Archive for the Dissertation Category

Adventures in Death Midwifery: The Dissertation, and the Dreaded “Rut”

Posted in Death midwifery, Dissertation, Education, Theory on May 30, 2016 by Diana S-V

Hello, death-friends!

Apologies for the delay on this post. I started and wrote the majority of the post on the fourth of April, and four days later I went into labour and gave birth to my son. I also needed a bit of time to learn how on earth one keeps a tiny newborn human alive, happy, and healthy. So far, so good!

In my last post, I talked at length about my first few weeks in the BEyond Yonder Virtual School for Death Midwifery (VSDM) course and how my approach to being a student and researcher began to change as a result of my experience in the course. In this post, I’d like to talk about how my dissertation developed, stalled, and was revitalized by the timing and content of the VSDM course and by the death midwifery movement as a whole.

Beginnings (aka. “the noob years”)

My first academic introduction to the schools of thought that have had the greatest influence on me as a scholar and writer came in my second year of undergraduate work. As with most English programs, my undergraduate program required me to take a full year introductory course on literary theory and criticism and, as I suspect is the way with most undergraduate students, the course was a real game-changer for me. I was fortunate to have an instructor whose mission it was to not only introduce us to the concepts but to facilitate a space in which we could use the language and approaches we were learning to challenge those concepts in dialogue and in writing. It was a relief, in a way, to finally have a language for things that I had noticed in high school and first-year classes in literature that had been bothering me but that I hadn’t quite been able to articulate clearly.

Granted, I would later be challenged to critique the notions of articulation, language, and privilege in the academy, but this was early on and I was simply grateful to have the tools when I did. By the end of my second year, I felt equipped to ask questions about and explore the concepts of class, gender, race, language, colonialism, sexuality, and aesthetics, and I also felt as if I had been given the permission to ask if I bought what a particular school of thought or thinker was “selling,” and why or why not this would be the case. It seems so simplistic now, but anyone who has taken a course like this or had an epiphany in a classroom where a whole new portion of your mind seems to open up and breathe knows what I’m talking about.

In terms of my dissertation, this course catalyzed a number of practical and theoretical convictions that still inform my work at present. My introductions to critical race theory and thinkers who focused on anti-oppression, Marxism, and feminist theory made me determined that whatever work I did should have a “boots-on-the-ground” component in which theoretical ideas could (and should) be enacted in practice. The way in which I was introduced to these topics also made me aware of the need to reflect on one’s own practices to see what might be ignored, overlooked, or silenced in the process of discussion and writing, what I would later understand as something resembling intersectionality and checking privilege. Again, my understanding of these immensely complex topics was simple at the time, and even after many years of listening and reading I often feel as if getting better at this type of reflection can only be measured in millimeters rather than leaps and bounds.

I also fell in love—and I don’t mind calling it that, because I don’t think it’s shameful to say that you fall in love with or love a writer or school of thought provided you don’t let that love blind you to problems—with poststructuralism, and with Derrida in particular. I adored his playfulness, his writing style, his willingness to experiment, and what felt like the novelty of it all, and the obtuseness that frustrated and turned off my classmates (and still does!) somehow felt sensible to me. I’m a bit less cheerleader-y about it now, and much more practical in my approach to reading and rereading his work, but I still find his writing innovative and pragmatic in its own way after all of these years.

Now, fast forward to the last year of my undergraduate degree: I wanted to work on Southeast Asian and Caribbean literature, with a focus on gender. I was completing an honours thesis on Karukku, a translated narrative autobiography by a Tamil Dalit author writing under the pen name of Bama, and had submitted applications to Masters programs with the intent to do a thesis on Sam Selvon’s “Moses” trilogy. I would go on to successfully complete both of these projects, and applied to doctoral programs with a dissertation proposal that would focus on translated autobiographies written by Dalit women and see me do a year of exchange at the University of Pune in Maharashtra. I was accepted to UWO’s PhD program with this proposal.

So… here I am. I took my secondary qualifying exam in theory and criticism, and my primary qualifying exam in Twentieth-Century British and Irish Literature, I’m working on thanatology, and I never did make it to Pune. Huh. Best laid plans and whatnot, right?

First of all, if you’re at the beginning of your career as a researcher and you feel like it’s too late to change the trajectory of your research because your interests have shifted, STOP THINKING THAT. I’m sure there are times when it is definitely too late—three months before you’re scheduled to defend, for example—but in your Masters program or at the beginning of your PhD program is not too late. I won’t lie. It is a lot of work to catch up and re-establish yourself in a new field when some of your colleagues have been interested in the same field since they entered their undergraduate program. It can be tricky to navigate the changing of supervisors and committees, and to write grant proposals from scratch when you decide to commit. However, if the topic that you’re switching to is truly what you want to be working on, if it’s what will keep you energized and motivated to finish a dissertation that you can be happy with, and if you’re willing to put in that work, for the love of God, do it.

That’s what I was preoccupied with in my first and second years of my PhD. I had realized around the time that I finished my Masters project on Selvon that while I loved the literature, I was ill-equipped to navigate the identity politics of my project and the scholarly community that I had to be a part of in order to see that project come to fruition, and the topics I was addressing didn’t keep me up at night. That’s not to say that they must, of course, but nowadays after a good day of researching or writing, I’m often so excited about what I accomplished and what I’ll be doing tomorrow that I have a hard time turning that part of my mind off and falling asleep. For me, having a few days like that every now and again is a non-negotiable component of my work as a researcher, and not a bonus.

Fresh Starts

As my motivation for my original dissertation proposal waned, my interest in corpses as material objects, death and dying, memorialization, and thanatology snowballed as did my interests in new materialism, ecocriticism, abjection, and Derrida. In almost every single course in the first year of my PhD, I found a way to explore these topics in presentations and final papers. I wrote about hunger strikes and starving bodies, about abjection and nuclear fission, decomposition and the encryption of bodies, giving bodies as gifts, fetishism and photographic archives, and the notion of the “post-mortem.” Despite it being a very tough year in terms of my personal life and ability to manage work-related stress, each of these papers was a joy to write. I felt like one does after taking a corset off after a night of performing burlesque when one’s ribs are finally able to expand in all directions and one’s skin can breathe. It was liberating, it was motivating, and it was writing the way that I hoped writing would someday be for me: frustrating, infatuating, and immensely pleasurable at the end of the day.

One paper stood out, however, and that was my final paper for a class called “Melancholy and the Archive.” I had decided to use this paper as a “test run” for the idea I had for my new dissertation proposal, which had been percolating in my head since October or so. The paper concerned the absence of bodies and the presence of archival materials, read through the notion of “skin,” in José Saramago’s All the Names, and was founded upon a close reading of Derrida’s Archive Fever. I figured that the worst-case scenario was that I would get great feedback on the paper and be able to go back to the drawing board, but the best case scenario… well, perhaps this is a bit too personal and maybe was a bit unprofessional at the time, but when I handed the paper in to the instructor, Jonathan Boulter, I wrote something foolhardy to the effect of “Depending on how you like the trajectory of this paper, and if you think it’s worth expanding to something resembling a dissertation, I’d like to talk to you about becoming my supervisor for that dissertation.” When he wrote back to say that he’d like to talk more about the paper, my hope that my new interests could be channeled into a dissertation that I would want to write and that people would want to read felt affirmed. I wasn’t a dolt! These ideas could have a home!

Of course, one of the disadvantages of being a late bloomer in terms of one’s dissertation topic is that you have a lot of catching up to do. My secondary qualifying exam, which was focused on literary theory and criticism, was a great refresher and definitely helped me reread a number of texts with my new topic in mind. Baudrillard, Freud, Lacan, Bataille, Baudrillard, Benjamin, Butler, Blanchot, Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, Jameson, Kristeva, Lyotard, Nancy—all of these thinkers mattered in a completely different way than they did before, and the summer I spent studying for the secondary exam was great preparation for rewriting both the following year’s grant proposal and the field study. My primary exam, however, was a struggle. I’d never taken a single course in British and Irish literature, and there were huge gaps in my knowledge that my peers taking the same exam didn’t seem to have. For my optional texts, I tried as much as possible to pick texts with death, dying, bodies, and performance so that I could at the very least have something to latch on to and find some new (to me!) and relevant texts about which I could write for future projects. This was not the healthiest time in my student life, I must admit, and the pressure that I put on myself and the way that I approached studying for this exam really took a mental and physical toll on me. To top it all off, I had to shuffle my schedule around deferring the exam because my stepfather ended up in the hospital the week I was supposed to do the written portion. I made it through, but I was pretty raggedy when I got to the other side of the exam.

However, it was conference season! And not just any conference season—this was a big one for me. I had applied and been accepted to three major conferences and was over the moon about it. My papers for each conference were either directly related to or very closely related to my dissertation, and I was eager to receive feedback on them and mingle with other like-minded individuals. I was most excited about being accepted to the Derrida Today conference, where I hoped to work through and become acquainted with other major texts and trends in Derrida scholarship. The conferences were spectacular. However, most of my summer and part of my fall semester was seriously derailed in terms of my mental health and safety due to an incident that you can read more about here. After a lot of therapy and help from my support network, I finally completed my field study and my prospectus was accepted by my department. I was ABD (All But Dissertation) and free to finally write my masterpiece! So, what the hell happened?

The Rut

Oh, “the rut.” There are many names for this hellish time that almost everyone seems to face over the course of writing a dissertation, but I think of mine as a rut because it reminds me of when you are driving out in the boonies or in winter with godawful snow patterns, and you end up with your tires spinning in the mud or on the ice. You gently try to move your car by physically or mechanically creating a rocking motion that is intended to give you a boost, but there you are. You’re in the rut. You can be as gentle or as forceful as you like, but until something gives, in the rut you shall stay. The rut is your home. EVERYTHING IS RUT.

My rut was, as it turns out, a problem of methodology. I had a lot of ideas, a lot of possibilities, and a wealth of ways to tackle these ideas, but absolutely no clue how to tackle the methodological problem of a highly interdisciplinary project that tackled sociocultural, legal, ethical, material, narrative, political, and aesthetic components of death, dying, and bodies. Every time I thought I had “solved” the methodological problem, it turned out to be another false start. I had mountains of notes, and many outlines that tested out various ways to talk about my approach to my dissertation and what it was about, but very little actual writing and nothing that was, to my mind, suitable to be handed in to my supervisor or second reader.

And so I avoided writing. I made more notes, I made more outlines, I read more books, I found more resources, but I was still in that rut. I wasn’t even rocking back and forth anymore. I think writing, in this metaphor, would have represented that kind of effort. Even ineffective writing would have meant some sort of motion, but I was afraid. I was afraid that if I wrote something that it would be crap. What I SHOULD have done, and what I do now on a regular basis, is embrace the fact that the first bit of writing is always crap. What else could it be? It would be like me talking in a whisper for six months and expecting that I’d be able to slay Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” at Sunday night karaoke, or staying in bed for a week and expecting that I could nail an advanced version of a yoga pose without permanently damaging my groin and my dignity. Why we get it into our minds that writing is any different is beyond me, but fear is a powerful thing, and I didn’t feel strong enough to face the crap that would flow from my fingertips so that I could move past it and get to the good stuff.

The VSDM to the Rescue!

Perhaps I’m exaggerating when I say that this course rescued me, but it’s certainly not a hyperbole by much. Here’s why and how the course got me out of my rut and kick-started my dissertation writing process again.

  1. Reading about the death midwifery movement is incredibly motivating.

If you’ve ever been on the Facebook page that is a hub for death midwifery in Canada, you’ll know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t been, you really should. The group boasts over 2,400 members and is growing every day. Some of these members are observers, some are occasional posters, and many share daily postings and resources. It’s a veritable treasure trove of links to all kinds of valuable materials, and the comments often reveal some great conversations about key topics and awesome recommendations for additional reading. Not only have I managed to connect with a number of like-minded academics through the page but I have also garnered an enormous collection of scholarly and other writings that have sustained my interest, expanded my knowledge, and will even make it into the dissertation proper. My connections to my classmates are also nurtured by this group and the smaller groups dedicated to the “death nerds” who have taken the course. Updates on what my classmates have done, such as seeking out new jobs related to deathcare, organizing events, starting their own death midwifery practices, and writing have served to encourage me to foster my own interests and projects, such as this blog.

  1. The structure of the course made me talk to real live human beings about my dissertation.

I am a prodigious talker, and an enthusiastic writer, but you’d be surprised at how often I’m afraid to talk about my work and the dissertation in particular. I can talk about death and dying till the cows come home. Ask me to describe my project, to talk about where I’m at and my successes and failures, and you are likely to witness me dance around it or get flustered when I can’t articulate what I’d like to articulate. The VSDM’s forum posts, buddy chats, and teleconferences asked that I rise to the challenge of introducing myself and my work to others over and over again, and it got to the point that I started feeling a little more adept at discussing my work and justifying its value and place in the death midwifery movement and the academic landscape. After qualifying exams were done, I drifted away from my cohort of peers when it came to actively collaborating and chatting about my work on a regular basis. I didn’t really talk to anyone about it, to be honest, because I was worried there wasn’t much to be said and was afraid of bungling my end of the conversation. But it wasn’t that I didn’t have anything valuable to say. I was out of practice, quite literally, with talking to other human beings. It was also gratifying to hear others say that they were interested in what I had to say or to declare that it sounded like there truly was a place for my work in the movement when I was experiencing doubt.

  1. Treat writing like a dialogue rather than a lecture and you won’t feel so shitty when you sit down to do it.

I could go on and on about which strategies do and do not work for me when it comes to writing. However, the biggest struggle is beginning something new and getting the first few words out of the way. The first few words are always awkward and weird and shitty, or at least this is the case when I sit down to write. It’s a matter of flushing the rust from the pipes. My supervisor calls it “throat-clearing,” an expression I quite like. The journaling component of the VDSM course was strange for me as I’d not been in the habit of journaling before, but to make the style of reflecting writing easier I began my journaling in a style that seemed wacky at the time but ultimately made me a better academic writer—I started talking and writing to myself. I don’t mean this obliquely. I explicitly and deliberately wrote as if I were having a dialogue with another version of myself, one that would be receptive to my own ideas and see value in them. A more forgiving and open-minded version of myself, someone less inclined to judgment and more interested in what I had to say became my own “Ideal Reader,” that person that you write for and whose approval you want. The journaling format and this much more benevolent Ideal-Reader-Diana started to influence my academic writing insofar as I no longer felt that my drafts were for my supervisor, or for anyone else. They belonged to me and me alone, and that meant that I could take some of the pressure off of myself. After all, if I’m the only one who is going to see this version, who cares what it looks or sounds like? What matters is getting the words out. I can always turn shit into gold at a later date, after all.

  1. I felt like I had something to offer. Don’t forget that your dissertation should make you feel like that, too.

When you’re surrounded by other academics and accomplished scholars and researchers, it’s easy to forget that the little slice of knowledge that belongs to you is actually interesting. My work had become so familiar to me that I began to see it as repetitive, stale, and boring as hell because I had become accustomed to my own ideas as some sort of normative, average base material that needed expansion to be worth anything at all. My discussions with others were a form of defamiliarization through which I could see and imagine my work with the eyes and ears of other people, and appreciate it as original and valuable even in its most rudimentary form. We can become used to our own ideas and immune to their charms, as it were, and although I didn’t leave conversations feeling like a genius, I was certainly reminded that what I was working on was new, fresh, and interesting in its own right, and that meant that I didn’t have to keep justifying my existence as a scholar and researcher to the darker parts of my own mind every time I sat down to write.

  1. We are in an academic bubble where the goal is perfection. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It has to be written.

As hokey as it is, I often tell students for whom I am a teaching assistant that when they are working on an essay they should always remind themselves of the French verb essayer: “to try.” I think it was an Acadian colleague who first told me this, and it stuck.

I want to finish this post by deferring to the words of a wonderful human and brilliant colleague, Eileen Wennekers, whose excellent advice on writing and on life has always been sound and has gotten me out of more than one psychological jam. I recommend reading her piece, “How To Be A Writer,” in its entirety on the Weird Canada website. However, the following words are my favourites and I return to them again and again until they have become like old friends to me. I hope you find them as worthwhile to keep around as I have.

When you are writing you are not a radio. You are doing work, in the deepest dialectical sense: You are engaging with your material in a way that imprints it with a subjective mark, changing it, and in doing so, creating a manifestation in the objective world of what is inside you. You are working out a particular problem that only you could set yourself.

What this means is that if you have an idea about writing something, you are already inspired. You do not have to wait for inspiration to realize your idea. It is merely a matter of choosing to either relieve yourself or get off the can.

If you ever perfectly articulated everything exactly as you wished, a drain-hole would open up in the interstices between the world of signification and that world it refers to, and all that is would implode into this drain-hole in an impeccable inversion of the Big Bang. Thankfully, this has not yet happened.

This means that your piece is done not when it is perfect, but when it is done. Does it make sense? Does it say something? Are you deeply sick of the sight of it? Done. Everyone regards that which she excretes with an undeniable interest, but if you’re trying to shove it back into yourself in the hope of a more transcendent outcome, it’s just going to end up a mess. Just. Let. Go.

Please feel free to comment on this post with any resources on writing, academic or otherwise, that you think are worth sharing. In my next blog post, I’ll be talking about community-building, professionalization, and the complexities of the language of the death midwifery movement and in death and dying more broadly.

Adventures in Death Midwifery: Introduction

Posted in Death midwifery, Dissertation, Education on February 25, 2016 by Diana S-V

 

skull quill

Pieter Claesz’s “Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill” (1628) – oil on wood. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Hello, death-friends! Long time, no see!

The past year has certainly been a busy one. I spent most of the first half of the year writing a book chapter and article, neither of which ended up being published—more on that another day—and most of the second half finishing my last teaching assistantship for the foreseeable future and navigating some non-academic adventures, like finding out that I’m expecting my first child this April and learning how to tackle the physical and financial changes that this welcome but unexpected news brought on. However, one of the other reasons that I was off the radar for the latter half of the year was because I was fortunate enough to a part of the inaugural class of Cassandra Yonder’s twelve-week core program in death midwifery.

The program was intensive on a number of levels, some of which I anticipated and some of which I was in no way prepared for. Returning to my role as a student in a virtual classroom with a heavy emphasis on community-building, frequent writing, twice-weekly videoconferences, and one-on-one dialogues was initially exhausting, especially since the first part of the course overlapped with first-trimester fatigue. The format of the course was also very different from my most recent student experiences in academia, and while from the outside it might have seemed like I was very well suited to the course format and would have no problem keeping up, I found the opposite to be true.

The traditional academic learning environment, even before the dissertation takes priority, relies more heavily on intensive periods of work towards larger tasks over long durations of time. For example, my graduate coursework consisted of several once-weekly three-hour seminars that involved an incredible amount of discussion, concentration, sustained mental effort, and connection to others in the classroom. Anyone who has ever been in a similar seminar environment knows it is as exhausting as it is rewarding, and although I needed to quickly learn that part of participating in that environment meant giving myself time to recuperate after seminars, I adapted to and thus began to thrive more easily to this pedagogical structure. Similarly, the structure of my qualifying exam year—which consisted of a secondary field exam, primary field exam, and field study—was focused on long, sustained periods of intensive study culminating in one massive exam. Four months of reading and researching was ultimately capped with four hours of writing and, in the case of the primary exam and field study, a two-hour discussion with a designated committee.

The BEyond Yonder Virtual School for Death Midwifery (VSDM for short) could not have been more different. Each week focused on a different module, each day focused on a different component or facet of that module, and expectations for fulfilling the course requirements and contributing to the community environment of the course included daily journaling, daily forum posts and conversations, the aforementioned twice-weekly two-hour teleconferences, and weekly “buddy chats” where we had the opportunity to get to know our fellow classmates and spend time talking about our time in the course. The massive differences between approaching traditional academic labour—long bouts of reading balanced by short bursts of intense writing or dialogue—and this kind of labour was a shock to my system. It became apparent to me almost immediately that I required some sort of structured routine that would allow me to not just cover the readings, discussions, and journaling but to enjoy them and actually experience the benefits of these components. Keeping up with readings was not difficult, of course, but I didn’t anticipate how hard it would be for me to find a comfortable tone and approach to the forum posting and journaling. I also didn’t realize until the first few weeks were over that like traditional academic labour, my success in this course depended a great deal on how well I took care of myself and stayed in touch with how the course content and structure affected my life outside of my studies.

Once I experimented with and got into a rhythm that worked for me—no small feat, I’m afraid, and my contributions in the first few weeks of class were somewhat paltry compared to later on in the course—my engagement with the material and with my classmates increased at a rapid rate. The forum discussions began to feel more natural and dialogic in terms of their formal elements, and I began to feel less nervous opening up about aspects of the course that were not based on the reading: my personal experiences, my affective responses to the material, my comfort levels with certain topics, and gaps in my knowledge. I also became better at targeting what I appreciated about the ideas of my colleagues, building upon those ideas where possible, and offering my thanks for and compliments on those posts of which I was particularly appreciative. The first few weekly teleconferences were a learning curve for everyone involved, I think, both on a technological level and in terms of crafting an environment in which we could all feel connected. However, after two or three teleconference, I found myself recognizing the voices of my classmates and hearing a more natural cadence and conversational tone begin to enter into our discussions. The teleconferences still involved a great deal of critical thinking, and I found it very helpful to keep a Word document open so that I could quickly jot down phrases that resonated with me or things I wanted to look up later without sacrificing my focus on the dialogue. After the teleconferences, I often took an hour or so to decompress and take care of myself after such heady and sometimes personal discussions. This habit was something that I continued throughout the course, and was something that I found my classmates (as well as our fearless leader, Cassandra) encouraged one another to do.

Indeed, that self-care became an integral part of what we might call the “hidden curriculum” of the course was something for which I was very grateful. I quickly observed that as with other emotionally and mentally taxing forms of labour that involve direct contact with people and their stories (psychoanalysis, therapy, social work, birth doula work, hospice and palliative care work, anything in human resources, stewardship in labour organizations, and innumerable positions in activist, front-line care, and community organizations) the work of learning about death and dying, and sharing our stories with one another, was very much work, even if it didn’t always feel like that when we were in the thick of things. It became even more important to me when I started realizing that it was important to have a pulse on my need for self-care based on the topic of my dissertation and various projects that I have taken on.

I began to reflect on certain occasions in my career during which I had been quite ignorant of the effect of my research topics on my emotional and mental well-being, and the ways that I could have taken better care of myself at those times. For example, I became quite physically ill and exhausted after a weekend of preparing a conference abstract on the topic of the circulation of collectible lynching photographs in mid-nineteenth century America. I also suffered a number of symptoms (insomnia, anxiety, and an increase in depressive thoughts) that I now suspect were partially psychosomatic when I was researching and writing my article on executed inmate’s last statements and capital punishment in the summer of 2014. I have noticed that today, as I work on my dissertation topic, there are days when I recognize that the contents of my reading or writing for the day call for more self-care than on other days, and I am more willing now to take steps to address this while still maintaining a steady work pace. Prior to the course, I was not nearly as adept at this kind of reflective work, nor was I willing to take steps to address self-care in relation to my dissertation topic.

All in all, even a few weeks into the course, I was already undergoing some major meta-cognitive adjustments that, while occasionally frustrating and requiring no small effort, were already benefiting me within the course as well as supplementing my skills outside of the course. I was being asked to examine and re-evaluate the relationship that I had with myself as a learner, as a researcher, and as a communicator, and the end result was a better awareness of how my time within the university—especially my first two years of graduate school—had influenced my strengths and weaknesses in these areas.

The course also jolted me out of what I now recognize as a rut or groove that wasn’t really serving my approach to my work on the dissertation. In my next blog post, I’ll be talking about what I think the root cause of this rut was, how I first became aware of the death midwifery movement, why I chose to take the VSDM course when I did, and how my involvement with the movement got my dissertation back on track.