The Scamp and the Writing Challenge: Week 40

Although it is week 40, I definitely have not written 40 posts for the challenge. Somewhere along the way I got lazy and then super focused on my thesis. I haven’t been making much progress on that, so the last thing I’ve wanted to do was do any kind of writing, for work or otherwise. I’m currently feeling guilty about sitting on my couch eating bad Chinese food and watching TV, so I thought I would give this the attention that it deserves.

So back to the challenge, or at least a chance to write in a focused way with no right or wrong answer. I’m hoping that a little of free writing will get me back on my game and help me figure out what to do with my literature review and theory chapter.

The challenge for this week is as follows:

Express yourself
Tell us about a time you couldn’t quite get your words or images to express what you wanted to express. What do you think the barrier was? For bonus points, try again.

This is an easy one, and I am hoping that when I explain it here, I can work out some of the issues that I have trying to structure a really important chapter in my thesis. Explaining critical theory is the foundational basis for what I am trying to do with feedback and assessment at the university, and if I cannot explain it in a clear, but academic sounding manner, then I have no hope in moving forward with my PhD. If I cannot make connections between the previous research and what I hope to accomplish with my study, then I am not working hard enough, or smart enough for a PhD.

The problem is, I know where I went wrong. I spent the whole summer obsessed with word counts and the number of pages that I wanted to have written that I went for quantity over quality. My methodology chapter came together pretty nicely, and now it is in its third draft and gets a little better every time. That was a really easy chapter to write, the first draft came together in about three weeks. I thought that if I followed the structure and the guide I was using for that chapter while I was writing the theory chapter, I would be in good shape. I became focused on getting my 500 words a day in, and really did not stick to the outline I made at all. I was so disappointed that I did not make it to 30 thousand words by September 1st that I sent off a really crappy draft that was all fluff and no substance. The feedback I got from my supervisor sucked. It was hard to hear. I have to start over. The part that she did like was the part that was written by the group for the paper that is up for publication. I spent two years on that paper, and at this point, after 17 drafts, there is very little of it that is my words. So, the part that I wrote myself is shit, and the part that my supervisors wrote is great, but still doesn’t quite set out to do what I wanted to do. I have a lot to try to redo, and the outline of how to do it, but when I sit down at my laptop, or at a computer at the uni, I cannot seem to get anything written that ‘sounds like it belongs in a PhD’. I see that as having wasted three months. Three months that I needed.

This brings me to the second problem. My funding ends in July. There is no way I am going to get more from the programme, and when it runs out, if I am not done with my degree,, I am not sure that I will even be able to finish. I cannot take out any more loans, cannot afford to stay in Scotland, and will never be able to finish my PhD. I am so stressed about finding a job, trying to get something done in three years that usually takes people four years, and worried about the fact that I will probably have to leave Scotland in a few months. I am so worried about all the things going on in my life that aren’t related to my PhD that I am too stressed to be able to sit down and focus on the work in front of me.

I’d really like to be able to take my mom’s advice and just write out the chapter in my own words and then go back to make it sounds all fancy and pretentious, but I just don’t have the time to do that. I also hoped to work it out here and demonstrate that I actually understand critical theory, and that I can use it, critical pedagogy, and the Ideal Speech Situation to explain why the research on feedback, while it has done a lot to help students in terms of their learning, does not do enough to help create a dialogue between students and teachers and allow them to use feedback as a learning tool. I thought a lot about being able to just free write here and then hopefully get some feedback from my lovely readers. Then I realized that if I did, I’d probably get popped for plagiarism when I turned in the draft because it is published here before it gets published in my thesis.

Sometimes I really hate the fact that we have to be a slave to Turnitin since it not only claims the rights to your work once you submit something there,  but the people at the university who swear by it, swear that if too many words or phrases are strung together then you might be cheating, or if you do not cite your sources correctly then you are trying to maliciously dupe the university into thinking you are smarter than you are. But that is a rant for another day. I’m also a big believer in collaboration, and posting it here and then discussing it with others means that it would not be my own thoughts and ideas, and that is a big no no in the world of the tortured PhD student.

I’m not sure how it happened, but I started this post thinking that I could work through some writing issues, and ended up feeling grouchy and angry that I am having trouble getting the thoughts in my head onto paper, and that now I am falling further behind in my quest to become a doctor of philosophy. I’m taking yet another day off when I cannot afford to take another day off.

Jogging. I am going to go back to jogging. At least being really tired after a run is a better excuse then I am too afraid to sound stupid.


The Scamp and the Writing Challenge: Week 3

“Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”


The writing challenge this week is to use the first line of my favorite novel to start my post. I could make up something up and try to be really creative with this, but when I read the line from what I think it is the greatest novel ever written, all I really wanted to do is discuss the book. So I give you my thoughts on William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. It tells the story of four days in the life of a troubled Southern family from four very different points of view.

Let’s start with the title. It comes from a line in MacBeth, when he learns of his wife’s death:

“Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.”
Act V, Scene V

And that is what we get in a sense from the telling of The Sound and the Fury. The story is divided into four parts, each one narrated by a different ‘idiot’. The first section is narrated by Benjy, a 33 year old man who has the mind of a 3 year old. He is a source of great shame to his family, and Faulkner uses stream of consciousness, there are italics to note a shift in time, and this section often reads like a book where all the pages have been put together at random. It was one that I really struggled to get through the first time I read it (thanks Sparknotes for the help!), but it is the one section with the most reliable narrator. Benjy merely tells things the way he sees them, and can do nothing to cover up, distort, or rationalize the choices of his brothers, his family, and the people around him.

The next idiot who shares his woes is Quentin. He is the smartest of the boys, but the one with the most tortured life. He has idiotic ideas of the way the world works thanks to his drink obsessed father, and because of that and an unhealthy obsession with his sister and her purity, eventually kills himself. The last part of his section is hard to read, but also fascinating, as Faulkner has managed to really capture what it might be like inside the head of someone slowly losing their mind. I think that he is the character that suffers the most, makes an interesting case for the nature vs. nurturer argument. He has such a warped view on life, and the roles of family that he is an unreliable narrator, with his descent into madness a strong support for that.

The last of the idiots, and in my opinion, the biggest one, is Jason. He is obsessed with money. He is sexually frustrated. He is a cold monster. He steals money from his sister, he abuses his servants, and he is just an asshole (pardon my French). His section is one that I sometimes skim just because I don’t like him. He is the most unreliable of the narrators because he is so cynical and single minded. This is the easiest part to read in terms of the way it is written, but it does not make Jason any more trustworthy.

The final section is told in the third person and focuses on the servant that runs the household, and her abuse, sadness, and unquestioning loyalty to the family. She takes Benjy to church with her family believing that he is the only one that can truly be saved. We see Benjy breakdown when his routine is altered, giving way to his sound and fury, and his brother Jason being the only one to calm him down. The last lines of the book are perhaps some of the most chilling ever written, and I still get goosebumps when I read them.

“The broken flower drooped over Ben’s fist and his eyes were empty and blue and serene again as cornice and facade flowed smoothly once more from left to right, post and tree, window and doorway and signboard each in its ordered place.”

Much of my undergrad was focused on the reliability of the narrators in Mark Twain novels, and while I sit in the library today shrugging off some important paper edits, I can’t help but get a little twinge for the good old days when I spent hours and hours reading great books and really digging into literature. Those four years in Merced taught me a lot, and I always thought I’d get a PhD in literature and then grow old teaching university students how to love, and really understand literature. I can’t help but wonder what my life would have been like if that was the path I had gone down, and whether or not I would be in Scotland right now if I had. I know a few of the struggles would be different, but Ii wonder if all roads would have eventually led here. Then I think about how much I’ve done, and how much I am really starting to like myself, and I realize that I might not feel the same way if my path had been different.

So there you go. My ramblings on a book that is a lot like me, a little bit complicated, very hard to read, but very very very worth it in the end.

The Scamp Sets a Watchman

I just finished reading the new novel by Harper Lee. Well, not exactly new, as it is supposedly the first manuscript that eventually led to To Kill a Mockingbird. It took me all of a week to read it, and to be honest, I am not sure that I liked what I read.

I tried to like it, I really did. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorite books. I’ve read it numerous times, and always loved Scout, the pugnacious six-year-old who hated dresses, loved to read, and thought fighting was the best way to solve a problem. One of my favorite lines from the book was, and in a way, still is:

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing”.

I remember reading the book in high school and having numerous discussions about racism, moral compasses, and rape. I remember feeling like the discussions sounded much the same way a Sparknotes summary would read; kinda surface level, lacking of a deeper discussion, and very focused on how racism is bad, and how a good strong moral compass will always lead a person to the right answer (whether it is the popular choice or not). I remember reading the book a year or so ago, and feeling differently about the characters. While I still loved Scout, I found her somewhat naive, and in the process, found myself somewhat naive for missing a big piece of the story; Atticus Finch was always a racist. When Go Set a Watchman was first announced, people were outraged by Atticus being painted as a racist who attends Klan meetings, and despises the NAACP. At first, I was in that boat. How dare Atticus been shown as anything other than noble. Then I noticed he takes on the case of Tom Robinson stating that just because you already lost the game before it started, doesn’t mean you should play. He took the case because he was asked to by the judge, not necessarily because he thought Tom Robinson deserved justice. As the article Atticus Was Always a Racist: Why Go Set a Watchman Is No Surprise states:

 Throughout Mockingbird, Atticus is engaged in the foundational moonlight-and-magnolias Southern delusion that so swayed Ashley Wilkes and Ellen O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. He fought with the genteel cruelty of the slaver, in service of the other American dream, which is the idea that a man can  be the ultimate patriarch: the cultivated master of the lower orders, the head of a family that extends through his wife and children down through the slaves. Everyone but the patriarch, it’s assumed, is slowly developing out of moral infancy—and as such, the patriarch is charged with leading everyone in religion, work ethic and cleanliness. Atticus is the son of slave owners, and he’s acting the part of one when he argues that Tom Robinson is from a clean-living family, and the black servant Calpurnia can be trusted raising white kids—this is the race equivalent of chivalry, the imperiled pedestal.

At 16, there was no way I was clever enough to notice this. At 26, I did, but tried to pretend that was not what I was reading. There was no way that I was reading that one of my favorite literary characters was not actually a strong moral compass, but merely a man who had a strong sense of right and wrong, but was still deeply flawed when it came to racial equality. I had set my watchman in Atticus Finch, and there was no way that he was anything less than the strong moral compass I saw him as when I first encountered the book more than ten years ago. This is where Go Set a Watchman comes into play.

This book is also written from Scout’s point-of-view, but this time she is a 26-year-old living in New York. She has returned home to Alabama to visit her father. That is about the extent of what happens. While home, Scout gets in a fight with Atticus and is forced to shake off her naivete and see the world for what it really is, and her father is not the God-like idol that she has built him up to be. The title comes from Isaiah 21:6: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” It alludes to Jean Louise Finch’s view of her father, Atticus Finch, as the moral compass (“watchman”) of Maycomb, and has a theme of disillusionment, as she realizes her bigotry.

The problem with this book is the dialogue is awful, the story is often boring, and Scout is such a snotty 20 something that you cannot wait for her to get her comeuppance. The fight she has with Atticus is actually resolved way too easily, and it in the end, Scout decides that she cannot beat the crowd, and she won’t join them, so she ops to just sit on the sidelines and pretend what they are doing is a-okay. Chance Lee wrote a very insightful piece on the books. While I found myself agreeing with a lot of what he said, there was one particular passage that really stood out for me:

The only interesting part of this book is the climax: the actual argument between Jean Louise and Atticus. However, the denouement ruins any impact this climactic battle may have had. In it, Jean Louise is slapped so violently by her uncle that her mouth bleeds. She learns that, as a young woman, she should respect the beliefs of elder white men. To not compromise with those who refuse to compromise, Jean Louise is a bigot. Her racist father, her racist aunt, are not bigots because they are right: whites are superior to Negroes.

This is a frustrating argument that still exists today, when religious fanatics who believe that their personal beliefs trump the human rights of others beg “tolerance.” Your hate is not to be tolerated. If any benefit comes from this book, it is to show us that we, as a society, have not evolved as much as we should have in the last fifty years.

The entire article can be found here: and is well worth the read.

I guess this is why I had trouble liking the story. One of the greatest literary characters of all time turned out to be a phony, and much the way Scout realizes her naivete, I now see that sometimes great men (real or literary) are not really all that great, and it is best to be your own watchman because at the end of the day, the only person who can really steer you down the right path is you.

A Scamp Reviews the Literature

I’ve felt like a slacker since I have been home. The first two weeks I was home I did very little research and absolutely no writing. I was starting to feel like I was behind on my deadlines, and would really have to shut myself away in the next few weeks to even think about finishing the paper on time. My mom cleaned up her office and turned it over to me and has been really great about finding things for my dad that will keep him out of the house so I now have a quiet place to work. I have read and skimmed a lot of articles, and tracked down a lot of books that still need to be looked over, but I am making great strides in my research collection. I have started to organize all of it according to subject matter, and I am kicking myself now for not having taken notes on my computer to make that process easier. It is going to take me a long time to code and organize the 50+ books and articles that I currently have notes for.

I wish I had a research assistant to do this part of the work for me.

The outline for the chapter is coming together, and I have a good 2,000 words written, but since I have yet to hear from my supervisor regarding anything related to my dissertation, I have no idea if I am even headed in the right direction. I finally got an email after 2 weeks of no response to my emails, but all she said was that she wanted to schedule a time to meet with me since I have not been contacting her…..I’m so annoyed with her and her lack of communication skills. I really hope my grade doesn’t suffer because I am not getting any help. This was one of my worries before I came home. If I was in Scotland, I could camp out in front of her office until she agreed to help me, or at least wander into the office of the director for my program and get some help (and a good story) from him.  Here, all I can do is cross my fingers and hope that she eventually emails me back.

On the bright side, Saturday is my last day of summer school for the doctoral program. The class this week went surprisingly well. I really like the people in my program, and this time we were a lot more comfortable with each other. There were lots of jokes and sarcasm, and even talk about how we were going to schedule our Saturday meetings. The downside of this program is that I will be on campus every Saturday from the end of August until 2016, and will have little to no social life outside of who brings the wine to the study group. I’m lucky that I don’t have small children and there is no one who is going to be mad at me if I am not home for dinner or can’t go to the movies on a Tuesday night, but I am still a little bit sad about the idea of losing my weekend to nothing but educational leadership lectures and readings. Soon I will be replacing my mystery novels with journals on writing instruction and community college policies, and instead of writing blog posts about getting on stage at a play about drag queens, I will be writing memos and small scale research papers about my underlying epidemiological assumptions and how best to work my viewpoint into my writings.

Last week’s class did bring about some good news. The director of the program is the one that has been running the workshops, and he asked me all about studying in Scotland and whether or not I would ever like to go abroad again. He mentioned that CSUF is working with a university in South Africa to run a program like the one I am in, and that I should meet some of the students who are going through the program (who just happen to be here right now visiting the campus) and see what they have to say about the program and living and working there. I’ve never been to South Africa, but it sounds like it might be a fun adventure. Who knows what will happen in the next three years, but I know I will be ready for another adventure.


and now…back to the outline. My research assistant is a cat, and besides the fact that he can’t type, or read, he is currently out and about enjoying the pleasant evening.