Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Research (i.e. Exploring the Unknown)

Over the last week I've been rewriting my proposal, which was approved a little less than a year ago. I'm updating it for a fellowship application, and I find that the more I work on it, the more there is to do. It's almost guaranteed that I won't receive this very prestigious fellowship, so on the one hand,  this is a massive time-suck that is dragging me away from my second chapter; but on the other, it's been a hugely valuable exercise in regaining perspective of the whole, strengthening my overall argument, and recognizing how much my project has changed for the better.

The work we do, the papers we write, the talks we give, are living things; or at least they should be. As such we should allow them to shift and evolve over time, speaking to us as we speak to them, engaging us in conversation. I was always told my actual dissertation would not match my proposal, but I was skeptical; my proposal took me about six months to write because my mentor wanted very detailed chapter summaries. Once all that was done, I thought, perhaps, things were set more time spent on the proposal means less time on the dissertation, right? Maybe not. In the months following the proposal, as I came to realize how understudied these strange medieval dream interpretation texts are, a small subsection of what was meant to be my Introduction sprouted out into my first chapter. And then, a few months later, one subsection of that chapter suddenly emerged and asserted itself as chapter two. So my first and second chapters originally comprised only one small section of my Introduction. Chapter three was originally going to be chapter one, chapter four was chapter two, chapter five was chapter three, and I had a fourth chapter that no longer exists. Also, if you look at the word chapter for long enough, it becomes really weird.

None of these changes, all of which have strengthened and enriched my project, would have happened if I hadn't given myself room to explore the unknown, if I hadn't been patient with myself and approached my material with humility and curiosity even after I had conducted so much research for the proposal. I don't think I will ever be confident in my understanding of the Middle Ages. But in one paradoxically empowering sense, I don't think I should be, or I may lose the ability to allow the texts to speak to me, to reach forward and touch me in sometimes startling ways from the vast unknown that is the past. My friend Zach Hines has written a wonderful post * about the slow scholarship movement in academia (which takes its cue from the slow food movement): slow scholarship, he writes, is "about being aware of the ways in which the layers of meaning associated with objects and texts change as we re-curate and re-translate the past for new and different audiences." It is about observing and listening to what the objects we study say to us at different points in our lives before we form our own opinions, and it is, as one scholar Zach cites puts it, about "unlearn[ing] things thought of as certainties." It's about letting our projects grow and evolve as they speak back to us, as they engage us in conversation.

In fact, in my work I argue that this kind of humble, receptive attitude is exactly what the literary dream visions I'm studying demand of me: in Geoffrey Chaucer's House of Fame, for example, the dreamer (Geffrey), whose narration guides the reader along, travels through the bizarre, kaleidoscopic landscape of his dream with an attitude of wonder and questioning causing some scholars to view him as dense or dull, but I think this attitude overlooks his crucial role as a model for the reader's own engagement with the text. There's a reason the first part of my (new, of course) dissertation title is "Immersive Reading."

This humble and receptive treatment of the past is also how I approach my classroom: I don't work out a full semester reading syllabus for my Composition course at the beginning, because I believe in feeling out the class and listening for the students' particular needs, strengths, and weaknesses (but of course I am sure to distribute the reading schedule for each unit well ahead of time).** Near the beginning of the semester, I employ Kenneth Burke's well-known "parlor" metaphor for life as a touchstone for how we approach texts and in-class discussions. If you are unfamiliar with this metaphor, here's a selection:
Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about....You listen for awhile, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar.
(The Philosophy of Literary Form
While I must say that the other people engaged in conversation do seem a tad rude, and if you continue reading, the metaphor takes a turn for the bleak ("the discussion is interminable"), in my class this metaphor becomes a model for how we engage with the world and the texts around us. For example, when we do peer review workshops of paper drafts, I have the students write out a full summary of the paper they're reviewing, immersing themselves in the ideas presented to them, before they activate their own critical thinking machinery and 'put in their oars.'

So I will continue to assume Geffrey's bewildered but fascinated attitude as I reach toward the past and engage with the present, and I will continue to allow myself and my ideas and projects to evolve organically (I didn't even really know what I wanted to say when I started writing this! How's that for meta.). Within a reasonable amount of time, of course, and recognizing that there are certain finite limitations on how drastically one's work can change. Like, at some point I just need to get this chapter draft sent off.

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*I wrote this before Part II came out, which you can find here.
**I'm aware this is a luxury afforded to Comp classes in particular; I doubt I could/should exercise such flexibility with a literature course.

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