Coming Off the Pedestal

I’ve done a lot of reading in the last ten months. A lot. And in the course of that reading, I found myself going through an interesting process. I learned things. I found theories and scholars I had never heard about before, but they made heaps of sense (very exciting!). I eagerly lapped up what they had to say. I put them up on a pedestal. I read more stuff. And more. And one day, I found myself disagreeing with a Great Scholar. Just on one small thing; I shrugged it off. I read more, and learned more. And thought more. And I disagreed again, this time more strongly. And repeatedly. As I kept learning, my ideas changed. Not only did the pile of books on my desk grow, my thinking did, as well. And now here I am, nearing the end of my studies, and I have – opinions. Okay, I know anyone reading this who knows me personally is laughing now – I’m not exactly known for my scarcity of opinions and shyness in expressing them, in a general way. But now I have opinions on a particular subject, which came from actually studying it. I do, in a small way, have something to say about folkloristics. Perhaps I’d even go so far as to call myself an embryonic folklorist – or maybe just, like some, a fairy tale fan. And as such, I disagree with some of the Greats in the field, on a few things.

Okay, with one Great in particular (I’m sure you already know where this is going): Jack Zipes. I first started reading him back in September, on my prof’s recommendation (and very grateful I am for that recommendation, too). I was thrilled, I loved what he had to say. And really, he is great. The amount of insight I got from his writings is quite staggering. I was wishing I could go study under him, but quite apart from the fact that he was working at the University of Minnesota, which is a long ways from here, he’s retired now. Too bad. I kept getting more of his books out of the library, and then bought my own copies for keeps; they’re that good. But as I kept reading, amid all the wonderful stuff I was learning I ran across points where I didn’t like what he was saying. The first thing was his disparaging opinion of Harry Potter. I was ready to make excuses for him – he’d been pushed into expressing an opinion, he wrote about the series when it was only half finished, etc. But then I delved deeper into the study of fairy tale film adaptations, and got a hold of one of his latest books, The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy Tale Films (2010). And as I kept reading, some of what he was saying kept rubbing me the wrong way. I found myself getting annoyed with his dismissive tone, his hypercritical and condescending attitude to particular popular culture products. And finally, here I was, just this afternoon, reading the chapter on Beauty and the Beast and Frog Prince adaptations, and I was loudly disagreeing with half the chapter (“That’s baloney!” “Gimme a break!” – yes, I know I’m weird, but my family is used to it) – that’s when I wasn’t rolling my eyes at what he was saying. That’s right, the guru has come off his pedestal.

Don’t get me wrong – I still have enormous respect for Dr. Zipes, and probably 95% of his writings are excellent. But there are certain topics where I just find myself at odds with his opinions, and they are just that, opinions. Specifically, it’s dealing with popular culture where my ideas clash with his. Now, as I mentioned before, I’m not a big Disney fan. I’m not sure if any real fairy tale buff can be. But Zipes, it’s like you mention the name Disney, and the shutters come down. “What good can come from Disney Studios?” Nothing, apparently. By definition. He goes into enormous raptures about the Cocteau Beauty and the Beast, which I personally find so-so (okay, I’m hampered by my lack of French; I can only follow the story with the subtitles, but still, I don’t quite know what the fuss is about), but the Disney version, which I love, is in Zipes’ opinion pretty much despicable. The feminist themes in it are a sham, the whole thing is same-old-same-old Disney flatness, the music is trite, etc etc. In fact, reading what Zipes says about it, I can’t help but get the feeling that as soon as he sees the name “Disney” on a screen, he doesn’t even bother paying attention to what he is watching, because his mind is already made up. Some of the comments he makes about the movie are plain old wrong. For example, he says that the Beast rescues Belle and then dies in her arms, which is baloney – the Beast’s battle with Gaston is for his own sake, Belle is neither threatened nor anywhere close by at that moment. Dismissing a text for something that’s not even in it is, I’m afraid to say, just shoddy scholarship.

On the other hand, I found myself slightly amused to find that Zipes is very much in favour of films that came out of the old Eastern bloc countries. Now, I do agree that the Czech and DEFA (East German) films are pretty fabulous. But perhaps it’s not a coincidence that a scholar whose work is based on the ideas of the Frankfurt School (a form of Marxist scholarship) likes movies from communist countries? And dislikes anything that is commercially successful such as Harry Potter and the Disney empire?

About the only movies I find myself agreeing with Zipes on, other than the Czech/German ones, are the Shrek series. Well, he can appreciate their subversiveness and humour, because DreamWorks isn’t Disney. The subversiveness of Disney’s Enchanted, on the other hand, doesn’t count…

So those are some of the thoughts that ran through my mind this afternoon as I was loudly arguing with Dr. Zipes in an empty room. He’s come off the pedestal I stuck him on (entirely unasked for on his part, I might add). The learning curve of finding a guru, and then un-finding him again, has been interesting. It’s an empowering thing to be able to look at what even the greatest scholars say with a critical eye, to find in yourself the temerity to disagree with authority.

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You Just Need to Look Long Enough

Another thing I’m learning in the process of research: if you look long enough, you can find someone to agree with you on just about anything.

I’m working on my Children’s Lit paper, and I’m looking at the portrayal of Hermione in Harry Potter. Now, at first glance, the HP books are sexist (as I mentioned here), and that’s one of the beefs Jack Zipes has with them. So I was reading some more material on that, notably one book called Females and Harry Potter: Not All That Empowering, by Ruthann Mayes-Elma. It’s a piece of hand-wringing about how the females in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Hermione not excepted, have no agency, and how the Harry Potter stories reinforce patriarchal thinking. Now, it annoyed me, reading that, because I don’t want to think of the Harry Potter novels as bad, anti-feminist, and child-corrupting (even though I had already formulated my preliminary thesis along those lines). My own gut reaction to the novels is that they are empowering, not suppressive.

So I continued digging, and hit the jackpot. Not only are there two great essays on the topic, I found a book called Hermione Granger Saves the World: Essays on the Feminist Heroine of Hogwarts, edited by Christopher E. Bell (it’s got a charming picture of a squashed-face ginger cat on the cover, just like Hermione’s Crookshanks). A whole book about just how feminist the Harry Potter stories really are! I’m looking forward to digging more into that. Oh, I also found out some interesting bits: Hermione is not only modelled on J. K. Rowling herself (she said so repeatedly), but is named after several historic or literary characters, from Greek mythology through Shakespeare to D.H. Lawrence. And apparently they were all strong women.

Incidentally, the same thing happened with a book on C. S. Lewis which I found annoying, David Holbrook’s The Skeleton in the Wardrobe. It’s a Freudian interpretation of Lewis’ fantasy stories, which Holbrook apparently can’t stand. It didn’t take me long to find scholars who refute Holbrook quite emphatically, including one who says that “in this case the use of evidence is driven all too often by the axe-grinding urge” (Colin Manlove, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Patterning of a Fantastic World. New York: Twayne, 1993, p.20). My sentiments exactly.

So, conclusion: in research, you just have to dig deeply enough, and you’ll turn up something you can quote with impunity. If you don’t like the answers, look again, you’ll probably find better ones. And chances are, whichever scholar you’ve found agreeing with you has already thought things through a lot better than you have – well, at least that’s the case for me.

How To Write a Term Paper

1.) Pick a topic. Find something you’re interested enough in that you won’t end up hating it after having completely immersed yourself in it for weeks on end.
2.) Vaguely think about it off and on while you do the other assignments for your course, hang around on Facebook, and read murder mysteries in your off time.
3.) Hit the library. No, wait – first hit the library’s website, and surf around, following improbable rabbit trails through the jungle of Library of Congress Subject Headings.
4.) Repeat step 3.) on Google. It’s amazing the stuff you can find – say you’re researching Austen film adaptations, you might find out that Jennifer Ehle played some other costume drama with Jeremy Northam, and that she looked a whole lot better with her hair natural, rather than that dorky wig they put on her for the 1995 P&P. This step can occupy you for a long, long time.
5.) Go to the library and pick up the two dozen books you ordered in on your topic. Stack them around your computer.
6.) Panic.
7.) Send an email to your prof, whining about not getting ahead. Try to change your topic a time or two.
8.) Procrastinate.
9.) Panic.
10.) Get several pads of sticky notes, the real skinny strips, preferably fluorescent-coloured. You need them to mark sections you’re going to quote in the books. Don’t even THINK about actually highlighting library books, or even just underlining stuff and making notes in pencil. You will be smote by the library gods. (I’m sure there are some. Some Greek gods of libraries? And they’re very smiting, believe me. Especially after having had their powers enhanced by my righteous indignation at all those scribbles and markings in the margins. Grrrrrr…)
11.) Repeat step 4.)
12.) Go on the library website, pull up the databases the library subscribes to, and repeat step 3.) Save about three dozen references in a special folder. The next day, go back and open every single one of those .pdf files which will all have titles like 678459q84.pdf, and rename them so you can actually recognize them when they’re closed. Go back into the databases, repeat your search, then actually save the references to the files you’ve found. Export them to RefWorks.
13.) Panic.
14.) Eat copious quantities of snacks.
15.) Start reading. Or at least, open those .pdf files, and skim over the contents. Highlight interesting sentences, even if you have no clue what the author said on the page before or after the quote. (Yes, you may highlight. The library gods do not care about alterations of electronic files.)
16.) Crack open the covers of those library books, and follow the general principle of step 15.), replacing “highlight” with “sticky-note”. You may write on the sticky note, if you manage to not draw outside the line and accidentally write on the page of the book. If you do the latter, you will be smote.
17.) Procrastinate.
18.) Panic.
19.) Feel put upon.
20.) Pace.
21.) Open several text files in your favourite writing program, such as Scrivener. One will be your main text body. Another will be random notes. Scribble down everything and anything that came into your head when you were doing all that pacing, procrastinating and panicking (see, they have a purpose!). Copy and paste quotes you want to use from the .pdf’s; swear at the fact that Adobe Reader won’t let you copy something you’ve highlighted. Go back and pull a clean .pdf off the net, so you can copy and paste from it. Manually copy quotes from the hardcopy books. Throw all those citations randomly into your notes file.
22.) Sleep and eat. Don’t panic too much at this point, it interferes with sleeping and eating.
23.) Whine at your family and friends about the stress levels you’re under. Tell them what you’re writing about (it helps. See “pacing, procrastinating and panicking”). Stop telling them when their eyes glaze over.
23.) Open your notes file. Sort your ideas into a semblance of sense. Cut and paste the quotations, and stick them in the right categories.
24.) Panic.
25.) Open your text body file in one window, your notes file in another. Take a deep breath. Start typing.
26.) Keep telling yourself “Just write, just write, just write – you can edit it later – just write… yes, this sounds awful… just write…”
27.) Make sure to frequently hit “save”.
28.) Repeats steps 22.), 23.), 24.) – 27.) as often as needed.
29.) Include in-text citations as  you write, or leave them to the end, as you choose.
30.) Read over what you’ve done. Fix the really glaring nonsense (if the wording makes you gag, chances are your prof won’t like it either).
31.) Boot up RefWorks, pick the four references you actually used of the three dozen you saved, and build your Works Cited list. Manually enter the reference information for the hardcopy books.
32.) Copy and paste it to your text file.
33.) Pick a snappy title for your piece.
34.) Export everything to the file that will be your final paper file.
35.) Spellcheck and format your paper. Swear at the word processing software which does weird things with margins and fonts, and insists on spellchecking in US English instead of British or Canadian. No, I do NOT want to change “colour” to “color”!
36.) Hit save.
37.) Have a glass of wine or two to celebrate. Go sleep.
38.) Open the file, read it over. Shake your head at all the mistakes you’ve missed. Fix them. Make sure all your citation information is correct and shipshape.
39.) Save everything to a few other files, just to make sure you don’t lose it. Give the files an academic-sounding name. (No, “Bob” won’t do.)
40.) Read the paper over again, just to be sure.
41.) Address an email to your prof; attach the file. Quadruple-check that you’ve actually attached the file and aren’t sending him a blank mail. Hover your mouse pointer over the “send” button. Take a deep breath, then another for good measure. Panic mildly. Click “send”.
42.) Abandon yourself to The Euphoria of Completion.

There you have it – Forty-Two Steps to Writing a Term Paper. Well, they work for me, anyway. You’re welcome.