Sunday, November 29, 2009

How It Went

I figure it's about time I did this post. Prepare for excruciating detail that is still very vague to stave off accusations of leaking departmental secrets!

The text was November 27th, from 11:05 am to 3:05. I and 7 of my PhD candidate cohorts were ushered into a computer lab, set up with a word document, and told to have at it. Four hours, four thousand words, and seven single spaced pages later, it was had. The time flew by fairly quickly. I can't really say how long any one question took me, as I alternated: I had three essays to write, and so I would do one paragraph of one, then alternate to the next. It maybe wasn't the best idea in terms of the overall flow of the essays, but for weeks before the exam, I was told over and over again that the worst thing I could do on it would be to skip a question entirely. The alternating method was a way of moving beyond that.

The whole exam went quickly, and unfolded in ways I really didn't expect. For the first two essays, I wound up with theses I actually thought were kind of interesting: "The means by which literature is defended provides the grounds for its next attack" and "The definitions of semiotics demonstrate a constant push and pull towards the original linguistic definition provided by Ferdinand de Saussure." Even the last essay surprised me, in that the pinnacle text turned out to be Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning, a book I almost skipped reading because I thought there was no way I'd be using a Renaissance-based text. I guess the whole exercise was a demonstration of how things can unfold unpredictably in a test situation.

Now, the gripe: I worked pretty damn hard on the studying for this exam. My list had (depending on how you count) 80 some texts on it, with nine different subcategories. I read for 4 months solid (okay, solid if you don't count the time in Toronto with my parents, or the time at the conference in Atlanta. But even in those cases, I had a book with me the whole time, and read a few hundred pages during the trip.). I wound up with 400 pages of typed single-spaced notes. That's about twice the length of the average dissertation. But due to the way the test was written, I could only write on 5 of 9 categories--which means a maximum of about 45 texts. And each text I used should be used in a fairly in-depth manner, which meant that I managed to use about 12 in the whole paper. Twelve texts out of 80. Sigh. Of course, there was no way to know going in which 12 I'd use, and the purpose of the exam to teach me an entire body of literature that will be useful for my academic career. Which texts I use in a 4 hour exam is ultimately of little importance when compared to the significance of setting up an area of expertise I'll be able to draw on for the rest of my life. But still... 12...

Anyway, I turned my paper in, and I'll be hearing the results in 2 weeks. For now, it's time for relaxing and chilling--chillaxin', if you will. We kicked it off English Grad Style starting the night of the exam, which was filled with beer, pool, and bowling--then in bed by midnight, because after 8 years of schooling, we're all prematurely aged and cranky for missing our afternoon nap. Good times.

I'd like to thank my friends and family for all the support over the last few days--it's been hugely encouraging, and being able to celebrate with said friends after the comp was the icing on the awesome cake. One down, one to go--multimedia, be prepared to be... studied.

Later Days.

Friday, November 27, 2009

I've Got Other Things On My Plate Today, So Let's Make This Quick

"A certificate tells me I was born. I repudiate this certificate: I am not a poet, but a poem. A poem that is being written, even if it looks like a subject." --Jaques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Portrait of the Flash-Card Maker

My study process:
1. Read the text; take notes, approximately one per page of text.
2. After each chapter, summarize notes for that chapter.
3. Once reading is done, summarize the chapter notes into a RefWorks file.
4. Compress the information from the RefWorks file onto a flashcard.

So, for those keeping track, we have a summary of a summary of a summary of a summary.

This process is time-consuming and labor-intensive. For example, on account of steps 1 and 2, I now have over 200 pages of typed, single-spaced notes for this exam. This exam on Friday.

In other news, I am insane.

Later Days.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sensible Course of Action, or the Loneliest Option?

"A man that is able may have wives, children, goods, and chiefly health, but not so tie himself unto them that his felicity depend on them. We should reserve a storehouse for ourselves, what need soever chance; althogether ours, and wholly free, wherein we may hoard up and establish our true liberty and principal retreat and solitariness, wherein we must go alone to ourselves, and take our ordinary entertainment and so privately that no acquiantance or communication of any strange thing may therein find place: there to discourse, to meditate and laugh, as without wife, without children and goods, without train or servants, that if by any occasion they be lost, it seem not strange to us to pass it over; we have a mind moving and turning itself; it may keep itself company." ---Michel de Montaigne.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

This Update is For My Mother, Because I Know She Worries

It seems every time I promise to recount some trip, my present situation gets sufficiently complicated that I need to cut the recounting short to deal with something else. This time, conference discussion will be compressed here on account of comp studies and one of the weirder illnesses I've had. First, because everyone loves hearing about other people's health problems.
Back in the middle of October, I had a raging sinus headache. It was so bad that every now and then, I had to stop whatever I was doing to just concentrate on not screaming in frustration for the pounding in my head to cease. The sinus stuff ended just before the trip to Atlanta, but a bad cough has plagued me since then--so it's been about a straight month of illness. To top it off, I've been pretty lethargic the whole time. So of course, it's only today that I bother to actually seek medical "help." I put the help in quotations because it wasn't particularly helpful. From the examination, the doctor believes that I had some sort of virus and the cough and tiredness are symptoms of what may be an extremely prolonged recovery period. The bad news is that there isn't really much I can do; the good news is that, from the examination, he was pretty confident it wasn't mono or H1N1. So... yay?
The worst part of this is that it's put a definite cramp in my comp studies. Not enough that I think it's really hampered my ability to take the test, but enough that I won't be devoting quite the level of attention to a few of the more challenging texts that I'd like to. That exam, for those counting the days (like me), is on Nov. 27th. So... nine days. Yikes.
So between the lethargy and the studying, I'm not going to have a lot of time for updating. I know, I'm still getting back to speed after a slump, but... well, that slump will have to last a little longer. Expect a new flurry of book reviews, TV commentary, and a weeklong dissection of "The Batman" TV series when I return. For now, here are some truncated thoughts on the Atlanta conference:
--Though the focus on paper of the conference was coding, what everyone in the science/humanity crossover seems most interested in at the moment is animal-human cognitive relations. I feel very ambiguous towards this focus, but I'm putting off articulating those misgivings to a later date.
--My fellow students gave their panel with Katherine Hayles sitting in the front row. That's a big deal.
--Of the conference, the two highlights in terms of panels would have to be Ian Bogost's key note speaker address, and W. H. Mitchell's presentation on images. Those guys know their stuff.
--Atlanta has some of the most courteous servers I've ever seen, even though one waitress repeatedly referred to me as 'ma'am' to the great amusement of all, until someone finally took pity on me and her and pointed out gently that I am, in fact, all man.
--My presentation went fine; amazingly, the math analogy seemed to be the part that everyone liked the best. It was also the part where I set down the paper, and just presented my thoughts as they came, so that's something to keep in mind for the next conference presentation.
--Atlanta looks like a big forest from above. It's weird. But very eco.
--I kind of wish I'd kept the "confused for a woman" story to myself.

There. Sorry, but that's all you get, conference-wise. I'll post again once the sheer panic from comps requires an outlet.

Later Days.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Flipping the Clock

It is time, once again, (fifth time, to be exact) to reset the mighty stat counter. As is traditional, this moment will be observed by an analysis of the word searches that have led people to this blog. It seems that with the TV show "Chuck" on hiatus, the number of people searching for Chuck and Sara porn has dropped precipitously. What's left, then, is an actual reflection of this blog's content:

"sexy" Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
"what movies have been made from the author of the door into summer" United States
"short review the door into summer by robert heinlein" Oakland, California
"Gothic elements" 'Painted Door' Sinclair Ross" Halifax, Nova Scotia
"libraries toronto" Toronto, Ontario
"david antin" San Diego, California
"review THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert Heinlein" Bois-de-lessines, Belgium
"rushdie marco polo" Warsaw, Indiana
"rushdie enchantress" New York, United States
"Lorna Crozier poem 'The Painted Door'" Regina, Saskatchewan
"door into summer review" Ithica, New York
"Fallout 3 progress blog" Greenfield, Indiana
"Post Colonism in Enchantress of Florence" Delhi, India
"best study space robarts library" Thornhill, Ontario
"salman rushdie enchantress of florence review" West Hartford, Conneticut
"compliant and promiscuous by military custom" South Hamilton, Massachusetts
"the door into summer 'horse sense'" Potomac, Maryland
"farscape dilbert" Huntsville, Alabama
"waking up cant get back to sleep" London, UK
"waking up and cant get back to sleep" Richardson, Texas
"" Humboldt, SK
"www.humbugbistro" Humboldt, SK
"" Saskatoon, SK
"" Lanigan,SK
"" Humboldt, SK
"" Edmonton, AB
"" Saskatoon, SK

I also got a lot of traffic for this post, largely because I made a cryptic reference to it on my Facebook status, which led to some further traffic on other pages. And then petered out, because Facebook friends are numerous, but easily distracted.

As you can see, the humbug bistro blog has really ruffled some feathers, and I guess the related URLs have let it out of the bag which town "humbug" actually refers to. Beyond that, most of the traffic seems geared towards my Heinlein and Rushdie reviews, which I'm glad for, since I put a fair bit of effort into writing both.

I'd like to draw your attention to two searches in particular: first, "compliant and promiscuous by military custom." I hope the searcher knew he or she was using a quotation directly from "the Forever War," because otherwise, that's a really creepy fetish.

Second: "Post Colonism in Enchantress of Florence." That sounds like the Enchantress encountered a nasty movement after a meal.

And on that classy note, I'm going to wrap things up. May the next 500 visitors be as interesting as this 500.

Later Days.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Right, So This Happened in Atlanta:

So, I'm strolling back to the hotel at about 3 am in the morning from a nearby bar when this large fellow comes up to me on his bike. "You're from out of town," he says, in a very friendly manner. "And you look lost. I'm going to walk you back to your hotel." I consider denying that I'm from out of town, but, well, I clearly was in no state to keep up that level of bluff. So I admit it, and we keep walking. I tell him where I'm from, he tells me about the time he spent in Vancouver.
A while into the conversation, I tell him again that it's really not necessary for him to follow me. "No problem," he says. "I'm happy to do it. And, if, when we get there, you want to, maybe, thank me with something, then..." I reply that I don't have much money on me. "Whatever you've got'll be fine," comes the less than reassuring reply.
We walk for a few more minutes in silence. Then he says this: "You know, you really should not walk around with your hands in your pockets like that. Some people see that, they know you're from out of town, and they might take advantage." And that was the point I decided it was time to say goodbye. I tried alternating paces slow and fast, but that didn't work so well. So we reached an agreement: I gave him all four of the dollars left in my wallet, and he'd stop following me. He took the four dollars, and sped off into the night.
It was a cross between a helpful local, an extended begging session, and a mugging. But it was definitely a four dollar story, so I came out on top.

Later Days.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Quotation and Updates

"I know about two things: War, and stories. Every story is about resolving conflict. If you engage in the conflict, it's because you want the story to continue. The narrative still has you. It takes two to tango, and that's a dance that never ends." Jacob, from Television Without Pity, describing an episode of Gossip Girl.

I actually wanted to use a Montaigne quotation today, but I don't have the book with me, so this is what you get.

--exactly two weeks till comps. (Okay, less. This time in two weeks, it'll be over.) My nervous energy at this moment could power several metropolises.
--In the near future, I'll be doing Atlanta anecdotes, a new stat flipping/internet searches leading to me report, and a 200th post.
--Speaking of internet searches, how awesome is it that the search on the URL for the humbug bistro blog leads to me instead of her?

Later Days.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Questions, with Answers Postponed to a Later Date

I had a conversation with a friend of mine yesterday, and it was one of those conversations that seem to dovetail with a bunch of others, to the point where it shines a light of clarity on some of the darker corners of your mind. Without getting into detail on the specific conversation, what it really brought out for me was a cold look at my own sense of elitism, one that has two main sources: my past and my present. (Yes, that's pretty vague, but I'm going somewhere with this. Bear with.)

The past aspect involves my upbringing. I come from a rural community and my feelings towards growing up there are really ambiguous: I'm proud to have come from there, but at the same time, a part of me, sometimes a large part, feels pretty alienated from it. Every now and then, something happens that really draws the latter to my mind. Most recently, it was this blog:

It's a blog about a well-traveled woman who opens a restaurant in a small town--and then proceeds to eviscerate that town in every sense of the word. It's essentially a case of small town mentality clashing with her personal world view, and the result isn't pretty. The woman, Wendy, is actually downright offensive at times, and the sheer vitriol of her writing makes it, at times, extremely distasteful. It could be argued that it is entirely a satiric piece, but there's far, far too many details specific for "Humbug" for that to be the case. She goes way too far--I'd support exposing the hypocrisy of the extreme homophobia that goes on in rural Saskatchewan, but when you're outing an area's local priests for no purpose than showing how "backwards" the people there are, then you've really gone about things in the wrong way.

(Two quick sidenotes here: first, some readers not knowing my personal background may think that it's my own hometown she's describing. It's not. My town's nearby, but "Humbug" is not it. Second: where was this woman when I was looking for a paper topic for my autobiography/blogging course? Considering the identity she constructs for herself and the ideologies she claims to be present in the "Humbuggers" (her, frankly, offensive term, not mine), there's a rhetorical goldmine here.)

Like I said, Wendy's attitude is less than even-handed, and fairly off-putting. The word "fuck" appears 72 times in her post (usually, interestingly, in her recollection of her own speech) and the word "hick" 16 times (alienating one's customer base may not be a sound business decision). But at the same time, as much as I disliked her tone, I never doubted what she said about the townfolk, even at their supposed worst. And until I talked with my brother about it, I didn't even realize I believed it. "Come on," he told me. "We know some of these people. Don't you think they deserve the benefit of a doubt?" I didn't extend to people I'd known for years the same courtesy I'd extend to complete strangers; I wanted to believe the worst about them. For me, it came down first to a small town vs. big city issue and I immediately picked my side. I've demonized some of these people in my mind, and they deserve better. I'm not sure why, but I feel the need to distance myself from those roots, to feel like bringing myself to out of province university somehow entitles me to look down on them. And realizing that I sometimes feel that way consequently makes me realize what an entitled and false world view that really is.

And that brings us neatly from the past into the present. I'm a doctoral candidate (and there's a self-aggrandizing position description for you) in a G13 Ontario university, studying in a field broadly categorizeable as the liberal arts. At this level, there is a lot of ego and abstraction involved, and you have to be aware that some elitist thinking can creep into your world view. I haven't been very aware, and the recent reality shock is part of the price I'm paying for that. I think the symptoms of late have included some somewhat racist behavior (that we are NOT going to get into, and may possibly stem more the rural upbringing), an aggrandizement of my work's importance, and a disdain towards my TA responsibilities.

Now, what follows holds true for me personally; your own mileage may vary. In the arts especially, there's occasionally a sense of entitlement that we enrich the community in a way that other, more impersonal departments, like mathematics or engineering, do not, that our grass roots extend further. For some people, this is actually true, and they work damn hard to keep it true. But just as often, this sort of reasoning is a liberal self-congratulatory excuse to stay within the confines of an insular institution. I'm a pretty insular person by nature, but some times, I need a reminder that there is more out there, and as a member of society, I have a responsibility towards all of it.

And a big part of that responsibility, currently, is the one I have towards my students. I don't want to give the wrong impression here; I teach my tutorials, and I mark my papers, and my students get what help I can give on both. But due to the nature of the course I'm TAing for this term, and my looming comp exams, if something is left to slide, it's usually going to be the tutorial prep time. More than once this term, I've been called out on making fun of a grammar mistake or sentence construction rather than trying to see the paper from the student's point of view.

There's a streak of narcissism at work there, and it's something that may be impossible to entirely eliminate because it's so deeply embedded in what I do. During the school years, high academics was how I distinguished myself, so it's largely a part of my identity. While it was far from my only motive, part of the reason I did a double degree in Math and English in university was because I wanted to make myself stand out again. Even this post topic comes from a conversation with a friend that I'm bending to my own ends. Hell, writing a blog is undeniably one of the greatest narcissistic acts--look at me, I'm so important that people should spend time reading about me! I don't know what I can do about some of that--I think some narcissism is embedded in the idea of personal identity. But there must be something I can change.

And that's the first part of the next step, I guess: what to change. Ideally, what I'd like to do is find something that I find socially appealing and enjoy, but it's not going to be easy. I don't think the answer, for the moment, at least, is a change of careers; I truly enjoy what I'm doing, and though it's not really that socially relevant, I kind of believe that making a positive difference means that you have to start from doing work that you like, and move outwards from there. I suppose I could go further in the direction of dedicating myself to teaching, but... both my parents were teachers. I know the level of dedication and commitment necessary to truly be a great teacher, and I don't have that, not right now.

I know friends who find a lot of what they need through volunteer work, but that doesn't quite feel right for me either. I'm a little too uncomfortable around strangers for that, and it tends to just make me feel more distant. I've talked about political activism before, and it's not the ticket any more than religious activism is, largely for the same reason: I believe that if you pursue a cause like that, it should be because you truly believe in it, not because you're looking to make up for some gap in yourself.

I guess the answer for me personally, for the moment (there's that phrase again), is to just keep my eyes open, see my actions for what they are, and look for opportunities to change.

This has been a pretty reflective post. Expect a return next time to a description of my time at an international arts conference. So yeah, back to the elitism.

Later Days.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Remember when complaining about air plane food was an option?

I just got back from my conference in Hotlanta (That's what we called "Atlanta." It's an in-joke. You wouldn't get it.). Now, from the other posts about trips, you'd be expecting me to break up the trip into minute parts and deliver piecemeal over the next few days. And that's exactly what you'll get. Consistency is important in this modern work-a-day world.
Today, the focus is the air trips.

Okay, the focus today is the airport portion of the trip. There was a grand total of eight grad students from my department going, and there were people taking flights from Toronto, driving out to Buffalo and flying out from there, and people driving, and people taking the train. So yeah, not a great amount of coordination. There was a lot of yelling (me) and accusations (me), but after some even-tempered discussion and honest dialogue (not so much me), we did wind up doing something a little more collaborative for splitting the hotel rooms.

But anyway, I flew out and back on my own. I've done the Ontario-Saskatchewan trip back and forth a few times solo, so I don't really have a problem flying alone. I was a little worried about customs, but it was actually a fairly positive experience on both sides of the border, so no worries there. (I did wolf down a pop and a chocolate bar on the airplane back to Toronto just because I didn't want to declare them, but that's just my bizarre paranoia/love of chocolate speaking.)

On the way there, I had a layover in Phiiladelphia, and on the way back, another in Charlotte. Both had rocking chairs everywhere, which felt like a nice touch. Very homy. The Philly connection had its rough points--it took me a while to figure out I needed to take a shuttle bus to get to the section of the airport I needed to, and a little while longer to realize they'd changed the gate for my plane. I was only at the Charlotte port for an hour, but I spent the entire time walking around--it's friggin' huge. It's got 5 sections, each with about a half dozen restaurants, and an atrium area with 15 restaurants, 10 stores, and a chapel. A chapel. I was dead tired by the time I reached that terminal(I split a cab from the airport with some associates whose flight left at 5:30 am, so we skipped sleeping that night, and it was 8:00 am by the time I hit Charlotte), but I still spent most of my time looking around. It was pretty cool--well, the largely soulless, overpriced, generic coolness of an airport, but still, neat-o.

The downside of traveling by air, for me, anyway, is always the number high altitudes play on my inner ear. As I type, my right eardum STILL won't pop. It's getting kind of annoying. Anyone have any suggestions on how to restore my lost hearing?

Next Time: City of Atlanta

Later Days!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

You'd Better Believe There's a Right Answer

Just a reminder: I fly out to the conference early tomorrow, so no new posts till Monday.
To give you something to think about in the meantime, and try yet again to massage some actual comments, I pose the following question:

Seinfeld or Friends?

Later Days

Monday, November 2, 2009

Suit Yourself

Halloween is awesome. There's no disputing that. And this Halloween was particularly awesome because I went to an Arrested Development-themed party. Dressed up as Barry Zuckerkorn. And we could do a whole post about how lovely that was, and who dressed up as what, and how many bananas on sticks were eaten, and who doesn't remember what because of how much rum they brought, but that's not today's focus.

Today's focus is on the preparations for the SLSA conference. The travel arrangements have been eye-rollingly complicated: first, I need to get a ride to Toronto, since Blank's airport doesn't service Atlanta. Then there's the flight itself. And the subway ride from the airport to the hotel (note to self: get American funds at some point for this). That's Thursday. The paper itself will be done on Saturday, (note to self: one round of editing at least is necessary before the paper is ready) and I get as much time as I can manage to celebrate before I go back to the airport for my 7 am flight back to Toronto Sunday morning. (Only I'll have to take a cab, since the subway doesn't start on a Sunday till 8 am.) And from Toronto, it's a shuttle bus back to my apartment.

All of that is entirely beside the point; I just wanted to see if I could actually write the whole thing down without being confused.

The point is my apparel for the paper I'm giving. I've thought about this. It needs to be formal. I could probably get away with just a button-up shirt and a decent tie, but I learned from the costume that I can't count on my tie skills to reach a level of "decent" by Saturday. So that means I need to wear a suit jacket. The problem is, I have only one suit jacket, and I wore that as part of the costume on Saturday. Consequently, it's covered it's a little messy--mostly with little specks of grey hair spray. (See, Barry Zuckerkorn has grey hair, and I don't... etc.) This morning, I took the suit to the nearest cleaner that would promise on the phone to have it cleaned by Wednesday. (If it fails to deliver, then... well, back to the tie.)

Then, finally, we reached the most difficult part of today: transporting a suit on a hanger while riding a bicycle. I had a suit sleeve at least (is that the right word?), but there was no decent way to handle it. If I threw it over a shoulder, it would get caught in the back tire. I tried to bike using one hand, and holding the suit upright in the other, but one good hill made me realize how much I needed both hands to operate both brakes. (Plus, in the panic that followed, I rested the hook of the hanger on my hand while I grasped the brake. So while both my hands were occupied, it was digging into my skin. Ow.) Finally, I sort of just laid it between my legs in such a way that it didn't drag on the ground. Admittedly, it's not going to help the suit's wrinkles, but... well, that's part of the dry cleaning, right? But clearly, that's not an option on the return trip. I don't know what I'll do.

I guess I'll just have to walk the five blocks.

Later Days.