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.