The Don’t-Look-At-Your-Watch-Test

Swarthmore’s Honors Program, which, in my opinion, is the crown jewel of the Swat experience, tends to be designed around a series of seminars. Generally, an Honors student takes three seminars in her major and one in her minor. As an English major and political science minor, that means I’ve taken or am currently enrolled in seminars focused on American Lit, Victorian Lit, Shakespeare, and Democratic Theory.

What really defines these seminars, other than their lengthy syllabi, small size, intense focus, and general class camaraderie is the sheer amount of time devoted to each meeting. On top of the very demanding studying/reading required outside of class, each session itself lasts at least 4 hours. Often they last longer, as some conversations (eg. Why exactly is Hamlet so timelessly relevant? Or How can we overcome America’s procedural liberalism without becoming coercive?) can carry on and on and on. This semester, for instance, my Democratic Theory class means on Wednesdays from 1pm to approximately 5pm.

Now, I’ve loved the subject matter of all of my seminars, but four hours is a long time or anyone to sit through an academic discussion. To keep myself on task, I often devise various psychological rewards, like fetching chai tea at the halfway point or switching from blue to black ink.

But something strange has happened during my past few poli sci classes. The first time I’ve glanced down at my watch, it’s been about time to go. In the midst of an in-depth discussion on deliberative democracy, over four hours disappeared without my realizing. I was disappointed when my professor announced it was time to bring our seminar to a close. Where did the time go? Into some academic Shargri-La, I suppose.

Ultimately, it’s moments like this that are motivating me to apply to grad school for political theory.  I want to spend more time not thinking about the time. I seem to have passed the Don’t-Look-At-Your-Watch Test.

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One week to go!

Here at Swarthmore, we are just a week removed from our October break. That means we find ourselves in the midst of midterms, papers, and other mildly unpleasant reminders that we’re halfway through our semester syllabi.

So far, my semesters in Democratic Theory and Shakespeare have been fantastic. I love studying civic engagement and Shakespeare’s plays in-depth, while also, because of the way Swat’s seminars are set up, having a lot of unstructured time to do the bulk of my course reading and writing.

This week, I have the usual smattering of meetings and lunch dates with friends, my weekly volunteering at Swarthmore’s Presbyterian Church, and 2 short papers. Thankfully, I’ll have a bit more time since I’m tappering my running mileage before the INC Hartford Half Marathon next Saturday.  Here’s a picture of me at last month’s Philly Rock ‘N Roll Half Marathon (my first):

1236136_10151942498316474_680227702_nI’ve found distance running to be a rewarding reprieve from coursework during the evenings. It’s been an exercise in goal-setting, flexibility, and endurance–which are good goals for senior year in general. Plus, I can write mental drafts of my poli sci assignments on the treadmill.

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Back in the Swarthmore swing

I am, at long last, back at Swarthmore, and classes begin tomorrow. Well, they officially begin tomorrow, but I have something of an unconventional schedule in that I’m taking two Honors seminars and two directed readings. So while I have extremely long course meetings on Wednesday and Thursday and need to set up time to meet with my professors for the directed readings (likely on Fridays), I don’t have class tomorrow. Such is the flexibility of senior year.

However, tomorrow is already shaping up to be busy. I’ll be stopping by the Alumni Bulletin Office to arrange this semester’s work schedule with my boss (likely not Wednesdays or Thursdays). Since last fall, I’ve been interning with the Bulletin, where I assist with a variety of tasks like copyediting, fact-checking, and some article writing. One of the Bulletin writers contacted me to say she was “greedily” awaiting the return of her interns—which probably means there is a lot of fact-checking to do before the October issue comes out.

I also have several meetings with other students to attend—one meeting to chat with the other student who will be sitting with me on the Educational Policy Committee this semester and another to touch-base with some fellow editors on our new alternative campus newspaper The Swarthmore Independent.

From there, I plan on mapping out some fresh running routes around campus and town and in Swarthmore’s Crum Woods to keep up my training regimen before the Philly Half Marathon, which is in—yikes!—2 weeks.

Tomorrow will also be the day to start my Honors readings. For my Wednesday seminar, Democratic Theory, I need to re-read most of Robert Putnam’s famous political science book, Bowling Alone, along with a few chapters from my professor’s own book, titled Attention Deficit Democracy. As you might guess, this is a politics seminar. As for my Shakespeare class, I’ll need to read Richard III and a few articles.

I’m excited to get back to the meetings, the readings, and the general Swarthmore swing of things.

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Summing up the Summer

I head back to Swat in a week to start my last year as an undergrad. I’ve been terribly negligent in maintaining this blog for the past few months, so here’s an overarching summary of my summer escapades:

My summer of research on Robert Penn Warren has been fairly rewarding and relaxing. I’ve enjoyed making the drive to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale a couple of times a week and getting more of a “feel” for Warren’s poetry. There’s something pretty enchanting about actually holding Warren’s Pulitzer Prizes in my hands or sorting through letters by William Faulkner. The thrills of archive work. Now and then, I’ve been posting some of thoughts on Warren and the research experience here.

In addition to my research project, I also made my first venture to the West Coast on a family vacation to San Francisco and attended undergraduate conferences in Louisville and DC. Here’s a picture of me in front of the San Francisco skyline (and some sort of weird brush) on Angel Island:


Back home in Durham, CT, I’ve been up to the following, in no particular order of importance:

  1. Reading Moby Dick. It’s actually quite a bit funnier than I expected.
  2. Organizing the launch of an alternative Swarthmore publication, The Swarthmore Independent, which will explore campus news and culture from a more conservative/libertarian perspective.
  3. Eating mint chocolate chip frozen yogurt. While I’ve been away at school, it seems as if a dozen fro-yo places have popped up within a 10 mile radius of my house.
  4. Retroactively watching the Sopranos. At some point, I’d think it’d be great fun to write a commentary on HBO’s The Wire and Sopranos from a religious perspective. For now, I’m just entertaining myself.
  5. Running. I’m training for my first half-marathon—the Philly Rock & Roll Half Marathon in September.
  6. Applying to grad school.
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New Historicist Ice Cream

The other day, my Victorian Lit seminar taste-tested “New Historicist” ice cream. That is, an alum who remains close with my professor shipped us 7 pints of high-end ice cream flavors, one of which was absinthe. 

As you might have been able to tell us, absinthe isn’t actually all that great an ice cream flavor, but that cloudy green stuff really did play a role in Literature. Just ask Coleridge. 

I, for one, was a fan of the buttermilk peppermint flavor. Perhaps it’ll be the next big craze among authors. Or just a nice way to take a break during an Honors seminar.


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Researching Research

When I was researching colleges several years ago, I avoided campuses that touted themselves as large “research universities.” Based on my high school experience, I assumed “research” meant labs, petri dishes, and dissecting frogs. I just wanted to sit in the library and read impressive-looking books.

I’m glad I opted for a small liberal arts school, where there is indeed an opportunity to read, discuss, and ponder–but I was woefully ignorant of what “research” really is and the extent to which Swarthmore actually facilitates quite a bit of research. 

Fundamentally, research is about a deliberate method of study and interpretation. It is a conscientious effort to accumulate and (hopefully) share that knowledge. For you future philosophy majors out there, call it a practice in epistemology. 

Now, my more science-oriented friends conduct a lot of lab work as apart of their day-to-day classwork and independent study. In fact, my friends seem to have established a second-residency in their labs, given the amount of time they spend dedicated to their work and discoveries. For research, science students often work under the auspices of a professor but also have a number of opportunities for grants, both over the course of the semester and during the summer.

As a humanities-minded person, I want to emphasize that research isn’t just about high-resolution microscopes. In my Victorian Literature seminar, for instance, we recently visited the Princeton Rare Book Room to check out the Charles Reade collection. Charles Reade was the moderately-known Victorian author of works like Hardcash and is best-remembered for his fierce dedication to the research of his novels. He amassed a vast amount of personal notecards, diaries, and news-clippings on medicine, 19th century slang, and the classics–which he then intertwined in his fiction.

Studying another person’s research practices is a way of consciously thinking about the manner in which we amass and incorporate information in society. These ideas are of particular interest to digital humanists, who collect archived material and organize and share it digitally. Last semester, I spend a lot of time on the Walt Whitman Archive for my American Lit class, where I compared earlier and later versions of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. 

In a nutshell, DH is a way of thinking about interdisciplinary research and teaching, specifically as traditional disciplines–like history, philosophy, literature and art–take on a larger and more cohesive online presence. Through technology, professional curators can organize vast digital archives of famous and not-so-famous historical materials. And because these archives are searchable, curators  also “data-mine” the contemporary ways in which people search, read and interact with classic texts. To learn more, one of my DH-enthusiast classmates recommends the Cuny Digital Humanities Resource Guide as the go-to source.

I’m planning to harness what I’ve learned about research and the digital humanities at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale this summer. The papers of Robert Penn Warren, a prominent mid-century American author and New Critic, are housed at the Beinecke, and I’ve just learned that I received a Swarthmore Eugene Lang Summer Initiative grant for conducting more research on Warren and American Lit during the 1950’s and 60’s.  

I could say quite a bit more about Warren, Swarthmore seminars, and research in general. But for now I’ll just emphasize that research involves a lot more reading, writing, and exploring than my high school self once thought. 

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But what are you really up to?

The “What are you up to this semester?” question often prompts true but generic answers. If my grandmother asks, my response might go something like, “I’m enjoying my junior year and taking a lot of English.” To a Swarthmore peer, I might say, “My Victorian Lit seminar is great, though a ton of work. I’m also taking Modern Philosophy and another English course on modernism. Oh, and I’m still tour-guiding and applying for summer grants.”

These answers are informative, but vague. In an attempt to capture my day-to-day, I’ve decided to list a few of the smaller things that define my Swarthmore waking-hours:

1. I’ve volunteered for a senior’s psychology thesis. Periodically, I receive surveys by email and get candy bars in my mailbox as a small thank-you. I know it sounds silly, but I like taking surveys. Because the Psych Department has such an emphasis on student-led research, there are always opportunities to sign up for studies.

2. I’ve been interviewing some alums from the class of ’83 for a website article on their volunteer trip to Haiti. Four of them were roommates and are now all doctors; they reunited after 30 years while providing their medical expertise after the Haitian earthquake. It’s a nice story.

3. I’m archiving my notes for Victorian Lit. Our seminar is focused on establishing more of a web presence to do our small part in what has come to be known as the “digital humanities.” That means I scan and upload my various notes/doodles/moments of inspiration to our class blog.

4. Paging through Ulysses. Yup, my modernism class is reading James Joyce. Joyce is great, but he can give you a headache….

5. I’m filming Daily Gazette “Quips and Quarrels” political videos with a fellow columnist to increase our newspaper’s multimedia web presence and participate in broad political conversation.

6. I’m organizing my notes on Robert Nisbet. I recently spoke on an academic panel regarding Nisbet’s 1953 Quest for Community, and I’d like to write about Nisbet more in the future.

7. I’m watching HBO’s The Wire. I know I’m a little late to the game, but it’s such a great form of procrastination  Plus, I justify my vice my arguing it’s a TV show with some profound literary implications.

8. I’m planning a Whit Stillman movie-viewing. Stillman is a quirky, under-appreciated director of flicks like Metropolitan and Last Days at the Disco. I’m trying to reclaim his reputation.

9. Sharing my coffee maker. Self-explanatory.

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One of my roles this semester is to sit on the the English Department’s ostentatiously-titled English Liaison Committee. Basically, as an English Lit major, I have the chance to give feedback to the professors in the Department and help design the year-end T-shirts before our spring picnic.

But the Committee is filling a larger role over the next few months as the Department seeks to hire a new tenure-track professor in early American Lit. Seven or eight of us on the Committee, all English majors, have been asked to sit-in on mock lessons that the job candidates give, casually chat with the candiate over lunch, and attend the candidates’ afternoon lectures. Then, after meeting all the prospective professors, we’re asked to give a serious level of input to the Department as the College makes its final hiring decision.

I think this experience says a lot about the culture of Swarthmore, the level of student involvement, and the relationships students establish within their given academic departments.

I, for one, am really honored to be a part of this process. First, it means a lot that the Department is seeking so much student feedback on such an important hiring decision. Truly, I feel I have the opportunity to shape the direction of the Department and, by extension, Swarthmore in coming years. Second, it’s great fun to meet young academics and talk about their experiences in grad school and the job market, especially since I’m considering grad work in English Lit after Swarthmore. Third, I’ve seen first hand how thrilled the job candidates are to see Swarthmore, interact with students, and contemplate a future career here. It makes me realize what an awesome and desirable community I’m apart of. And fourth, the English Dept pays for me to munch on those really awesome potato chips at the snack bar when we take the candiate to lunch. What could be better?

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Eager Beavers

I’m back on campus, and the weather has taken a turn for the chillyyyy.

The not-too-far walk to class has been rather cold these past 2 days but also a chance to don new Christmas scarves.

Sometimes, when I’ve been away from Swat for a little while, it takes a moment to adjust back to Swattie culture. One such example was sitting down at the beginning of my English class “Modern Epic.” The first book on the syllabus–which we’ll be spending about a month on–is Tolstoy’s massive War and Peace. Our professor had recommended we get a head-start on the reading, and sure enough, as I looked around the class, everyone seemed to be a few hundred pages in to their copies of Tolstoy.

I was surprised and amused and, like just about everyone else, ready for the course to begin. Ah, Swatties.

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Winter Break!

I’ve been home since last Friday, and break is indeed refreshing. Reading for pleasure (…not that ancient political texts aren’t pleasurable…) is so much easier on the eyes. Before I left campus, I snapped a few pictures of these impromptu Swattie break plans, scrawled on poster board throughout the library:



They’re a bit hard to read–partly because of my pixels, and partly because of some questionable handwriting. The most popular entries were various travel plans, sleeping, eating and “INTELLECTUAL DETOX.”

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