Friday, April 13, 2007

MA defense (and off to my cousin's wedding

so, now i've lost the momentum to write about my MA defense. It all went fine. My committee asked me a few scary questions that I don't think I answered very well, they basically said that I wasn't really doing anything original, that my theory seemed a bit muddled, and that my title was too descriptive. But most of the discussion seemed to be less about the actual thesis than "lessons to learn for your future career in scholarship."

Despite my best efforts at being zen, that all disappeared with the first question--after which I was fighting back tears the whole time--not that I was especially surprised or hurt by anything they were saying--but somehow my body physically reacts to situations in which I am having to defend myself to authority figures--and unfortunately it reacts in that way. I was so GLAD I had preceeded myself by bringing in a bottle of water which I would take a big swig from everytime I felt my mouth trembling too much. One of the committee members said that "surprisingly, I seemed to hardly deal with the idea of the postcolonial at all." This observation also surprised me because i kind of thought i had. And my advisor said his signature harsh comment of the day, "Reading this, you would think this novel was the only piece of African literature Carmen has read... although I know Carmen and I know that's not the case...." This bemused me as I had written a whole chapter on intertextuality with other works of African literature in the novel. But their overall point was right: the most polished part of the paper was the most unoriginal stuff.... the stuff that excited me I didn't articulate as well.

All that to say, it was a surprisingly short process, and despite some of the harsh things they said specifically about the thesis, they said it was perfectly fine for an MA thesis, and they were very encouraging about my overall work as a student. The discussion seemed mostly about general things to know in the field and in scholarship and had very little to do with what I had actually written. In addition to his one or two token harsh comments, my advisor (talking to the committee and not me) gave me several wonderfully backhanded compliments: 1) Sometimes we have students who struggle with writing; Carmen obviously does not have this problem. 2) For class (we have a class listserve we post to every week), she will write these long but extremely provocative and eloquent posts, and she does it on the spur of the moment--that's what you need more of here, the combining of the close reading with the broader theoretical.
So, basically... I needed to write my thesis a little more like I write class posts... or perhaps blogs? Finally, they sent me out of the room, and called me back about two minutes later, and there my intimidating advisor is standing there, with the warrant in his hands, grinning and shaking my hand. And another committee member hugs me, the other one pats my back and hands me two tickets to the South African film U-Carmen, which is playing at a film festival this afternoon, and which I've been wanting to see for ages. I felt horrible telling him I wouldn't be here this weekend, because I'm going to a cousin's wedding.So, they signed the warrant, and said, of course you are continuing in the PhD programme, right? And of course I am. I FINALLY feel like I've caught up to myself. For the past two years, I've cringed everytime someone has asked me where I am in the programme. Since I've been doing PhD research for the past year and a half, I hated to tell people I was still an MA student. I felt like such a loser. There are reasons this has taken over three and a half years--a strange culture of long MAs in my dept, me being gone doing language training or research every summer, long lags in communication with those in charge. I finally feel like I'm at the right level, and it's such a huge relief.

Anyway, enough blather. I'm off to Atlanta tomorrow for a cousin's wedding this weekend. I took her engagement photos over Christmas. We had planned to do it outside, but it ended up raining most of the day, so they decided they wanted me to take pictures of them shopping in bookstores and Trader Joes and video game stores. I had so much fun trailing them around and photographing them that I thought that the job of a "documentary 'wedding' photographer" might not be a bad fall back plan.... I'm sure I'd get sick of it very quickly, but I do love an excuse to take lots of photos.


Fred said...

I don't know if you've seen my post about Sir Ken Robinson but according to him (and I agree) most schooling today trains students to become college professors and you're well on the way.

I've always done my best writing spontaneously so your professors may have something there!

Again, congrats.

Talatu-Carmen said...

fred, very interesting. thanks for the link. I see that you are subversively appearing to compliment me on the surface, while actually insulting me. {-; But, actually, I agree. I think that the education system often does produce children who are better at passing exams than they are thinking for themselves. I have a very long hate-relationship with the GRE. But (the third time I took it) when I finally decided to just sit down and treat it like a game and study for it and do the sample tests despite my thinking it was an idiotic requirement, my scores (at least on the verbal and the written section) went out the roof. I sat there at the computer, having NO idea of the actual meaning of the questions I was answering, but I had learned to take the test and the process of educated guessing. All of that preparation was completely useless knowledge, but it allowed me to conform enough to what the testers are looking for to get those high scores.

Fortunately, my restlessness from that conformity, probably comes from a very good high school education. I had a fantastic English teacher in high school, who emphasized creativity over rules, and parents who encouraged me to do always do my best and to do what I loved, no matter how "impractical." Interestingly, much of my higher education, especially in the past few years, has also been about unlearning many of the assumptions I've been taught in the past in other education. Why exactly is James Joyce considered the epitomy of high literature? What does high literature mean? What assumptions underpin notions of "high culture." And do people get educated out of creativity? certainly. i wonder if the focus on endless revision and workshopping in my creative writing classes in my undergraduate institution has stunted my ability to write? There's an anxiety there about my creative writing that wasn't there in high school. Perhaps that is just part of growing up and getting older. But I wonder if the same thing doesn't happen in film schools and other MFA type programmes? Are people being trained to create in a certain pre-approved way, rather than to experiment? As for scholarship, yes, I agree. I get impatient with much literary scholarship and theory that is so theoretical that it has no practical importance. That is why in my own work I try to make sure I am grounded in something--why I know I HAVE to keep going back to Kano. I can't just sit here and theorize about something I am not a part of.

As for my committee's comments, they actually probably had a lot to do with this very topic. One of the things my advisor said was that I had probably read the novel too many times. And I agree with him. I probably have. I got so close to it, that I couldn't pull myself out of the book and see the practical implications of what I was saying. Thus, also, his emphasis on the superiority of those things I write on the spur of the moment before I revise and think myself out of the fresh insights I had.

Anyway, thanks for that link. Very interesting.

khadeeja said...

Nice blog, can i have ur contact pls.

Talatu-Carmen said...

Hi Khadeeja. Are you the Khadeeja I know? (Katie's friend?) If you send me another comment with your email address, I won't publish the comment and will send you an email. Sorry, it took a while to respond. I am currently stuck in Atlanta for another day. (My flight was cancelled, but I'm taking it as a blessing. There's nowhere I feel more relaxed and at home). And since we tap internet from a neighbor's house (with their permssion), the internet has been very spotty during the storms of the last few days.

Abdalla said...


Bari in zama in farko daga Kano na yi miki murnar kammala wannan zangon karatun na ki. Duk da tsoratawar da ki ka sha lokacin jarrabawar, Allah Ya na tare da ke, kuma Ya ba ki sa'a. Allah Ya kara maki basira. Kuma a shirye muke domin dada tallafa miki wajen ganin cewa kin yi karatun digiri na uku lafiya. Allah Ya kara basira.

Abdalla, a madadin Cibiyar Nazarin Al'adun Hausawa da ke Kano, Najeriya.

Everchange said...

Congratulations Carmen....official PhD candidate! Three and a half years is a long time for an MA program. Glad for the happy ending (and new beginning).

Aww, those pictures are cute.

Talatu-Carmen said...

@Prof, Na gode kwarai da gaske. Mun gode Allah!

@Everchange, yes, far, far too long. Make sure you know what you're getting into when you go into your graduate programme... make sure all the other students are graduating on time... {-; Congrats on your fellowship!