Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Research Conference

I presented the sum of my undergraduate efforts on Kerouac at a research conference yesterday. I won't go into detail on what I did with Kerouac this past year as I trudged through an independent project on On the Road (a project that amounts to the sole reason I get to wear a silly yellow honors cord thingy at graduation), because frankly old Jack and I need a break from each other.

Yesterday I felt like I was saying things I'd thought and written about ten thousand times when it came to the close dealings with the literature, but I also talked about a meta-road (I'd laid out my disparate research directions as three roads) to conclude. It was, after all, a research conference intended for all students across all disciplines, not a place to read a narrowly topic-specific 40 page paper without looking up. I've seen people do that too often. So I seized the opportunity to talk openly about literary research as an undergraduate student, vs. my speculations on what graduate students can expect down the line. Having applied much of my effort in my last year and a half of undergraduate work toward making sure I go to grad school, working on a thesis-like project was not something I lived "in the moment." The whole thing was reflective, and so the presentation was just as reflective as the active work.

In short, I admitted having begun a project looking for things that weren't there -- either in the literature or in "the conversation." I'd chosen to work on a novel that didn't even have much serious "conversation" going on. At some point, probably in her last semesters, a literature student gets the urge to just start a conversation! Papers upon papers she's written with scholars as her backers, always with a gang on her side. Soon she starts to disagree with them, snarkily, pettily. Then she learns how to show, with some measure of grace, that they might be wrong. Finally, she gets her own ideas straight from the text, and might glance around for some support -- and at some point she moves forward as a single voice, the scholars now just chiming in or quietly echoing here and there. I used the cheesy but pertinent metaphor here of "paving my own road." At least everyone could tell that "cue cheesy metaphor" meant "Okay, I'm done talking now." Conclusions are always hard.

I had quite a group of supporters come to see me speak, and I think they appreciated what I was trying to articulate. A former professor, the only female tenured professor of English at the school (I only mention that because I'm so impressed that she does everything at barely 40 -- two gorgeous kids, tenured, conferences every year, very cool and unlikely literary interests for a woman/mom...) made some great suggestions for how I could take my hodge-podge of undergraduate stuff and continue to do some more sophisticated work on it at grad school. We were on the same wavelength about female reader response as an approach to the most masculine writing of the 20th century (or any century). She shares my love of the words of men, and my anxieties about reading them.

The writing sample I submitted with my grad school applications, with some success, was on "Milton's Bogey." I didn't think it was completely representative of what I think are my critical interests, but it was the best...longest...thing I had. Turns out I really am interested in what "patriarchal poets" and their centuries of descendants do (or don't do) for the ladies.

You get excited about things that seem cool or something, or the hardest things to understand just for the sake of the challenge. Then what you really end up liking to write about might not be as cool or intense. But at that point it shouldn't matter.

I still like the cool things, the hard-to-read things. I will probably end up writing on them too. I might even become a scholar of someone I have yet to read. But for now, I'm happy that I have at least one confirmed critical niche, and happily surprised at how relatively un-theory it is.

Immediate Update: I just reread this and thought it sounds like I was kind of confident yesterday. More so than usual, maybe. It was kind of a breakthrough for me. But I must admit I was pretty hopped up on iced coffee, sweating like mad in my fuzzy black dress, and got a little swoony in the projector lights. Once I started talking it all cleared up. And amazingly I didn't say "uh" at all. It was good practice.

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