Here are some reflections on my dissertation presented at the Center of Writing Studies Symposium, May 2014.
I envisioned my presentation today as a book event. A book event is similar to a literary society a gathering of people with similar interests discussing a particular topic or genre. I follow the model of book reading events I attended while collecting data and listening to stories of immigration in a Romanian ethnic community in Chicago. Most book events were organized by and for community members. A poster invitation announced the book that would be featured and selected readings from that book were read aloud followed by various Romanian music segments. While I do not feature my book here—I just finished my dissertation—I will provide a selection of short reflections about and from my dissertation. I will alternate with music selections from the actual book events I attended in the community. The purpose of the textual reflections is to identify key turning points/highlights in the research and writing of my dissertation. The sonic pieces serve various ends: 1) to capture the atmosphere and a certain emotional tenor that often the text alone might miss. 2) to include these sonic fragments did not make it in my dissertation although they deserve attention. They tell stories, stories of immobility, stories of border crossing, of struggling with papers, and of victories over obstacles. They also capture what I tried to signal in my dissertation argument: affinity: affinity as a literary expression, affinity through personal experience, and expressed through the relationships established with other people.
Reflection 1: Beginnings
My dissertation began long before I actually started to write. I was in Romania on a leave of absence due to illness. As a good friend once warned me: life happens even when you are in graduate school. That spring of 2010 while in Romania, I started working collaboratively on a paper for Cs conference; ironically, it was about globalization. While I was working on the paper, with limited access to Internet and no access to my own books that were still in Champaign, I felt acutely the limits of globalization. I was stuck in a place from where my Cs paper could not travel unless I used an intermediary—my friend and colleague who co-authored the paper with me. She became my hands and feet, and in the end, my voice at Cs that year. In Globalization: the Human Consequences, Z. Bauman (1998) discusses the differentiated travel and access, through a comparison between the tourist and the vagabond, “”the tourists travel because they want to; vagabonds because they have to” (p. 93). The major difference is not in the level of mobility but the degree of choice. In the vagabond metaphor, I saw both forced mobility and immobility (Bauman, p. 93). That experience was a turning point in my to-be dissertation project. I had to write about those stoppages, about emplacement, and immobilization of people and texts.
Sonic Intermezzo: Laura’s song (Laura Sisu, guitar)
Reflection 2: Stories
My dissertation entitled ““Stories from our People”: Immigrants, Brokers, and Literacy as Affinity” features stories. I collected thirty-two literacy histories and what drew me to these narratives is that people shared them long before I started the research. Immigrants want to tell their story. Stories connect them to other people but also to places that they left behind or to new places where they have arrived. Evolving both on temporal and spatial dimensions, stories matter for the relationships they built. In addition to my own collection of literacy histories, I attended events where books about stories of escape from Romania were told. Some were written in Romanian, others in English. One such book is Escape from Romania to 9/11. A Romanian immigrant shared his story with an American. The American turned out to be a ghostwriter. In the next sonic intermezzo I share a fragment in which stories are not just told but passed down to younger generations.
Sonic Intermezzo 2: Story from Border Crossing into Yugoslavia
Just over the border in Yugoslavia.
None of us had official papers. We had buried the money but no food but we escaped. I see my brother Radu and these two men peacefully sleeping on a thicket of leaves and branches. We just changed the course of our lives. I wondered if Anghel had just kept running through Yugoslavia like (incomprehensible) he said he would or if he be at another rendezvous point. In a way I hoped he was far away and safe. He was crazy but strong.
However, I knew the rest of us needed sleep. I laid down next to my brother, especially since I no longer had a (incomprehensible) early morning darkness. Now I was seeing my first sunrise as a freeman. As I watched it I thought the sun had never been a brighter blue.
Reflection 3: The argument
Oh the argument! If in the first stages of the dissertation research, there are moments of doubt, questions, So what? questions, decisions about methods and methodology, in the latter stage, the argument is the cornerstone. You try and build, and tear down and try again and again, and tear down again. The theoretical frames that would help connect your argument are just temporary houses that you must be willing to rebuild and rethink again and again. You know “Everything is an Argument” because you teach it to others. You also know what they say, but can hardly figure out what you say. It’s all they say they say they say. You say nothing, at least not yet. Or when you do, it’s not yet coherent; or if coherent, not yet compelling.
My theoretical frame and tentative argument started with Nedra Reynolds’ Geographies of Writing. The metaphor of the street and being street-smart was a concept I wanted to develop to show the multiple adaptable literacy journeys of my participants. But it did not go far, not far enough. I torn it down and reconsidered an idea that would not let go of me: the brokers, those intermediaries that always are there assisting others with reading and writing. Starting with one data segment and then expanding to the entire dissertation, the brokers frame became a capacious and solid structure, strong enough to support my argument. But my argument—proposing that we pay attention to the literacy brokers’ work of affinity—was not built alone. Yes, I tore down, and built frames but I always did so with others. I talked about it, emailed about it, conferenced about it, and tested it out in multiple forms. In this process, I must admit I got to despair about it. But eventually, darkness dissipated. My argument—focused on the brokers’ work of affinity—became a convincing proposal and when that happened, I was genuinely delighted.
Sonic Intermezzo 3: Horatiu Ormindeanu aka H. Dean (violin)
A study of literacy brokers, any study of writing I dare say, cannot be possible without an impressive number of people my own brokers who in turn assisted and sustained me throughout the research and writing of this dissertation. My advisor, my friends, family, partners, colleagues. They are the invisible actors whose presence, feedback, probing questions I wanted to highlight in my research and in today’s reflection.
Sonic Intermezzo 4: Doru Bandila (fluier)