Fail or Succeed, Keep Moving

February 4th, 2011

This week marked a high point in my research project. I received a grant from my university to visit theHarvard Yenching Library. I’ve set my dates and contacted all the right people. Now all I have to do is wait. Now of course, waiting is not an option. Deadlines don’t wait for people. While this post details some victories with the grant, the pressing matter of writing a literature review ought take precedence.

Last week I detailed the appropriate process for asking professors to write recommendation letters. Having successfully obtained the grant, let me touch on how to properly respond to receiving a grant. I can’t emphasize this enough, Thank the people that help you! Obtaining grants or getting into grad school is not a solo gig. Often the word your professor put in or even the advice friends and readers give you has just as much value as the original work you’ve done. It’s important to never forget that academia and all of your projects are not solely from your own efforts. As a personal shout-out, thank you Susan Fernsebner and Allyson Grace for looking over my materials, giving me advice, and (in the case of Prof. Fernsebner) writing a rationale statement. A small grant may not seem like a big deal, showing thankfulness in the small things is still crucial to developing good relationships with your peers and mentors. Also, a victory dance is always critical after something major has gone right.

Work Through Hardships and Successes

Despite my impressive victory dance (not shown on video), I cannot kick back and call it a day with the grant. While people talk a lot about preserving through hardships, it seems far too easy to slack off when you’ve hit a successful run. A tortoise and the hare connection seems appropriate here, but I will call it obvious and skip it for now. The truth is a major success gives a researcher (i.e. me) justification to take it easy. “Well look how hard I’ve been working…” Taking a break seems reasonable, but deadlines don’t take a break, neither should your project. Even when you have hit a major milestone, the true discipline comes with consistency. Is your research going poorly? Keeping pushing through it. Have you made some impressive progress? Great, go have a beer or ice cream (I’m all down with ice cream) and continue working. I’ve noticed that on days where I have worked particularly hard, I feel pretty okay with not doing anything the next day, but before you know it the day after that you don’t really feel like it either. All of the sudden a week has passed and whoops that deadline which was a week and a half ago is now tomorrow afternoon. Hope you have coffee. What’s worse, you will finish the paper, it might even look good, and think that you deserve a pat on the back for finishing it “under tight constraints.”

The above situation is all wrong.

What we really need to do is keep a reality check about what is the end goal of your project. Evaluate what your successes are. Finishing a part of your assignment doesn’t deserve some chill break, your goal isn’t just to finish a part of the research. You get to relax when everything is done. I am not anti-breaks, but I am extremely pro-schedule. If you plan on taking a break have it planned out rather than just take a break whenever you want. I am prone to being lazy, if there is no particular deadline, who really cares if I get the thing done a week in advance or the night before? While the answer for most of us might be “no one.” The fact is that as a good researcher you are missing the point of your project. Taking the time to do the work is a key part of the research. Rushing a project by not allotting enough time is an amateur’s mistake. Over this weekend I hope to do a bit of reading about procrastination as well as more tips for writing analytically. While I have now been a proud history major since Spring of 2009, the writing process is still a struggle of teasing out ideas and clearly communicating them.

Literature Review: WTF?

Also known as a historiography, the literature review requires the writer to look into secondary sources concerning her project. Most of my professors have told me that students frequently have trouble writing the literature review (lit review). Evaluating secondary sources (read scholarly) and how the questions about your topic have changed over the years presents students with a host of problems. We don’t write in this sort of genre too frequently. I recall Professor Moon (history/American studies) defining a lit review as, “the literature review is a review…of the literature.” It doesn’t get much simpler than that. However, the researcher has to take some time to categorize his sources, understand their arguments and find intelligent ways of evaluating what he finds. The UMW history =””>resource page offers some great tips about the lit review.

While some history students might not have any trouble finding the secondary sources necessary for constructing their lit review, I have had major troubles. My topic, Chinese script reform, has very little scholarly research but a wealth of primary documents. There are a few great monographs on the topic, but not a whole lot of scholarly debate. This is not necessarily a bad sign, but I cannot settle to do a lit review over a small swath of books. The UMW site recommends at least ten sources, but even that seems a little small. Luckily, I have come across some journal articles, which are particularly excellent fodder for secondary sources. I find the process of writing lit reviews to be very enlightening, because it offers insights into the main questions about your topic. What ground has been covered? Who has said what? Where are the main points of contention? Why? Gardner Campbell often explained writing as a constant conversation, especially as we were reading the Norton Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. In order to effectively participate in the conversation, you should know what people have been talking about and what the main questions are. Not only does this keep you from reinventing the wheel, it also pushes you to consider new questions or evaluate the lines of arguments thus far. What’s been effective? I am still getting everything together for the lit review, but let’s see how it goes! The due date is on February 14th, and while the due date creeps closer everyday, I am going to kick back for an evening (it’s a scheduled kick back mind you!!)

Stay Smooth:

Progress Report 3: A Quiet Week?

January 29th, 2011

Late last night I submitted the final draft of my history proposal. Turned in, wrapped up, and shipped out the paper is out of my hands. This week I focused my efforts on finding more secondary sources, digging at primary sources, and pondering my next line of attack inquiry. For me, this blog post all begins with the marked up proposal draft that I received on Sunday. So let’s begin there, shall we?

Sunday night my thesis adviser sent me a well marked up copy of my first draft. Dr. Fernsebner highlighted some key issues that weakened my proposal: tone, sources, and framing a question. These three items can make or break a proposal. A proposal is more than just another paper on the long (perhaps ever-growing) list of papers you have. Rather, the proposal acts as a road map to how you intend on completing the long and arduous task of writing your thesis. The history department’s insistence on students writing a proposal is solid, because these proposals are similar to writing for grant money. You may not have really started the project, but at least you can demonstrate your competence in the field and what you already know about your topic. Given the nature of the proposal, you will be torn between not knowing enough (i.e. sounding unsure of yourself) and needing to communicate to someone that you have a very sound grasp of the material you are researching. The flip side of this issue is that you do not want to overemphasize your certainty. In order to make this explanation clearer, I will be demonstrating both problems through the first draft of my own proposal:

  1. “I will attempt to answer how simplification became the preferred route for Chinese’s future.”
    • The main problem here is the word “attempt.” Throughout may paper I had a very tentative voice. Anyone reading it would be able to see I was trying to be as non-committal as possible.
  2. “While I certainly will find some documentation, the absence of more personal writings should not negatively impact my project.”
    • This sentence actually encapsulates both problems I mentioned, too confident yet too uncertain.
    • Saying “certainly,” according to Dr. Fernsebner, “invites contradiction on the part of the readers.”
    • Keep in mind that the key is to balance uncertainty and confidence

My initial draft suffered from my inability to see a proposal for what it is, a tentative work produced from early, preliminary research. With that in mind you should go into your proposal with a basic understanding of your topic, understanding of potential research difficulties, and a sense of where your research is going. Writing your proposal should help hone basic questions and chart your research better than just thinking about the project as you go along reading.

Moving away from tone, my second issue was sources. For history papers you have two types of sources: primary and secondary. Both of those pieces are necessary to have a potentially successful paper. As a quick aside, primary sources are documents or media produced during the time you are research or by a person of the time. Think of it as your primary contact with the event. Analyzing the event and primary sources are your secondary sources. There is always a little bit of debate about what counts as a secondary source, but for simplicity’s sake, I like to think of secondary as a document produced by scholars from a later date or people looking back on the event/person after much time has passed. Some documents straddle the line between primary and secondary, namely memoirs. Others hold both statuses, such as film, but we can ponder that some other time.

Now I have dug up a wealth of primary sources for my research on Chinese character reform, but frankly the secondary sources were rather lacking. So let me touch on what to do when there just is not that much in the way of scholarly works on your particular topic. Think about the events surrounding your topic or perhaps related themes. For the language reform there are only a handful of scholarly works that detail the reform and historical implications, but my research does not just consider the language reformation. Rather, my research seeks to link nationalism and language reform. Now, scholars have produced a great deal of works about how language can become a driving force for national identity. These works will help to bolster not only your sense of other similar historical situations but also inform you of some of the previous theories and debates. Another way to consider the importance of secondary resources is to think about a long discussion and you have shown up late. Without someone filling you in on the discussion it is likely that you will merely repeat what has already been said. Secondary sources allow you to see what ground has already been covered. What are the major issues in similar situations? What do scholars now debate about concerning your topic.

Finally, ask yourself, “what is my paper asking? What is it answering?” These questions are exceedingly simple but crucial. Just because you have sources and pretty grammar does not equal a stellar paper. The lines of inquiry fundamentally shape your project. What questions you ask will lead to what types of answers you will receive. I say that knowing how asking poor questions leads to nothing but even worse answers. When writing my paper I assumed that my questions would just come out naturally. I am studying character reform…isn’t that good enough? No, no it is not. What about it is important? How does it connect to the larger issue of nationalism within China during the honeymoon period of the People’s Republic of China? What were the main goals of the government for the language reform? How did the publishing organization for character reform influence the language movement? Who were the key players? So you see some of the questions are specific, who/where/when questions and others are broader and thematic.

To wrap up! Keep tone, sources, and questions in mind when you are taking on big projects. Hopefully here soon I will be able to post a final draft of my proposal (other drafts are too dangerous for the general audience!). Monday, January 31st I will hear from the University about my grant proposal. Will I win some financial assistance to continue my work? Or will I have to beg for cash to keep it going? Find out next time!

Progress Report-2: Bad News

January 21st, 2011

Sadly, I must detail the mistakes I made during this week, yet at least I can share useful tips and procedure about asking your professor to write recommendations/anything at all. My breach in not only good procedure but also bare minimum courtesy warrants this post.
So rather than talk about stress and things imploding on themselves, allow me to present…

How to Get Recommendation/Help from Your Professor

I would like to tell you that I only make the right moves, however this week is evidence to the contrary. I am a pro at over committing and not considering deadlines as firm lines. Furthermore, rather than plunge headlong into my project and inform my professor of what I needed, I waited until all of the pieces were together. On paper that sounds like a great idea, but when time is of the essence–that is to say, you don’t have time to wait–you cannot afford to just sit back until everything falls into place. I have a confession to make, I waited until nearly the last minute to inform my professor that I needed a statement about my project for a grant proposal. While I deserve to be locked away in academic prison, I was given a message to spread and allowed to walk away with my head still nicely attached to my shoulders.

The Academic Prison...for those who don't take time to be provided by Time Pearce

1. Always work in hard copies

Dropping into your professor’s office and casually discussing some letter or favor you need is not a firm and sealed deal, particularly when you leave out the array of fine details you need. “Hey, I am working on a grant that is due next Friday can you help me out?” Is vague and not helpful. Where are the details? Do you expect your advisor to remember a single sentence that is made in passing without you putting forth the effort of a follow up email? That should be a negative! If you mention it in passing, be sure to also send an email or better yet print out a sheet of paper with your request. A piece of paper on a desk that you have personally handed over is worth more than a passing comment or a quick email. All of us receive contact from friends, colleagues and family, filling whatever social network, email service or whatever one uses. Be smart turn in a paper, shake a hand, sit down for a minute with your advisor. Most of them don’t bite.

2. Attach any relevant information to your request

If you ask your professor to help out with writing part of a grant proposal or recommendation, be sure to address what you are doing. Are there specific things the professor needs to raise while writing? If there are additional requirements or details where can they be found? “Hi I am applying to X, can you write a letter for me xthx!” Does not give the level of detail of, “I am applying for x school/program/thing, and here are links to the school’s site so you can see what they are looking for in the letter.” Just because your advisor has written grad letters before or is really tight with you, does not translate to her doing extra leg work that you should be doing. The writer’s job is to write the letter or statement, not dig around the internet, make phone calls or send emails to figure out what the hell you are doing. That’s your job. Don’t be lazy about it.

3. Provide more useful information on your work

This week while drafting both my history proposal and grant proposal, I waited to hear back from different librarians and allowed myself to fall behind on writing many of the critical documents. Besides the underlining issue of just starting on time or *gasp* early, the student (or requestee) should offer a brief sketch of what they are working on as well as what they attend to write. “Grant letter now plz!” Is not so helpful. But a conversation with your advisor about what you need as well as giving them an outline of what you plan to write allows the professor/writer enough information to write his letter to resonate with your material. Had my professor not already been somewhat familiar with my thesis project perhaps I would not have escaped with a yes to my request for a rationale statement. The bottom line is, regardless of what stage you are at, offer at least something for the professor to work off of.

4. Pay attention to time!

Of all the failures I had, timing was the biggest. The solution to this problem links nicely with #3, but first let me explain a little further. There is no excuse for asking a professor to do anything for you, even if you give a week’s full notice. Everyone is busy, and if someone were to give you seven days notice to do something that requires time and effort, you would be pissed right? People (sweeping statement ahoy) make plans well in advance, so do not just assume that your professor does nothing but sit in his office waiting to help you out. Professors are often more than willing to help, but like most people, they have busy schedules and balance any number of activities. Late notice is a deal breaker. Not only does it make you look bad, ill-prepared, but chances are your advisor will have to turn down your request. That’s just how it is. You cannot really blame the professor for not being able to make time. If you don’t give at least TWO WEEKS NOTICE, forget about whatever you are requesting. Plan ahead as much as you need. Now, I realize that sometimes a proposal does not come together until the last minute. Well might I refer to #3, turn in whatever information you have and whatever you plan to do. This way you have accomplished a few things: you are able to give proper notice, you will turn in any relevant material that you eventually will write, and you will look far more professional giving both proper time and material. Win-Win yes?

5. Make the process as easy as possible

Don’t forget that your professor’s job is to write the letter, not worry about where it is going to or how it will get there. When asking a professor to write a letter of recommendation or anything that needs sending, be sure to supply an addressed and stamped envelope. Some professors have nifty university official envelopes, but that is a minor detail you can ask about when asking your professor for a letter of recommendation. The take away message for this is, don’t make the person helping you have to jump through bureaucratic or logistical hoops. A professor is more likely to write a good recommendation when your leg work/homework are all taken care of. Maybe you can be cool and create a nice packet of information with all of the proper supplies! Regardless, your goal should be to be professional, while also making your professor’s job as straightforward and hassle free as possible.

6. Did you catch #4?

As soon as you know that you need anything from a professor, make that the top of your priority list. Don’t even wait a day. Send out a cursory email if you have to, but do not delay. An email about the assignment and a request for a meeting where you will drop off any relevant material is absolutely awesome. A good word from a professor can make your project shine in ways that you would individually be hopeless to achieve. You might say your project is important, but a Ph.D stating that your project deserves funding or that you make a suitable candidate for a certain program goes a long way.

In other news this week I have completed my history proposal first draft as well as turned in the majority of my grant proposal. Yes, if you have not guessed it, I broke all of the above guidelines. But many thanks for Dr. Fernsebner teaching me correct procedure as well as sparing my life. I am now a disciple of proper timing and planning.

1.14 HIST485 Report

January 14th, 2011

What is this?

Over the next 16 weeks I will be doing a weekly blog post about my history thesis. Each post should include things such as book reviews, notes on scheduling, talking over assignments as well as initial drafts. As I’ve talked about in other posts, the history thesis is a huge project that really only has a few due dates to track. Lack of consistent due dates causes me to go into pro-procrastination mode, so I figured weekly blog posts will keep me honest about my progress. Further, it’s a great way for my adviser…or anyone interested in my project to keep up to date. Writing every week should help me constantly think about the project as well as note when I am lagging behind. Dr. Fernsebner said that larger projects tend to move at a “snail’s pace.” The researcher often can’t see the type of project she is making. So who knows maybe writing out what I do every week will make a great progress report.

The First Progress Report

As this is the first week, I spent the majority of my time trying to get organized with paper work, know when the due dates are, and settle into a new semester. Even though it’s the first week, the history department at UMW encourages students to dig into their projects over breaks before the semester even starts. I have to admit that the little bit of legwork this winter gave me a lot of material with which to start. Dr. McClurken (current chair of the department) had a meeting with us to discuss the syllabus. It’s a serious project that requires major effort.

Thinking Thesis Topic

Saying what one’s topic is can be the hardest part about the project. It requires pegging some ideas down, not too mention solidifying just what you have decided to research. In the simplest way, I will be researching Chinese script reform during the 1950s and 70s. Initially I wanted to focus on just the 1950s but found the actual record of reformation extends further back then that. At the moment, I am reading English sources that outline the history of language reform. That history includes discussions of state language versus a choice to have multiple languages, romanization systems and character simplification. These conversations find their beginning in Chinese nationalist thinking at the fall of the Qing dynasty. Looking at all of these issues is more the stuff of a dissertation, not a senior thesis, but it is important to have a grasp of everything that is happening around these issues. Who are the people debating? Why do they take the stances they do? How does the rhetoric shift over the decades?

I have already read John DeFrancis’ book Chinese Nationalism and Language Reform which is an older book written in the 50s concerning what we would now consider the early phase of the language reform. It is my hope to effectively bring in a wide range of knowledge to a more specific set of sources. What good does it do to only read one set of documents without knowing the circumstances from which they came? While such talk is near blasphemy for certain schools of thought (literary studies?), for historians context can be key. I have found a specific publishing company called the Publisher for Character Reformation (文字改革出版社)which appears to be a government mouthpiece for the issue starting in the mid 1950s. My current objective is to track down the series of documents that publisher has produced concerning Chinese script reformation. Thus far, I am still unsure who would be considered some of the power players for/against reformation in this period. I at least already have a set of documents that I retrieved from the University of Virginia’s Alderman library. While I do not have too many documents thus far, I have enough to begin understanding some of the key vocabulary (all of these documents are in Chinese) about character reformation and policy making. I am still formulating questions and wondering if investigating a little bit about Chinese mass education at the time would also prove beneficial.

I have spent this past week contacting both the C.V. Starr Library and Harvard’s Yen-ching Library to get some ideas about my project as well as track down other resources. Admittedly, this process was not very easy as I had issues introducing myself “cold” over an email. I often felt awkward presenting flimsy credentials “senior at the University of Mary Washington” to librarians that have worked with doctoral students and professors. Despite my reservations, I have already heard back from two librarians and expanded my bibliography and my pool of questions for research. My ultimate goal is to go and visit one of those libraries’ archives. Suggestion for future projects, research a little more before sending out an email. I noticed that my “clear” project topic was less than crystal to the librarians who could not see into my mind. The initial difficulty forced me to clarify my project as well as dig into archives for sources that I could show others. Saying “I am researching Character reformation in the 50s,” sounds far less professional than “I am interested in studying Chinese script reform (including simplication as well as romanization schemes) during the Republican Era and early PRC. I have x books thus far and would like to focus on xyz readings. Would you have suggestions for further materials?” You have to give to get. The more you know about your project, the more you can talk about it, the better librarians can help you. I lost a little bit of my “musing” tone, but I cannot drive home hard enough how important understanding your topic is. I hope to have more information about the separate libraries and their collections for another blog post.

Other News

I am extremely interested in starting a history thesis group. I already started a doodle schedule and based it around to a few classmates. The group would be another method of breaking the monotony of solo research. The process does not have to be as lonely as many of us make it. While we are expected to do our own leg work, I find nothing wrong with meeting together and discussing what everyone is doing. I hope to encourage active discussion of our topics. Much like my work with the librarians thus far, if someone forces you to talk about your project, eventually you will be able to clearly articulate what you are doing. The first few times may be awkward or uncertain, but I am 100% certain this exercise could be beneficial to anyone participating. I hope to turn the group into a sort of space where we can exchange ideas about each others projects. What is your topic? Who are the big players? What sort of primary sources are you using? What are the debates about the event? Further, it gives everyone the opportunity to play the expert in the group. The students that have expressed interest in the group so far have a wide variety of intellectual backgrounds, even the China theses only overlap but so much. I hope for this to be a regular practice. Why make research a fully solo project? It’s our responsibility as scholars to work together to produce knowledge, challenge ideas and hone the writing craft. As due dates come up, I would like to exchange papers and elicit people’s opinions about writing style and mechanics. One step at a time for sure.

Getting Ready Part 2

January 10th, 2011

In Part 1 I detailed all of the hectic events that will surely accompany my senior theses, but I have left out another crucial change for this semester. I have left DTLT to take on more responsibilities tutoring students studying Chinese. Last semester I spent about six hours a week working with them, but now thanks to Professor Koos I have ten hours I can devote to 102 and 202 students. In order to be of even more help I want to…need to improve my own language skills. A teacher who isn’t learning is a weaker teacher. Regardless of whatever level you teach, you have to work with new material and advance your understanding of what you already know. Not only does such a method keep you apprised of what new developments are happening, but it also shows your students you are willing to put in the effort.

For this sort of model I am considering everything that would make me a better student of Chinese language. I have to admit that I take my inspiration from Jim Groom’s Digital Storytelling class. Jim did every single assignment with his students. Whatever struggles they went through, Jim did the same. It created an atmosphere of collaboration where students knew that the instructor was also grappling with the material. Although I didn’t take the class myself, I could see that students really enjoyed having that type of support. The success of this model for learning and teaching hinges on the notion that a teacher doesn’t ask the student to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Not a huge revelation, but I want to run a Chinese study group like Jim leads his digital storytelling. End of story.

How does one study Chinese Mandarin? No one method could safely stand as the correct way, but having realized that studying language in its respective country is far easier than in the United States, I now know that I need more creative methods to make progress happen. While inside of the US, it seems as if the best one can do is tread water, maintaining her skills but perhaps losing a little each day. I earnestly want more than that. The opportunities I have to go over to China are growing smaller and smaller. Whether there is lack of free time or a need to make cash, the long stretches of Chinese studies could become a thing of the past if grad school doesn’t work out.

What tools, methods and ideas have I come up with? Frankly not a whole lot, but allow me to stumble through my thought process on the matter. The big considerations are

  1. goals
  2. tools
  3. time

But after having spent today introducing students to any number of tools, I felt I had this whole language thing worked out. At the end of the day teacher (老师)mentioned a couple of items for me to work on more specifically. I just added those to the ever growing list of goals. At this moment my main goals include developing and maintaining vocabulary, increased proficiency talking with Chinese people on a wide range of topics, and now developing a better eye for writing characters (汉字 hanzi). I have to laugh because 老师noticed how poor my characters were. I also need to get a better sense of Chinese culture through reading more stories and using the language. Since the beginning of my studies, I have merely passed myself off as a funny American who just so happens to know quite a bit about Chinese history. In all actuality my knowledge of Chinese culture is pretty bare.

Tools often help to further shape one’s goals. What you have or do not have can limit your progress. It’s hard to study without materials. So I have any number of websites and radio programs at my disposal. Over the past two years I amassed a healthy collection of books but no easy reading stories. The majority of my collection is textbooks. While textbooks are helpful, they can be a little cumbersome or, if nothing else, less than fun. For all my advocating for having fun while studying Chinese, I take a very serious, drill like, attitude to the process. I need to use games, books, media and other tools to enjoy the process. Why am I not talking to Chinese people on MSN, Skype or QQ on a daily basis? Why should studying Chinese always be a matter of “hitting the books” that a university vets? Frankly, I still have a lot to work out, but the progress is most certainly there. I do at least need to get a hold of another collection of books as well as some special materials for practicing writing. 老师recommended I pick up a few books by 金庸(Jin Yong). Who is 金庸?You’ve got me there, but this individual has apparently written a mass of novels that are great for advanced learners to pick up vocabulary and knowledge on culture. As to my penmanship, I don’t know why I didn’t consider picking up some writing materials while I was abroad!

The final factor I have to worry about is time. I am not a 100% how to best schedule time to work on all of this language stuff. I used to be much more industrious, but some days I seem to lack energy for actively studying the language. I float along the doldrums. Even writing blog posts or just getting lists together for what needs to be accomplished in a day takes more time than it should. I am certain that most of the problem settles on a mental block. In order to succeed at something, you must see yourself successfully completing the task. So as I am putting together my Chinese study schedule I need to be willing to put in the time. Nothing comes without effort, no matter what I might think. I hope to plug in a lot of hours working on Chinese. With any luck studying alongside the other students will be a big motivator. The more I study, the better I can help them. Even if my future with Mandarin is wholly uncertain, the others could do very well with the language. So how many hours? I would like to do three hours a day. Maybe if I plan it out well, even when I am busy I can work on it.

Suggestions for language study under a busy schedule?

The moral of the story with studying Chinese is that you can think big, but what can you honestly do? I always talk about making great progress despite the fact that nothing ever comes out of such talk. Whether it is semester hustle and bustle or just my own laziness, I get stuck in my tracks. Just a confession, you know?

Now that we have gotten talking about Chinese out of the way, I hope to touch on some of the problems and hey maybe even effective strategies for dealing with them. For those playing at home, feel free to step in with advice and opinions; I always could use it!

Gearing Up #1

January 9th, 2011

Over the next few posts I will lay out winter break, the upcoming semester and how everything can just go utterly wrong. These posts will be messy and perhaps….utterly disturbing! Nah, mostly just rants about how difficult things could be mixed with anecdotes about how I can make it all the worse. Sit tight and enjoy the ride.

Now that we are at New Semester Eve, it is worth taking note of this winter break, call it inventory if you will. What was done? Not done? How could it have been done better feels like an irrelevant question, there are no more winter breaks after this, maybe? Either way, taking account of one’s work is crucial to understand how to progress towards your next goal. I started the semester with a sweet trip to Scranton Pennsylvania to see some family. Before fall semester I never had any interest in what used to be a small mining town, but after a classmate in Dr. Moon’s immigration class presented the story of Polish mine workers from that area, I grew more fascinated with my family’s ties to the place and trade. I came back with a UMW zippo lighter and a piece of coal. The coal, ironically, was a gift from Mr. Ferri who owns a coal mine themed pizza shop in Moscow PA. I learned a great bit about how coal miners lived and unfortunately were almost always exploited. I will have to do another post on just the pizza joint, utterly wonderful! The reconnect I had with my family was also immensely awesome, but that’s too gushy for this space, so we’ll skip that. I did come away with something that I can share. Hearing stories about my father’s college experience and pursuit of knowledge, lit a new fire in me. Whatever that means, right?

Around Christmas time, my girlfriend headed down to Fredericksburg and has now taken residence in my apartment building, one floor up. My roommate–tech guru Matt Keaton– and I found some free furniture to help get the apartment looking sweet. Luckily for my girlfriend, I have stumbled onto any number of objects which now furnishes her flat. Am I just trying to gain some good boyfriend points? Well of course, you can never be sure when you will need them. Christmas itself was pretty quiet. We had a small family celebration, but at least I was able to gift everyone some chocolates I found at Gertrude Hawk located in Scranton PA. I also got crafty and made a present for the girlfriend. To be honest, it’s one of those crafts your five year old gives you…then you put in on the fridge maybe; nothing to scream about but still cute.

The girlfriend and I scored big for the holidays at least. We landed a trip to Florida with my mom. She has been living in a newly developing area between St. Augustine and Daytona Beach. I lived there for a little while last winter before taking off to China. Most of the time when I go, I meet the locals, who are primarily “immigrants” from New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. It’s a great area to relax and explore historic sites. I visited a light house on Ponce de Leon islet. The museum exhibit surprised me. With a wealth of detail about working conditions in the mid 19th to early 20th century. You could see where lighthouse workers slept, some of the living conditions for the family and of course climb the light house itself. Little did I know that this is actually, “the tallest lighthouse in Florida and the second tallest masonry lighthouse in the nation.”(see their website!) I tend to be a museum junky, but it is a little hard on the non-museum obsessed family. Despite how museum-ed out they may have been, I convinced everyone to check out Castillo de San Marcos, an amazing stone fortress in St. Augustine. While I want to say I liked the light house better, the sheer grandeur of the castle structure is just too wonderful to not become enamored.

Now that the semester has drawn nigh, I am back at my home base in Fredericksburg just at the foot of the university. The semester has its own challenges that will become evident soon enough! Actually it came to me this morning. Like the high school science project you put off until the day before the fair, the moment you wake up a certain fear, no doom dances before your eyes! Perhaps not nearly so grim, but this is my blog, so there.

I have grown accustom to busy, yet manageable semesters. Even when I don’t think I will make it, everything works itself out through some late nights, prodigious amounts of coffee, determination and a little stress. This semester provides some new challenges. I call it the double senior thesis. I have been reviewing my schedules for both the history and the anthropology theses, but both of my projects still feel horrifically abstract. Granted, I did in fact do some book work and bibliography compiling over break, everything I completed feels inconsequentially when backed against looming deadlines. A capstone project needs to be beyond good. It is one of those things that you just don’t blow.

My history thesis is perhaps the harder of the two. With the history department’s call for excellence in writing and depth of research, my project will require a host of hours in order to complete it with any sort of quality. The history department has put up the thesis syllabus (we students and faculty call the course History 485) for all those playing at home. The proposal for the project is due just before the end of January, the literature review is in February, and the completed (but not final) draft of the research paper is due March 28th. I knew that the proposal date would be set early in the semester, so I started a little bit of the legwork ahead of time. The only problem I have now is setting a solid schedule for when to read what…not to mention how to note everything properly. I spent a lot of time trying different systems with nothing being a happy medium of efficient yet comprehensive. Well, just keep trying right? I plan on having a full schedule (i.e. not only when papers are due but when I am reading and doing the writing) by either Wednesday (unlikely) or Friday afternoon (more probable). Not only will such a schedule keep me moving forward, but it gives me a sense of accomplishment. To me a project becomes manageable when it is on paper. I want to share what my project is, but let’s save it for when the full blown schedule is written, right?

Of course the fun does not stop there! I have my anthropology thesis to contend with as well. While I had last semester and this break to accomplish something, my progress has been remarkably slow. I encountered any number of setbacks with my research on the Nation Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington D.C. I have the project thesis or range of questions narrowed down in order to be feasible, but in all honesty I have my work cut out for me. The structure of the thesis is a little less rigid, which can be rather deceiving. Dr. Gable requires a half an hour meeting by the end of the third week to discuss our progress and bibliographies. Figuring out how to discuss and research Native American Cosmology has been a bear to wrestle with, but after another trip to the NMAI and a talk with a cultural interpreter working there, I have made substantial progress. I want to have a full, detailed schedule written by the end of this week, after I have gotten my schedule for history completed. My other main struggle with this project has been transportation costs, in terms of time and money. A trip to DC from Fredericksburg takes no less than two hours when driving to Franconia-Springfield and catching the Metro. I have yet to have a class schedule that allows for trips using the VRE, which would be far more advantageous. I find my topic to be quite interesting, but I just don’t have the level of familiarity with it that I do with my history project. Over the past few months I have had nothing but obstacles to even thinking about my anthropology thesis, but like the other one, I need to have a stellar paper before I even feel willing to call this thesis “completed.”

On top of these two big guys, I also have a few classes that will always require a little more attention. At first I rued the fact I had to take other classes, but it may give me an artificial break from bashing my head against the thesis projects. This semester I have a gen ed class to complete as well as an anthropology elective with Professor James. I really want to join band at UMW, but I missed an audition at the end of the semester…so it’s a little up in the air. I have never been in a school band, but it could be fun. These classes could definitely offer a productive destruction distraction from senior theses. It’s always a matter of doing things on time…and not letting schedules clash but so badly.

Rough Draft: Gellner and National Navels

October 7th, 2010

Gellner, Ernest. “Nationalism and Modernity.” In Nations and Nationalism: A Reader, edited by Philip Spence and Howard Wollman, 40-47. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005.

Ernest Gellner has written an interesting and concise essay on the arguments within nationalist thought as well as the connections between nationalism and modern society. He divides his work into two sections, “Do Nations Have Navels?” and “Industrial and Industrialising World.”
Gellner comically poses the question of nationalism’s origin in terms of whether nations have navels. Although his question seems absurd in its phrasing, he strikes at the heart of a major issue for those studying nationalism, the historical period in which it emerged. He notes that a central question is the nature of the past. When he discusses the differences between creationism and evolution, he believes that nations, like the creation story, has a past built into its origins (41). Regardless of how young the nation truly is, its citizens try to point to antiquity for self validation, yet in Gellner’s view they simply create or imagine this past. He attempts to demonstrate both sides of the argument concerning nationalism, yet I believe his attempt is largely ineffective as he simultaneously creates and tears down the argument of primordialists, those who oppose the modernist viewpoint. He does nevertheless clearly outline the issues that are central to nationalism, continuity and culture. Cultures “persist and change” (42), and their persistence could indicate that some nations have always existed, which essentially is a conflation of ethnic groups and nations. Gellner believes that anthropology’s vogue concepts of culture distracts from the real question of organizational issues that shape nationalism. He states the problem as “the exclusive culturalism or hermeneuticism or interpretivism…makes it hard or impossible even to ask the most important question” (43). To Gellner, that question is the organizational make up of nations and factors creating it, not the supposed cultural origins. He essentially divides the issue between a cultural argument and an organizational one. From the modernist standpoint, nationalism is a matter of political groupings and institutions. At the end of his section on arguments within nationalism, Gellner makes general observations of factors in the emergence of nations and the types of “navels” nations may or may not have.
Gellner’s essay contains a second section entitled “The Industrial and Industrialising World.” He details the mechanics of a modern society and its necessary components. As he has already linked nationalism to institutions and political systems, he continues his argument by showing how institutions work within a modern society. He does not state the direct connection of modern society and nationalism, but the link between these two concepts is implicit when he writes, “One of the industrial world’s two main principles of political legitimacy-of the assessment of the acceptability of regimes-is indeed economics growth. (The other principle is nationalism, which is our theme.)” (44). Gellner’s equating of modern society and industrialism with nationalism has produced two questions in nationalist debates: does the emergence of nationalism require industrialization and is nationalist theory only written from a Western perspective? Partha Chatterjee works heavily with these two issues in his work, Nationalism and the Colonial World: a Derivative Discourse?.
While Gellner states that his view “does not prevent [his work], one hopes, from presenting the issues in a clear and unprejudicial manner” (40), he seemingly works to convince the reader that the primordialist argument cannot withstand the rational approach of modernists. Still, the reader will find that Ernest Gellner summarizes the main points of contention between modernists and primordialists and modern society’s makeup with great clarity.

Moving Beyond Gathering

October 7th, 2010

With the Fall season upon us, I can’t help but think about the idea of harvesting, gathering up the crops…and somehow connect it all back to my own research projects. In such a way the fields of grains become transformed into field of ideas, waiting to be taken up and used.

Harvest Time.

While other students have reaped the benefits of well-sown thoughts and research, I am still waiting with sickle in hand. The fact is, the harvest does not just happen if you are sitting down and looking at the potential for your crops. It takes one going out into the fields and collecting what has already grown so bountifully. I link this idea more to concepts and thoughts than I do to building a bibliography or even writing out the paper. Ideas, unlike bibliographies, grow naturally and freely. They do not require but a little bit of care.
Wheat head above field

However we don’t have a usable product, it takes some manipulation and energy to convert the wheat into flour, the flour into bread. We act on it as creators ourselves and build something more. Yet, notice that although the products we create are truly amazing, they do not touch the natural beauty of ideas in their purest forms.

The fine, usable product at the end of the road does not come easily. As I have looked out on my field of ideas, I have forgotten just why I could fail, looking at the field is not enough.Like in the very first picture, I need to go down and collect the ideas and then begin the process of grinding them down and digging deeper.
Best Grinding Machine in the World ;)

It takes force, effort, and strength to make the project happen. Doing the work can require meticulous effort. I spent tonight building spreadsheets of my readings and realized that I need to do such long ago. I not only started the harvest late, but now my production is late too. As I built the spreadsheet and saw just how much I had to do, I was baffled at the workload but relieved that now I could see the field of ideas shifting to actions, readings, notes, papers. The ideas have done their part and grown strong, won’t I at the very least get out of my seat and do something?  I am not relying on the grocery store to feed me, I am a lone man on these fields, and as such I need to bear the burden and see the seeds I planted to their full fruition. From farm to plate I must give a full effort–everyday, little by little.

The Bread Pt 1: Le Panier, Macrina, Dahlia Bakery

Getting on the Right Track

October 4th, 2010

Over this semester, I have faced the challenge of fending off multiple projects and keeping up with all of my readings. To think that grad school, if I even manage to get in, will be all this times ten is a little disheartening, but I think an issue I am having here is more how I am managing my time. Further, I have the “Oh if only…” syndrome. I am reminded of Eats, Shoots and Leaves when the author discusses a school teacher who complains about not understanding punctuation but has no interest in fixing her problem. I go on and on about not sleeping well, having tons of readings and feeling lost in my projects. What am I doing about it? Have I devised a scheme to handle the workload? No, I have complained. With all of the work I have it is important to come up with some sort of schedule and slowly work away at my readings.

This is a big reversal from my shotgun approach at homework. Sure, I am a hard worker, but I tend to just do what I can, when I can. One night at the library a fellow student suggested I start micro-managing my time by setting up a set amount of hours I am willing to work on something. It’s odd because I don’t like to just work on a project here and there, I do it until I am done. Ha! You caught the problem with that idea. When you have four projects you can’t just do things with a scatter-shot method, and big projects require a lot of hours for completion. On top of the projects I already have, I also have a few books that need to be read per week. The bottom line is, I don’t have time to do a whole lot at once.

I started writing a research journal in a ratty old composition notebook that I never used. Dan Cohen had tweeted an article about a man who kept project journals in notebooks for years, which I am all about the hard copy, but I have wondered if having a research journal that everyone can see, with set deadlines, would hold me more accountable to the day-to-day research. The head instructor of CET in Harbin noted that language development (insert projects) are not about cramming right before you need it, but rather they require every day doing a concerted effort, busy but not nearly as frantic.

I want to write great (not necessarily perfect) material. Maybe a good place to start is scheduling dedicated time blocks for certain projects. Hmm…

If anyone has any project suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment!

Chutney? No! Chatterjee : D

September 24th, 2010

Partha Chatterjee complicates the notion of nationalism in the post-colonial world through his analysis of previous scholars writing as well as setting forth his own theories about India’s nationalist movement. His greatest contribution is a more complex lens with which to evaluate post-colonial nations. He demonstrates the contradictions encapsulated within the post-colonial world’s acceptance of a Euro-centric nationalism. Chatterjee’s book, although written in chapters, is essential a collection of short essays. In his first two chapters, he concentrates on the previous concepts of nationalism and his own contributions to said conversation. He uses the rest of the book to expand on his theories through a close analysis of post-colonial India.

In his first chapter, Chatterjee presents a history of Nationalist theory and its arguments. He focuses on two camps debating nationalism in the 1970s and the 1980s, liberal-rationalists and Marxists. He includes extensive block quotes and distills their main line of reasoning in order to compare the different arguments. The crux of this essay is that nationalism is incorrectly rooted to the West and modernity. Chatterjee describes another main flaw of liberal-rationalist and Marxist thought as theorists, such as Benedict Anderson, representing nationalism to be sociologically deterministic. As side note, having a background in nationalists theories will greatly aid the reader by contextualizing Chatterjee’s arguments.

Chatterjee continues his work by laying out his own concepts of nationalism. In the beginning of his second essay, he demonstrates post-colonial groups as dealing with a broad idea of nationalism in a series of moments. He considers post-colonial nationalism as having two components, the broad definition couched in European ideas, and the modifications people make to fit their specific situation (e.g. Indians attempting to differentiate their nationalism from colonialism.) Coupled to this negotiation, Chatterjee believes that there are three moments which must occur in order for nations to exist. First, people in a colony wish to throw off the colonizers and so adopt their idea of nationalism. They follow this with a series of debates about what nationalism ought look like, in India’s case the main question is whether they have to be a modern, urban nation. Finally, a certain group of intellectuals push aside the previous debates in order to create a monolithic nation that omits any of those conflicts.

Partha Chatterjee argues excellently for a more complicated understanding of the “modular” effect of nationalism as seen in many of his contemporaries work. Unlike other scholars, he does not see nationalism as an inevitability but rather a concept people debate and actively modify. His concepts constitute a realistic alternative to the Euro-centric nationalism. However, his work is not without problems. Despite the title including “post-colonial,” Chatterjee only draws from his understanding of India to act as the baseboard for his theories. Further application of his concepts would greatly enhance the ideas he has set forth. For instance would Chatterjee’s three moments be seen in Chinese nationalism? Another issue is the ambiguous use of language. When speaking about theoretical concepts, he tends to use terms such as “problematic” and “thematic” which he explains in a fairly abstruse manner.