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Lots of people I've talked to have suggested that a good thing to do before the exam itself is to generate a list of the kinds of things you think people will want you to provide examples of (novels that represent the thread of traditional realism running through the twentieth century, places where tropes borrowed from "lowbrow" literature show up in "highbrow" literature, and so on) and think up a useful set of pithy examples in response.
This seems intelligent; it's good advice not only for exams but for academic life in general -- certainly one likes to have a useful stock of good illustrative examples ready at hand for any kind of discussion. I'm finding that it seems almost unseemly, though, to record any such list here, especially because I know members of my committee read this site (hi, everyone). Pithy examples don't seem so pithy when you've seen the list of pith. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain! But for anyone who reads this site to see an example of what One Person Does to prepare for her exams, it would be rather unfair to leave it out. So suffice to say I am thinking about such things, even if I'm not doing it in full public view.
Part two: I keep thinking about the first of my suggested topics (this is the one about the viability of connecting sociolinguistic findings about the sources of various kinds of persistent, "sticky" language innovations to genre or other formal innovations in literature). It's such a seductive idea, so sexy and also so dangerous. On the one hand, it's dangerous from the linguist's point of view because a study along those lines would be too easy to do sloppily, in exactly the way that literary studies traditionally uses, or abuses, linguistic research -- it's hard to even imagine what would be a methodologically and philosophically sound approach.
And if you just take Labov's observations as a jumping off point, a flag suggesting that the place where people look for the sources of innovation is maybe all back-to-front, is that really treating the research appropriately on its own terms, or is it just exactly the kind of shallow scholarly "interdisciplinary" grazing literary studies is (in)famous for? And what kind of research methods would be appropriate for the study that did take those findings as their starting point? If they would have to be something wildly different from the methods of the responsible sociolinguist -- and it's hard to see how they could avoid it -- does that undermine the possibility that the two kinds of research could have anything meaningful to say to one another?
Aping the methods of another discipline is a minefield of its own, with something of an embarrassing history in literary studies. (Not that it's always a mistake, but it does seem like a place where it's important to Tread Lightly.) And from everyone's point of view, the kind of parallelism I hint at in my topic/question is dangerous because it's reductive, or at least it would be if you did it wrong, and it might well be even if you did it right. I don't know -- the upshot is that I'm feeling that it's not a good topic to choose for my presentation because I'm so torn and, more importantly, so skeptical, but it is something I'd like to talk about with some of my committee members later, in a context where they're not explicitly supposed to be examining my knowledge and confidence.(planning)
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