November 30, 2010

Holiday FAQ

Ah the holidays.  I love the holidays.  Lots of good food, good smells, everyone’s in a better mood, pretty shiny decorations go up, and things begin to wind down for the winter here in academia-land.

There’s only one problem.  Holidays inevitably mean family, and big parties, and otherwise excuses to see people who you don’t generally talk to the rest of the year.  Normally, this is a welcome (if drama-filled) change from the humdrum.  However.  This year, things are… slightly different.  I’m a little bit stressed out due to everything going on in my life, and I’d rather not have to explain the reasons behind this to every single person who doesn’t usually talk to me more than once every few months.  It’s not that I don’t love you, it’s not that you’re not important to me, it’s just that I’d rather not think about the progression of my life right now.  It’s exciting, yes, but also terrifying and having to dredge that up in front of an audience ad noseum brings me back to my conservatory days.  I’m not afraid to cry hysterically in a roomful of strangers, they beat that out of me at Shakespeare & Company, I’m just trying to slip into a happy numbness for a few months before I really start worrying about my life.

So, loved ones, in lieu of explaining all of this over Christmas Ham and Chanukah Latkes (yes, we do both, don’t ask), I’m writing a list of Frequently Asked Questions right here on the blog that you can read, enjoy, then (if I’ve failed to cover anything to your satisfaction), go ahead and ask me specific things.  That way we can all have a happier holiday season.  You don’t have to awkwardly stand around while I’m falling to bits about potential near-future crises due to “poor life decisions”, and I don’t have to fall to bits about it until rejection/acceptance letters come sometime this Spring. 

Thank you, in advance, for your understanding.

Q: So, what are you up to these days, Danielle?

A: Oh man, I’m super busy.  Work at the studio isn’t slowing down, we’re coming up to grading the last set of papers, my own finals are due, and I have PhD aps that I’m trying desperately to get off my desk.  Also starting to really worry about the Common Reading Exam in March, but that’s only a small percolation because everything else on this list comes before that.

Q: Oh?  Where are you applying?

A: Brown, Tufts, and Columbia. 

Q: Only three programs?  Wow.  What are you applying for?

A: Yea, only three.  There’s only three in the Northeast that really work for me, four in the country if I want to apply to Stanford but I don’t really want to move out to California.  I’m applying for a PhD in Drama (some schools call it “Theatre Studies”), but it basically means the intersection between scholarship and theatre, which is what I study anyway.  I mean, if I don’t get in this round, I could try to find an open-minded English department, but I’d rather be amongst theatre people, you know?  The English-iesh don’t really know what to do with me…

Q: What do you plan on doing with that?

A:  Well, I want to open my own theatre someday and I figure that people will be more willing to give me money to do that if I have letters after my name.  I have some pretty revolutionary ideas about American Shakespeare performance; I want to start a real classical repertory company and link it to a University’s theatre department.  That way, young actors will learn the old-fashioned way; they’ll learn everything about the stage, all facets, and they’ll get a chance to work with more experienced actors which I really think is golden for them.  It’s important to understand the theatre in all its aspects, and I really want to create a generation of “Renaissance Actors”.

I also envision it as a place where scholarship and practicum meet; a sort of Shakespeare Mecca.  We kind of have that here in the states down at the Folger in Washington, but for the most part Shakespeare scholars and Shakespeare actors/directors don’t really talk.  I think there’s a lot to be learned from both sides, and I would like to see it performed that way.  I want to have an open dialogue across this scholarship/practicum rift, see if we can’t heal it up some.  I’m wondering what kind of theatre that will make…

Also, I firmly believe in experimental Shakespeare.  And I don’t mean like “Hamlet on the moon”.  I’m thinking of something pure and classical, yet hip and contemporary.  I’m still working on how all these ideas mesh together though… but I’ll have some time.  It’ll take me six years for the PhD anyway.

Oh, and I want to be a professor.  Because really, it’s the coolest job title ever.  And can you think of anything more fulfilling?  I get to instill a new generation with my ideas about literature and theatre?  Count me IN!

Q: Oh… uhm… you know that’s not really very practical.  Your back-up idea is being a professor?  Do you know what the unemployment rate…

A: For newly-minted PhDs?  Yes, yes I do.  But I can’t shoot for the moon just because I’m frightened of where I’ll land.  It would be stupid to compromise out of fear.  I know I love theatre, I know I love academia, I know a lot of things that I hate doing.  I’m not going back to working in a cube just because someone tells me “no”.

Q: Well… what if you don’t get in?

A: I spend a year conferencing, trying to get published, up my hours at the studio, and try to find a couple sections of something to teach somewhere.  Make my application better, then try again next year.  I mean, really, these programs take two to four people a year.  When you’re talking about the top ten applicants to Columbia or Brown, you’re talking about people who all have 4.0s, who all have perfect GREs, who are all amazing writers.  They don’t reject you because you suck, they reject you because you’re not what they’re looking for that year.  I could get ousted from being offered a spot just because they have another Shakespearean currently working through the program, or someone on the selection committee really wants to work with another applicant.  I mean, for all intents and purposes, they may as well take the top ten applications, pin them to a wall, have a couple beers, and throw darts to see who gets in.  I understand that, and I’m prepared to accept whatever comes.  But if you don’t try, you’ll never know, right?

Q: I guess that makes sense… but won’t you have a ton of debt when this is all through?

A: Not any more than I have now.  These programs are all fully funded.  They would pay me to read books for six years!

Q: Hey, didn’t you want to go study in England?

A: That’s the best part!  You get two fellowship years for these things.  You are required to take one your first year just to acclimate.  Usually, people take the second in their sixth year to write their dissertation, but there’s nothing saying you couldn’t take it in your fourth or fifth.  I could take a fellowship year, then go research in Stratford or at the Bodleian if I needed to… all on the school’s buck.  How awesome is that?

Q: Pretty neat!  When are your due dates?

A: December 15th, January 3rd and January 15th, but I hope to have them all in by January 1st.  Once my finals are in, I can really concentrate on getting the last two banged out.

Q: And when do you find out?

A: They aim to tell you the second week of February, but it’s not like undergrad when there’s a certain day that you get the letter in the mail.  They do expect to hear back from you about your decision by April, so sometime before then.

Q: So what are we drinking to celebrate/commiserate?

A: B. Nektar Vanilla Cinnamon Mead.  And thanks.  I have a feeling that I will need all the calming vibes I can get for a few months…

November 24, 2010

Grading; A Tragi-Comedy in Five Acts

All this happened…. More or less.

Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Dramatis Personae

Danielle: A lowly (but not inexperienced) grader who writes a fascinating blog that you should really read…. Otherwise known as: yours truly.
Lisa: A recently-minted MA in English who teaches her own class this semester, but has been part of the “academic musketeers” since before her graduation last May.  A frequent sanity-checker on all things academy-related, and someone who graded with Danielle last semester.
Brian: The third musketeer and a colleague of Danielle’s.  Was asked to take Lisa’s place as grader when Lisa graduated and started teaching her own classes.
John: The professor they all grade/graded for.

Act One

Curtain up on a one-bedroom apartment that hasn’t been cleaned in far too long.  Danielle sits glumly in front of her computer with a stack of completed grading by her left hand.  She looks to the stack, looks to the computer’s screen where she has pulled up a spreadsheet of the grades she gave, then sighs.  Despite her best efforts, there is simply nothing she can do about the fact that the papers are really and truly sub-par.  She crunches some numbers and realizes that her chunk of the class, as of now, has a 76% pass rate on this paper.  She thumbs back through the papers listlessly, wondering if there’s any way she can bump a few Ds to Cs.  She wonders about the ethics of such a decision; simply because the class is doing poorly does not mean that she should lower her standards, right?  And it’s not like her standards were so high to begin with… all she needed from a paper to pass it was some sign that the student had an argument, any argument, just something to say about a work read in class.

She asks a good friend who happens to be a high-school teacher what his standard pass rate is.  He tells her 95%.  She feels even worse.  She mentions that the students do have the opportunity to re-write for a better grade.  He says that in that case, 76% is probably just fine.  She feels the need to defend John who she knows for a fact is an amazing professor since he has been her professor on occasion in addition to being her boss.  It’s not his fault that his class can’t write papers.  It’s the… high-school teacher… right… she feels awkward about this argument and ceases to have it.

She steels her reserve and stuffs the finished pile into its manila inter-office envelope to drop in John’s box after she attaches the typed commentaries to the individual papers.

Act Two

Danielle enters the English Department common room with manila envelope of graded papers in one hand and stack of typed commentaries in the other.  She puts both of these down on the long table at which Lisa is already sitting grading her own stack of papers.

Lisa: Hey.
Danielle: Hey.
Lisa: How you doing?
Danielle: Okay…. I can’t shake this feeling though…
Lisa: What’s wrong?
Danielle: This stack of papers was awful.  Well and truly awful.  Worse than we had last semester.  And… I graded them accordingly, but I can’t help but wonder if I was a bit heavy-handed.  My pass rate was 76%.
Lisa: I mean, you may have been.  Even John says that you’re a tougher grader than Brian.  The comments you two give are probably the same, but the letter grade is different… so John admits to swapping the stack around so that you and Brian aren’t always grading the same students’ papers and it all averages out.
Danielle: That’s good, I guess, but I still don’t feel great about it…
Lisa: Well what grades did you give out?
Danielle: A couple Ds… one C minus… the passing grades were mostly B minuses.  I did give out two A’s though.
Lisa: C minus isn’t a failing grade.
Danielle: Really?
Lisa: Yea, since John can’t technically put a C minus in the grading box, he’ll bump it up to a C and the paper will pass.
Danielle: well that makes me feel better I guess, that means my pass rate’s over 80%...
Lisa: Did you give any Fs?
Danielle: No.
Lisa: In that case, you’re fine.  Let’s go get beer.

Act Three

Lisa and Danielle are imbibing in beer and wings at the local college dive bar.  Brian rushes in late, clearly upset, clearly out of breathe.

Brian: You guys would not believe the morning I have had.
Lisa: Order a beer and tell us…
Brian: I have seen and done a lot of things in my time… but today, today was a first.  I nearly got into a fistfight on the highway.
Danielle: How is that possible?
Brian: Apparently some guy thought I cut him off so he drove right in front of me, slammed on his breaks to force me into the shoulder, and got out of his car screaming that he was gonna kick my ass.  But he wasn’t.  Because if someone screams about it, they’re not going to do it and I haven’t slept in forty-eight hours, how was your stack of papers?
Danielle: Uhm… should you nap or something?
Brian: No, I had a five-hour energy before leaving the house.
Danielle: So… mine were
Brian: AWFUL?  No really, AWFUL?
Danielle: Yea… yours too, huh?
Brian: Yea, I gave out five Ds, but you’re a tougher grader than I am so I was wondering how many you failed…
Danielle: Breathes a sigh of relief Actually, about the same. 
Brian: How many As did you give?
Danielle: Two solid As and one A minus.
Brian: I hate to say this, but I have no real As and the ones I did give out I only gave because they were that much better than the rest in the stack…
Lisa: I love my class.  I seriously feel like I have the best students in this school.  None of the papers I got were like the ones we got from John’s kids last semester, and the ones that were bad came from the good students who ran out of time or had friends who committed suicide or something…
Brian and Danielle glare at Lisa for a while.

Act Four

Danielle pokes her head into John’s office while he is on a break between classes.

Danielle: John?
John: Oh, hey, thanks for the papers.
Danielle: Yea, no problem.  You take a look at my PhD writing sample yet?
John: Yes.  It’s great.  I have copious commentary.  My cat messed up my filing system and I completely forgot to bring it to you today.
Danielle: I’m not even going to ask.  Hey, did you also have a look at the grades I gave out?
John: Yes, looks fine to me.  You’re a tougher grader than Brian, so I expected that.
Danielle: I just felt so bad doing it…
John: Sometimes the best you can do is offer the most constructive commentary you can give.  You can’t just pass them because they turned in something that could have been written by monkeys at typewriters.  Here, have another stack of grading.

Act Five

Danielle sits in her room once more tapping a pencil against her desk.  She is trying to blog about her week and realizes that she doesn’t know what the proper stylistic form is for the letter representation of a grade in a sentence.  A or “A”?  And how do you make it plural?  She blogs anyway and hopes that she guessed correctly.


November 22, 2010


With my heart skipping beats for fear of typos and my hands trembling for fear of writing some unknown academic faux pas in the cover e-mail, I have finally taken the leap.

I just submitted my first abstract for publication.

The volume is a book which will be published in 2012 and is set to be the foundational text for the new MA program in Vampire Literature at the University of Hertfordshire.  The papers selected are mostly being pulled from the 2010 conference (“Open Graves, Open Minds”) at which I was supposed to present, but was rudely prevented from leaving the country by an errant volcanic eruption.  Seriously.  You can’t make this stuff up, people.

The CFP requested an 800-900-word abstract of the paper (yay for already having written it! Abstracts are so much easier when the paper actually exists!) along with a 200 word bio.

I hate writing bios almost as much as I hate writing personal statements.  The only thing that mitigates the bio from being the most detested form of personal writing is the fact that by the time the bio is requested, one has usually already been accepted into conference, panel, etc. of the requester.  While I do have to impress with my bio, nothing hinges on it.  The people reading it are already stuck with me (or about to be stuck with me if it’s going to be read aloud somewhere).

As you may have noticed by now, I do things slightly differently.  I’m not the most reverent of conference presenters (though my papers are meticulous and utterly professional).  I bring slideshows.  I am energetic.  I don’t read straight from a sheet of paper.  In short, I perform.  In the bio, I have no chance to do that.  It’s like asking me to take myself and cram it into two hundred words.  There’s no room for personality in two hundred words!  More importantly, if you’re asking to look at a bio, you want to see how professional I can be, not how charming.  I can be professional, I assure you, but I’d much rather be charming.  It comes more naturally to me and (frankly) I think I’m better at it.

Part of me hesitated briefly and wondered if the British academes wouldn’t be thrilled by an utterly irreverent bio.  I mean, they are British after all!  Their country birthed Monty Python and Red Dwarf!  They must have senses of humor! 

….but if they didn’t, then I’d be really up the creek without a paddle.  I’m already at a disadvantage for being a mere lowly graduate student, I really shouldn’t discredit myself any further with witticisms over content.  Even if they were going to be spectacular witticisms. 

So I sent them a serious bio.  But I just couldn’t help myself… I had to write the silly one.  It called to me with its siren song, longing to be birthed into the world.  Since I didn’t send it to them (and since I figure if you’re still reading this blog I haven’t offended you with my offbeat points of view), I’m sticking it here for you to read and enjoy.

Danielle Rosvally is a recovering actor who earned a BA in legos from New York University.  After realizing that she had neither the patience, diligence nor social anxiety to qualify as a real computer scientist, she shifted her focus and instead set to studying something her parents (and good senses) told her she would never make into a viable career: Elizabethan Theatre.

In addition to her University education, she has also studied both the theory and practice of classical theatre at the American Globe Theatre, The Actor’s Institute, The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, The Royal Shakespeare Company and Shakespeare & Company.  None of these institutions knew quite what to make of her, so she turned to Rutgers for an MA in English.  They don’t know what to make of her either.

Her primary research interests are in the practical application of theatrical scholarship as well as theatricality in traditionally non-canonical texts (whatever that means).  She is a TA in the Rutgers Newark performing and visual arts department where she works with minions towards her greater purpose of world domination via Shakespeare in the classroom.  She also works as an independent educator in Shakespeare scholarship, acting and stage combat.  It’s a lot easier to bend the masses towards world domination when she doesn’t have a neurotic professor breathing down her neck.  She hopes to be a mostly benevolent dictator, but firmly believes that poor grammar is a high crime worthy of being striped down, placed in the town square, tarred, feathered, then stoned to death.  Unless it’s her own grammar, of course, that she will blame on the poor graduate student who edits her papers.

You may follow her exploits via her blog at

…so if you’ve got one of your own, I’d love to read it.  I really think one can tell more about a person by their sense of humor than their accomplishments.  It shows how willing he is to throw it all away and talk like a regular human rather than recitational parrot.  And anyone who can dispense with the traps of formality can easily prove that he actually knows the material in his heart rather than just in his head.  More importantly, it shows that a person isn’t too proud to laugh at himself.  And, my friends, I don’t care how many degrees I have.  If I ever lose that ability, please take me out to pasture with a none-too-friendly literary smack-down and bludgeon me to death with a Complete Works.  It will be well past my time to go.

November 16, 2010

Grand Theft Caught-o

Since my midterms are happily turned in, I know it’s time to brace for the inevitable: grading aforementioned Best Professor in the World’s undergrad midterms.

You may or may not recall my previous rant about this class’ first turned-in assignment.  For the record, this is the same class, just a bit further into the semester and two assignments the wiser.

The midterm is an open-ended paper of at least 1,500 words.  The only requirements are that it be about some work discussed in class (at this point, the major works they’ve read are Oroonoko, Robinson Crusoe, The Country Wife, and (my favorite) Gulliver’s Travels), and that it be an argumentative/analytic paper rather than an evaluative paper.  Essentially, the students’ task boils down to this: chose a work discussed in class, make an argument about it, and support that argument with textual analysis for about six double-spaced type-written pages.

I am not so far from my undergrad days that I don’t remember doing this.  The first time a professor asked me to write a paper without some kind of prompt, I panicked.  “But… how am I going to know if I’m doing the right thing?  How am I sure that it’s correct?  I can’t tell how to get an A without you showing me what to write about!”  The ownership of thought is a daunting possibility.  Suddenly, and without warning, an entire world of criticism opens before the student.  It’s a world with paths, but no roads.  A world with tracks, but few trails.  A world where you can easily get distracted and lost and wander off into somewhere you’ve never been and didn’t intend to go without your “help me I’m lost” whistle or flashlight and it’s getting dark and who knows when the ranger will be by to rescue you?

So I sympathize with the plight of the undergrad.  Especially the undergrad who isn’t necessarily an English major and took this class to fulfill some gen ed requirement.

The papers, on the whole, aren’t stellar but they’re mostly passable.  One or two are even excellent.  What really bothers me is my reaction to these excellent ones.

Imagine this scene, if you will.  You’re stretched out on your floor with a nice French press full of tea and all your grading documentation in front of you.  You’ve been at this for an hour and a half now.  You average about a paper every half hour, but can really only do about two hours at a clip without pausing to recollect your thoughts.  You’re coming to the end of your allotted pre-brain-bleed time.  The papers you have read, so far, are barely intelligible.  There is a thread of genius within them, but sometimes it is so far diluted that it’s hard to say whether it’s accidental or purposeful.  You’re tired.  Your eyes are starting to bleed.  And you come upon a paper.  It shows… promise.  It is miraculously coherent, well-formulated, logically sound, and in short does everything this paper should do.

What, dear reader, is your reaction?

….I’m sad to say that mine is to google strategic sentences in the paper to make sure that the student didn’t kife it. 

At first, this seemed totally natural.  Something stands out, it’s unusual, double-check it.  Catching plagiarism is part of my job, and the only way to catch plagiarism is to cross-check things which seem… out of place.  But what does it say about me that every solid, well-written paper so far has seemed out of place?  Is this due diligence or paranoia?  Should I be concerned about students’ practices, or my own attitudes?

On the one hand, such suspicion may, in fact, catch a cheater someday.  And without it, there is no way that cheater would be caught.  On the other, am I somehow implicitly violating a trust this student has in his reader?  Even though he has never met me, even though he may not even be aware that there is a grader reviewing his work rather than the Professor, is there some compact between us that I, as a more experienced academe, will take him at his word?  Do I have a responsibility to him to be accepting of his excellent work, or do I have a responsibility to the academy to root out those who steal?  To google or not to google, that is the question.

I think that part of what has me so far on edge is how easy it would be to steal a paper for this open-ended assignment.  When a student responds to an essay prompt, he has to at least be clever about his theft.  He has to mask it in the disguise of pertinence and relevance.  Here, all he has to do is look up these well-known works of literature online and copy and paste at his whim.  No tact involved.  Clean, smooth, simple.

A second piece of what is going on here is a deeply-rooted attitude instilled in me by my own undergraduate institution.  At NYU, the first day of every class the professor would pass out a syllabus, do a roll call, and go over course expectations.  There would, inevitably, be a twenty-minute diatribe about plagiarism.  What constitutes plagiarism, how plagiarism will ALWAYS be detected and (most importantly) how plagiarism will always be punished.  NYU has (or at least had) a zero tolerance policy on plagiarism.  If they catch you, you get the boot.  And my professors were very serious about this rule.

In a way, it was like a reign of terror.  Rather than instilling in us a sense of ethics or morals, they filled us with utter fear and dread of consequences.  Am I alone in thinking that this is somewhat backwards?  If a student fails to cheat because he is afraid of getting caught rather than any moral qualms about cheating, it achieves the desired result but not with any real durable foundation.  Do the ends justify the means?

And now, since I have been told my entire academic life that PLAGIARISM IS EVIL AND YOU WILL ALWAYS BE CAUGHT IF YOU STEAL, am I experiencing performance anxiety?  If I fail to catch a cheater, I fail at being an efficient grader.  I have failed the system.  And this student, since he is living in the same terror that I was, will realize that it’s all a smoke screen, a vicious lie.  He won’t be smote by the hand of god if he fails to cite a source.  There won’t be a lightning bolt that comes down out of the sky leaving him a smoldering pile of ash because he nabbed his paper from the internet.  He’ll get his grade and realize that cheating pays.  And the integrity of the system will be ruined!  RUINED!  Because I failed it!  I am the weakest link, goodbye!

I guess what it really comes down to is that the way I was raised is utterly wrong.  The reign of terror must end.  There has to be a better way of dealing with cheaters than fear.  Fear is the mind-killer.  Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.  Most importantly, fear does not teach values, only consequences.  Consequences do not make better people out of our students, only more obedient parrot-talking drones.

November 14, 2010

Nemesi... Nemesooses... Nemeses....

Ladies and Gentlemen, I have a new nemesis.

He haunts my footsteps, breathes down my neck, nefariously hangs in my thoughts all day.  I peer around street corners knowing that he may be waiting there for me.  And I know (because it’s written on a whiteboard in my room) exactly how long it will be until our final show-down.  The big shebang.  He taunts me, teases me, waits until I’m least suspecting then pops his head into my life with a menacing and yet seductive grin. 

It may even be one of those love/hate nemesis relationships.  You know the ones, where we have tense action-filled sequences followed by long cold showers.  It’s like Lara Croft and Alex West in the first Tomb Raider movie (shush, I don’t make fun of your taste in movies).  We’re a perfect match for each other, we just have some slight differences in opinion which make working together a dangerous task.

These personal statements are kicking my rear end into submission.

The other day, I saw on my colleague’s facebook status, “Why is it that I can write publishable articles about random and esoteric historical events and yet you ask me to write two pages about myself and I freeze up?”  I think this about sums up the experience.  Sure, I can write.  Sure, I can write well.  Sure, I like being me.  But somehow asking me to justify my research, my past, my future, and my meaning for existence in 800 words or less is proving a task almost too daunting.

This stems from several intimidating factors.  The first of which is the stakes of the situation.  The personal statement is, as far as I can tell, the catch-all for the PhD application.  It is where you get your last ditch effort to explain yourself, discrepancies in your work, anything that the rest of your application may fail to entail.  Considering that the rest of the application is pretty much a Q&A, your transcript, your resume, and a writing sample, that’s no small task.  Essentially, you have to make yourself human rather than a barcode.  Tell the committee about yourself, your research, why you love them, why you would fit in at the school, what your plans are… oh and it should be in and interesting and readable format, not just a bulleted list.  Somehow, all this together makes me feel like King Arthur returning gloriously with a recently acquired shrubbery only to be told that, due to ridiculous reasons beyond my control, I must now bring another shrubbery only slightly higher and arrange the two shrubberies so that they get a two-level effect with a little path running down the middle.

Oh and then, of course, I have to cut down the mightiest tree in the forest using only a hearing.  The personal statement is one of the most highly weighted portions  of the PhD application (along with the writing sample).  So not only does it have to do a great deal in a short amount of time, it has to do that damn well.

As if this weren’t enough pressure, the personal statement is also a horribly subjective bit of writing.  There is absolutely no way to tell what program director x or application reading committee y is going to be looking for in a stellar personal statement.  I could think it was perfect and they could disagree with me.  My mentors here at Rutgers could tell me it’s awful, and the reading committee could absolutely love it.  In a way, it’s like preparing for a test when you aren’t sure what subject you are going to be tested on.  With only a vague notion of what any given program is looking to take from this little piece of writing that suddenly means everything, how’s a girl supposed to cope?

Maybe as a result of the pressure, I find myself freezing whenever I think about my PS.  The worst part is that having a working draft isn’t helping.  Usually by the time I’ve cranked out draft one of any piece of writing, I’m at least ready to tackle it to the ground and beat it into submission with a red pen.  This is so different.  It’s like a part of me.  It’s… delicate.  Fragile.  There is absolutely no way to be subjective about this writing.  I can’t self-flagellate with a red pen.

The clock is ticking and with everything else going on in my life, the sooner I can get application number one off my desk (Brown, due December 15th), the better.  I can’t believe that I’m being held up by two little pieces of paper.  Not even paper!  Pixels!  I’m being held up by a hodgepodge of pixels!

My consolation is that everyone I know who is going through, has been through, or is thinking about going through this process (or one like it) feels exactly the same way.  I’m not alone in this crazy world of  personal prose for the propagation of potential professional philanthropy.  Somehow, that seems cold comfort.  That’s the thing about a nemesis: no matter how many people are on your team, you always have to face him alone.

November 9, 2010

The Final Countdown

Now that I’ve turned in my midterm and had about half a week to gloriously rejoice in its completion, it’s time to turn my mind to what already should have been brewing within it for the past month and a half:


It’s that point in the semester, folks.  They’re close enough that you can’t quite feel them breathing down your neck, but you can certainly feel their gaze on you from across the room.  They stare, awkwardly, until you wonder if your shirt is on backwards or you forgot to put pants on or something.  Their stare sends that sort of chill through your spine that doesn’t really mean abject terror, but the knowledge that you probably forgot something at home that’s crucial to the rest of your evening… like your keys or your wallet. 

And you flounder, trying to find a way to make all of the information you have absorbed (or failed to absorb) in the past few months form some cohesive argument.  Trying to find time, amidst your still-full reading schedule, to put in enough research hours that you can at least have some hint of an argument before you meet with your professors about what it is you’re working on.  Trying to cram together interest, passion and deep thoughts with citation and scholarship so that you can have something tangible to hand in at the end of the semester.

I’m just a little bit on edge about getting all this together.

I think that part of the problem is the wide array of courses which bolster the diversity of my program.  We are a generalist program, a program that doesn’t really offer much by way of specialization.  As such, my classes are all over the place in terms of time period, criticism, and subject matter.  Because of this, it’s a HUGE shift in thought process simply to go from class to class, reading to reading… never mind having to switch research gears.  There’s essentially a three-lane highway going on in my head right now and the lanes sometimes travel neatly parallel to each other, and sometimes cross, sometimes traffic clover, sometimes decide to go off on their own little ways before converging again.  That’s a lot to process.  That’s a lot to think cohesively about.  That’s a lot to contend with.

I must admit that I haven’t been coping well (as demonstrated by my succumbing to the inevitable winter cold/flu thing that’s lain me out for the past day and a half).  However, despite this, I think I have a few ideas.  Research has begun, I simply hope it’s not just a series of dead-ends.

It did get me thinking, however, of some more… creative methods for choosing final paper topics.  Here are a few for your enjoyment (and possible future edification).

1)    The Old Stack and Spill – Stack all of your course books up in a huge pile.  Conveniently knock them over.  Find the book that lands the closest to you and randomly place your finger on a sentence in the page it opens to.  This should be the backbone of your thesis.

2)    Stairmaster – Throw your books down the stairs.  Take a slinky and allow it to climb its way down after them.  Where the slinky lands should be your sticking place.

3)    Bull’s Eye – Arrange papers with the names of the major works you read in class upon a large corkboard.  Find someone who is already bad at darts, give them a beer, then spin them around a few times.  Have them throw two to three darts at the board.  String together the names the darts land upon for the title of your soon-to-be-brilliant paper.

4)    Scrabble – Cut out a few words from: the front page of the New York Times, your favorite recipe for holiday turkey, Hamlet, and the seminal work of your course.  Re-arrange them until they make sense.  Voila, supporting arguments.

5)    Family Game Night – Arrange your course texts on the ground and use them to play a slightly modified version of Twister.  Rather than spin to determine where your limbs go, have your colleagues shout out quotes from the texts upon which you should place your next appendage.  Inevitably in this process, pages will be ripped out.  Take those pages and arrange them in an aesthetically pleasing order to formulate the core of your paper.

6)    Spin the Bottle – Place the texts in a circle on the ground.  Drink a beer.  Place the bottle in the middle and spin it a few times.  Piece the resulting texts together with the words “demystifying” and “archetypical”.  If these aren’t enough, words of at least four syllables to fill in.

7)    In the Cards – Use the course texts to make a card house.  Build it as tall as you can.  When it falls over, find the most apparent pages that are open to you.  Write down the sixth sentence of these pages in quick succession.  Find a way to make it work.

8)    MacGuyver – Use your texts, a paperclip, and a cantaloupe.  Make something spectacular.  Extra points if it explodes.

9)    Casino Royale – Roll a series of five six-sided dice.  Use the numbers that come up in conjunction with your course syllabus to craft a cocktail of prose and slam that together with some Foucault for style.

Of course, there are multitudes of other methods for crafting ideas.  Hopefully, there are enough to get you started….

November 2, 2010

Talk like a Shakespearean

Things have changed a lot in the past four hundred years.  Electricity, indoor plumbing, penicillin, bifocals, fountain pens, artificial teeth… all things which have come into being since the death of our beloved Bard in 1616.  Despite all this, perhaps he most significant change during this time-period is the shifting of the English language.

We’ve come a long way from the non-standard spelling and punctuation of Jacobean England.  We now have rules about writing and books to tell us what those rules are.  Because Early Modern English is so literately close to Modern English in the grand scheme of things (go read Beowulf in its original Old English then tell me I’m wrong), I don’t think that modern critical readers of Shakespeare put perhaps enough thought into the important changes that have occurred in the language since its inception.  This is especially true of actors and directors.  The great shift in language since the Bard wrote his immortal words is frequently far out of their ken.

Professor Paul Meier at the University of Kansas is working to change that.  Have a look at this article and the accompanying videos for further details.

Professor Meier’s work centers around the re-creation of what he calls “OP” or “Original Pronunciation”.  Shakespeare’s English was different from our own, and different from contemporary British pronunciation as well.  This is evidenced by the sheer amount of rhymes within the canon which simply do not work anymore (“tears” with “hers”, “bear” with “fear”, “there” with “sphere”, “eyes” with “qualities”… etc.).  Meier contends that by restoring OP to Shakespeare, we can return to our roots as Americans and reclaim the work for ourselves (since the earliest Americans would have spoken in the same fashion that Shakespeare did).  With this in mind, Professor Meier is working to create a Shakespearience that captures this OP.  On November 11th, his OP production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream opens at KU.

The project is, beyond a doubt, an interesting one especially due to the auditory nature of Shakespeare’s plays.  We are reminded that the root of the word “audience” lies in the word “audio”.  In Shakespeare’s time, an audience would have gone to “hear a play” rather than “see a play”.  Our culture today, a world of television watchers and movie-goers, is so visual-centric that sometimes this is easy to forget.  In that regard, I do believe that a modern audience is at a disadvantage sometimes when walking into a Shakespearean production.  Without any sort of priming, the audience is expected to shift themselves from their normal visual-centric lives to the auditory world of Shakespeare.  Instead of seeing the bank where the wild thyme blows, they must listen for it and allow the words to paint the imagery for them.

Frequent visitors to Shakespeare’s world are perhaps better suited to this audio sensitivity.  Rather than struggling to acclimate to the environment, they are already prepared to immerse themselves in a well-known story and have a completely new yet utterly familiar experience.  Like donning a favorite sweater, going to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream is exciting not because it is new, but because it is different.  What will this Puck think about Oberon?  What new and hilarious antics will this Bottom think up?  How will this Helena handle her sometimes misguided speeches? 

In this way, the OP production is an interesting exercise.  Scholars, surely, will appreciate the new landscapes that such an endeavor opens up.  It is a new way to experience these familiar works; and one, we are reminded, which has never been done in the United States before.

But there’s part of me that still feels that Meier’s work misses the point.  First and foremost, it alienates a theatre-going audience.  By pronouncing these words in a fashion entirely different from anything the audience has ever before heard, it creates a situation in which the audience is looking into a world they cannot hope to become a part of.  It solidifies the fourth wall into a rigid, unyielding structure which keeps a modern audience at arm’s length.  Most audiences already have trouble delving into Shakespeare, why make it any more difficult for them?

In addition, setting this burden upon the actors means that they are unable to fully explore the emotional depths which an otherwise unaffected performance would have allotted them.  Concerned so for an unfamiliar usage of language, the actors are not free to allow the production to flow naturally.  Just as the OP alienates the audience, it also alienates the actors.

The author of the article seems to believe that by producing an OP show, the audience will be offered an immersive experience, “Thanks to the work of Paul Meier, audiences can get a sense of what it might have been like to eavesdrop on opening night of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet at the Globe Theater in London or to listen in on a shipboard conversation on the Mayflower as it approaches the shores of the New World”.  The problem is that the audience is “eavesdropping”, “listening in”, they are not experiencing.  The show, then, becomes a movie and not live theatre.  The energy of the text and live actors is cut off, they become a spectacle rather than a catalyst for human connection.  The theatre, one of the last vestiges of our communal humanity, becomes instead a glorified movie theatre where we go to observe the follies of mankind without experiencing them ourselves.

This is not to say that I do not see value in Meier’s work, simply that I do not believe it should be viewed as the next step for American Shakespeare, nor should it be widely marketed to an average audience.  Too much will it encourage the already rampant notions of Bardism which prevent so many people from entering the Shakespeareverse.  “This is clearly above me, I didn’t understand a word they said.”  “I don’t get it.”  “Why are they talking like that?”  Meier’s work belongs in a museum, not a theatre.  It should be under glass, not living and breathing.