Suitcase and etiquette

February 13th, 2009

I came to a realization this week, or rather, I came to an analogy.  My thesis is like a suitcase.  An overstuffed suitcase.  In fact, I think there’s even a kitchen sink stuffed into this suitcase, so overstuffed is it.  I’ve been writing my second chapter, in which I examine the development of Quebec national identity over the years.  After slugging through an entire (mental health) day with this section, I found that I couldn’t say everything I wanted to in 12 pages.  Twelve.  And I wanted to say more.  And this is a background chapter – not the meat of the thesis!  Oy.  I never thought I’d be able to be accused of wordiness/verbosity.  Seriously.  On the positive side, I think I did an okay job at stuffing every bit of pertinent information into the prose, while also making it understandable.  (That can be verified in a few days when I go back to make Round One of revisions…)  But, like I said, it made me think of the paper like a suitcase which I’m trying to cram full and still get it checked on the airplane, without going over the poundage limits, for free, both of which seem impossible in today’s day and age.

While I was writing this suitcase, I got really frustrated with the authors in the field.  Now, I know that I know what I’m talking about.  I started the work on my thesis topic two years ago, after freshman year.  (Yes that makes sense if you’re me.)  I’ve read tons of literature on this stuff, taken two courses that are near or direct hits on my topic (“French Canada” and “Intro to Caribbean History”), done an independent study on Canadian history (thanks, Dr. Blouet) and lived in Montreal.  But when footnoting the background information to my actual project becomes a problem, there’s something wrong with the existing literature.  Everyone had something different to say about how Quebec has evolved – diverging so far as to say that the Catholic Church did and at the same time did not have a heavy hand in influencing early nationalism.  So far as to say that French Canada (Quebec, really) did and at the same time did not urbanize, modernize, and industrialize at the beginning of the twentieth century.  So far as to say that Maurice Duplessis, the leader of a very conservative nationalist party that controlled Quebec government directly before and directly after the second world war, was at the same time well-intentioned and an evil backward person.  Um…  I don’t think that interpretations are supposed to get that diverse, even in a field where modern political/ideological biases heavily affect the way authors look at the earlier time period.  Some wise wisdom was bequeathed to me: Pull out what you find to be constants, and, for the rest, make your best judgement.  If things get really rough, make a note of the dissonance and move on.  Moving on…

So, I finished Chapter Two, and made a considerable effort today on Chapter Three.  By that I mean, I wrote the chapter from my head and will, perhaps tomorrow evening at work, start going through it intensely and footnoting.  I have one major goal for the chapter:  I have to cite Carolyn Fick.  There’s no real reason I should, since she writes about Revolution-era Haiti and admitted herself that she wouldn’t be any help to me.  But I met her in Montreal, and she took me under her wing, and for that I am very grateful.  (She met with me, accompanied me at a conference at McGill, introduced me to fabulous people, and checked in on me throughout the month… Above and beyond what any random acquaintance should do, especially a busy woman like her.)  So I want to cite her.  I guess I actually have two goals for the chapter, the second one being more academic and goal-oriented.  I want to be able to explain to the reader with authority why Quebec identity evolved the way it did, compared to how Haitian identity evolved. …

Alright, let me try to clarify.  In Quebec, there haven’t been any “real” instances where the French Canadian population was repressed.  I’ll concede that the early period, from Conquest (1760) to Confederation (1867) was a little rocky.  I mean, there was the whole Acadian expulsion thing… but then there was the whole Rebellion thing too…  For the most part, Britain adopted an accommodationist approach to the French habitants.  Accommodationist meaning the British accepted and enabled the French to continue practising Catholicism, speaking French, and also using their own civil code.  It wasn’t until after Confederation that the English Canadians started to completely ignore the French Canadians’ wishes (although I’m quite sure people would disagree with my statement).  And even then, “repression” is too strong a word – the English Canadians were seeking the same national unity that the French Canadians in Quebec were, just oriented to a higher political structure: the entire country (not the province).  So Quebec national identity has really grown up in relative wealth – there haven’t been many oppressive measures taken against them.  They were allowed to assert their independence in a calm, orderly fashion by taking greater control of their economy, immigration policy and language policy in the mid-twentieth century.

Haiti’s case is different.  Slaves, in the modern sense, are not allowed to assert their cultural diversity and develop sub-societies of their own – that is seen to detract from productivity.  Haitian religion, language, and even political mannerisms are all bastardizations of French colonial imports.  Vaudou, the “national religion” (most practised), combines several types of African belief systems and gods with certain Catholic motions.  [[Check out Maya Deren’s “Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti”, an early documentary complete with the beheading of chickens and I think goats…]]  Kreyol, the “national language” (most understood), adopts French terminology in an African grammar structure.  (Seriously, if you know French well enough, you can sit through a Kreyol Catholic mass and understand everything; reading is somewhat easy after a while; you just can’t necessarily respond in Kreyol.)  There was real repression in the case of Haiti’s national identity development, not just “unfairness” like in Quebec’s case.  And, once Haitian slaves got control of their own government, more repression helped create the rest of their identity.  Corrupt, patronage-led governments encouraged Haitians to rely on family and friend rather than official programs, because these blood linkages were more constant than the regimes were.  (Seriously.  Haiti has averaged a coup/insurrection/military or peasant uprising once a year since 1804, just about.)  And inconsistency in which language and religion were the “official” one of Haiti allowed them to keep practising vaudou and speaking Kreyol, while the elite could also be Catholic and speak French.  It kept changing so much that there was no way to fully habituate Haitians into one or the other.

So, I don’t know if there’s space to say all that, but I think it’s something worthwhile.  Now you know.

Finally I want to leave you with an etiquette lesson.  This week I presented my thesis to an audience for the Honors colloquium.  I was the second person of a two-person panel.  After sitting through an incomprehensible and very abstract (and overly long) presentation, about two-thirds of the audience left, the first speaker and his advisor included.  Now, I know this might be a common occurrence in professional conferences and in non-professional settings.  But it is still rude.  Just like you don’t clap between movements of an orchestrated work in concert, you don’t leave the room until the entire session is done, whether or not you’re interested.

So, for the weekend: Footnote Chapter 3.

For Monday/Tuesday: Elaborate and footnote Chapter 1.

By Wednesday: Send to unsuspecting victims for disapproval.  Cope with criticism.


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