Friday, May 2, 2014

Defense Performances and Adventure Time-y Reflections

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Between reflecting upon college graduation nearly a year later (I can't believe I've had a B.A. for nearly a year now...), watching my roommate struggle, fail, and succeed with her thesis, and witnessing others struggle with their academic environments (whether it be personally or through internet accounts), I sometimes wonder why in the world I want to go to grad school. Why do I care about getting another very expensive piece of paper that officially states that I have some such knowledge in one thing or an other and am qualified for some such possible work, when I already know that my previous very expensive piece of paper promises nothing, assures nothing, and is really a marker of how much I still have to learn than anything else?

Some days I have absolutely no idea. But after attending Ben's dissertation defense, it's easier for me to see why I do want to go back to school.

First let me describe how this dissertation defense worked. Described as a "public defense" and later as a "defense performance," this was not like the standard dissertation event. As I mentioned in previous posts, it was held at the New Bedlam Theater in St. Paul, a wonderful space with brick walls, wooden beamed ceilings, and an almost black-boxy feel with a collapsible stage and workshop-esque design. Then again, that was aided by the chairs set up in semi-circular pods of no more than four in which we the attendees were seated in which to discuss parts of defense (yes, a discussion-focused, interactive, collaborative defense. All ofter dissertation defenses shall forever be ruined for me). And the posters explaining main themes from the dissertation topped it all off, as well as reminding me greatly of the CSCL classed I had that utilized such visual aids.



What was most brilliant about this event was its own self-awareness and self-reflection that took place over the course of the evening. At one point during the defense, a man walked by the windows of the theater, peered in, and knocked on the glass. He walked on towards the front doors and came in. At first, I thought he was a late arrival. But from the way he hovered near the back, it seemed he wasn't. The look on his face is what I remember most - an awed sort look, the kind I imagine I have if I'm floored by a play I'm witnessing. When the other attendees noticed he was there, there was a sort of change in the atmosphere, especially as he walked forward into the seating area, closer towards the stage. During theater performances, I sometimes sense a shift in the air that I struggle to describe, something that happens collectively influenced by the actors onstage and the perceptions of the audience. For instance, a shift between a moment of levity to grimness or darkness onstage isn't felt just by me but apparent in the audience and is intensified by the feeling of those around me (either in their intakes of breath, gasps, or other general reactions, as well as just a change in the atmosphere). A shift of the nature - one that could be felt and seen - occurred as people noticed the man, wondering who he was, what he was doing, if anyone else knew him or not. The man, intrigued by the defense, began replying to Ben's statements, talking about the have and have nots. I think we were all thrown off by the man's unexpected interaction and Ben tried to keep the show going as he'd planned it while trying to interact with the man (which showed that this was not at all planned, unlike I'd initially wondered, as it seemed an interesting articulation of the issues at stake and a moment of improvisation). However, the man kept trying to speak though Ben said he'd get to his questions and comments later, which to the audience likely felt like interruption (I know it did to me, even though I was curious about what the man wanted to say). Eventually, an audience member tried to give the man some materials on the defense and explain what was occurring, then took him outside the theater to talk. I don't know what occurred between the two, but the audience member returned without the man as the event continued onward.

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We discussed this occurrence later in the defense and how it complicated the whole event. In the middle of talking about how to engage with others in an open environment, to reach across boundaries and to be collaborative, there was a moment of difficulty, disconnect, and possibly failure. The event had limitations - people who didn't know how to work with the structure of the event were at a loss and we didn't entirely know to respond to their interruptions. We discussed how we didn't know his name, but that a few of us did know that he hung around the area quite frequently. Despite this potential failure, it was an important capitulation of the struggles to communicate, to create places that are welcoming, organized, and accessible but also lead somewhere - even if that somewhere is a massive tangent - but still have some sort of result. That moment was a giant, "The struggle is real!" indicator and, despite the fact that the man didn't stay, for one moment, something really cool happened. For one moment, that guy looked as if he'd seen something he'd always wanted to see, heard someone voice a concern he'd always wanted someone to announce. And it was freaking awesome.

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What this defense pointed out to me were two main things: accomplishments and possibilities. In a moment of seeing how much a friend of mine had learned and how much of it he was able to teach us, I had a moment of reflection upon what I've done. If you're a regular on this blog or have personally heard my personal criticisms, you'll know I'm hard on myself and the world around me (as I've seen myself show even in just the last few posts). I grew up within expectations of perfection for whatever reasons and, while I still try to eschew them as much as possible, sometimes they end up enveloping me all over again. This event made me remember how important it is to not beat oneself up for the mistakes made, but see them as positive fails and recognize what limitations exist. It also made me realize how much sort of self-described success I have done. In that space where I didn't know many people, I didn't really feel shy or uncomfortable or out of place. I felt like I belonged there and I felt like everyone felt the relatively the same way. Perhaps it's because I'm not as much as introvert as I used to be, perhaps it's because everyone there was just really friendly and welcoming. But mostly I think it was because it was an environment that was structured to be welcoming, to be inviting, to be warm and interactive and pleasant. And because of this, it made others feel successful and thus made the environment more successful, in a sort of interlinking spiral of awesome.

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Then there's the piece of possibility, of what could be by focusing on trying to make connections like the ones described over the last few posts. I touched on how I can see this being pertinent to my work in dramaturgy, and it makes me really happy. Sometimes I wonder if studying Shakespeare is too limiting, if I'm cutting out all of the people who think that Shakespeare is just a dead white guy in a ruff who isn't at all relevant to our lives. But then I realize that that sort of disconnect is exactly what motivates me to keep going, to show that, yeah, Shakespeare might be a dead white guy in a ruff, but he's a whole lot more than that. It convinces me to continue to persuade people that Shakespeare's writing is accessible to anyone and that those who purport it as highly sophisticated and for the cultural elite are only seeing a small aspect of Shakespeare (and haven't spent enough time thinking about Falstaff. This guy is clever and witty but also incredibly crass and vulgar. He's kind of the king of making jokes about bodily functions). Aside from Shakespeare, this thinking persuades me to keep writing, to keep blogging, to keep doing whatever it is I'm trying to do on my rambling tangent-y rabbity road of uncharted expedition. It shows me what can be possible when academic events are not held to some limited notion of what it means to be "academic" but are combined with other elements that can make a dissertation defense feel like a book group meeting mixed with an opening night at a theater or art gala mixed with a reunion of some kind. It shows that my experiences in college, while they may not have been like most, were some of the best I could have ever gotten and saved me somewhat from the warring against academia that many endure. It shows what happens when you focus on the heart and the person in your work and recognize that, as we discussed at the end of the defense, that asking what you are struggling with in your work is important, regardless of what work you are doing.

I've spent three blog posts writing about these because I felt compelled to write about it. It was a super important event for me, perhaps because it finally gave me the distance and also the closeness I needed to see what I'm hoping to achieve in my blogging adventure, my writing, and my application to grad school. As I nervously, anxiously, impatiently wait to hear back from King's, I know what I'm hoping to do, what others are hoping to do, and that I've got wonderful people to collaborate and work with, no matter what.

Also, almost all the photos in this post are from Adventure Time because they just seemed to work.  Thank you, Adventure Time, for existing.

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