Saturday, February 04, 2006

Mid-Dissertation Crisis

It may not come as much of a surprise that I've been through a couple of what could be called mid dissertation crises, this time helped by thinking about how I really want to define myself as far as the job market is concerned, about what I want to be as a scholar. While I've recently presented on medieval topics at MLA (well, one was Old Norse medievalism (see Barbarian Chic below), I haven't been to the International Congress on Medieval Studies in years. I have, however, been attending CCCC and C&W regularly. I love the idea of my dissertation topic, but I'm not sure I can do it. Well, I can, and I'm not abandoning the idea, but it's not what I think about when I'm not trying to slog through it. Given free reign, my mind, my attention, drifts towards Ongian topics and to my end goal for the dissertation: working towards a revised understanding of memory for contemporary English studies. While I was going to focus on memory practices in Old English literature, my goal has always been to better understand, revive, and adapt memory for today.

So, yesterday, I finally admitted to myself that I'm not doing what I should be doing. That trying to finishing the dissertation this summer will likely come at too great a psychological and emotional cost, and that I'm not doing what will naturally (meaning clear to most people) lead to the kind of job I want. For now, "Social Memory and Old English Literature" is no more. I'm now working on something provisionally called "Reviving Memoria: English Studies and the Canon of Memory."

This isn't as bad or as crazy as it sounds. While we still figuring out what it means in terms of committee and if we'll need to get the Graduate School involved (since my committee has both medievalists and rhetoric/compositionists my hope is if there needs to be a change it just means a change in who's chairing), content-wise there's no significant difference, or if there is, it's in my favor. The fact that I've got more than enough material to replace what I can't keep from my old project, and the fact this material is more coherent and more polished is itself a sign that I've been trying to do the wrong dissertation for a long time.

I need to write up a much better description, but here's my "on the back of a napkin" sketch of the new project:

Basic argument: memory still matters; we now know that classical and medieval theories and practices of memory were much more complex and sophisticated than we once believed (both formal rhetoric and oral traditions); and that rather than trying to reinvent the wheel we can draw from them and adapt them to use as a starting point for a contemporary canon of memory. Five body chapters will include a chapter surveying medieval understanding and practices of memory and compares them to contemporary approaches to memory (a paper I presented at TTU forms the basis for this chapter); a chapter on cognitive images and making/representing knowledge and memorial composition (the machina memorialis meets Kristie Fleckenstein and Patricia Dunn; a chapter on the technologies of memory from catalog poems to social tagging (often referred to in this blog as memory and the art of database); a chapter on literature as social memory (my Beowulf as traumatic social memory chapter repurposed); and social memory and rhetoric (the one chapter that I don't have anything written for, though I've been thinking about it for a while now).

The new project is clearly much more rhet-comp in focus and draws from classical to contemporary rhetorical theory and composition studies, with a good dose of medieval theory and practice. It now covers not just the oral-literate transitional culture of Anglo-Saxon England but memory practices from oral through digital culture. And it more explicitly bridges the rhet-comp-literature divide: Not only do I discuss literature as social memory, I'll be talking about the conscious use of cognitive images by medieval poets like Chaucer and Dante and connect that practice back to the use of imagery in oral tradition and forward to verbal, graphic, and mental imagery in composition and literature pedagogy. It's sweeping in scope, but that's what I do best. Each chapter will focus on a different aspect of memoria to show how it all fits together better than most of us realize.

7 Comments:

At 8:37 AM, Blogger lisa schamess said...

My two cents worth, John (from deep within my...hmm..cat-owner's weeds), though I am no expert on your topics: your new topic offers better flexibility because it permits you to explore transitional and liminal times in the practice of memory, which I believe offers way better interest for a long-term project than the more analytical stance your first thesis implied.

Your brief summary caused me to think about the then-and-now differences more clearly, in particular the many ways we now can externalize our own memories through technology (seen through one lens, that heightens their capacity; through another, lessens their intrinsic retentive power).

Your paper also permits you to look at the Cartesian paradigm shift. This is of great interest as a precursor to the 20th-century split between the pre-brain-imaging world and now. (Could we say, perhaps, that technology could be pushing us further back around the circle, toward a dissociative--though this time social--concept of memory as not-body, via the Internet?)

I wonder, at what point did we truly associate the mysterious functioning of the mind with the physical functioning before MRIs and CAT scans and other tools could slice up and delimit our brains? How early did anatomists re-associate memory with body and function versus mind and spirit? Or does it remain, even now, in the in-between?

This also, um, has better crossover book potential. Not that you should be thinking of that now of course.

 
At 12:10 PM, Blogger Donna said...

I think this sounds great, John. I may be wrong, but it seems as if Old English studies hasn't crossed over much into rhetorical theory, so you'll really bring something new and provocative to the field. And bravo for having the courage to change your diss focus.

 
At 3:43 PM, Anonymous Dan said...

Your shift sounds like it will form a nice bridge between medieval studies and rhetoric. You might always be able to market yourself as a medievalist with a technology focus if the rhetoric doesn't fit as well as you hope, though job-wise, the rhetoric path is probably much more promising. In any case, following your instincts and interests seems right.

 
At 5:49 PM, Blogger John said...

Thanks for the support everyone. Even though I should just let it go, I keep wondering what's gone wrong with the old focus. It may just be that I want to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak, mixing medieval and contemporary rhetoric (specifically memory), compositional practices and theory, and the literature-rhet-comp divide (not reading literature for rhetorical figures and the like but ways of knowing and representation), and the noetics of media ecologies of oral, chirographic, print, and digital culture. Sweeping, yes, but the new focus touches on all of these issues to varying degrees.

As a scholar, I want to exist somewhere in the middle of all of this, and this dissertation better reflects that. For me, it's all strongly connected, the old topic and the new one. The idea is not to replicate medieval practices of composition and medieval way of knowing, but to use those ideas to think about our own practices differently, to use their ideas to help create new analogies and metaphors, to imagine what contemporary versions of medieval memory practices might be like. To use, to borrow a term from science fiction studies, the cognitive estrangement productively.

Hmm...Samuel R. Delaney ends his essay "Science Fiction and 'Literature'--or, the Conscience of the King" with a reference to a historian who, spending two years reading science fiction, returned to "serious" literature, namely Jane Austen. The historian told Delaney: "Before, I used to read novels to tell me how the world really was at the time they were written. This time, I read the book asking myself what kind of world would have had to exist for Austen's story to have taken place--which, incidentally, is completely different from the world as it actually was back then. I know. It's my period." Delaney doesn't refer to it as such, because the term didn't exist when he wrote the essay, but we now call this "science fiction thinking."

Science fiction thinking is open to interpretive spaces normally closed off. For instance, one of the most famous examples of this comes the same Delaney essay: "Then her world exploded." If you're reading Jane Austen, the interpretive space around that sentence is quite different than the space around, say Star Wars, Episode IV. Then her world exploded can be our standard metaphorical meaning of the word, or it could be taken literally. Boom. The planet Alderon is gone. It's taken as a given by science fiction types that science fiction thinking works backward, as it did for Delaney's historian, permeating all aspects of our lives. And, for what it's worth, while I'd stopped reading SF when I started graduate school, I started up again shortly before I turned towards rhetorical memory. I'm not saying there's a connection, but I'm not saying there's not. It's something I started to think about as I typed "cogntivie estrangement" above.

That's enough wild speculation from me tonight.

I don't know for sure, but maybe that's what I've been doing

I don't want to look to the past to understand what the world was like, but to think what would have to be different

 
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