20th Century American PhD Exam List Updated

Following a meeting and some negotiations by email, Kevin and I have finalized my 20th Century American qualifying exam reading list. He suggested that we break the list into two segments: Canonical and Non-Canonical. This division, for lack of a better terminology, gets the point across about the broad acceptance of these texts in the academy. Nevertheless, all of the works fit into my over all research interests: identity, bodies, and technology. I have posted the leaner, more focused, and more encompassing list on the PhD Exam page.

Major Exam Reading List Reconstruction

I’m working on a new draft of my 20th century American literature major exam reading list. I met with Kevin last week, and he sent me some suggestions for the list. His changes are taking me in a better direction for whittling the content while forcing me to consider the way each text fits together into a whole, at least as far as my research interests lie. I will link to the PhD exam list when I have a more finalized version of the list. It will be leaner and meaner.

Bruno Latour and James Burke

I just finished reading Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern (1991/translation 1993), and I was struck by how similar his ideas about the interplay of Nature and Society–that they are not the poles, but orbit about the quasi-object and quasi-subject–that collectives and networks are definitive. However, I was more struck by how much his ideas seemed to reflect those of James Burke in his Connections (1978) and The Day the Universe Changed (1985) television series, albeit in much more philosophical terms. Burke’s demonstration that science, technology, culture, and society are all interconnected and construct one another. Or, to beat a dead cliche, nothing (but subatomic particles) are created in a vacuum. I do not know to what extent Burke’s work may have informed Latour’s theories, but I do know that Latour was a constant presence in my Georgia Tech literature and cultural studies classes. I am done for the evening, but I will think more about Latour tomorrow when I write up my notes.

PhD Reading List, Reflecting on July 2009

Today, Yufang and I ran into Dave at Last Exit Books, and he and I discussed our PhD reading lists. He asked me how my reading was going, and I realized that I hadn’t thought that much about my progress even though I was keeping track of it on my PhD Exams page here. I could see what I had read, but I hadn’t taken much time to consider how much material I had read since I began in ernest at the beginning of July after we moved into our new place across the street from Kent State.

Looking over my reading list and excluding anything that I read during Spring 2009, I have read 10 novels, 1 theory article, and 4 theory books since the beginning of July 2009. On average, that’s about 1 book every two days. I have had other things going on this month that I have taken time away from my reading, and I have to spend more time reading theory than novels to be sure. Additionally, I have to keep notes on everything that I read so that I can continually refresh my memory over the next two semesters prior to my exams.

What I’ve learned is that I do need to pick up my reading and note taking pace. Also, I need to improve the quality of my notes so that when I type them the process will take much less time. For example, I spent nearly half a day or more working on my notes for Ihab Hassan’s The Postmodern Turn. Obviously, I can’t spend that much premium time on one work particularly after I’ve spent considerable time meticulously reading through it.

I’m learning that the PhD exam process is itself a lesson besides all of the things that you take in and learn for the exams themselves. I have to learn how to prepare for the exams in an efficient, methodical, and effective way. I’m building on that now, and I hope to know how to prepare for PhD exams very well by the time that I’m ready to actually take the exams next Spring. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), those lessons of how to learn won’t be needed for another exam, but at least I will carry them forward as I do my professional work in the field during and beyond the dissertation.

Notes on PhD Exam Reading So Far, July 2009

I officially began reading for my PhD exams after I returned from my vacation in the Deep South at the beginning of July, and I’ve covered a lot of material on my 20th Century Lit and Postmodern Theory lists since then. You can see my progress on my PhD Exams page here. These are a few notes on my experiences with the reading and note taking that I’ve been doing.

First, I have found that my mind is beginning to make interesting, unexpected, and exciting connections between theories, between the literature, and between one another as I read more and more in a condensed amount of time. Compression is the word that I’m thinking of. Theory does take more time to read through, take notes on, and digest than the literature, but the theory–locating the arguments and considering the implications of each and in relation to one another–has been the most rewarding. However, I do notice that I’m thinking more about it during the day, away from the books, which I want to write about in more detail on another occasion regarding Michael Jackson’s memorial service.

Second, taking notes on theory has been an ordeal. I am finding that it is very difficult to condense theories on one reading into something compact and easy to handle. In Kevin Floyd’s Queer Theory class and Babacar M’Baye’s African American Literature class, I did get some experience in this work, but much of that was on shorter or unified works. In the case of Ihab Hassan’s The Postmodern Turn, a collection of essays across a swath of his career, I was unable to find a nice and neat way to address everything that he has to say. He is going in a lot of different directions, but I will return to my notes on his collection in the hope that I can find a better way to encapsulate his ideas in a hand tool form rather than an immobile 1 ton lathe.

Now, I’m continuing work on an essay for Masood Raja on postmodern theory, which I believe will help me handle and manipulate some of the things that I’ve read this past month. I will have more on this later.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Uncle Woodrow, and World War II

I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) tonight for the first time, and one particular passage struck me in its depiction of memory of World War II.  At Billy and Valencia’s eighteenth wedding anniversary, the barbershop quartet, the Febs, begin singing “That Old Gang of Mine,” and Billy is assaulted by the pain of memory:

Unexpectedly, Billy Pilgrim found himself upset by the song and the occasion.  He had never had an old gang, old sweethearts and pals, but he missed one anyway, as the quartet made slow, agonized experiments with chords–chords intentionally sour, sourer still, unbearably sour, and then a chord that was suffocatingly sweet, and then some sour ones again.  Billy had powerful psychosomatic responses to the changing chords.  His mouth filled with the taste of lemonade, and his face became grotesque, as if he were really being stretched on the torture engine called the rack. (172-173)

I’ve seen this before when I was once asking my Uncle Woodrow Head about his experiences in the war before he succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease.

He told me about the time, prior to the Battle of the Bulge, General Patton inspected his auto group while he was working on the breaks of his jeep.  Despite others telling him to snap to attention, he said he had to get it fixed for when they rolled out.  Patton’s car pulled up to where my Uncle’s legs were sticking out from under his vehicle.  The general got out and told my Uncle that it was men like him that were going to win the war.

He told me about guarding one of the major conferences of the war while manning an anti-aircraft gun with orders to shoot any airplane on sight.

Then, he told me about his friends and the death he witnessed.  However, he stopped short and his face took on the “grotesque” that Vonnegut describes in the selection above–the only scene from the book that explicitly invokes memory instead of time warps.  The memory of the event overwhelmed my Uncle, a good natured and quiet man who I never before or ever saw again with a face transfigured by a memory so great and terrible that I cannot imagine it.

Added Page for PhD Exam Reading Lists

I added a “PhD Exams” page to the top of DynamicSubspace.net that includes the reading lists for my three PhD exams, which I will take at the end of Spring 2010.  I’ve enabled comments on the page, so please let me know if there is something absolutely critical that I should add to the list, or something that you believe should be removed.  Currently, nothing is marked as being read, but I will work on that later tonight.

Back to reading.