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Master’s Essay

Conference Travel, Graduate English, Master's Essay, Opportunities for Graduate Students, Student Research

Bringing the Love of Romance to a Conference on Militarism

Taya Sazama completed her degree in the Fall of 2016, but has continued to attend conferences to present her Master’s Essay research. As a graduate student, Taya took advantage of our teaching mentorship opportunity, and was also the recipient of our $1,000 student research grant, which she used to attend the Historical Romance Retreat in Spokane, Washington.

One of the most difficult transitions post grad-school is attempting to move on from your thesis project back into the “real world,”  For months—and perhaps longer—you have immersed yourself in your research.  For me, it was romance novels and the community of women who read and write them.  Not only were these the only texts I had read for well over a year, but all of my thoughts seemed to constantly churn over related ideas, to-do lists, and questions I needed to ask my advisor.  This obsession only seems to gain momentum as graduation nears and you prepare to review, submit, and defend the project to your committee.  It took me months to actually read something other than romance after I graduated in December 2016.  I intended to pick up something new right away as a sort of celebration, but romance had almost become an addiction and I struggled to get past the first few pages of any other book.  Finally, at the beginning of April, I read A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and I felt cured.  Don’t get me wrong—I still love romance novels.  But it was definitely time to take a healthy break.

Now, in contrast with the urge to break up with your thesis project, there is also the strong desire to hold on tightly to what has almost literally become your baby.  For months it has kept you up at nights, you were constantly changing it, and you had almost no social life because it demanded your undivided attention.  How can you just abandon it now?  The question of what to do with my paper began to plague me even before I graduated.  Sure, there is the goal of publication, but the path on how to get there is not always clear.  What I chose to do, and what I highly recommend, is to present your work at a conference.  Sure you can easily do this at St. Thomas, the U of M, or some other local university, but what I propose is something that, for many of us, is far outside of our comfort zone.  Go somewhere where nobody knows you—where nobody knows your research—where no one from your school is presenting.  This will give you the best chance at testing your ideas out in the scholarly world, getting fresh ideas and testing your conclusions in a way that cannot happen in the comfort of your own academic circle.

At the end of last October, an email came through with the following title for a conference taking place the following spring at Texas State University: “Century of Conflict: Dialogues on Women, Gender, Intersectionality, and Militarism. This event will provide a forum for diverse perspectives on work around issues of gender, ability/disability, veteran status, and intersectionality.”  As I was currently in that obsessive state with my project, I immediately emailed my advisor for confirmation that I should, in fact, do this.  After getting the green light from her that it was a good idea, I put together an abstract and sent it off, feeling rather pleased with myself.  Unfortunately, those good feelings quickly dissipated when I received my acceptance email post-graduation. At that point, I was trying unsuccessfully to break up with my thesis and was genuinely annoyed with myself for wanting to attend a conference in March, almost four months after I should have been done with my paper.

Yet, even with all this anxiety, I can assure you that this experience turned out to be one of the most rewarding of my academic career.  One of the biggest benefits to participating in this conference was that it forced me to evaluate my own conclusions with an eye towards seemingly dissimilar topics.  What quickly became apparent once the symposium began was that the conference, and almost all of the other presenters, were focusing very heavily on the militarism side of the conference topics. In fact, as I glanced through the titles in the program, mine seemed to be a glaring outlier.  As the morning sessions of the symposium progressed, I found myself panicking a little – How was I going to relate my project to all of these discussions on war and female soldiers in the military?  I imagined what the reactions of my audience members would be and could already see their confused faces as they wondered how a scholar on romance novels was admitted to be a presenter.  Silently chastising myself for getting into this predicament, I began to quickly brainstorm how to salvage what I assumed would be a disaster.  Thankfully, my dire predictions did not come true.  In fact, I was able to walk away from the experience with some major connections between my conclusions and the issues raised by the other presenters.  In additions, the questions and positive comments from an outside circle of academics did much to encourage me in my research.  They helped to validate the importance of my work while also providing helpful criticism and suggestions for further research.  Best of all, I was invited to submit my paper to the university’s academic journal on women and gender.

There is no shortage of opportunities at which to present your research.  I would urge all graduate students, especially those who are nearing the end of their programs, to seek out places where they can push their boundaries.  As much as I recommend presenting at local conferences—because any practice is helpful—there is almost more to be gained by widening your sphere.  It will help you to look at your work with fresh eyes and to really gauge the potential it has for publication.  So, fight the urge to fully break up with your thesis immediately upon graduation.  Take it somewhere new, but explain that you need an open reading relationship.

Graduate English, Master's Essay, Student Research

The Construction of Utopia: More, Columbus, and Ever Since

CClog680My research for this capstone project began in one serendipitous moment: an oversized book in the library stacks caught hold of my elbow as I walked by. The protruding offender was The Log of Christopher Columbus (1492-93), a text that documents Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. Columbus carefully recorded in the ship’s log, among other things, detailed observations of the geographical formations and spectacular social interactions with the Arawak (Taino) Indians he encountered in the Caribbean islands in 1492. Intrigued, I sat on the floor and read it cover to cover and placed it back on the shelf.  It wasn’t until the following semester in Dr. MacKenzie’s Renaissance class that I noticed echoes of the ship’s log in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516).

More, who coined the word utopia from the Greek “ou” (“not) and “topos” (“place”), created within the human imagination a place or state of things in which everything is perfect and yet, because it is perfect, ultimately unattainable. Utopia, meaning nowhere, stands contrary to Columbus’s somewhere; and yet, placed side-by-side the two texts show uncanny similarities on many levels.

Generally, the two texts align in style, form, content, and function. However, even certain puzzling ambiguities in Utopia, ones that have been swirling around in critical circles for the last 500 years—the abundance of glass; cloaks and bird feathers; incubation of poultry; two doors to each house; and so on—can be linked to the writings of Columbus. This perspective suggests that Columbus’s ship’s log acts as the impetus for More’s masterpiece. In short, I explore More’s Utopia as a text through which history becomes recognizable.

britishlibrarysign320In January 2015, I was lucky to be in London where a first edition of Utopia, published in 1516, is located. But first, in order to see the rare copy at the British Library, I had to jump through a few administrative hoops: apply in advance for a Reader Pass; provide a special letter of intent from our Graduate Program Director; reserve a Reading Room; reserve the text for a specific day and time. The whole process was fascinating and worth it! I sat at the designated Rare Book table (under the watchful eyes of a librarian) staring at Utopia—literally staring, since the original was written in Latin. Nevertheless, it made me wonder about the life of the text and more urgently, perhaps, how we understand the term utopia today.

In my research, as the spirit of More’s Utopia emerges from Columbus’s descriptions in 1492, utopia (the concept) proves trickier to trace. The utopian concept develops through five centuries of utopian/dystopian literature, art, ideologies, and so on, arriving in its current role as something of a touchstone we refer to when we describe the perfect setting, people, or society we know can never be, paradoxically filling both a hopeful and melancholy space in our lives. It represents conditions and ideas that may complicate our natural way of thinking, frustrating our views of current society and governance.

In the English lexicon, utopia (the concept) shifts easily into a socio-political safe haven protected by virtue of its non-existence.  For if we believe the concept always to be impracticable and unattainable (brought only to our attention through More’s imagination) then what viable thought spaces allow for us to radically confront our present social structures, governing methods, and ideologies? In other words, what matrices allow for imaging a possible alternative existence if the very paradigm itself is inherently self-defeating? Somewhere along its history, utopia (the concept) possesses the ability to constrain, or even shackle, our boundary-less imaginations and, more importantly, our propensity to act on them.

What emerges from my interrogation is a distorted understanding of a concept that began as a reproduction of the real. To clarify this interpretation, I implement Jean Baudrillard’s theory of the simulacra to illuminate an evolution of the concept of utopia that has seemingly detached itself from history. Perhaps “perfection,” I argue in my essay, in the utopian sense today should be simply eliciting the latent realization of illimitable possibilities. 


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After graduation, Lindy Hensley is relocating to Denver, Colorado where she plans to pursue teaching opportunities. Beyond academia, her continued interests revolve around theater production.