I don’t know what I think I’m doing, taking this class.
It’s exam year. My committee is, I think, a good committee–I need to touch base with the two faculty members who are doing my field lists, just to get a sense of the range of questions I could be asked, but I’m plodding through the readings, turtle-style. Thank goodness for my 45 minute commute twice a day–at worst, I’m still reading a book a week thanks to commuting alone.
And the research paper list looks…possible? For the first time ever. I’ve thought all this time that I’d write about affect theory. Turns out, affect theory’s a dead end. But what I’m really interested in, nonfiction, isn’t necessarily. So I get to mess around with the genre conventions of nonfiction, make some claims about what nonfiction is and what it thinks it’s doing in the academy…I made a series of n-grams looking at the “rise” of memoir, and they are…surprising, to say the least. It’s an American phenomenon, for one, and it tracks with the rise of postmodernism. I want to connect these two things–not causally, certainly, but…temperamentally? We’ll see.
However, this class, it is killing me. I adore it, and yet it is such a timesink. I could pour years of my life into reading these texts, into reading the referent texts for these texts. Izenberg requires Adorno requires Hegel requires Kant, and if you’re going to read Hegel you may as well read Marx, oh and you must read all the great novels and all of poetry and you haven’t read Oppen? How have you not read Oppen? It’s an evil rabbithole, a receding horizon of inadequacy. Over beers, one of the first-years said something along the lines of, “If you’re not in a state of self-doubt, you’re doing it wrong.” Exactly.
I wrote yet another incoherent-but-polemical response paper for this week, and once again I am in headspace of dread. I know I’m wrong, and I can see at least three reasons WHY I’m wrong, and I don’t know how I can pore over something so closely and still get it wrong. It feels like the text moves on me–I pin down an interpretation, but when I look back at my argument, all I can see are holes.
But it’s my damn brain that’s moving. Which is why I wanted to take this class–I want to be able to argue. I want to learn how to articulate the core arguments of complicated theoretical texts in such a way as to be unassailable. Clearly this is impossible (no argument’s unassailable), but I am definitely getting better–my first response paper is unreadable to me now. It’s a wall of errors, leaps in judgment, gaps, incorrect or merely slipshod summaries…typos, even. It’s a horrorshow. And not just that first paper–all of them, even the one I’m presenting today. Especially that one.
If anything is going to prep me for exams, it’s this, this gauntlet. I am reading as much as fast as well as I can and better than I ever have before. My academic writing compacts down, since there’s no room for the marshmallow fluff of wandering toward my argument. I’m attempting to use examples and interrogate examples, rather than focusing on terms (okay, I failed at that this week…I got distracted by a particularly oddball turn of phrase). It’s amazing. I haven’t felt like this about a class since undergrad, since Douglas Canfield gave me a D on my first response paper and told me to learn to close read a text, not just inhale the words on the page. There’s no prize for getting to the end first.
This type of analysis is exactly what I need to be doing. I wish I had more time for my creative writing, and I’ll probably regret the timesink later, when I’m on the job market pub-less. But I have my whole lifetime to write, and only this one shot at learning to think (with this caliber of prof, anyway).
Every Monday (look it’s a Monday!) I fight laziness and regret. How much time I’d have if I weren’t doing this. I’d be through my lists by now, surely, or at least close to done. I’d have three stories out, rather than a measly one.
And yet all I’ve ever wanted is to be able to kill people with my brain. When do I learn how to do that?