The ultimate test of cerebral fitness*

It has been nine months since my last entry. In my defense, it has been a crazy year. I am at Miami International Airport and this is the first chance I have to write, it feels good.

You see, I was busy finishing and defending my doctoral dissertation, which was a very difficult but rewarding process.

As soon as classes started in the Fall I was having my twice weekly coffee with Irene, my director, to finish and fine tune each chapter. At the same time I was teaching two classes: Advanced Intermediate 204, a new class for me, and Intermediate 203, my “standard” class. Oh, and I had to write an academic article if I wanted to have any chance of applying for a university job. On top of all that I had to prepare my job search, but those items will have their own blog entries.

The work only got more intense in the spring. I was assigned an extra class from the regular Spring load of one section, this one teaching Advanced Spanish at the Gillings School of Public Health. I had to give up my volunteering shift at the Ronald McDonald House, as well as cutting down on the number of concerts and plays I went to (although I did not totally give that up).

April was when the proverbial rubber met the proverbial road. Finishing and editing my dissertation and going to job interviews. Spring Break was anything but break, driving to Charlotte and flying to Florida for job interviews.

But everything came to a head on April 8. That morning I spent two and a half hours locked up in a conference room with four of the professors on my committee, and Ana Rueda from the University of Kentucky looming over all of us, Skyping in on the massive screen, like a science fiction overlord, only much nicer and sweeter! I also had like ten spectators: old students, friends, including Mandey from Zog’s, my friendly librarians Teresa and Becky, and colleagues that came to give me moral support. Poor things, they had to endure my grilling session.

I passed. Walking out of the meeting, feeling exhilarated but exhausted and numb, I had a message on my phone. Seacrest Country Day School in Naples Florida – my top choice for work – had made me an offer while I was defending my dissertation. Coincidence? I think not.

After defending I thought things would slow down, wrong again. I still had to do edits on my dissertation, dress up as Don Quixote for a marathon reading celebrating the 400th anniversary of his death, chair a panel at our Carolina Conference on Romance Studies, teach and wrap up my four years in Carolina. My mom and my little sister came for my hooding ceremony and we had a blast. After that I moved to Florida and had only enough time to dump my boxes before heading back to Spain for my nephew’s First Communion, which explains why I am sitting at the airport now.

*with thanks to Murray Head from his song One Night in Bangkok

Summer recap and back to school

Well, it has certainly been a different summer, and I am happy to be back to my boring, monastic Chapel Hill lifestyle. When I was a child summers went on forever, but now they are like the weather in Boston, you blink, and its over.

Madrid was home base for the summer, although this year I rarely got out of the house other than to grab a coffee in the morning and around the block to the gym in the afternoon.

My ten days in Greece were my real break. Caught up with old friends, made new friends and enjoyed my beloved old Greece with its special sunlight, and sea, and food.

We passed July in the country house at La Navata where I spent the mornings on babysitting duty for one, two or all three of my sister’s children. We would walk down to the village to buy bread and the newspaper and to have a coffee – Cola Cao – chocolate milk for the kids. During the afternoons I would work on my dissertation, finishing chapter 3. There were a couple of excursions: one to El Paular Monastery and the nearby hills, and of course a couple of visits to El Escorial with my dear friend Paco.

Another highlight of the Summer was having my sister and her two oldest here in Chapel Hill for a fortnight! We had a blast! (see previous blog post).

And then I had my 50th birthday. Well, at least it was better than my 49th, this time I did not get arrested for speeding. To celebrate, I gave this old blog an upgrade! So now it is http://www.antonioyrocinante.com without ads or Wordpress’ promotions. But I must confess it was difficult to pass my first birthday without my father.

Classes started three weeks ago, so we are back to the grind. I am teaching a section of Spanish 204, Advanced Intermediate, the first non required class. Mostly students that want to major or minor in Spanish. It has 12 great students. The downside? Class is at 8:00 am. My other section is Spanish 300, which is Composition. Of course you can’t have a course where you only write, it is like the guys at the gym that have these explosive upper bodies but Tweety Bird legs, as my cousin Arnold would say, so I have to work on integrating all facets of language development into the class.

Start of school also means that I have to get going on my dissertation again. I am starting the fourth – and last chapter (I still have to write the intro and conclusion). I am very excited, but this also means that I will not have much time to blog.

My other project, as I have mentioned before is getting a job for next year, as this should be my last year at UNC. I hope to defend my dissertation in the Spring. As is normal, I have mixed feelings: Of course I want to finish and see what the next chapter in my narrative holds, but on the other hand I love Chapel Hill and UNC and my friends and colleagues here.

So for now it is over and out from Chapel Hill.

WordPress upgrade

Three years down, one to go (hopefully)

Within the last month I finished my third year of my PhD studies and Chapter 2 of my dissertation, so I finally got to updating my poor abandoned blog, only to have the Greek internet swallow the blog post I have been writing for the last 10 days (more on that later), as if it were a multi-billion Euro loan from the European Central Bank. So, back to the old drawing board.

My sixth semester has been very intense. All semesters are intense, but in different ways. This was my first semester dedicated 100% to writing my dissertation and it was a new dynamic for me. I find writing, especially in the academic style very difficult, every sentence is a challenge, and then it gets corrected by my director and sent back for retooling. So it feels like one step forward two steps back. But eventually every page gets cleared after a few drafts, so it is very rewarding to make progress.

My volunteering has also been very exciting. The volunteer coordinator at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill asked me to participate in their Annual fundraising gala, this year the theme was Disney’s Aladdin… and I was Jafar! They were nice enough to let me keep the costume so I re-used it for the Romance Studies end of the year party, which this year was themed as “Happily ever after” i.e. your favorite storybook character.

Other highlights of the year to which I will dedicate blog posts were:

Being a Graduate Research Consultant for my Thesis Director’s undergraduate literature class.

A plethora of cultural events: music, ballet, theater…

The French Department had me teach French for High Beginners. It was a challenge but also great fun.

I was the Department’s soccer coordinator for the year, or as I re-worked it: The Romance Studies Sports and Wellness Coordinator.

This Spring I presented at a conference at the University of Maryland and at our own home grown Carolina Conference on Romance Studies.

All this and more will be coming your way soon, so stay tuned!!!…

Wes and Woody

I’m waiting for my Thesis Director to go over my most recent dissertation scribbles, so I take a rare break from writing my dissertation… to write my blog!

Back in the short period between my prospectus (see previous posts) and starting my dissertation, before Christmas, I actually had time to watch a few of films, and I loved them both.

Wes Anderson has been one of my favorites since his Rushmore (1998). I love how he weaves a narrative with all these eccentric, maybe a little bit broken, chipped characters. His latest is The Grand Budapest Hotel, about the concierge (Ralph Fiennes) in an old school grand hotel somewhere in Mitteleuropa. The humor is woven into the narrative, sometimes with a big old slapstick brush, sometimes with a nuanced, detailed, subtle touch, and of course the whole spectrum in between. I have been known – back in the day, to have gotten kicked out of movie theaters for laughing when nobody else laughed, because I caught some tiny wink of humor. Wes Anderson keeps doing that for me time and again. Although nowadays I fortunately do not get kicked out of theaters.

When we were kids I remember spending summers at a place like that, the Gran Hotel Camp de Mar (which is now a gaudy monstrosity). Talk about old school. I even remember when one of the guests died and it was all hush-hush, but not really. So it really struck a chord with me, remembering the grand old dining room, the old furniture, everything.

Within the arc that is the narrative of the story, every detail of every scene is perfect. Every character, every costume, every prop, every line, you name it, it is perfect. Which of course contrasts beautifully with the eccentric, maybe a little bit broken, chipped characters.

Wes Anderson is, of course, building on the shoulders of giants, particularly those of Woody Allen. I did get all caught up on his three latest movies (that is how behind I was on my movie watching): Midnight in Paris (2011), From Rome with Love (2012), and Blue Jasmine (2013).

Cate Blanchett (who was also brilliant in Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, 2004) nails her Jasmine. The film really got me thinking about how we delude ourselves, and how we see people around us that fool themselves to amazing depths and do not want to acknowledge it. From Rome with Love was fun, and I was happy to see Allen reprise Penelope Cruz in this film. But it was Midnight in Paris that I enjoyed the most. The magic of 1920s Paris in the 21st Century, Owen Wilson, who is also in the Grand Hotel Budapest (Adrien Brody is also in both). Maybe it is because I lived in Paris for a summer and inevitably fell in love with the city, maybe because it has one of Woody Allen’s best narratives in a while. Whatever, it was magic.

Wrapping up another semester, #5

Part of the problem with being an eternal optimist is that one always thinks things are going to be easier than they are. This last semester is a good example. The semester started off uphill, with me losing my washer and dryer (see previous post), getting a speeding ticket, and more importantly having to finesse my doctoral committee and getting my prospectus approved.

The exam was on November 7. You can read my previous post about it, but is was at the same time a grueling yet highly enriching experience. That afternoon I celebrated by playing soccer with my colleagues (more on that later) and then by going to see Benjamin Britten’s opera, Curlew River, inspired by the Japanese Noh theater (more on that also later). And of course, after all that by having a drink (or two) at my favorite bar, Zog’s.

After passing my exam I slumped into a bit of a post prospectus depression. My next goal is defending my dissertation, but that is not planned until the Spring of 2016. So all of a sudden I was without an immediate goal. This required some getting used to. I could finally, after three years, watch movies (more on that later), or enjoy dead time. That first Saturday I celebrated with a glorious breakfast at my favorite breakfast place Ye Olde Waffle Shop, and waltzing around Chapel Hill as if I owned it. Stopping at this store and that, hanging out at the old bookstore, and the museum.

As always teaching is my passion and this semester did not disappoint. I taught two sections of Intermediate Spanish 203, one of them in the Philosophy building. This allowed me to enjoy their philosophical bathroom graffiti.

Nature abhors a vacuum, so I soon changed my rhythm and got busy. I talked strategy with my professors to attack the dissertation, Prof. González Espitia named me to be a grad student editor of the department´s literary journal Hispanófila, and I started to prepare my dissertation by re-visiting the first four works of my beloved Padre Isla.

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PROSPECTUS (and its defense)

Apologies for my prolonged silence. Getting my prospectus passed took some time. As you can imagine, maintaining my blog was not a priority. But that hurdle is over with, so I can tell you all about it.

The prospectus as I have said somewhere before is the document that says what you want to write your dissertation about, so it is kind of a big deal. Getting your prospectus approved requires a few pieces to fit together like a good Swiss watch:

First you must get five professors to be your PhD committee*. This step requires strategy, finesse and diplomacy. You want to have experts from your field that know what you are talking about and experts from outside your field that know how you should be talking. You want to make sure that you know these professors and that you can work well with them (and that they can work with each other). I cannot say how blessed I am with my committee, it is an all-star team! Like the 80s Celtics. My director is Irene Gómez-Castellano. I love her enthusiasm, her vision, knowledge and overall awesomeness. We meet once a week for coffee, and those meetings more often than not run well over an hour. During that meeting Irene will go over whatever I have written, whatever I have read, and whatever I have to read and write, and then we connect the dots, and talk strategy.

In alphabetical order my next professor is Frank Domínguez. The guru of Medieval Spanish lit. There is little I can say about him that has not already been said. He literally wrote the book on Medieval Spanish lit. More than that, he is an awesome editor, advisor, and scholar. But most importantly he is the nicest person: patient and understanding.

Juan Carlos González-Espitia is basically the reason I am at UNC. If you go back on my blog to when I visited UNC for the first time, he is the professor that welcomed me, showed me around, and gave me excellent advice. Although Prof. González-Espitia is a well-known 19th C. Latin American scholar, he is now spending more and more time on the 18th C. How lucky could I be? And how perfect for my committee.

Prof. Rosa Perelmuter is an authority on Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, I have been working with her for three years now. I love her critical eye, her honest advice and how she knows everything! And to top it all off, she is hilarious.

Ana Rueda is a world renown 18th C Spanish Lit. scholar. She is the head of the department at University of Kentucky. In an uncanny and wise move, Irene asked me to pick up Prof. Rueda at the airport when she came to give a presentation at UNC three years ago. Little did I know that she would one day sit on my PhD committee. Although I have stayed in touch with her since then, to get to know her better, I recently read one of her books: Cartas sin lacrar: la novela epistolar y la España ilustrada, 1789 – 1840. If you scroll down you can see all the places I read her book!

At the same time as your team is set up, your prospectus should be ready. I started working on this document in July so by August I had about 60 pages! I had to cut it down a bit to 40 pages – which is probably still a tad long, but it will all percolate into the dissertation anyway so it is ground already covered. You can find my prospectus attached in case you have problems falling asleep. A couple of pages of this is better than a handful of Ambien!

Of course the real magic happens when you put the dissertation committee in a room with the prospectus and the poor author of said prospectus. For me this happened on Friday. Prof. Rueda came in loud and clear through Skype and there I sat for an hour and a half while we reached two main conclusions: I write like a horse’s ass (which of course was not a surprise for me, sorry if you are reading this) and second, Padre Isla uses more than satire in his work, and I should embrace all his narrative techniques. This second bit is a massive relief as I was having a tough time limiting myself to the satire and I was struggling with the definition of satire.

There you have it, if you are lucky you get to pass your prospectus defense, and move on to writing your dissertation…

(Remember that this is an uncorrected document. If you are going to use it, cite it)

* This is at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill Department of Romance Studies

Balson Prospectus 10-1-14

Cartas sin lacrar waiting for Rocinante's check up

Cartas sin lacrar waiting for Rocinante’s check up

Cartas sin lacrar at Five Guys

Cartas sin lacrar at Five Guys

Cartas sin lacrar at the Carolina Inn

Cartas sin lacrar at the Carolina Inn

Reading Lists – and the exam that follows…

Reading is hard work, you just can't see it!

Reading is hard work, you just can’t see it!

Patxi at the old and used book fair at El Escorial

Patxi at the old and used book fair at El Escorial

Many of my followers have asked me about the reading lists for my Ph.D. and what is all the fuss about. So here is a brief description: I have finished my first year of the Ph.D. program where I had to take classes. This year, is devoted to preparing for my Ph.D. exam which should be in the Spring of ’14. The exam is based on three reading lists. My first list is XVIII Century Spanish satire, where I have to read about 20 or 30 books of primary reading and another 20 or 30 of theory and critical reading on the topic. My thesis director, the wonderful and extremely patient Prof. Irene Gómez Castellano will guide me with the reading. My secondary or complementary list is on Medieval Spanish satire with the same amount of reading. Prof. Domínguez, the generous and equally patient God of Medieval Spanish literature (seriously, he wrote the book on  it!) will help me with that.  And the final list has to be a transatlantic one. American lit. students have to study a Peninsular topic and vice versa, so I will be reading Colonial lit. with the extremely knowledgeable, razor-sharp but funny Prof. Perelmuter. The exam consists of a morning oral exam with the three reading tutors and a weekend written section with a question for each list. Passing that exam would make me All But Dissertation (ABD) and I have two years to research and write my dissertation.

So I have spent most of my summer (and my summer money) reading and finding books that will fit my reading list. I have toiled in used book stores around Spain breathing musty, old books. I have found some gems, and some that I could not afford, original prints and such. Many of the books I need have long  been out of print, and finding them is a bit of a hit or miss game. I found a handful of books a couple of days before departing Spain at the annual old and used book fair in El Escorial! By the end of the summer I had fifty-four books – enough that I had to fill a second suitcase, albeit a small one. All these are a bit less than a third of the books I need. If I add some books that I already have, I might have, at best, less than half of the material I need to read by April/May… will keep you posted. For now, it is time to get back to reading!