Tuesday, November 28, 2006


So, my advisor finally wanted to meet. We met today.

The overall impression I get is that he thinks my thesis is incoherant twaddle.

No, I shouldn't be so negative. He actually said that it's obvious that I've read the text well and smartly, and I quote from his written comments: "This is generally well-written and articulate.... there are beautiful and terrific flashes of close readings scattered here." But, as is hinted in this ambiguous final comment, he thinks that my text is scattered--that my analogies with other texts overwhelm my close reading of the novel.; that I too often restate the obvious and engage with obsolete arguments. There also seems to be a serious organization problem, that apparently stems from (his "aha" moment in our conversation, when I admitted when he went off on my titles that titles were a weak point for me) my inability to write good titles.

In his philosophy of writing, which is very sensible and scholarly and which I should have worked on more before getting to this point of my career, one creates a title and then logically creates an argument to prove the title. Therefore, one seems to know what one is saying from the very beginning, everything develops beautifully and systematically from that point, and, voila, all of a sudden, you have a thesis, a dissertation, or a book.

I, obviously, have not mastered this, although I thought I had worked from a fairly clear (to me) outline (developed with the help of the writing centre), which I unfortunately had not brought along for our meeting today. He told me that I was writing as though I were Soyinka or Habila (ie. the novelist) rather than a critic. As a critic I cannot use symbols in the same way they use them; i have to be more critical. So, for example, he said that in the chapter "The Angel," there is an obvious problem that I had missed: simply that, one cannot narrate one's own death. When I ventured that perhaps one could look at it through the lens of the marabout who talks of there being other stories, other layers of reality beyond death and could we look at it in that way? he said that, yes, the author could do that and could create those moments, but that I couldn't. I had to be more critical than that. So, basically, (this is my own interpretation of what he is saying) I cannot immerse myself in the novel and write from within the reality of the novel, but must stand outside and pick it apart and be more critical of the author. Which, yes, yes, seems rather obvious, now--but destroys the beauty of it.

It all makes sense, and I know he is a brilliant man and that I am but a lowly student who just can't quite seem to get the damn MA thesis done (a plague upon my department, which does this to almost every single student), even though I am fairly far along in my damn phd dissertation research. This often makes me uneasy: in some ways I am moving WAY too fast, but in others I'm moving WAY too slow. It is discouraging. I have known for a long time that my writing methods are impractical for scholarly work. When I write, I find it impossible to start from an outline. I think through things by writing my thoughts out--an argument develops in an organic way, and then I go back and create a reverse outline and re-organize. This is time-consuming. And it also means that I often do not succeed in completely re-organizing the argument in a logical 1, 2, 3 step way, but it has seemed to work for a long time.

As i sit hear sniffling, tears somehow entering my nose although I am in an upright position, I feel like saying, childishly, well, maybe I just can't do this. Maybe I should just drop out and work on a novel and write intertextually and symbolically and non-critically to my hearts content, If I ever published a novel, many more people would read than it than would read my MA thesis, even if the novel was a flop. What is the point? What, really, is the sense in spending so many years on such esoteric nonsense?

But, even, as I say this, self-pityingly, I know that I won't drop out, and that I can't drop out even if I sorely wanted to because I have gone too far, and too many people and grant-giving organizations have invested in me. And I know, too, that it is good for me to have to work on my writing. I have gotten by with a lot of carelessness up until now, just because what I'm saying is(apparently) smart. And I know that my advisor is not saying that I am stupid or incapable. In fact, as gruff a man as he is, he kept repeating that it was obvious that I had read widely and that I knew what I was talking about and that my readings were very smart. He said he was being hard on me now because he didn't want me to get stuck at the dissertation level. He also said that most of what I need to say is already there. It's not a matter of doing a lot of new analysis; it's just that I need to remove the extraneous analogies that get in the way of my argument, make my argument more coherent, and then reorganize everything to fit in with this coherence. In the end, though, I don't think I'm going to be able to end up making all my points about the ambiguities between fiction and reality which have driven my interest in this novel all along. I don't think he agrees with me on that--maybe it's a bit too novelistic.

Here are some samples of the comments in the margins of the text:

"Oh, Ms. [my last name], you exasperate me!" (at a moment when I call upon deconstruction, Esu-syle. I wish he would state what exactly exasperated him about it because that would help me know what to get rid of and where to go from there.)

"The more inappropriate and disjunctive analogies you call upon, the more incoherent you become." (I make an analogy between the disrupted time structure inWfA and the reversed time structure in Alejo Carpentier's short story "Viaje a la semilla")

"See? There is nothing in this. You just make a mountain out of a molehill. This is life's (?) dialectic." (I write poetically on the paradoxical nature of time in the narrative.)


I really wish he had also noted in the margins where I make the "beautiful and terrific flashes of close reading." But, alas, nothing of the sort. Perhaps he just made it up to have something nice to say before slaughtering me. He's good for me. He's right. I'm a peon.

Woe is me.

How was I ever a writing tutor and editor? And why can't I tutor and edit myself as effectively as I do it for other people. And how will I ever get it all done? And how will I put this out of my mind to focus on my seminar paper due next Monday, which I am now scandalously behind on? How do other people do this?

Kash! Kaico!! Wayyo!!!

Woe, woe, woe.


Anonymous said...


I must confess, this is the first post of yours I've read from start to finish. As a scientist (I got my degree in Electrical Engineering), I cannot understand such seemingly free-wheeling judgements on your advisor's part, possibly because I am truly incapable (something about my grey cells not being the right color).

Even though I haven't read your paper or whatever, I get the feeling that if you write like you do on your blog, he may have a point, but only just. I believe you conduct yourself well enough on "paper" to attain whatever standards he's set--I mean, what does he know? He's just a freakin' teacher! :-) Those who can, do ... etc.

On the other hand, his remarks also point to a certain amount of incoherence on his part; by which I mean, if you do not understand why he's made this or that criticism, he can't be doing that great a job of things, can he? Oh, I don't know... I guess what I mean to say is, don't be too hard on yourself.

By the way, if I may: attempt to develop a more cynical attitude about things, especially in re your work. I believe such cynicism will stand you in good stead. Christians tend to look for "beauty" a little too much.

Talatu-Carmen said...


oho, engineering... that explains a few things. {-;

But, really. yes, you're right, and he's right. I tend to be wordy and incoherent and toss words around far too liberally. I had worked really hard on an outline for my thesis, though, and when i read over the three chapters the other day, I still thought it was pretty good. I thought that I had made some interesting and new points. I knew there were a few things I needed to iron out, but I thought the overall structure made sense. (He didn't).

But, he is a highly respected scholar, and his own writing is beautiful, clear, and sensible. So, his criticism is good for me, although, it is painful.

I realized today that I tend to be passionate when I write, even when it is academic writing. And I think that because of the passion and a general ability to write well (if somewhat incoherently), I usually get by with being a bit sloppy. So, it's good to have a professor who won't let me get away with it. He's doing his job.

He's harsh. But everyone says that his advisees end up with really good work. So, I guess I need to just suck it up, do what he says, and abandon my idealistic ideas of what I want to write.I'm sure I'll be grateful for it in the long run.
I'm already embarrassed about some of the frivilous footnotes he scoffed at....

Anonymous said...

You said: "I tend to be wordy and incoherent and toss words around far too liberally."

I very well identify with you ;)
This is the acquired (immune) Poets syndrome - immune to easy cure ;)

It afflicts mainly poets, and also people who read very eclectically.

Beautiful words that run amok all over the page/screen, that cause the reader to gasp at the skill.

But, Too Much Beauty = Ugliness.

I think I am also a sufferer -initially, we do it simply because we can; eventually we do it because it becomes a Habit - a greater concern with the music/appearance of the words than with every other thing; the delusion that the "paint" IS the building.