Tag Archives: graduate school

My experience taking the Ph.D. Qualifying Exams (Part One)

By María Elizabeth Rodríguez Beltrán

Last May, I took my Ph.D. exams, and I’ve got to say, they were a lot of fun. I know that “fun” would not be the preferred word for most to describe the experience of Ph.D. students taking their qualifying exams, and of course, I faced moments of exhaustion, anxiety, and stress along the way. But what follows is a brief account of some of the steps I took to make the best out of my exams. Most of the things I share and recommend here apply specifically to students in the Rutgers Program in Comparative Literature due to the nature of our exams. However, I think that any Ph.D. student who reads this post can benefit from some aspect of the process and preparation.

I was able to develop some practices that helped me create a healthy rhythm before, during, and after my exams because I had three amazing graduate students—now doctors—giving me advice: Dr. Carolyn Ureña, Dr. Shawn Gonzalez and Dr. Enmanuel Martínez, who also went through the same program as I did. They were incredibly generous and kind to share their experience preparing and taking the exams. In different ways, they helped me to organize myself and reduced some of the anxiety that the exams provoke. Thus, all the steps I took for my exam preparation are no more than a combination of their suggestions and my ideas. I am very grateful for their counsel.

I should begin by saying that I am not a very good exam-taker. Ever since I can remember, I tend to freeze when taking anything that resembles an exam or that relates to the word ‘test.’ My mind goes blank for at least the first ten minutes, and sometimes I need to do some breathing exercises to avoid hyperventilating during any standardized test, or even during a class quiz that I know I’m prepared for. I know that many will relate to this feeling. Exams are anxiety provoking for me, which makes it more important to carefully prepare for them and develop strategies that allow me to succeed, without having a minor mental or emotional breakdown.

First, start reading before your lists are finalized. If you know that there are books or articles that must make it into your exam questions and/or project (or that are required, or that you have discussed with your committee at some point), get a head start on them, because the process of finalizing the list and getting it approved might take longer than you think.  After you have your approved list of texts, which you have agreed upon with your advisor and/or committee, make sure you add up the number of pages each book has (or the length of each film). This will help when you create a timeline of what-to-read-when that fits your weekly schedule. For example, if you teach and go to meetings on Tuesdays, you might not be able to read as much as another day when you don’t have to commute to campus. Therefore, on Tuesdays you may choose to read the three 40-page articles instead of the 500-page novel. You will be able to gauge that schedule division if you know the length of your texts in advance.

On note taking: While reading for exams (or for anything really!), I realized that making marginal notes on pages of the text proved to be unhelpful, especially considering that you have a limited time to write down your exam answers. Shawn’s advice was that I type down a few key quotes from each text on a searchable document (Microsoft Word document was her and my way to go!), as well as my thoughts about them. Creating this document was useful when searching for particular terms and connecting them with the respective authors and their texts.

Another piece of advice that came from both Carolyn and En.Mar. was to write down my thoughts on my readings at the end of each reading day. This helped me make connections not only between the texts but also between my own ideas, and it also generated a record of what I had read. This also proved to be useful given that the more time passed, the more difficult it was to remember what I had read. My notes helped later to recall the main arguments of each text, along with my impressions of them.

As you begin to conclude your readings and the exam date approaches, you will start to see which texts are the most pivotal in developing your ideas, and which others will serve the more extended project of the dissertation but not necessarily be cited directly on the exams (because you cannot cite the dozens of texts you read!). This shorter list will help you to make sure you have those texts at hand during the time of the exams, and that you extend that book reservation at the library!

As I explained before, exams are anxiety provoking for me, so knowing this, I decided early on that I needed to take my exams in a space conducive for writing with the least possible amount of distractions. This “space,” of course, might mean different things for different people. For me, as moving preparations had filled my apartment with boxes for a few weeks, at that point it meant a place outside my home but not too far from it. I also did not want to deal with cooking during my exams, but at the same time, I knew I needed healthy meals to fuel me throughout that weekend. Thus, I knew I needed to find a place where I would be provided with homemade meals and snacks throughout the day, and where I could easily schedule moments of rest.

This place also needed to be spacious enough to allow me to change rooms when I needed to walk away from my desk. I found Easton’s Nook, which met each one of my requirements (and more!). I made a reservation for the weekend of my exams a few months in advance and saved enough to cover the costs. Nadine and Jacquie, the co-owners of Easton’s Nook, are simply wonderful. Nadine’s cooking and company made my stay unforgettable and created a peaceful and motivating environment that helped me push through the mental exhaustion that writing for long periods of time can bring.

If for you that writing space means home, a/the local library or somewhere else, make sure that for that weekend (or week) you do meal prep a few days before, so that cooking takes you the least amount of energy and time. Also, make sure that you have some tea and/or coffee around and some of your favorite snacks for in-between meals. A colleague of mine had different family members bring her homemade meals to her writing space at scheduled times during the day, and they did this for the whole weekend. They would leave the food at her door and walk away!—and return to pick up the containers later, so she didn’t have to deal with cleaning either. If you have family or friends nearby, talk to them and see if you can figure out something similar for your exam period. If these are not possible options for you, many food delivery websites now allow you to schedule your deliveries days in advance from your favorite take-out places, and this could also be a possibility. Otherwise, if you plan your time well, you might be able to take care of all aspects of your food yourself, but just make sure you think through your schedule ahead of time.

[Series to be continued]

A Talk on Translation Studies Initiatives

By Coco Xu

On October 15th and 16th, Dr. Yopie Prins, chair of the Comparative Literature department at the University of Michigan and former president of the American Comparative Literature Association, visited Rutgers and gave two talks on the history and current state of Translation Studies at UM.

Dr. Yopie Prins developed her academic interest in translation studies from her Dutch-English bilingual experiences and studies at the University of Amsterdam, where she was influenced by James S. Holms’s book, The Name and Nature of Translation Studies. As chair of the Comparative Literature department at UM, she is committed to promoting critical translation studies at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels. Dr. Prins believes that translation moves not only between languages, but also between different media, disciplines, and cultures.

Utilizing multilingual resources among students as well as faculty members, UM Comp Lit launched a translation semester to publicize translation on campus in 2012, with $20,000 in funding from the humanities dean’s office. The translation semester featured courses, lectures, as well as other translation-themed activities. During the semester, the department offered an undergraduate course—“22 Ways to Think about Translation”— which encouraged students to think about translation across disciplines and in their daily lives. Events that took place during the semester included a global Arabic poetry reading, a public screening of the film “Speaking in Tongues,” the staging of a performance play called “Translations,” and translation contests. In order to make translation visible not only on campus and within language and literature departments, translation semester reached out beyond literary translation and included topics like machine, scientific, and professional translations. A panel  titled “Words without Borders” invited students to discuss translation for a digital age, and a talk by Josh Estelle, lead developer of the Google Translate project and former graduate from UM, culminated in a translation competition between live translators and Google Translate.

Collaborating with language programs and the Language Resource Center, Comp Lit at UM was able to carry out translation projects including the Language Bank, Translate-a-thon, and community translation services. While language programs brought the Language Bank into language classrooms, the Language Resource Center acted as a matchmaker to connect community organizations with student translation volunteers. The Translate-a-thon, a working group for collaborating translators from all departments across campus to meet weekly at Comp Lit, allowed translators to team up and work together to utilize their unique linguistic expertise. The Translate-a-thon at UM proved to be a great success; drawing both graduate and undergraduate students from different departments and disciplines, it grew from the initial 30–40 to over 200 regular participants in just a few years. It has also reached beyond the immediate community, through engaging international Fulbright scholars via Skype and maintaining a support team on an online forum.

Following the successful translation semester, UM Comp Lit launched a Translation Studies minor in 2014. Open to students from all departments, the TS minor builds translation into the language department curricula and promotes more advanced level work in critical translation studies. Through required capstone projects, it promotes experiential and engaged learning and extends efforts of community outreach. According to TS minors, the program has provided them with not only relevant internship experiences but also a chance to reflect on their translation practices.

Beyond the undergraduate level, UM Comp Lit also extends its initiatives in critical translation studies to the graduate level. Absinthe—a magazine published by the University of Michigan Press—provides the platform where graduate students propose thematic issues and publish their translations and critical reflections on translation. The magazine also gives interested graduate students a chance to develop professional skills in editing and networking with writers and publishers. UM Comp Lit also houses a graduate translation workshop centered around a translation club called “Cannon translation review”. Through these working groups and clubs, UM Comp Lit connects area studies departments to form intra-departmental and extra-departmental collaborations among graduate students through translation studies. Similar to the undergraduate minor in TS, a graduate certificate program in TS is offered. Moving forward, UM Comp Lit is experimenting with a post-doc position in critical translation studies and hopes to collaborate with their law school to develop TS projects on translation in the multilingual midwest and translation in and outside of universities.

Dr. Prins’s talk drew faculty and students from all humanities departments at Rutgers. In the Q&A session, Prof Andrew Parker from the Comp Lit program at Rutgers pointed out that over 54% of the student population here at Rutgers speak a different language at home with their parents/grandparents. Learning from the successful experience of the critical translation studies initiatives at the UM, Rutgers humanities departments is also thinking about ways to address the multilingual backgrounds of our population and interests in critical translation studies here in New Jersey.

An International Workshop: “The Social Lives of Keywords: Lenses on China”

By: Lina Qu

In January, I participated in the international workshop “The Social Lives of Keywords: Lenses on China” in Hong Kong. The four-day workshop from Jan 9th to 12th was a preparatory meeting to produce the inaugural volume for the Chinese-English Keywords Project (CEKP). As encapsulated by its initiator, Professor Louisa Schein (in Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers), CEKP is “a growing global network of scholars interested in tracking the multivalence, conceptual incommensurabilities, and generative gaps that emerge when key concepts travel between English and Chinese.” The project has garnered substantial interest from transnational academia, and recruited a good many world-known scholars from the United States, Europe, mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan to contribute to its multivolume publication. The goals are to capture the heterogeneity of keyword meanings as they migrate between sites and social contexts, and to take the “social lives” of keywords as lenses on China.

Since 2016, I have been selected to be one of the core members of the growing project. I moderated at the International Symposium “Conceptualizing Ethnicity—Why China is Different from the U.S.” at Rutgers and shared my work at the two-day workshop “Keywords in Social and Cultural Theory.” I was also included in the roundtable “The Social Life of Keywords: Embracing Conceptual Dynamism between Chinese and English” at the international conference of the Association for Asian Studies in 2017. I was appointed the editor-in-chief of the bilingual newsletter of the Chinese-English Keywords Project. We have produced and circulated the inaugural issue last August.

Sponsored by a grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, the Hong Kong workshop followed upon the previous workshop at Rutgers in March 2017, and provided a precious opportunity for global scholars in China studies to convene and discuss key concepts and theories on the theme of “ethnicity (minzu) and nation (guojia).” The fourteen participants were Zhang Yinong of Shanghai University, Naran Bilik of Fudan University, Guan Kai of Minzu University of China, Cheung Siu-woo of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Tim Oakes of University of Colorado, Boulder, Pal Nyiri of Vrije University Amsterdam, Charlene Makley of Reed University, Chen Junjie, Luo Yu of City University of Hong Kong, Megan Steffen of Tsinghua University, Derek Sheridan of Brandeis University, Louisa Schein, Qu Lina, and Kao Ying-chao of Rutgers University. I was honored to be one of only two graduate students invited, the other twelve members including established scholars and senior professors in humanities and social sciences. The workshopping was organized with an innovative methodology: drafts of preliminary entries on one keyword or a pair of keywords were circulated ahead of time, and then, at the workshop, members of participation not only made suggestions to each other but also collectively built the entries. Drawing on their own experience and expertise, respondents offered other meanings, sources, histories, and personal or professional anecdotes to be considered and incorporated into the entries. Each entry was presented by its “curator,” brainstormed with the whole group, and further developed in the breakdown group discussions. The method of outsourcing deployed in the process of developing each entry mirrors the social life of keywords, which derives its momentum from the diversified, contextualized, and even personalized usage of language.

Besides the fourteen participants, local scholars also contributed a great deal to the success of the workshop. In the afternoons of Jan 10th and 11th, Hong Kong professors were invited to the group discussions: Barry Sautman and Yan Hairong of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Chen Juchen, Ling Minhua, and Wu Ka-Ming of Chinese University of Hong Kong, Travis Kong of Hong Kong University, and Lucetta Kam of Hong Kong Baptist University. They offered valuable insights on the theoretical framework, publishing strategy, and potential readership of the keywords project, as well as flagged intriguing new keywords in their own fields of study. The brainstorming session in the afternoon of Jan 11th sparked animated discussions and paved the ground for the second volume on the theme of “gender (xingbie) and sexuality (xing).” Working with index cards, all the participants spoke out and wrote down relevant keywords in both Chinese and English, and then categorized them into different but interconnected topical groups.

The workshop was held at the beautiful Royal Park Hotel in Shatin district, with wonderful catering services. As a hub of global cuisine, Hong Kong offered us an amazing range of choices in dining. Whether at the hotel breakfast buffet, the Cantonese restaurant, or the dessert bar, the participants made it a great venue to exchange scholarly insights, as well as to build personal connections. The workshop concluded on a friendly and happy note, with each of the members being rewarded with fruitful new thoughts, unforgettable memories and a durable network of committed colleagues.

Graduate Student Summer: Studying in France and Japan

By: Penny Yeung

Find other posts by Penny Yeung here

Since my interest lies broadly in the 20th century novel, particularly in Chinese and French contexts, and also in considering the theoretical framework of global modernisms, one of my goals for this past summer was to learn more about the initiatives that brought Chinese youths in unprecedented numbers to France at the beginning of the twentieth century. With support from the Mellon Summer Grant, I was first able to spend two weeks in Lyon doing archival research at the Fonds chinois housed at the Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon.

The Fonds chinois has a fascinating origin. It came into existence in large part thanks to the library collection at the Institut franco-chinois de Lyon, a short-lived higher education initiative funded largely by the remittance of Boxer indemnity money. In its years of operation, between 1921 and 1946, 473 Chinese students matriculated at the institute. They pursued studies in a variety of disciplines from the natural and social sciences to the humanities, but also for those who, to the administrators’ chagrin, arrived on their doorstep demonstrating lackluster command of the language of instruction, high-school French. Among the wealth of documents available at the archive, there are individual student files and completed theses, correspondence between students and the administration regarding academic progress, sometimes lobbying for better student welfare, and occasionally, intriguing memos from the French authorities querying on the political involvement of individual students.

The Institut envisioned itself as contributing to the education of, to the farthest extent possible, a biculturally literate elite, much like similar initiatives already in place across the Atlantic, in the United States. In this regard, the Institut also distinguished itself apart from the Diligent Work–Frugal Study Movement, another means through which many Chinese youths at the time went to France. In fact, the institute’s policies caused disgruntlement among many a young worker who failed to gain admission and hence, in today’s parlance perhaps, to “switch (immigration) status”. My time at the Fonds allowed me to gain a better understanding of the Institut’s operation and its situation within a larger historical and political landscape. I was also able to peruse works written by and on several individuals who intrigued me particularly, including Maurice Courant, professor at the institute and whose prolific scholarship played a role in introducing Chinese, Japanese and Korean cultures to the French scholarly context; and the Chinese poet Dai Wang-shu, often regarded as one of the pioneers of Chinese literary modernism, who was a one-time student at the institute before his expulsion and whose translated works from the French include Paul Van Tieghem’s La littérature comparée (1931).

Following Lyon, I attended Middlebury’s French immersion program held in Paris. During the six weeks, I took three courses, on the History of French Cinema, Paris through 20th-Century Literary Mirrors, and the History of Paris in the 16th and 17th Centuries respectively. The program was composed on average of four hours of class time in the mornings; afternoons were spent in the library completing readings and assignments, and attending weekly topical workshops and city excursions. Among the various excursions offered, including historical and literary walking tours, my personal favorite was a guided tour at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF), located across from Bercy on the left bank of the Seine. Besides getting a look at behind-the-scenes operations such as how books are transported to the respective reading rooms, the tour provided a trove of informative fun facts. To name just two, I learned how the garden—the botanical centerpiece at the heart of the library complex—was effected by way of arboreal diasporic movement, and how the BnF’s upper deck, rendered notoriously slippery in the rains, became baptized as the Esplanade des Invalides. (And oh, there’s also a story about rabbits loose in the library.)

Finally, I am most grateful to the program in Comp. Lit. for the additional funding I received, which enabled me to wrap up my summer with two weeks of Japanese language study at the Yamasa Institute in Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture. As I continue to work towards fulfilling my language requirements, I look forward to the new literary imaginations and research pathways this may open up.

Graduate Student Summer: South-South Dialogues Towards Transmodernity

By: Rafael Vizcaíno

                                                           Picture by: Jeong Eun Annabel We

Continuing the decolonial dialogues of the previous two years (2015 CPA Summer School, 2016 Barcelona Summer School), during the summer of 2017, I traveled to South Korea with two main goals in mind: 1) to enter a dialogue with decolonial-oriented scholars in East Asia by participating in two international conferences on Latin American studies; and 2) to find out more about the influence that a current of Latin American thought (liberation theology) has had on the history of South Korean political activism. I met scholars from across the world, with whom I was united in our mutual commitment to decolonial praxis in research and activism. The ensuing discussions and encounters with them persuaded me of the necessity to frame my own work within a larger South-South planetary dialogue. I am now convinced that such dialogues across relational experiences of colonization are a requisite to understanding and overcoming the workings of modernity/coloniality – both the object of study and activist target of decolonial praxis – not in the disavowing sense of (post)modernity but in the transformative sense of transmodernity.

At the 9th Conference of East-West Intercultural Relations, subtitled “Global South, Latin America, and the Luso-Hispanic World,” hosted by Seoul National University in South Korea, several specialists and advanced students in Latin American and South Korean and East Asian relations were gathered to uncover the many ways in which the divergent elements of Latin American culture and history have been represented and assimilated into South Korean and East Asian cultural protocols – our very own Professor Nelson Maldonado-Torres was the conference’s keynote speaker. My participation in this conference concerned an analysis of the ways in which Caribbean women of color feminist thinkers such as Mayra Rivera and Jacqui Alexander complicate and challenge the academic secular/religious divide across disciplinary boundaries. These writers suspend our inherited onto-epistemic categories that presuppose a certain (modern/colonial) partitioning of lived experience. Through such a maneuver, their respective critical politico-intellectual projects, their similarities and differences notwithstanding, effectively puts forward a decolonization of the secular/religious divide within a liberatory framework. My aim in presenting this part of my work in South Korea was to lay the foundations for a critical understanding of Korea’s anti-colonial and anti-dictatorship politics in relation to similar politics in Latin America.

Such bridge building across experiences of colonization led me to take advantage of my stay in Korea to further investigate the extent to which Latin American liberation theology has influenced the history of Korean political activism. Born in the late 1960’s, liberation theology has been influential in post-colonial regions of the world and their diasporas. A fact that has yet to receive strong scholarly attention, however, is that Latin American liberation theology curiously manifested a strong impact in South Korean democratization struggles in the 1970s–80s, particularly over the ways in which South Korean Christian organizations and theologians read the Latin American theological project via their own socio-historical context, eventually resulting in the development of a Korean Minjung theology. My findings gesture towards the need to strengthen the intellectual, historical, and political, bridges that unite Latin America and East Asia as spaces of resistance against the impositions of the rhetoric of modernity and the logic of coloniality. This is a long-term project that is part of the larger South-South dialogues towards transcending the modern/colonial status-quo, including the secular/religious divide across disciplinary boundaries that thinkers like Alexander and Rivera so powerfully challenge.

 Rafael and Fadoua El Heziti (Hassan II University - Morocco)
Photo by: Nelson Maldonado-Torres

Before departing from Korea, I had the privilege of additionally participating in the Latin American Studies Association of Korea annual conference. This was an opportunity to deepen the focus on the dynamics of the ongoing efforts to construct South-South dialogues between Latin America and East Asia. At LASAK, I presented my work on the concept of double translation as articulated by Walter Mignolo, arguing that double translation is a practice that should be made explicit in South-South dialogues that seek both the affirmation of subjugated knowledges and ways of being in the world, as well as the transcendence of Western modernity as an experiential totality. Double translation accounts for a process of transculturation that takes place on a plural egalitarian horizon beyond the empty universality of Western modernity. Mignolo takes as an example the development of neo-Zapatista thought articulated by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) in Southeast Mexico, formed by the mutual transformative encounter between Marxist and Indigenous cosmologies. Unlike the unidirectional translation model of Western modernity (e.g. Christian missionaries in colonial Latin America), double translation does not seek to absorb difference into the same, but instead enacts a pluriversal impetus illustrated by the Zapatista dictum “queremos un mundo donde quepan muchos mundos.” This entails that as we come together across different geo-historical positionalities towards the construction of an-other world, we need to be attentive to our categorical epistemic presuppositions, as well as to the hierarchies of power that exist within the protocols where these dialogues are taking place, such as the university. Otherwise our dialogues would not be premised upon an ethico-political equality and thus would collapse on the unidirectional model of translation.

I would like to thank Professor Maldonado-Torres and the remaining of my doctoral committee (Professor Yolanda Martinez-San Miguel and Professor Carlos Decena), for their intellectual support during this summer and the times a venir. I would also like to extend my gratitude to my interlocutors and new-found colleagues in South Korea and the rest of the world, for their generosity and hospitality – in particular, Professor Suk-Kyun Woo. Special thanks go to Professor Ji-Yeon Yuh, for encouraging me to pursue my comparative research on Korea.  At last, I am indebted to the Rutgers University Program in Comparative Literature, as well as the Rutgers University School of Graduate Studies for materially supporting my summer research and conference participations.

Connected Academics Workshop at Comp. Lit.

By: Gabriele Lazzari

On Thursday, March 30th, students and faculty from Comparative Literature gathered to attend a workshop, organized by Tara Coleman and Carolyn Ureña and titled “Becoming Connected Academics: Career Diversity and Comparative Literature.” Both Carolyn and Tara have recently defended their dissertations, and have been fellows of the MLA Connected Academics Proseminar, an initiative that this blog has been covering since its inception.

The purpose of the workshop was to discuss with students and faculty the valuable work that the Proseminar has done in the last two years of introducing Ph.D. students to various career paths after graduation. The first misconception that was addressed during the workshop is the negative connotation often attached to the label “Alt-Ac” (Alternative Academic), which some still perceive as the alternative (read, second) choice, unwillingly accepted by those who fail to land an (increasingly chimeric) tenure-track job. Tara and Carolyn stressed instead that students should think of other paths as leading to equally legitimate and potentially satisfying careers. Most importantly, they explained how the Connected Academics Proseminar has offered them instruments to reframe their academic and non-academic experience so as to be competitive in a wider job market, highlighting that the skills we usually associate only with a job involving teaching and research can be valuable assets also outside academia.

The workshop stimulated a lively conversation among its attendees. It was noticeable that Jerome Kukor (Dean of the Graduate School-New Brunswick) and Dorothy Hodgson (Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs) decided to participate. Their brief interventions emphasized the importance of an organic interaction between Rutgers administration and the graduate student body for the promotion of career diversity. More than anything else, support from the different Departments and the Graduate School is of vital importance to the success of graduate students, regardless of what career path they end up choosing.

During the workshop, effective ways of exploring jobs and entering the “alt-ac” conversation (as early as possible!) were discussed. Carolyn and Tara presented with great clarity and enthusiasm the objectives and structure of the Proseminar, offering students extremely valuable instruments to start exploring on their own, as well as practical suggestions. Among them: attending panels and networking events organized by the Proseminar each year at the MLA Convention; understanding the importance of social media (particularly LinkedIn and Twitter) in building an eclectic and appealing profile; reading job ads to assess what skills we might already have and which ones we would need to work on.

In this regard, Tara and Carolyn pointed out that each field a graduate student might be interested in (NGOs, publishing, not-for-profit agencies, foundations, administrative roles within academia, etc.) has different requirements and expectations; once again, getting acquainted to them early on is crucial. Realistically, this might require extra-work during our graduate years (volunteering, internships, collaborations etc.) but the payoff–being able to choose a career depending on one’s affective, economic, and intellectual needs–will be surely worth the effort.