Category Archives: grad school

(Belated) Birthday Wisdom 2015

A recent picture of me, sunning in the Cotswolds

A recent picture of me, sunning in the Cotswolds

Last week was my “golden birthday” of turning 27 on the 27th — only happens once! Things have been busy around here so I haven’t had a chance to sit down and reflect on my 27th year until now.

Last year I wrote about settling into London life; this past year has brought more of that but from a different perspective.

After finishing my MA in English in September, I started my first “real” (i.e., full-time) job as an ESOL teacher at the Women’s Project of a charity in London’s Borough of Tower Hamlets. Perhaps stupidly, at the same time I embarked upon four months of DELTA training; the “part-time” course plus a 9-5 job brought my working hours per week up to about 60. Somehow I got through (and passed), but I wouldn’t recommend doing a DELTA while working full time. Over the year I have grown and developed as a teacher, drawing on my training and past experience while sometimes resorting to good ol’ trial-and-error.

This year there were also a stressful couple of weeks in January when the UK Border Agency almost deported me (for unfounded reasons)… Luckily, a lawyer and my workplace intervened in time to secure me a work visa.

I haven’t run many road races — and no cross-country races — since June 2014 but I have run two PR/PBs, at the 10k and 10 mile distances. My commute to work is almost 8 miles each way on the bike, which is great for maintenance and base fitness.

If I were to offer a brief word of wisdom this year, it would be this:

Prioritize the important things/people/activities in your life — the things that make you the happiest and best person you can be — and use those priorities to find balance.

With that, I wish you all a balanced and peaceful year.

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Year in Review: 2014

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr! З Новим Роком!

I can hardly believe it’s already 2015, can you? 2014 was quite a year, I hardly know how to sum it up. For brevity’s sake, let’s go with some good ol’ bullet points.

2014 by the numbers:

  • blog posts published: 92 or so
  • books read: too many to count — some for fun and lots for my MA course
  • miles run: 549 (quite a lot less than last year, due to hip/knee issues)
  • miles cycled: 2,028.65 (mostly commuting in London, but a decent amount of road cycling in the first half of the year)
  • courses completed: 2 (1 MA in English & 1 DELTA course)
  • countries been in: England, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, Germany, USA
  • weddings attended: 2

Looking back on my intentions for 2014, I more or less achieved most of them, although things like improving my German and staying in better touch with friends and family could always be worked on. My main intention for 2015 is to find a healthy balance between work, exercise, time with F, and my other hobbies like cooking. That comes with some sub-intentions, like building up my running mileage and speed without getting injured.

In some blog-related reflecting, here are two listicles of my top posts — via views and via my opinion — from 2014:

The 10 most popular posts in 2014 (your favorites?):

My 10 favorite posts/moments in 2014 (in no particular order):

Wishing you all a happy, healthy, and successful 2015

Summer “Issues”: Dissertation!

Apologies for the massive delay in MA updates. Last time I checked in, we’d finished courses and were writing essays and an exam. That all went pretty smoothly for me (though  nothing’s been marked yet so who really knows?) — the take-home exam was actually kind of enjoyable, as I’d prepared my texts in advance and just had to write close readings without worrying about bringing in secondary sources (some people did use criticism but it was optional so I chose not to for such short essays).

That was almost three months ago (!), and at that time I still didn’t have any ideas for my dissertation. Actually, writing about Mrs. Dalloway for one of my coursework essays made me really want to work on Woolf and trauma, but that quickly went out the window when I became overwhelmed by how much has already been written on Woolf (and trauma, in texts like Atonement and The Bluest Eye). I also wanted something more “relevant,” at least to me and my current life and experiences. So after some conversations and advice from my family, I turned toward cultural displacement/assimilation and spent a few weeks bumbling around on JSTOR by plugging word combinations into the search bars (“trauma,” “integration,” “culture shock,” “assimilation,” to name a few). Luckily, one mindless JSTOR session turned up an essay on Dave Eggers’s 2006 novel, What Is the What.

research in Senate House Library

research in Senate House Library

BINGO! I’d read What Is the What — and loved it — right before the Peace Corps and had forgotten how it deals with many of the issues of cultural integration, education, and international development that interest me. It was also a good choice because only four scholarly articles have been published on it, which leaves me room to form my own argument about it and not struggle to come up with something that hasn’t already been written on a hundred times.

Fast forward to now: I’ve re-read What Is the What twice; read lots of criticism and some theory on immigration, post-colonial novels, and storytelling traditions (to name a few); met with my supervisor twice (he’s great); and started drafting. It’s a bit overwhelming, as there’s a lot of material to juggle and an argument to work out and it’s all due on 1 September. But overall it’s going well and I am happy with my text and topic choice. I can’t tell you much because it hasn’t been marked (let alone written!), but it’s roughly about storytelling and voice and the immigrant experience, with some Toni Morrison thrown in for good measure.

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Birthday Wisdom 2014

Another year gone by…this one has certainly flown. My 26th year (yes, I turn 26 today but — as my dad has pointed out — it’s actually a celebration of living through my 26th year) has been a busy one and filled with new experiences and people.

the most recent picture of me (taken last week by Sarah)

the most recent picture of me (taken last week by Sarah)

Over the past year I’ve settled into my London life with F; having more “productive” things to do has helped. Gosh, how to begin without dissolving into lists? I’ll try to hit on the highlights and leave you with my family’s traditional Birthday Wisdom at the end.

The big event in my 26th year has been working on my MA in English here in London. It has been challenging to re-enter academia after three years out of formal education, but after the first term I started feeling more comfortable and have met and begun socializing with some great people from my program. It has also been great to work two part-time jobs in different areas of EFL/ESOL teaching/tutoring — I’ve built my own skills and have worked with some really inspiring people. That has led me to realize that — at least for the foreseeable future — I would rather teach English as a language (as opposed to literature). In the athletics arena, I’ve run twelve races over my 26th year. Half of those were cross-country, another fun new experience for me. All those races probably caused me to get injured, though, and I am slowly working my way back to peak running form while enjoying more swimming and cycling. I’ve also joined an incredible chorus and love having a musical outlet again.

All in all, it has been a busy and eventful year — I’ve been challenged mentally, physically, musically, and socially, and feel that I have grown in all of those areas while integrating further into my little corner of London and starting to feel like part of the Crouch End-area community. My Birthday Wisdom this year comes from the always-inspiring (and recently-deceased) Maya Angelou, who has said:

“You only are free when you realize you belong no place—you belong every place—no place at all.”

I wish you all another year of challenging yourself and belonging in all places.

At the Globe: “Much Ado About Nothing”

As a celebration for finishing our ‘Authors’ exams, Sarah and I headed down to Shakespeare’s Globe for a Thursday afternoon performance of the Bard’s comedy, Much Ado About Nothing.

inside The Globe

inside The Globe

The performance was excellent. I hadn’t seen a Shakespeare play live since attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival with my grandma back in 2008, and this lived up to all expectations. I appreciated seeing Shakespeare performed in a simple and straightforward manner — as it should be. There were minimal props, simple costumes, and a cast of eight with almost everyone doubling parts. Now to the play:

First of all, Much Ado About Nothing is hilarious. The older I get the better I understand the language and get the jokes; Shakespeare really was a genius. This performance of Much Ado was very well-acted. Stand-outs for me were Emma Pallant as Beatrice and Simon Bubb as Benedick — they made a great pair, and Pallant and Bubb’s banter was brilliant to watch, as Beatrice and Benedick carry the bulk of the wit in the play. I — along with the audience — also took particular pleasure in Chris Starkle’s performance of Dogberry, for which he exchanged his serious Don John face for an aviator cap and Scottish accent. I was also surprisingly touched by the scene of Hero’s return — and Claudio’s surprise at it — near the end.

The production pleasingly and effectively incorporates a lot of music, too: the entire cast takes part, on accordion, tambourine, guitar…and they sing! (the well-known Shakespeare song, “Sigh no more, ladies.”) The early banquet/”revels” scene was done exceptionally well, with the music swelling and subsiding as sets of characters break away to converse.

Overall it was a top-notch performance. If you have a chance to see a Shakespeare play at the Globe, I highly recommend that you do it!

(Play aside, it was thrilling to sit inside a replica of Shakespeare’s Globe, the theatre most associated with his works. As it rained on and off throughout the performance, Sarah and I were very glad to have splurged on proper seats.)

Have you seen a performance at the Globe? What did you think?

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Recently in “Issues”: End of Term 2

Now that it’s almost the end of April and three weeks after classes have finished, it’s well past time for an MA update. Here’s a quick review of the second half of the second term of my “Issues in Modern Culture” MA program(me).

Modern Sex ended and I embarked upon a five-week Post-War American Poetry module taught by Mark Ford. He took a similar approach to this class as he did with the Elizabeth Bishop seminar, looking at how one could critically approach each poet if one were to write about him/her. Let me break down the seminars:

  • We started off with Robert Lowell, the best confessional poet you’ve never heard of! We read poems from his Life Studies (1959), the volume that basically kicked off the “Confessional Poetry” movement, which Sylvia Plath took up and made famous. Lowell came from the blue-blooded Boston Lowell aristocracy that traced its roots all the way back to the Mayflower. But dear Robert suffered from manic-depression and was in and out of hospitals for a good chunk of his life — these experiences, of course, he crafted into poems, such as the moving “Waking in the Blue.” Lowell was also good friends with Elizabeth Bishop and was highly influenced by her poetry. He represents the major trajectory of many post-war American poets — a trajectory that we talked about for almost all the poets we looked at in the class: early poems are grounded in formal tradition, then the poet has some sort of breakthrough into a new idiom of expression. The Modernist–>Postmodernist trajectory, if you will.
  • My favorite seminar was on Allen Ginsberg. I love reading Ginsberg, in part because of his Whitmanesque roots (since I also love Whitman). The seminar was somewhat comical because Mark spent much of the time talking about how Ginsberg is actually really hard to write about (“immune to literary criticism”), because his poetry and persona are pretty transparent to begin with. That said, there are definitely ways to approach him: Jewish inheritance, Ginsberg and money/capitalism/marketing, Ginsberg’s body, the Cold War and paranoia… If you haven’t read any Ginsberg, go read “Howl” and “A Supermarket in California” now.
  • Frank O’Hara frankly (pun intended) didn’t do much for me. Maybe because I don’t know New York City very well and many of his poems are set there. That said, the seminar was really good. We talked about O’Hara in the context of the New York School of Poets (who disliked Lowell and loved Bishop) and about his “camp” wit (think Sontag) and the city as central to his work. He wrote a lot of what Mark called “I do this, I do that” poems (“A Step Away from Them” is a good example) and “lunch poems.”
  • For the Adrienne Rich seminar, we covered Rich and the “female” poetry resistant to patriarchal oppression that she, Plath, and Anne Sexton wrote. “Diving into the Wreck” is a fun read that can be interpreted in myriad ways.
  • Our last seminar was on St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott, best known for Omeros, his rough re-interpretation of The Iliad. We read Book I of Omeros for the seminar and the discussion centered largely on Walcott’s hybridity and all-encompassing method that blends together European tradition with “New World” (North & South American, Caribbean) methods. Omeros employs some features of the epic poem and its characters all have some relation to myth and tradition.

Post-War American Poetry was a great course and I learned a huge amount about the poets, poetic tradition, and critical approaches to poetry, all of which has made me a bit more comfortable reading and talking about poetry.

On Wednesdays, Authors kept on plugging to the end of term. Our last four seminars (after Elizabeth Bishop) were on Sylvia PlathThomas Pynchon (full disclosure: I got about 1/8 of the way through Mason & Dixon), Tom Stoppard (Travesties is brilliant and hilarious — read it!), and J.M. Coetzee (I couldn’t stand Disgrace but the seminar was good).

So that’s it for courses.

But that’s not all for the program(me).

We still have a take-home essay exam for “Authors” and an essay each for Contexts and the two Options (Modern Sex and Poetry for me). Oh, and a dissertation proposal. All of those are due between 1 May and 2 June. Then we spend all summer writing the dissertation, to be handed in on 1 September.

What am I writing about for all these essays? I can’t disclose details since the essays haven’t been marked, but I can give you a list of topics/texts: Madame Bovary, Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, Sherlock, E.M. Forster’s Maurice, and Billy Collins. For the dissertation? No idea.

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This Week in “Issues”: Reading Elizabeth Bishop

The second half of my second term of graduate school kicked off this week with a stimulating seminar on Elizabeth Bishop. Our professor, Mark Ford (also a poet; he even has his own little Wikipedia page!), helped us get into Bishop by discussing different critical approaches one could take if one were to write an essay on her. As I am not a “poetry person” and often struggle with identifying vague metaphors, this was a really helpful way for me to think about Bishop’s work (and poetry in general); Mark’s approach made it very accessible. Here are some ways one could approach Bishop and her poetry:

  • “Bishop and [anything]” (that could mean “Bishop and birds,” “Bishop and coasts,” etc.)
  • Queer theory: Bishop was a lesbian, so one could look at her in relation to other homosexual poets like Frank O’Hara or Adrienne Rich
  • Bishop’s post-war work in relation to the Modernist poets (Eliot, Pound)
  • Bishop and the tradition of Romantic lyric poetry (vs. the radical experimentation of many other “post-modernist” poets)
  • Postcolonial angle: Bishop traveled a lot and lived for a while in Brazil, so one could take a postcolonial approach to her Brazil poems
  • Looking at Bishop’s work through the lens of her selfhood and growing up “in a void,” with a dead father and insane mother — along with this, the concept of home/homelessness that is evident in Bishop’s life and poetry.
  • Bishop’s use of form: she was “technically resourceful” and used traditional poetic forms — villanelle, sestina, sonnet, ballad — in interesting ways
  • Bishop’s representation vs. experience of the world

Mark had us look at a few of Bishop’s poems to show how we could take some of the above approaches to her work. We started with “The Map” (1936), which Mark said was a good portal through which to approach the “Bishopian.” Here’s the poem in full:

Land lies in water; it is shadowed green.
Shadows, or are they shallows, at its edges
showing the line of long sea-weeded ledges
where weeds hang to the simple blue from green.
Or does the land lean down to lift the sea from under,
drawing it unperturbed around itself?
Along the fine tan sandy shelf
is the land tugging at the sea from under?

The shadow of Newfoundland lies flat and still.
Labrador’s yellow, where the moony Eskimo
has oiled it. We can stroke these lovely bays,
under a glass as if they were expected to blossom,
or as if to provide a clean cage for invisible fish.
The names of seashore towns run out to sea,
the names of cities cross the neighboring mountains
-the printer here experiencing the same excitement
as when emotion too far exceeds its cause.
These peninsulas take the water between thumb and finger
like women feeling for the smoothness of yard-goods.

Mapped waters are more quiet than the land is,
lending the land their waves’ own conformation:
and Norway’s hare runs south in agitation,
profiles investigate the sea, where land is.
Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?
-What suits the character or the native waters best.
Topography displays no favorites; North’s as near as West.
More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors.

Lovely, no? This poem gave us a good start in talking about Bishop’s whimsy and her representation of the aesthetic vs. reality. Whimsy is everywhere, in the “moony Eskimo,” “stroke[ing] these lovely bays,” the printer “experiencing…excitement,” and taking the water “between thumb and finger.” Is Bishop here feminizing a masculine creation (maps, created by male explorers)? Or is this merely a childlike whimsy, as in posing the faux-naive question, “Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?”

“More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors,” the poem ends. Bishop is playing with representation of a map as a piece of art, an aesthetic representation of historical, geopolitical reality. The art of the map is an escape from historians’ reality — but history still lurks at the edges.

After “The Map,” we went on to discuss the above and other aspects of Bishop’s poetry in: “Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance,” “At the Fishhouses,” “Questions of Travel,” and “Crusoe in England.” Mark ended the seminar by noting that the different factions of American poetry in the post-war years all hated each other — but they all loved Bishop.

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Recently in “Issues”

I can hardly believe it’s already reading week and halfway through the term. Where did January (and half of February) go? I promised I’d write updates on “Issues in Modern Culture” — that obviously hasn’t happened since before the term started, so here’s a short recap of the past five weeks.

The Authors course plugs along with a different author and lecturer every week. We’ve had a seminar on Wallace Stevens, in which it was agreed that Stevens’ poetry is beautiful but often indecipherable (glad I’m not the only one who thinks so). Take “The Snow Man” as an example:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Then NS, one of my favorite lecturers so far — he runs a great seminar — led a discussion of Jean Rhys and two of her novels that “are not Wide Sargasso Sea“: Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. Both somewhat depressing, but class discussion was interesting, as we started with word association and moved on to gendered spaces, notions of prostitution, and conflicts between emotion and transaction in Rhys. We had a somewhat odd seminar on Elizabeth Bowen — I’ll let you read Sarah’s post about that. Click to her post as well for a summary of our seminar on Nabokov‘s Lolita, which was with another of my favorite lecturers who is an incredible discussion facilitator. I agree with Sarah in that the seminar actually made me want to re-read Lolita, because Nabokov packs so much into the novel that isn’t evident on a first reading.

(No) thanks to horrible wind and rain and poor transport planning on my part, I missed the Chinua Achebe seminar…

Over in Modern Sex,” it has been a fascinating module as we’ve moved from Freud and Schopenhauer to Wagner, D.H. Lawrence (Sarah summarizes the Women in Love seminar), Thomas Mann and André Gide (part of “hebephilia week” as we’d done Lolita in the Wednesday seminar), and modern gay fiction. Our lecturer, HS, is clearly so passionate about the subject matter and he thus runs very engaging seminars.

The course began with considering the question, “What is modern sex/sexuality?” The modern conception of sexuality is that humans began to be categorized according to their sexual desires. We discussed how Schopenhauer and Freud address sexuality and sexual attraction in their writings: instincts, “debasement,” “neurosis” stemming from unappeased desire, and all that good (psychoanalytic) stuff.

The stage thus set by Freud and Schopenhauer, the second seminar involved watching the entire 4+ hours of Richard Wagner‘s music drama Tristan und Isolde — while I am not really a Wagner fan, the seminar did shed some light on Tristan and its subject matter (plus, it was fun to play with some German). We talked about formal and thematic musical and linguistic parallels (Freud’s “compulsion to repeat” reflected in Wagner’s use of Leitmotif; also use of alliteration and rhyme) and lots of dialectical themes: darkness vs. light, love vs. death, conscious self vs. instincts/will, delusion vs. reality in ideas of separateness and togetherness…it was a richly packed seminar with lots to think about (and music to enjoy!).

Our fourth seminar was on two short novels by Gide (The Immoralist) and Mann (Death in Venice) about men who are attracted to young, beautiful boys: ensuing discussions included amorality/immorality, Mann’s visual imagination, noble vs. debased love, and so on. For the last seminar we read excerpts from four modern “gay” novels: Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Moore’s A Matter of Life and Sex, and White’s The Farewell Symphony. They were fascinating to read and discuss in terms of how homosexual fiction writing has changed from 1948 (Vidal) to the 1990s, and how narrative structure and point-of-view (3rd person vs. 1st person) influences how we absorb and think about the texts and stories.

I loved the Modern Sex course and am sad it’s over — now I have to think of a topic for the 4,000-word essay we’ll have to write; it can be about anything related to modern sex/sexuality. Talk about choice. Next module I’ll have five weeks of Post-War American Poetry, which should be interesting (and totally outside my comfort zone), and the Authors course will wrap up with…more authors!

For a full list of what we’ve read so far this term and in the entire program(me), head over to my Reading List page.

Concert Review: London Philharmonic Orchestra with Vladimir Jurowski & Leonidas Kavakos

I recently learned that the London Philharmonic Orchestra offers £4 tickets to select concerts for students and people under 26. How did I not know this before?! All you have to do is call the box office, quote “NOISE £4,” and show up with your student ID to collect the tickets (thank goodness for being a grad student). So I called and got tickets to the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s “Championing Freedom” concert on 22 January, featuring violinist Leonidas Kavakos and conducted by the LPO’s principal conductor, Vladimir Jurowski. For £4, our seats were even closer than when we got discounted tickets from Time Out London last year.

The concert’s first half consisted of two all-string (plus one harpsichord) pieces featuring Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, a tall, lanky character with shoulder-length hair and what you might call “hipster glasses.” The program opened with Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 1 in A minor, BWV 1041 (1717). As the music started, a smile came to my face as I recalled that this is one of my dad’s and grandfather’s favorite concertos. Kavakos lead the small string ensemble — with Jurowski on the harpsichord — in a subtle and controlled performance, blending into and emerging out of the orchestra when necessary.

Second on the program was a new piece for me: Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s (1905-1963) Concerto funebre for violin and string orchestra, written in 1939 as a protest piece against the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Kavakos displayed an entirely different set of skills in this concerto, which required powerful, quick technical playing — in an incredible cadenza — as well as extremely high notes sustained as softly as possible. The piece itself, divided into four movements — between which Jurowski hardly paused — was an intense and moving experience. There were echoes of Vaughan Williams-like harmonics in many of the lush, swelling string passages. Moments of extreme Romanticism were speckled amongst jagged and jarring “modern”-sounding phrases. Jurowski’s conducting was crisp and clear, and Kavakos shone as the angry yet mournful voice of the world.

If you want to get an idea of Kavakos’ skill, here’s a clip of him playing the Brahms concerto with Jurowski and the London Philharmonic:

After the interval, the orchestra filled out — winds! horns! timpani! — and Jurowski led them in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, Op. 55 (“Eroica”) (1805). This piece was revolutionary upon its premiere, both for its unprecedented length and its playing with traditional symphonic form. Seeing it live brought out subtleties and complexities that I hadn’t heard before. Jurowski communicates so well with his orchestra — he was fun to watch — and really highlighted the symphony’s tempo contrasts, especially in the fourth movement. In that same movement, I enjoyed watching the main theme bounce around between instruments and be broken up here and there by tempo shifts and interjections. Jurowski also brought out the horns and double basses in ways that you might not notice on a recording. I heard the basses’ slow rolls for the first time in the brilliantly executed second movement (marcia funebre), which Jurowski took quite slowly while sustaining the tension and emotion so it never lacked for energy.

Overall, the concert was fantastic, and I loved watching Jurowski and Kavakos work with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. If you ever get a chance to see any of them, do it. Personally, I’m looking forward to the next opportunity for £4 LPO tickets…

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This Term in “Issues”: More Authors, Modern Sex, & American Poetry

Winter break is winding down. I’ve handed in my “Contexts” essay draft (on the BBC series, Sherlock) and await my tutor’s feedback. Term two of my Issues in Modern Culture MA starts next week. Here’s what’s in store…

The “Authors” course continues with a canonical author a week. Last term we covered Flaubert, James, Conrad, T.S. Eliot, Pound, Green, Joyce, Woolf, Cather, and Beckett. This term we’ll kick things off with Stevens, then move on to Rhys, Bowen, Nabokov, Achebe, Bishop, Plath, Pynchon, Stoppard, and Coetzee. With the exception of some Stevens and Bishop, I haven’t read any of the upcoming authors, which is both intimidating and exciting. I’m particularly looking forward to the Nabokov and Stoppard seminars, in part because of the material and in part because they’ll be taught by young female lecturers, who can be few and far between in the upper echelons of academia.

Last term, our second course was “Contexts,” which I really enjoyed. This term, our second course will be two five-week module courses. For each set of five weeks, we take one of three “options”: A) Film OR Ludic Literature OR “Modern Sex”; and then B) 21st Century Fiction OR “Cultures of the Night” OR or Post-War American Poetry.

First up for me: “Modern Sex: Eroticism and Literary Writing.” Great title, isn’t it? I picked it because the reading/seminar list looked the most interesting. The course description says,

This set of five seminars will explore cultural representations of desire, of sex and eroticism, and of sexual identity, from the middle of the nineteenth century until the present day.

Tantalized yet? Just take a look at the seminar titles:

  1. The history of “sexuality” (i.e., Freud and super sexist Schopenhauer): “introduction to ways of thinking about desire, the individual, the species, connections between sex, love and death.”
  2. Wagner, Desire and Death: watching and discussing Tristan und Isolde. Though I’m not a huge Wagner fan, I do like opera — this seminar was one reason I chose to take the course.
  3. D.H. LawrenceWomen in Love and DHL’s ideology about sex.
  4. Thomas Mann & André GideDeath in Venice and The Immoralist
  5. Modern Gay Writing and Cinema: works by Hollinghurst, Edmund White, Christopher Coe, Oscar Moore.

My second “option” module will be Post-War American Poetry, with one poet a week for the five weeks of term. We’ll do Ginsberg, Adrienne Rich, and Derek Walcott — I can’t remember the other two. Though I have never identified as a “poetry person,” this course appealed the most to me of the three options, and I figured it wouldn’t be a bad idea to branch out and challenge myself with some non-prose.

So that’s this term in “Issues.” The above courses run through March, then we have a month off, then we write write write (and write some more). I hope to post some updates and musings as the term moves along.

Is there anything in particular you’d like me to write about this term? Please let me know in a comment!

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Year in Review: 2013

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr / Guten Rutsch! З Новим Роком!

2013 was a year full of changes and new experiences for me, like moving to a new country/city, getting an English teaching certificate, and starting an MA program (back to university after three years out). My German improved — and my Ukrainian waned. I also joined an amazing running club in my area of London and was able to spend much of the summer at home in the States with my family and F. Overall, 2013 was a really good year. Here are some more fun statistics summing up the year:

2013 by the numbers:

  • blog posts published: 155
  • books read: 19 for fun, plus >30 for my MA (including some short stories/poetry/essays)
  • visitors hosted in London: ~19
  • miles run: 931.89 (76.71 miles less than in 2012, but I cycled and swam more in 2013 so overall probably racked up more mileage)
  • qualifications received: 1 Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults
  • countries been in: England, Belgium, Germany, USA
  • memories made: too many to count

Are you satisfied with your 2013?

Looking back, I am satisfied to have achieved most of my intentions for 2013: learning my way around London, living frugally, cycle-commuting, “me” time, exercise time, healthy eating, starting an MA program, and staying in touch with people . I didn’t take advantage of as many free/inexpensive opportunities as I could have, but we did visit quite a few of London’s free museums and markets with visitors.

Here is my non-exhaustive list of intentions for 2014, in no particular order:

  • Successfully complete my MA degree
  • Expand my skill set in teaching/tutoring, writing, and editing work
  • Keep improving my German
  • Stay healthy and fit:
    • Run a half marathon or two and take part in as many running club events as I can
    • Get more comfortable with road cycling by riding or spinning consistently
  • Keep exploring London via free/inexpensive activities
  • Get a job and work visa after my MA so I can stay in London
  • Stay in better touch with friends/family in all parts of the world (make better use of Skype, WhatsApp, etc.)

What are your intentions for 2014?

This Week in “Issues”: Photography

Now that the term is more than halfway over, it’s high time for another “Issues in Modern Culture” (that’s my MA program) update. After an intense five days immersed in James Joyce’s Ulysses, I looked forward to Friday’s seminar on photography.

Our primary reading was Susan Sontag’s iconic On Photography (1977) and Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980). Both books made for enjoyable and thought provoking reading. Sontag’s is an incredibly detailed history of photography as she sees it, and is also strikingly modern in its discussion of what photography is and what photographs represent. I was also pleasantly surprised by the accessibility of Barthes; he’s notorious for his dense, quasi-philosophical literary criticism. 

The seminar turned out to be stimulating and rewarding. Our lecturer, GD, facilitated an interesting discussion of photography and had a slideshow of some of the photos Sontag and Barthes mention in their works, which he referred to periodically. At the beginning of the seminar, GD posed a couple of questions that we kept coming back to throughout the two hours:

  • How has digital photography “changed the game” since Sontag and Barthes wrote their books?
    • Does it change the way we experience photos?
    • Does it change our relationship to photos?
    • Does it undermine Sontag’s & Barthes’ points (since they were writing in the ’70s, the pre-digital age)?

These questions brought us a few times to the topic of social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram. Because digital photos are instantaneous — we can view and share them almost immediately after taking them — they have perhaps eliminated the need to wait for the “perfect moment” to take a picture. The instantaneous nature of digital photos also leads them to take on a more filmic quality. Sontag mentions that photos are taken to validate experience; this leads to a sort of voyeurism in the photographer (10*). Today, this voyeuristic tendency is taken further, as (digital) photos are shared on Facebook and Instagram, blurring the lines between private and public as we give others access to many parts of our lives and spend time assessing our friends’ lives via their photos.

Digital photography may also cause photography to be distinguished less as an art now, because today anyone can take photos (but not every person who takes photos is an artist). How, then, do we decide if photography is art? Sontag’s argument that photography “is a medium in which works of art…are made,” not art itself (148), may break down in the digital age because the medium is less specialized — there’s no film to carefully develop with special chemicals.

In a way, digital photography has made the medium even more democratic; we talked about how this could be good or bad. On the one hand, digital photography doesn’t respect the investment of of the photographer, like non-digital does. On the other hand, we can photograph anything and anyone can take photographs. But it also problematizes the relationship between the image itself and what Barthes calls the “referent” — the subject of the photo.

We finished the seminar by focusing on two photos — a Winogrand and a Sander — and musing on how to write about photographs. Do we analyze them as texts? Do we read in social context? Do we read them subjectively? There are myriad ways in which we could write about a photograph: its composition, framing, intent (posed/staged vs. candid/natural), angles, spaces, symmetry/asymmetry…The list goes on.

Other topics we touched on in the seminar were the natural surrealism of photography, the theatrical nature of photography (as Barthes argues), the simultaneous passivity and aggressiveness of photography, and photography’s realism. It was a fascinating discussion and left me with a lot to think about.

What’s your take? How do you think digital photography affect our experience of and relationship to photographs today? Post your thoughts in a comment, below.

*Page numbers from Susan Sontag. On Photography. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc, 1977.

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If I Hadn’t Joined the Peace Corps

Recently on his blog, a fellow Ukraine RPCV, Danny, asked himself the following question: “What might my life be like, if I hadn’t gone off to Ukraine with the Peace Corps?”

Like Danny, I’ve often thought about this question. I can certainly say what my life wouldn’t have been like if I hadn’t joined the Peace Corps:

  • F and I wouldn’t have gotten together; circumstances and location put us in a fortunate position. Had I remained in the States, probably nothing would have transpired.
  • Following that previous point, I wouldn’t be in London. F and I decided together that London would be a good place to live/study, as it offers opportunities for both of us to pursue our interests/specialties. If we hadn’t gotten together, I might have extended my service in Ukraine to the end of the school year (spring 2013) and then returned home to the States to start grad school there. Instead, here I am embarking upon an MA degree in London!
  • I may not have done a CELTA; part of the reason I decided to do one was to be productive in London while waiting for grad school to start. I had generally thought about doing some kind of TEFL certification after Peace Corps, but who knows if it would’ve happened if I hadn’t moved to London.

So what would I have done, if I hadn’t joined the Peace Corps? Here’s my best guess:

  • I would probably have taken a year off to work, likely in Rochester while living with my parents. During that time, I would probably have studied for and taken the GREs, then started a PhD program in the U.S., on the straight and narrow path to academia.

But now, starting my MA after three years out of school, I’m not sure if I’ll end up in academia or not. And I’m okay with not knowing — if nothing else, the Peace Corps certainly taught me flexibility and openness to change!

It’s amazing how the decisions we make affect the rest of our lives. This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Dickens’ Great Expectations:

Imagine one selected day struck out of [your life], and think how different its course would have been. …think for a moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.

Perhaps my “first link” was the decision to join the Peace Corps in Ukraine…I’m certainly glad of my chain formed thus far and look forward to how it will continue to be shaped.