The people of academia (The good the bad and the ugly)


The beautiful, wise, awesome, funny Prof. Valis presenting her novella at UNC

My dear Kierkegaard explains how a person’s life goes through three stages. Simply stated: the young aesthetic where everything revolves around the ego, the more mature ethical stage where we concern ourselves with what is right and wrong and hopefully and eventually the religious stage where with some wisdom gained from pain and loss, we realize that it all boils down to love and giving and forgiving. These three stages of maturity are evident in academia. You find the young guns that know all the big words and trendy phrasing to write brilliant articles and books that say very little, but show off their brilliance. The ethical writers where everything is correct but boring, and a handful of scholars that “get it” and go beyond the big words or the correct arguments to delve into the spiritual.

Of course if you are in the aesthetic phase yourself, then you cannot see beyond the ego and the writing that caters to that. You think that the young, hip professor is the bee’s knees. It takes time, but more importantly spiritual growth that will only come from hardship to get to the religious phase.

During my time in the upper echelons of academia, I was able to experience this division in the quality of scholarship. Seeing these ego driven scholars, it is easy to understand the anti-intellectualism in vogue in certain social circles.

Flip the coin, however, and you find some of the nicest, most brilliant, most humble people around. I was blessed to have had some of those enlightened folks in my department and in my doctoral committee. I also got to meet some fantastic professors that came to present their work at Carolina.

David William Foster is one such fellow. Never mind that he is the Regents Professor of Spanish and Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State and President of the Latin American Jewish Studies Association, blah, blah, blah. He is a deep, brilliant, understanding person. I was honored to show David around UNC’s beautiful campus and then we went to lunch with two other colleagues. I did not want that lunch to end! It was funny, insightful, thought-provoking, just a pleasure.

Another such person is Noël Valis. Yes she works at Yale and has published a shelf full of books and articles, but more importantly, she “gets it” she understands humanity in all its difficult intricacies, our weakness, our idiocy. I was working on my dissertation most of the time Prof. Valis was at UNC, but I eventually managed to go to her presentation of her own book of fiction: The Labor of Longing. After that intimate and enlightening (sorry to use the same word twice) chat I had the privilege of showing her around campus. For a glorious North Carolina autumn Friday afternoon we walked and talked and I did not want that walk to end, I kept adding bits to our tour, until I had to let go of her.

I could go on and on about marvelous professors that enrich academia and the world. I have already talked about the ones on my Doctoral Committee on other posts. On the other hand I could also talk about ego driven, academic climbers, more interested in publishing their work than on what is really in that work. Unfortunately not all the latter will eventually become the former.


Enjoying one of Noël’s books with a cafe con leche.


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

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

What have I learnt in my PhD so far?

You might ask: All this talk of PhD blah, blah, blah is very nice, but what have you really learnt in two years of school?

Academically I have learnt about Medieval Spanish Literature, about medieval authors distancing themselves and their work from the divine works. In Spain the Libro de buen amor is key in playing with the divine and the more human aspects of life. I have learnt about colonial authors like Juan del Valle y Caviedes or Mateo Rosas de Oquendo, even Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz criticizing the Spanish abuses in Latin America using satire. And I have learnt about the massive changes that came along in the 18th Century and how books were agents and mirrors of this change. I have learnt about the evolution of literature, how so much of our literature is basically founded on ancient Greek and Roman literature (and to a lesser extent to Middle Eastern and Asian / Indian literature). I have learnt to connect many dots in literature, but I still have so, so much to learn, which is another thing I have learnt!

Ha, not bad for eight lines! Let me know if you want to know more I will be happy to oblige and bore you for hours!

On other levels I have learnt to be more discerning and critical in my reading, to read more “between the lines”, to interpret, to be more critical of my reading. This is very enriching.

I am in awe of my professors: Irene Gómez Castellano, Frank Domínguez and Rosa Perelmuter, their knowledge of their fields, the breadth of their knowledge, their generosity with their knowledge and time. I have been blessed to work with them and I hope someday to be a little bit like them.

Overall I have spent over two years of my life preparing for this exam, reading every moment that I have been able to: during breaks in concerts and plays, during breakfast, lunch and dinner, at the Harley Davidson dealership, at my bar Zog’s, in every library and corner of the university, at the Carolina Inn after Sunday mass, at the Ackland Museum (after the Carolina Inn), on my porch – smoking cigars, at Five Guys eating a burger, at my coffee shop (the Daily Grind at the Student Stores, expensive and slow, but a superior cup of coffee and the staff is great!) etc., etc., etc. Passing these exams is the highlight of my career so far.

Keep Calm and Read

Keep Calm and Read

Graham Memorial

Graham Memorial


Carolina Inn

Carolina Inn

Harley dealership

Harley dealership

Wilson Library

Wilson Library




Some Coffee Shop

Some Coffee Shop

Five Guys

Five Guys



Medieval Wild Women

That’s right. That is what I researched and wrote about last semester for my Medieval Spanish Literature class. No, these are not drunk girls on Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale, and they are not drunk girls in New Orleans’ Mardi Gras. Philistines, lack of academic rigor… If you want to know about them, you will have to read on,

Having taken only one class this last semester, I only have one essay to show. As usual, remember that this is a rough, rough draft, so use at your own discretion and remember to cite. This work has not been published in a peer reviewed journal, or in any journal, for that matter. I hope you like it, as I did put an awful amount of work into it. If you do like it please comment, if you do not like it, I do not need reminding what a hack I am, thank you very much.

oh, BTW it is all written in Spanish.

Serranas Marcela puente

At last an update!

Well, I wanted to update the blog during Thanksgiving but was so busy with work, the turkey came and went without me blogging, blah.

You see, this is my first chance to update my blog this term. This has been because it has been a crazy semester. By a scheduling error I was made to take 4 courses instead of the standard 3. This has made life more difficult than it had to be, or should be for my first semester.

Medieval Spanish was fantastic! Professor Frank Dominguez is the Man, he waltzes into class and lectures, rather chats nonstop for 75 minutes on Medieval anything, but of course mostly literature. He knows everything, he literally wrote the book on Medieval Spanish literature. He is open to questions and he knows the answer. Even when we go off topic he continues to know everything. During office hours he is always available and incredibly helpful and humble. I am really enjoying this class. Dominguez early on saw how I was always looking for the evolution into the Renaissance at every point, and now we joke about it in class at any opportunity.

In Old Spanish we are learning about how Spanish evolved and how it went to America and then how it evolved in America. We do research and a different group presents on their research every week.

I also took Film Theory, which had very little to do with a Romance Language course.

Italian is fantastic, unfortunately with my other classes I do not have the time to devote to memorizing all the details that learning a new language entail. The class is mostly undergrads and the professor Katie-Nicole is great, so I look forward to the class although I wish I had time to prepare more. I have great classmates: Stjepan is a smart and funny Croatian American from Long Island and Maddie is a brilliant and hilarious Musicology PhD candidate.

All this leaves me with literally no time. The first week of school I went to a women’s soccer game and after I felt so guilty about wasting time that I have not returned to any more games because I have to be studying. Basically I have about 500 pages of reading per week, plus presentations and writing.

Chapel Hill is wonderful. It is a quaint little town, but thanks to the university it is a thriving quaint little town. I have a little routine and I love it. I can go hide in the museum if I want and just stare at the Goya prints or any other great painting. Or I can go to the botanical garden. There are good coffee and sweets, necessities for anyplace I live. There are many places to read and study, of course, I can’t tell you where they are.

There is an excellent, friendly dive bar to soak, the Zog, where the team: Mandey, Jedd and James take care of me and we can talk about silliness, or Borges or music or whatever.

I can and do walk to church every Sunday, and after mass I cross the street to the Carolina Inn for a cup of coffee and to read.

I can walk anywhere and I do. The cinema is $4.00, although I have only been to see Sacha Baron Cohen’s The Dictator, when it came out in the summer.

My life is very monotonous and I love it! I study and work out, little else. My colleagues are great but they are much younger so I do not hang out with them a lot. I like my little life.

In summary, I cannot wait for next semester where I hope to have a little bit more time to enjoy, to reflect and digest what I am doing. It looks like I will be taking Women in the Golden Age, XVIII Century Peninsular novel and a directed study with Frank Dominguez on narrative in the middle ages, pre-Golden Age!

So it is now time to morph this blog into a more academic place to reflect what I am doing, so I will post some of my work in case anybody needs help falling asleep. I will post stuff as I handed it in – this will give the reader a realistic, raw quality of reading.