Friday, February 27, 2009

influenza and gratitude

My sister-in-law, Suzanne, has been helpful beyond expression over the past three years. She babysat Peach when I was in class, and when I was teaching class, and when I had conferences with my students, and when I had meetings with professors. Then I finished my coursework, and quit teaching so I could concentrate on my thesis, and Suzanne offered to keep babysitting Peach a couple of times a week so I could have some time to myself to work. Not only is Suzanne an extremely good mother whose parenting philosophy and skills made me very comfortable leaving Peach with her, but if anything, she is overqualified as a child-care provider, because she has a Master's degree in speech pathology and plenty of clinical experience working with children.

A couple of months ago, when I applied for graduation, I talked to Suzanne about my deadlines, and she mentioned that she and her family were planning to be in California on February 20th. No problem - I had to have my defense scheduled by then, but I didn't have to actually hold the defense until March 6th, and they were definitely planning to be back from their trip by then.

Fast forward to February 18th: Suzanne's three-year-old daughter had to be taken to the ER because she was in respiratory distress. They ran some tests and discovered that she had the flu ... the real flu. As in, actual influenza. At first Suzanne thought they would have to cancel their trip, because her husband, Kendall, can't always get time off from work. But by the time the three-year-old was healthy, they had managed to get his time off shifted, and were able to make the trip after all. I was very happy for them.

Unfortunately, this meant that Suzanne would be in California on March 3rd. Usually Glen would be my emergency back-up babysitter - his employer has been surprisingly flexible about things like that - but he wants to be at the defense, and clearly bringing Peach with him is not an option.

In desperation, I called a friend who lives in the neighborhood and is at home with her own two children during the day. I hate beginning conversations with "I have a huge favor to ask you," but I really didn't have a lot of options. Amanda was really nice about it. She said she'd be happy to do it, and insisted it wasn't a big deal for her.

The only remaining question is, What's the best way to express my undying gratitude?


Just for fun, while I'm waiting for my defense date, here's my reading list:

from British Novel:
Ian Watt, The Rise of the Novel (excerpted)
Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (excerpted)
Nancy Armstrong, Desire and Domestic Fiction (excerpted)
Aphra Behn, Oroonoko
Henry Fielding, Joseph Andrews
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things
Ian McEwan, Atonement

from Modernism:
Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room

from Victorian Lit:
Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, Cheveley, or, The Man of Honour

from Scottish Novel:
Martin Heidegger, Basic Writings
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles
John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps
Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time
Iain Banks, Complicity

from Theoretical Discourse:
J. Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet
Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespearean Negotiations

from Contemporary Drama:
Victor Turner, From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play
Tom Stoppard, Arcadia
Michael Frayn, Copenhagen
Tom Murphy, Famine
Marina Carr, Portia Coughlin
Caryll Churchill, The Skriker

Thursday, February 26, 2009

reading list: finished

Between old class notes, syllabi, and conversations with classmates, I managed to put together a reading list. For some of my classes, the challenge wasn't so much finding works to put on the list as trying to remember what the books were about. I have a vague recollection of liking a lot of the texts we studied in Modernism, but when I looked at the syllabus I had very little recollection of reading them. We probably did read something by Beckett, for example, but I have no idea what.

Blackwood looked over the list and noted that I needed a few more theory readings. Um, yeah, I left those off on purpose, because I'm even less likely to remember the content from those. But OK, whatever. I put Heidegger on the list with extreme reluctance, because I never felt like I had a good grasp of what he was on about. Ian Watt and Northrop Frye, no problem. Nancy Armstrong ... I should probably review that.

I also had a chat with Blackwood today about what to expect at the defense. He said there would be some general questions, along the lines of "How has your graduate education improved your critical thinking skills," and "What would you do differently if you were starting the program again." I hate questions like that. They feel like job interview questions - things they ask you not because they actually want to know the answer, but because they want you to show them something about your thought process or your general knowledge. Other than that, it doesn't sound too bad. I probably need to review a couple of things on the reading list, maybe go over my class notes. As for the thesis itself, I feel like I'm at least adequately prepared to respond to questions about it. This, of course, means that they will inevitably ask me something I am not at all prepared to answer -- Descartes will probably ask something about Scotland. At least that will be better than asking about Heidegger.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

yeah, that'll work

I had a brief conversation with Blackwood today, and mentioned that I was having a hard time remembering what I'd read for my classes. He suggested that I look at my books and see what I had.

Ha. Of course he's never seen my bookshelves. I have, literally, hundreds of books. I have so many that I've run out of bookshelves to hold them all, meaning that some of them are still in boxes somewhere in my basement. Granted that some of them are obviously not titles that would have been required reading for my classes - Over Sea, Under Stone, for example, or Domain-Driven Design, whatever that is ... that one must be Glen's. On the other hand, I have critical editions of all Austen's novels except Sanditon and Lady Susan, but not all of them were required reading for my classes; some of them I bought for research I was working on, so I could mark the books as I read. I suppose looking through my books is a better option than hoping I'll just magically remember all the stuff I read in the Regency Lit class I took four years ago, but I am on a tight schedule here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I was supposed to keep that?

Blackwood says the reading list doesn't have to be centered around my thesis. Apparently it's more of a list for my committee to use as the basis for my oral exam: "30 or so works from your seminars that best reflect your graduate education," selected from works that were on the syllabi from my seminars.

Wait, I was supposed to keep all the syllabi from my seminars? Mmmkay, it turns out I actually didn't do that. For some of the classes, I doubt that I ever had a hard copy of the syllabus; several of the professors put their syllabi up on Blackboard, so when I wanted to look up the reading assignments for class I just looked at the online copy. In the meantime, the university has moved to a new version of the Blackboard software, and any old courses that were in the system have vanished, as far as I can tell. So far I have managed to dig up two actual, physical syllabi from my grad classes, and one electronic copy of a syllabus that was languishing in my computer. And since I need to get the reading list to my committee as soon as possible, I probably have about 36 hours to come up with the rest of them.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

chaos and order

Link (almost 9) and Peach (almost 4) have very, very, very different personalities and approaches to life. Peach is interested in how things are supposed to be put together; Link is more interested in what will happen if he takes things apart. Link's idea of a good time is to take a box full of toys, turn it upside down, and shake it until everything falls out. Peach's idea of a good time is to take all the toys out of the box, sort them into groups, and arrange them in straight lines. If you give Peach a jigsaw puzzle, she will put it together so the picture matches the one on the box. If you give Link a jigsaw puzzle, he's just as likely to take the pieces and use them to build a three-dimensional robot sculpture. Both of the kids are very active and full of energy, but Link is a walking, talking wad of entropy, while Peach is his equal and opposite reaction.

I will let you guess which of these art projects was created by which child.

A hint, if you needed one: Link says his design was inspired by the idea of "fireworks." Which, come to think of it, seems wildly appropriate.

Friday, February 20, 2009

reading list? what?

I ran into Blackwood in the English Department office when I went to file my paperwork yesterday. We said our hellos and confirmed that the defense was on for the third. As I was about to leave, he said, "Did we talk about a reading list?" Not that I recall. What's that about? He said something about "twenty-five or thirty books," but suggested that I talk to the graduate coordinator to see if they've got specific guidelines written down somewhere - they may have changed when the department revised the thesis requirement.

So I talk to the graduate coordinator. He's in the middle of eating lunch in his office, but mumbles something about texts I read in my seminars. Twenty-five of them? Yes, and they should represent some sort of coherent ... something ... that will provide a basis for discussion at my defense. Huh. I kind of thought my thesis would provide a basis for discussion at my defense. But hey, whatever. On my way out, the coordinator mentions that my prospectus needs to be revised to reflect the new thesis guidelines. Again: whatever. That part at least should be easy, since the thesis is already written.

The reading list, though. I sat down to make a list of 25-30 texts I had read in my seminars, and realized that at this point I can't even remember what classes I took for my program of study, let alone what I read for those classes. I looked up my transcript, but all the classes are listed as course numbers with generic titles - they either say "seminar in the novel" or "seminar in British Literature 1660-1830." Yeah, that narrows it down. I ended up going through my past blog posts to remind myself what my seminars were about. That was helpful, but I still don't have a list of texts. I'll have to see if I still have old syllabi lying around somewhere.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

all better

It's on! We've worked out a time for my defense, and the graduate coordinator has agreed to let me go ahead with the scheduling. I'll have the paperwork filed by this afternoon. Tuesday, March 3rd, 11:00 a.m.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

you have got to be kidding me

I have now heard back from Descartes. He is also on board with defending in the next two weeks, although he notes ominously that he "will have some questions for [me] come the defense." Miraculously, all three of my committee members were on campus today (although not at the same time) so I was able to get all of their signatures on the scheduling form as well. So there's just one little thing left to do - a mere formality - we just have to pick a time for the defense, so the department can schedule a room for us. Obviously I'm available at whatever time will work for them, so I sent an email to everyone asking for scheduling information.

Blackwood replied that afternoons are bad for him. Descartes says that in that case, early in the morning would work - maybe 8:00? Victoria responds that she can't commit to that time without making arrangements with "several people" and getting back to us. While the emails were going back and forth, I went up to campus to get Descartes's signature on the form, at which point he explained that he was up against some deadlines of his own - in addition to teaching three classes plus a series of workshops this semester, he's scheduled to give a lecture at Harvard and a paper in Prague within the next three weeks, he hasn't finished writing either of them, and one of them he hasn't even started. On one hand, it always makes me feel better when I see professors doing things like that at the last minute, but on the other hand, it's going to make it difficult to find a time when all three of them are available. Descartes actually mooted the possibility of having the defense without one or the other of the readers, or else scheduling it for an evening. Of the two, he seemed to think the evening option more unorthodox.

The only really encouraging thing he had to say was that I was definitely going to pass, it was just a question of getting the details worked out. Hey, great. That makes me a lot less nervous about the defense itself. Now, about those details ...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

one down

I've heard back from Victoria. She hasn't had time to read the draft thoroughly enough to give feedback yet, but she's fine with scheduling the defense in time for April graduation. Yay! She also mentioned that she had several theses come in over the weekend, so apparently I'm not the only one who's doing this at the last minute.


The current draft has been sent to Descartes and Victoria - 39 pages plus Works Cited. Blackwood says he thinks it can be ready in two and a half weeks, and has sent an email to the other readers to that effect. Hopefully they agree. I feel bad dropping it on them with so little time to review it, and the department really frowns on that kind of thing as well, but of course they always have the option to just not sign the form to schedule the defense.

I really hope they don't exercise that option.

Monday, February 16, 2009

even more fun ... by which I mean stress

Yet another draft. Hopefully this time it will be good enough to circulate, which would be a big step forward and would at least make me feel a little better about the whole situation. However, in looking at the calendar and trying to determine whether there's any chance that I'm going to meet the deadlines and graduate in April, I realized that in my previous calculations I had neglected to consider that Monday the 16th is a holiday. None of the professors will be working; most of the buildings on campus won't even be open. I can't recall the last time I felt this much anxiety, and I don't think I have ever felt so resentful toward a day off.

Friday, February 13, 2009

looming deadlines

I've heard back from Blackwood on the latest revision. He says that "in all honesty" he is "really encouraged" at my progress ... but it still needs one more "minor" revision before I send it out to Descartes and Victoria. His suggestions are indeed minor compared to the last round, and I'll be able to get a revised version to him by Monday. However, I'm starting to get nervous about the deadlines for graduation. I have to schedule my defense by February 20th, which means that on or before that date, I need to convince my chair, my readers, and the graduate coordinator that I will be ready to defend by March 6th. Monday is the 16th. Assuming that Blackwood tears through the draft and responds on Monday - and assuming that his response is "go ahead and circulate it" - that leaves about three days for the other committee members to read it. This makes me very nervous. It's not like these people have nothing else to do.

And then there's the issue of getting the graduate coordinator to consent to the schedule. Presumably if my committee thinks I'm ready to defend, he shouldn't have a whole lot of objections, but I have to get him (as well as the other committee members) to sign the form - he can't just send an email or make a phone call and say "OK." His office hours are Tuesdays and Thursdays from 1:30 to 2:30, which raises the possibility that if I don't get him to sign on Thursday, I could miss the deadline on Friday. I don't think I really need to explain how badly that would suck.

I'm not sure what to think about this.

At Link's school, everyone in the third grade or higher is required to participate in the science fair. Link is in the third grade this year, so he had to come up with a science project. The school gave some helpful, specific instructions for the projects:

  • Come up with a question. This should be a question that can be answered with an experiment. For example: Do cookies taste better with or without salt?
  • Plan an experiment to answer your question. The above question would be easily answered by making the same recipe with and without salt and then having several people "taste-test" them without knowing which ones are which.
  • State your hypothesis. We’ve talked about how a hypothesis is an educated guess. "I think that the cookies will taste better without salt."
  • Do your experiment. It's best to do an experiment where only ONE thing is changed, so that there is a "control" for the student to compare with.
  • While doing the experiment take data. There needs to be something that can be measured.
  • Come up with a conclusion based on the results of your experiment.
Of course I very much want Link to do well in school, but I am not one of those parents who wants so badly for her child to succeed that she plans an elaborate project for him and ends up assembling an entire Volkswagen Beetle from its component parts so that her child will look like a genius. In fact, Link came up with his project all on his own. He already knew that although a balloon filled with air will pop if you hold a flame under it, a balloon filled with water will not. So his question was which would pop sooner when exposed to heat - a balloon filled with water or a balloon filled with ice?

He also planned the experiment himself. His idea was to use string to suspend an ice-filled balloon and a water-filled balloon over a pair of candles, and wait to see which one popped first. Glen helped build the, uh, suspension device, but the idea was all Link.

Link's hypothesis was that the water balloon would pop first, which it sort of did - after a while it sprang a leak at the bottom and put out the candle. The ice balloon lasted another eight minutes before breaking. We printed some pictures of the experiment, and Link wrote some text to go with the pictures, based on the guidelines supplied by the school. Then we had to make a display for him to put up at the science fair.

So here's the thing: Link is a fairly bright child, and he did the work for the project himself, but graphic design is maybe a tad beyond his abilities, and I felt like it was reasonable for us to help him create the display. (Admittedly, I may also have been influenced by the fact that by the time he had done the experiment and finished his write-up, it was 10:00 p.m. and he really needed to go to bed.) So we printed his text, mounted it on some colored paper, and glued it to the display board along with some clip art drawings of balloons and water.

OK, no, this is not what Link would have come up with on his own if you handed him five pictures and five pieces of text and said, "Glue this stuff on this cardboard and make it look nice." For one thing, he's a very non-linear thinker; he probably would have ended up with his conclusion in the middle, his hypothesis at the end, and the description of his experiment on the back of the display board. For another thing, he's in the third grade. He would have somehow managed to get glue in his hair and, like, pancake syrup on the display. Anyway, long story short, I did the layout. I didn't feel like I was doing anything unethical. It's not like I'm a graphic designer; in fact, I kind of suck at visual arts, and I didn't think the finished product was anything amazing.

Imagine my surprise when Link came home from school with an award for "best display" in the first-through-third-grade division. Awkward! I can only assume that everyone else showed up with pancake syrup on their displays. I feel bad, but I don't know what I should have done differently - turn him loose with the glue and wish him good luck? Make him hand-write the text instead of printing it? I didn't even know they were giving an award for the display.

Monday, February 09, 2009


Blogspot allows me to alter the apparent date and time of a particular post at will. The default option is the actual date and time at which I started composing each post, but I can reset it to show any date and time I want, either past or future. If I tell it that the time of the post is in the past, it inserts the post into the blog chronologically, at the point where it would have appeared had it actually been composed at the time indicated. If I tell it that the time of the post is in the future, then the post won't appear on my blog until the time I've indicated. I'm pretty sure I can even alter the date of a post that's already been published, although I haven't tried.
Weirdly, though, the default time as indicated by blogspot is off by an hour. I sent my latest revision to Blackwood around 2:00 a.m. local time, and posted about it shortly after that. I noticed that the default time was just after 1:00 a.m., so I fixed it and clicked "publish post" ... at which point I was informed that my post was "scheduled" but had not yet been posted. Huh. I should definitely look into that, some other time when it's not 2:30 a.m.

still in revision

I've just sent off another revision to Blackwood. Hopefully it will resolve some of the more substantive concerns he had about presenting my argument, and why I chose the novels I did. The bad news is that this draft is still way, way, way too long. I made some significant cuts (well, they felt significant to me) but then had to add new material to make the connections more explicit between my argument and the stuff that was left. End result: better argument, but still at 40+ pages. Ironically, because I went to a lot of trouble in this revision to show exactly how the remaining material supports my argument, it's now more difficult for me to discern which parts of the text could be cut with the least effect on the argument. I can always tighten up the writing somewhat, but I don't think I can knock 15 pages off just with stylistic editing.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

once more into the breach

I heard back from Blackwood today about my draft. Nothing terribly surprising. His comments were more or less as follows:

- It needs to be shorter. Definitely. It's much easier to cut material out than to draft more material, so I went with the shotgun approach for this draft, i.e., here's everything I could possibly think of to say on this topic, sprayed onto the pages like buckshot, in the hope that some of it is on-target.

- The argument needs to be made even more explicitly; right now it feels more like a catalog of the novels' features, rather than an in-depth analysis. I felt like I was still refining my argument as I was writing, so there are definitely places where I need to either make clear how a particular point fits into my argument, or remove material where things no longer fit into my argument.

- There should be some indication of why I chose the three novels I did. This is a bit awkward, actually. I chose Belinda because it was Edgeworth's first novel*, and Helen because it was her last; I wanted to see whether her attitude toward sensibility changed from one end of her career to the other. The Absentee I chose because I'd already read it for a class, but I think I'm going to have to come up with a better justification than that. Its publication falls more or less in the middle of her career, which makes it a good checkpoint chronologically. It is to some extent a national tale as well as a society novel, and the Irish national tale is not only a large part of her career, but one of the things that makes her an important author, so I kind of feel like I needed to have at least one national tale in there. However, I could just as easily have used Ennui or Ormond; I don't know that there's necessarily anything so compelling or representative about Absentee that I absolutely had to use that and nothing else. I'll have to think about that.

- It needs a stronger conclusion. Ha. It needs a conclusion. Again, because my argument was evolving as I wrote, I came to the end of the draft and wasn't entirely sure where I had ended up. This should be a lot easier to deal with once I get the whole thing cut down to a realistic size and tighten up my argument.

The good news is that he thinks it needs "one major revision" to be ready for Descartes and Victoria to look at it. [sigh] Back to work.

*I realize Castle Rackrent is often listed as Edgeworth's first novel, but it's so short I would classify it as more of a novella.