Archive for February, 2007

Comps and RoCoCo or Dialectics of the doctorate

Friday, February 23rd, 2007

Things are happening. I have a date for my first comprehensive exam. Or a near date. Sometime in the first two weeks of May. How it breaks down is this:

First you compile a reading list in a particular area of interest – 30-35 texts or so (by “text” you are to understand: books, book chapters, journal articles). Seems simple, only if A. you’re not entirely sure of what area, exactly, you want to investigate or B. that area is not self evident (e.g. really reflects your interests and is thus not out of the CMNS 101 playbook) then you’ve got a challenge ahead of you.

Next, you “define the field”. I love this phrase: it seems so clear, so straightforward. Just say what it is that you will be studying. But if you haven’t read everything on your list (which you haven’t) then how on earth can you define the field or subfield that it comprises?

Third, you read till your eyes are bleeding out of your head and your brain is mush, its container (your skull) permeable, with information and thoughts – from the mundane to the sublime – slipping easily in and out and mostly elusive.

This is where I am right now.

Then, you write the exam. In my case, 2 (or is it 4?) questions over 2 days.

Ted Hamilton gave me a euphoric description of this process yesterday, and he literally said it was the time of his life. But, clearly, his comps have that afterglow memory tends to acquire – especially traumatic ones (childbirth, for example). What Ted was describing in elated yet reverant tone was giving me a panic attack (writing for 16 hours a day? I don’t think I’m capable). I’m not kidding: my chest started to tighten; my heart, to thump. I wanted to catch his excitement, perhaps even build some anticipation (rather than dread) for this inevitable moment, this rite of passage. But it was all I could do to keep the wobble of a smile affixed to my face and not pass out. Ted offered to lend me his notes – 1700 pages, bound, if that helps. I nodded yes, but what I really thought was that their weight would carry me to the ocean floor when I flung myself off something into the watery depths.

It is a fuck of a lot of work.

I thought I had a handle on it, but thanks to Ted’s enthusiastic account of his heady comps-writing days, I feel I am sunk. And I know that wasn’t his intention. And I have a sneaky suspicion that on that glorious day where my own exams are relegated to memory, I will be extolling their virtues to another poor, floundering doctoral student.

In more fun news, I’m going to RoCoCo Montreal, also known as Recent Changes Camp, or just plain old BarCamp, as we say around these parts. I think it will be supercool (I can’t wait to see how they achieve the “wikification” of the city!). I hope to present, but mostly this will be developing contacts and hopefully doing some field work for that crazy disseration I’m supposed to write one of these days. I’m totally geeked but I am also apprehensive about the whole French thing (even though I’ve advanced to Elemantaire Deux in French for Parents). As the unconference comes right after the oral comprehensive exam (which I forgot to mention) it will be a well deserved “vacance”.

Who the hell is Cory Doctorow?

Wednesday, February 21st, 2007

The ACT Lab workshop this Friday is FULL – all 60 spots spoken for. It’s sort of cool that people are interested. I was afraid we’d be bribing our friends just to fill a few seats…

There’s another cool event to pencil in your datebook (or type into ical – I’ve just started using it; gawd I’m behind the times). On Thursday March 8, Cory Doctorow will deliver the 2007 SFU Applied Sciences Leonardo Lecture. Even the name is cool: “The Totalitarian Urge: Total Information Awareness and the Cosmic Billiards.”

If you do not know of Doctorow, let me authoritatively state (right from the press release) that he is an iconoclast of the blogosphere. I can say with all honesty and no jealousy that to have the number one blog on the planet (BoingBoing – don’t feel bad, I didn’t know either) is nothing short of damn amazing. Apparently two million peeps read his blog every day.

Forbes magazine describes Doctorow as “a triple threat”: 1. He’s a prominent activist for digital rights; 2. He currently holds the Canada-US Fulbright chair at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy; and 3. He’s an award-winning science fiction writer who gives away all his books via download from his website,

Goddamn, is all I can say. But if you wanna hear what he has to say, this Tdot-born, 35-year-old over-achiever, check out his talk:

Thursday, March 8, 6:00pm
SFU Harbour Centre
(Fletcher Challenge Theatre)

Reservations are required: 604-291-5100 (there are only about 50 seats left). I bet this will be standing room only; I’m getting there early and I might fight you for a seat.

Academics behaving badly

Friday, February 16th, 2007

There is a “race” for director in our school. The current director is being challenged; it seems they got a committee to get him off the block (please somebody get the Beastie Boys ref), and came up with a contender. Now I’ve got nothing against the contender, nor anything particularly for the incumbent (except for his snazzy sense of style, refreshing in a place known for its neglect of – nay contempt for – fashion). But what is putting me off, what is, in fact, offensive, is the way in which this whole thing is going down. For all protestations of “collegiality” and “forthrightness” and “honesty”, there seems to be quite a lot of the opposite.

Not only is this mildly annoying, as in could you people please get a life but it’s embarrassing. If we (as in grad students – supposed future profs) are to be taking an example from their behaviour, there’s much left to be desired. While folks are hopping up and down about procedure, transparency and democracy they are forgetting even basic good manners. I have begun to take it personally, though technically, it has nothing to do with me – grads don’t have a vote.

I have little patience for office politics; I’ve never had a real job before, in part because of bullshit like this. But here I am, getting dragged inadvertently into the muck, by virtue of my status as PhD rep. The faculty have encamped – that is patently clear. They remind me of my kid, when doing a magic trick, thinking he has me fooled by his manouevres, though they are painfully obvious. I can tell who’s voting for whom by their disingenous remarks, meant to seem innocently bumbling when they are clearly poison-tipped arrows. Or by their sheer rudeness, or the acidity in their tone when they speak or by the way they avoid each others’ eyes. Talk about transparency!

While I previously never felt a pull toward either candidate, I am shying away from what certainly appears to be a ruthless and self-absorbed cabal that has taken on the task of “fixing” the school. It will all be over soon but regardless of who “wins”, one thing is for sure: true colours, once revealed, do not soon fade.

(Re)Inventing the Internet

Wednesday, February 7th, 2007

Les Actants are writing a book! Well, it’s mostly written, I think. My chapter’s in, anyhow; it’s been edited and re-edited, and is awaiting more revisions. Feenberg is editing the book (along w/Norm Friesen), and is in the process of securing a publisher. In the meantime, we’re going to workshop our chapters at a one-day forum, (Re)Inventing the Internet: Critical Case Studies. The event takes place at SFU’s Segal Graduate School of Business (I’ve never been) on Friday,February 23 from 10am-4pm. Click here for more details. Reservations are required, and it’s about half full… should be fun!