“Method and Content in Interdisciplinary Criticism”

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by Abby Weisberger 14C 

Scholarship is often a solitary practice.  Talking to others engaged in the pursuit, however, not only stimulates thought but also provides emotional support and reminds us that we are part of a community.  That’s why I find it fitting that many of my fellow bloggers have brought up the social aspect of research at the Fox Center. It’s true: we undergrads really have become close, and sharing office space is nothing but fun. During spring break, while in the throes of writing the last chapter of my thesis, I found myself going in to the Fox Center. When I arrived, two out of three of my office mates were already there (though a little dressed down). It was crunch time for all of us. Even though we should have been outside in 70-degree weather, it didn’t feel so lonely.

But there’s a little pressure involved in being fellows. We’re just dipping our toes into the waters of academia and learning how to comport ourselves professionally. Where “academic speak” comes out most distinctly is in the weekly Fellows’ lunches. The substantive areas that the talks cover are generally new and fascinating to me.  Confronting the superior experience and knowledge of the post-doctoral and dissertation fellows and tenured faculty, combined with their sheer range of disciplines, can be daunting. It can force one to question one’s own approach and the worthiness of one’s project.  How does one find one’s bearings amid a group of more advanced and knowledgeable scholars? What should one derive from the experience?

Personally I’ve found it useful to abstract the method of investigation from the content of the talks.  This has allowed me to enjoy being exposed to new subjects while still being conscious of my own work.  For example, I might have enjoyed a fellow’s multimodal use of art, photographs, and online material presenting the subject of modern-day robots and kept it in mind when planning my own presentation. On the other hand, I might have found the robots interesting but realized that such a strategy would not serve my own purposes.

It sounds paradoxical to say that one should keep an open mind but be critical. People tend to perk up when they find out they have something in common with you – whether it be a philosopher they’ve studied or a film they’ve seen – but the differences should also keep you paying attention. Some things fit and others don’t; the activity of deciding what does and what doesn’t keeps us all intellectually engaged.

 

 

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In Search of a Thesis

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by Diego Luis 14C

            Writing an honors thesis is a daunting task, to say the least. To do so is to simultaneously commit to a nocturnal lifestyle, carpal tunnel, and a taste for cheap wine. How does one prepare for such an endeavor? Besides going to the Woodpec exclusively for wrist exercises, one should first begin with an idea of what to write about.

            I decided to write an honors thesis in history somewhat later than my peers, at the end of last year’s spring semester. When I made this realization, I had just emerged from a time machine that had taken me back to Alexander’s conquests. I had tragically fallen in love with the movements and rhythms of a world that no longer existed. I felt like William Prescott, who once wrote in a letter to his parents, “When I look into a Greek or Latin book…I experience much the same sensation one does who looks on the face of a dead friend, and the tears not infrequently steal into my eyes.” Okay, maybe not quite like that, but you get the idea. Like Prescott, I aim to turn my passion for the material into knowledge for my peers.

            It began with how. How were Alexander’s victories possible? This simple question directed me towards accounts of his battles in literature. Eventually, I came across historian Brian Bosworth’s comparative study of these literary sources and texts on Cortés, and so I discovered Francisco López de Gómara. The man was essentially a 16th century classicist who paralleled Cortés’s conquests with Alexander’s in subtle ways that had only been gestured at in the historiography. I read López de Gómara’s Historia de la conquista and felt like I had found the conquest of New Spain through the interpretation of a classical mind. It felt new and exciting. I had my thesis.

            The reality was neither as simple nor as romantic as the previous paragraph suggests. I read until my eyes turned the color of the setting sun. I had flailed about like a fish baking in the sun on a hot pier. All the same, I had no regrets. At that moment, I knew I was only at base camp, staring up at a high peak with storm clouds gathering on the horizon, but I knew in my heart and my soul the trail to the top of the mountain.

            The prospect of writing a thesis may be initially daunting, but a clear direction drives away doubt. It took me about eight months to chew on the idea before I could begin to express myself on paper. For those of you considering a long research project, I hope this post reminds you that it is a process. It will be long, grueling, painful, and tragic, but ultimately, fulfilling. I chose history because I believe the past shapes identities and builds knowledge about humanity, about ourselves.

            Regardless of academic field, the thesis is an opportunity to share learning and wisdom with one’s peers. Knowledge makes the world a better place, and that’s what we do, one thesis at a time.

Left Brain, Right Brain; Thesis Brain, Theater Brain: Dramaturgy and the Creative/Analytic Divide

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by Jake Krakovsky 14C

Interdisciplinarians rejoice! Scientific consensus holds that, sans a hemispherectomy[1], no one is entirely “right-brained” or “left-brained.” Neuroscientists continue to explore ways in which certain cognitive functions are dominated by one region of the brain or other—certain areas of the brain have clear specialization, while others tasks seem to overlap across regions.

Lately I’ve been hoping the scientists amongst us would just hurry up and figure it out, because my brain has been splitting. And though Great Mother Wikipedia[2] tells me that the popular generalizations which link different modes of thought to cognitive function have been all but debunked, it’s still giving me a headache. That said, perhaps being cognitively split isn’t such a bad thing after all.

As an undergraduate fellow at the Fox Center, I’m devoting my days[3] to writing my honors thesis in the Theater Studies department. I’m researching the use of absurdity, anti-realism, and comedy in engaging with narratives about the Holocaust. In order to test my theories, I’m also writing and developing a one-man-play that I will perform later this month. The piece is a tragic-comic experiment that conflates the historical realities of the Holocaust with the comedic Jewish folklore of the “Fools of Chelm.”

These two tasks, writing a lengthy research paper and creating an original theater piece, demand that I use my brain in very different ways. Research is analytical: poring over theory, criticism, and scholarship, stringing together a cohesive argument that draws from a variety of sources to make an original conclusion.[4] There is necessary structure to all of this. As unique and original as I hope my work to be, I still must obey certain guidelines set out by my advisors, my department and the all-knowing Turabian Manual of Style.[5] On the other side of things is artistic creation. Art! The realm of inspiration, where Turabian gives way to the Muses, where conventions of structure, style, and content exist for me to engage or dismiss, to uphold or to challenge entirely.

But are these two modes of creation really that different? I found my answer to this question in the theatrical discipline of dramaturgy. The site of dramaturgy is context, that is, the exploration of the historical, cultural, political, physical, thematic, philosophical, and even academic context of a dramatic work. For many theater artists, dramaturgy is a crucial part of the creative process—the work of a dramaturge[6] can inform choices in every single element of a production, be it costumes, props, setting, lighting, sound, physical staging, acting style, thematic focus, or the inflection and pronunciation of a single word. In dramaturgy I understand the dialogue that can occur between creative and analytical thinking, and the ways in which the two can inform and strengthen one another.

I’ve been fortunate enough to find, at Emory, in the Theater Studies department, and now at the Fox Center, a supportive environment in which I can let my left- and right-brain play together safely.[7] They don’t always agree, and sometimes the creative vs. analytical tête-à-tête gives me a headache. But how fruitful is that tension! When an acting discovery, live on my feet in the rehearsal hall, triggers a realization about my research….or when a note, scrawled fervently in the margins of a critical essay, lights the spark of inspiration for a new scene or character.

As humanists we often talk about the value of interdisciplinarity amongst the various academic fields and departments. Let us also, then, strive for an interdisciplinary relationship with our own minds. Straddling the gap between Turabian and the Muses, between critical thinking and artistic abandon, I endeavor to be my own dramaturge, and open myself to the lush and fertile fields that lie between left-brain and right.

[1] Generally considered undesirable.

[2] Praised be She.

[3] And nights, and weekends, and dreams, and nightmares…

[4] I’ve recently decided that if even 5% of my work is truly original I will be a successful scholar and a total hero.

[5] 7th Edition, of course. Excuse you.

[6] One who engages in dramaturgy.

[7] I know this metaphor isn’t quite accurate, but stay with me. I’m a theater artist, not a neuroscientist, and I’ve gone too far to turn back now.

From Introspection to Announcement

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by Maglyn Bertrand 14C

Even though I have been working on finalizing my thesis before I present my work in April, I have been reflecting on the beginning of my project, the time when I was first inspired to begin my research on Chilean nueva canción (new song) and Argentinean nuevo cancionero (new songbook). Inspired by the folk revival of the 1960s, Chilean and Argentinean musicians and lyricists deliberately created nueva canción and nuevo cancionero in an effort to musically and lyrically represent rural and indigenous peoples and their traditions. With guitar and indigenous Andean instruments, they accompanied lyrics with themes of love, reflection, unity, brotherhood and justice. What initially attracted me to nueva canción and nuevo cancionero were not their identities as cultural creations or as musical and lyrical accompaniments to political voices during the 1970s, rather the performance of a song entitled, “Gracias a la vida” (Thanks you life) by nuevo cancionero singer, Mercedes Sosa initially caught my attention. Since first hearing “Gracias a la vida” I have experienced the music of this piece in two ways. During the first time I heard it, I listened solely to Sosa’s voice and the guitar accompanying her. Like any listener hearing a piece for the first time, the experience was in the act of listening. However, after developing my project, I listened again, analyzing Sosa’s voice, the music and the lyrics. Now, “Gracias a la vida” is featured in a chapter on the politicization of nuevo cancionero during the 1970s. It represents Sosa’s contributions as a nuevo cancionero performer. With her alto voice and unique vocal nuances she showcased the power of performance and the ability of a talented performer to transform a musically simple ballad with themes of love, gratitude and self reflection into an anthem for her listeners. During the time of the 1970s, when Argentina was under military dictatorships, the contributions of Sosa as a powerful interpreter of nuevo cancionero garnered special attention from the military, which often labeled her as a leftist protest singer.

While there is certainly much more to say about how I interpret Sosa and “Gracias a la vida” within my paper, I wish to direct attention to the first time I heard the piece and Sosa’s voice, the time when I was personally inspired by Sosa, her vocal sound, and the lyrics. Often referred to as the voice of the voiceless, the voice of hope, or more informally as La Negra, because of her jet-black hair and part indigenous Aymara Indian heritage, Sosa is today considered a Latin American music icon. She was instrumental in the creation of a formal Manifesto written to define nuevo cancionero, she has collaborated with numerous Latin American and international musicians, and has recorded more than 70 albums and CDs, three of which have won the Latin Grammy award. Even though Sosa’s accomplishments provide information that support my thesis, her accomplishments have also personally inspired me as a performer, as a singer, and as a person with their own Latin American identity and indigenous heritage. When I listen to Sosa singing a piece such as “Gracias a la vida” without technical analysis, I hear her emotional and resonant alto voice singing “gracias a la vida que me dado tanto” (thank you life for giving me so much) and I am personally affected. In these moments I feel I too understand why many listeners of nuevo cancionero say it was the music and the voices of the singers that initially attracted them to genre. Sosa even once stated, “I sing for music, not the lyrics” (Braceli 17). I have to admit too, that I am a bit envious of Sosa’s voice. As a classically trained soprano who has long admired the alto voice for its particular quality and singers such as Nina Simone and Carole King who have made a career with their distinctive low sound, Sosa’s voice moves me, and I now consider it one of my favorite singing voices. Now too, the piece, “Gracias a la vida” symbolically represents the time when I discovered new song.

Even though research provides the opportunity for both self-education and sharing with others, it is the personal aspect that I wish to emphasize. This personal aspect is often the beginning, the time when one is first inspired, the time when one decides which topic to explore, which person to research. This is an exciting moment, it is the time when academic ideas often are not yet even part of the process, and when the act of discovering and becoming passionate about something begins. These personal aspects are often ignored in presentations and classrooms  (certainly personal thoughts do not need to be used to justify academic ideas), but they are always present and should be acknowledged. Chosen topics and research subjects reveal a bit about the researchers themselves, and allow for the researchers to have the feeling of being connected in some way to the chosen topic, even when personal attachments cannot be publicly announced. Even though researchers may present their work and pose new questions, add to the existing scholarship within a certain academic framework, their personal passion, interest or love for their topic in some way shines through. These personal moments, the ones that have ignited an inquisitive side, that have transformed people into sleuths piecing together clues to solve a mystery, that have allowed for smiles, laughs and even frustrations, are certainly some of the gifts that research provides. I hope that my future will be full of more of these moments.

The Intangible Benefits of a Humanities Community

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by James Zainaldin 14C

I have had the great good fortune to be able to “take up residence” (in several senses of that phrase, at times) in the Fox Center this semester as an honors thesis fellow. While at the Fox Center, I have continued work on my senior thesis exploring the relationship between education and politics in the writings of Plato and Cicero. I think it is a tendency I (and many others) have to dismiss at times the value of “setting” in work in the humane disciplines. When imagining theses in the chemistry or biology departments, test tubes, white coats, and weighty scientific equipment might come to mind: it is readily understood that there is some “place” where the work gets done, that is, the laboratory. But why couldn’t we read Cicero or Plato in an armchair at Starbucks or Woodruff Library’s stacks as easily as in an office? Answering this question is deceptively difficult, but my time at the Fox Center so far has taught me that place is just as important in the humanities, too. The Center does a tremendous job of creating an environment of really vibrant intellectual activity—dare I even call it bohemian, at least among the undergraduates? Rubbing shoulders with people who are busy at work on all sorts of fascinating and compelling projects has a way of stimulating one’s thoughts on one’s own research. There is a certain energy one must feel to understand generated in a community of people who are all excited about their work and excited about its implications for other areas of thought. Not to mention the Center’s coffee hours and organized lunches, gatherings explicitly designed to foster interdisciplinary intellectual exchange.

There are plenty of practical benefits I’ve enjoyed at the Fox Center too, like storing all of the books that are beginning to form my “library away from the library.” But these pale in comparison to the intangibles that conduce study at the center. For example, there is nothing quite like coming in to start work and finding a photocopied advertisement on a filing cabinet convincing men to buy a company’s suits because they will “look sharp” and, therefore, receive all of the women’s votes that are about to flood the polls because of the recent progress in suffrage movements. (Courtesy of a fellow writing a thesis in the history department on anti-suffragist movements.) Some might contend that my tacking up Greek quotations from Heraclitus or Plato is not so amusing a diversion, but hey, maybe it gets us into the spirit of buckling down to work? This is not to say that the Fox Center can also be a place of quiet, almost ascetic retreat when one needs it. Everybody understands that everybody else is busy, and we’re all perfectly happy to shut the doors and put our collective noses to the grindstone when it matters. It has been a special place to work, and, as I have mentioned, one that must be experienced to be fully appreciated.

Is Writing a Social Activity?

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by Fiona O’Carroll 14C

About a month ago, I handed my advisor the first draft of the first chapter of my U.S. History thesis. As I turned to leave his office, he said, “Oh! One more thing. Have I given you the ‘Writing is a Social Activity’ speech yet?”

I shook my head.

My advisor straightened up and cleared his throat. “Writing,” he began, “is a social activity.” He went on to describe how I should think of writing as an interaction between the writer (me) and the reader (for the time being, him). In an effort to cultivate readability in his students’ writing, he encourages his advisees to keep in frequent contact, sending him drafts in various stages of incompleteness and incorporating his feedback.

His speech got me thinking. To what extent can writing be a social activity? In my experience, historical research and writing tend to get a little lonely. A history thesis requires hours and days of quiet, solitary work. It involves reading whole shelves of books about people who are long dead, written by historians who are often also dead. It pushes a student to delve deeply into a topic that likely holds little interest for the people around her. (At Christmas, my aunt told me that my fascination with the anti-suffrage movement was “cute.”)

But at the Fox Center, I have been pleased to discover that writing actually can be a social activity. I am one of the four thesis-writing undergraduates whose office space is in the house next door to the Fox Center. James, Kurtis, Abby, and I have made the upstairs space our own. We have a snack shelf (for storing wasabi peas and M&Ms) and a communal whiteboard. On the whiteboard, we write notes, quotes, doodles, and riddles for each other to puzzle over. The quotes are of the philosophical kind. One morning, I came into the office to find a quote written in Greek (the English translation politely provided below it) from Heraclitus: “Thinking is the same as being.”

Our corner of the house is a cozy microcosm of humanistic inquiry and interdisciplinarity. Our subjects would not usually find themselves in such close proximity, but they don’t mind. Walter Benjamin meditates on his Jewish identity while, a few feet away, Sir Robert Filmer waxes poetic about the divine right of kings in seventeenth-century Britain. Lost in their own thoughts, Plato and Aristotle hardly notice the fierce debate that is raging between Elizabeth Cady Stanton and anti-suffrage homemakers. As I write about the woman suffrage debate, I find it refreshing to take a break from time to time to hear about a completely different sphere of knowledge.

If there is a downside to this arrangement, it’s that sharing a workspace with friendly, interesting people makes it easier to procrastinate. But isn’t it nicer to procrastinate with friends than to procrastinate alone? Procrastination is part of the writing process. When it comes to writing, “work finally begins,” says Alain de Botton, “when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.” I’m glad that we can face our fears, and celebrate our successes, together.