[This is a guest post by Aimee L. Pozorski, an associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University. She is also the president of the Philip Roth Society, and is completing a book on trauma in Roth's later works. Previously, she posted at ProfHacker on "The Secret Link Between Refinishing Furniture and Academic Research."]
Last year, for the first time, I was invited to teach a two-part course to juniors in our university’s Honors Program that would help them with their honors thesis, the program’s capstone project. The sequence is numbered Honors 440 (Thesis Preparation) and Honors 442 (Thesis Workshop); the former is offered in the fall, and the latter is offered in the spring, along with Honors 441 (Honors Thesis): a one-credit course all students take with an advisor in their academic major. My bit, then, involved supporting students through the process of writing the thesis, while their content advisor would oversee the project with a focus on his or her disciplinary expertise.
In the beginning, I thought I had the entire process figured out: I reasoned that, if I assigned such books as Charles Lipson’s How to Write a BA Thesis, Gerald Graff’s and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say I Say: The Moves that Matter in Academic Writing, and Joan Bolker’s Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, then everything would just kind of fall into place. However, it soon became clear to me that, as Honors students, these students already had a pretty good handle on how to do research and write an extended argument. What they needed from me, more than lectures and workshops about how to write, were anecdotes and advice about how, emotionally, to survive the feedback process.
By the middle of the second semester, I have to admit, the books kind of fell to the side; students spent time not simply work-shopping their writing, but—more informally—talking to one another and to me about how to handle their advisors’ scathing remarks, and—even before that—how to overcome the fear of submitting a chapter they had worked so hard on to their most valued and critical reader. It then occurred to me that, for all the book-learning I received in graduate school, I didn’t get much advice about how to handle criticism myself. Maybe it’s just something you take long and hard enough that you learn to live with it. I do have some pretty vivid memories about being tested during my oral exam and my first couple of conference presentations—not on whether I knew the subject matter (it seemed clear that I did), but whether I (as the new kid in the room) could stand up to the pressure of a challenge and come back fighting.
It is interesting to me that academics don’t have a tradition—like film and music, particularly the rap industry—to draw on that invites criticism and teaches the come-back or confidence necessary to submit one’s work to external review. Even medical television shows reveal a kind of mental toughness required to do the job of an RN or MD well. (As the director of graduate studies during my M.A. program once said, at the height of ER fame: “Never will we see a nail-biting drama called T.A., I can assure you.) When I was in graduate school, I remember watching Eminem in 8 Mile verbally sparring with other rappers [YouTube link] about whose talent would stand at the end of the party. Certainly, there is a huge tradition in rap circles that supports such bravado. And not just rap music, of course. Lately, I have been listening to the Band of Skulls song, “I Know What I Am” [YouTube link], which features the mantra: “I know what I am/ they know what they are/ so let me be” before putting my work out into the universe—for praise, sometimes, but mostly for criticism. But, that, too, is basically a song about musicians, and other bands—another in a long line of the musical tradition of one-upping the other, if anything, to put oneself at ease.
In the absence of such a tradition in academia, I put forth an unlikely source: the 2003 Pixar short Boundin’ [YouTube-like link] by Bud Luckey. I know it well because I watched it over and over in 2005 with our then 15-month-old after he broke his little leg playing soccer in the park. That there’s a certain irony about having a child immobilized in a cast watch a song about “rebounding”—that features the image of a lamb bouncing all over the place—hadn’t occurred to me until just recently.
I have to admit that, toward the end of Honors 442 in the spring, when there was time to take on lighter subjects but also when these projects would be submitted in their entirety to the academic advisors, I screened Boundin’ for the students—not to take a break, simply, but to begin a conversation about what it might mean for academics to share something with the world (or even an advisor—and then the world!) that they’ve worked so hard on, only to be blindsided by criticism later on. It has happened to me more than once in my career, and it takes a toll. I still am not sure how to prepare students for this part. Maybe there is no way to prepare. I confess that I watched Boundin’ not less than five times before sending out my latest book proposal. And I listened to Band of Skulls. This is not a problem of skill, but of confidence. For help, then, I look to Bud Luckey.
The allegory is pretty clear, I think: A lamb with a coat “of remarkable sheen” takes pride, not only in his coat, but also his dancing and prancing. Then comes the rattling of a rickety wagon, the rain, and a moment that can’t even be articulated: the sky turns black, the voice says “then one day,” and stops, and we see the lamb shaved down to the skin. The confidence is gone. He says, “I used to be somethin.’” He is stripped bare—the equivalent of being criticized for something one feels so invested in. He can’t go on.
But then is my favorite part: The “Great American Jackalope” comes “bounding” in and shakes the lamb out of his sadness: “You still gotta body, good legs & fine feet; you get your head in the right place, and hey, you’re complete.” He shows the naked and vulnerable lamb a way out of the despair and frustration with the words: “Just get a leg up and slap it on down and soon you’ll find you’re in what’s called a bound…bound…bound and rebound.” (Of course, the whistled tune in the background doesn’t hurt either!) The short film ends with the passing of seasons: the lamb grows his coat back and loses it and grows it again and loses it again. The process is cyclical. The narrator tells us: “He learned to live with it; he didn’t care.” Of course, this is easier said than done. It is incredibly difficult to live with criticism about our work; but it is also a fact of life, as true as the turning of the seasons.
What’s interesting to me about the film is that it begins with the announcement: “Here’s a story of how strange is life with its changes”; it ends with the lesson: “Now in this world of ups and downs, isn’t it nice to know there are jackalopes around?” Granted, Boundin’ is about both of those things, but it is also about what happens in between—the need to get a leg up and slap it on down and to keep on writing and revising and submitting and revising some more.
I hope I conveyed this adequately to my honors students this year. They all finished their projects, at any rate. They submitted their theses to their advisors on time. And they all left the class with their own Jackalopes in mind: supportive readers who are as much help with the thinking process as with the emotional roller coaster ride that is submitting academic work.
I wonder sometimes if there will ever be a genre of academic writing that functions like rap. Can you imagine the scholars you know screaming out, in response to unexpected criticism at academic conferences: “I know what I am, they know what they are, so let me be.” It sounds a bit defensive, actually, and I believe that often, we do need to hear the criticism we take. However, there has to be a way to make the skin toughening process easier for our younger set—and for our younger, fragile selves, no matter how old we are. Without another model, I submit to you here—the very summer Pixar has outdone itself with Toy Story 3—the mantra that has gotten me through the peer review process more than once in the last seven years: bound, bound, bound and rebound.
[Image by Flickr user nagillum / Creative Commons licensed]