process of applying gave me a chance to build rewarding relationships with faculty members who continue to offer support and encouragement. I feel so much more confident in my grant writing skills and got a great head start on refining my dissertation project.

Not every school has an office devoted to helping graduate students win fellowships, so I encourage you to take advantage of this real gem at Rutgers.

OK, back to those papers!

Spring Break as Conference Prep Time

When I was an undergrad, Spring Break meant a whole week to do absolutely nothing. Some years that meant traveling to a warmer locale with friends, others were of the “staycation” variety, but in both cases Rest and Relaxation were the name of the game. 

As a graduate student, things are a little different. This year, Spring Break meant a week of not needing to commute to New Brunswick from New York City, catching up on episodes of The Walking Dead, and starting the research process for end-of-semester seminar papers. Mostly, though, I spent this week putting the final touches on a paper I will be presenting at the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference at the end of March. 

As the name suggests, the ACLA is the national organization for scholars doing comparative work in the humanities, and the director of Comparative Literature here at Rutgers encouraged us graduate students to apply. This year’s theme is “Collapse/Catastrophe/Change,” and so I dusted off a seminar paper from a few semesters back and jumped at the chance to put myself out there and see if something stuck. And it did! I’ll be presenting a paper on two unconventional war movies: Ari Folman’s animated documentary Waltz with Bashir and Katherine Bigelow’s independent film The Hurt Locker (both great, highly recommended). This will be my third conference presentation, and while I still have much to learn, I thought I would share some of things I know now but wished I’d known earlier about applying to and presenting at conferences.

What is a conference? A conference in the humanities is typically a meeting of scholars who convene over one or more days to present papers on a particular pre-determined theme. Some are local and run by graduate student organizations (these are a great entry for your first conference); others are larger and run by national or international organizations (these are often held on university campuses or large hotels). There are often keynote and plenary sessions open to the public where notable scholars in the field offer some thoughts on that theme, concurrent sessions of panel presentations, as well as a reception to allow time for mingling. Other formats exist, but I’m not familiar enough with those to comment (though if you can, please do!).

Why attend a conference? Participating in conferences is a key part of professionalization in the humanities. They offer opportunities to meet other scholars whose interests you share, and allow you to keep up with current scholarship in your field. And while we’re being honest, it is actually quite fun to spend a few days with people who are just as obsessed with interested in the kind of work you are doing as you are.

What do you do there? This certainly came as a surprise to me when I first learned about conferences, but what typically happens is that a panel of 3-4 scholars is allowed 15-20 minutes each to read a prepared paper. That’s right — they read their papers to an audience. A Q&A session follows the presentations, and I consider this one of the highlights of conferencing.  During this time, I have been offered helpful suggestions on additional sources to consult and new angles to consider in my work. Thinking of your paper as a solid work-in-progress really takes the edge off the experience of public speaking, and allows you to share your ideas while also opening yourself to feedback. Depending on where the conference is held, you might also get to travel to a new city, so why not take some time to get to know a new place?

How do I apply? Organizations put out what are called “Calls for Papers” (CFPs), which are a few words describing the conference theme and the kinds of papers they are looking for. In fact, you need not have written the paper when you apply (though having a clear sense of what you would argue is key). Most CFPs ask for a short abstract, about 150-300 words, summarizing your main ideas and how your eventual paper would fit the theme. Once your abstract is accepted, you will either be asked to submit the paper before the conference, or simply show up with your paper in hand to present.

Where do I find Calls for Papers? While this list is certainly not exhaustive, you’ll find a wide range via UPenn’s English Department Call For Papers website. Scholarly associations such as the ACLA and the Modern Language Association also post Calls on their websites. Department administrators also do a wonderful job of circulating Calls via email, so keep your eyes peeled!

Fun Fact: Searching CFPs is also a great way to come up with a paper topic for the end of the semester. Just knowing that other scholars are thinking about the same topics and themes can help motivate your research, and that strong end-of-year paper can become a great conference paper (and possible future publication). 

So what are some of your best conference strategies?  What is the most surprising theme you’ve come across? What are conferences like in other fields?

Share your thoughts in the comments!