Tips for finding (and keeping) motivation

Lately I’ve been having a difficult time getting my work done. I have several important due dates coming up, yet I keep finding new ways to procrastinate. If you can relate, I’d like to share some of my strategies for sharpening my focus and beating lethargy.

  1. Know yourself

At this point in my academic career, I know that I need to take a break at least every hour. For instance, the other night I went to the library to do a Spanish assignment. I read and took notes on one chapter before losing focus and when I checked the time, it was exactly an hour later. I put the book away; I don’t force myself to work past my natural limits of concentration because I know that if I do, I’ll just keep getting distracted, and will actually be less productive.

Self-knowledge is also the key to choosing study techniques, a productive work environment, or accessories and materials that help you learn—there seems to be an ideal “study aesthetic” that people try to emulate, but you need to study in the way that is best for you.

  1. Distinguish between “To do” and “Must do”

My planner is always meticulously filled with all my homework, projects, classes, meetings, and other appointments. This semester I added a step to my organization routine. I still write down everything, but I also make a more curated “Must do” list every day. These are the tasks that absolutely must be done, even if I do nothing else that day. I’m a big believer in creating small, manageable goals, so I keep the Must Do list to four items or fewer. This stops me from wasting time on things that are less urgent, and reminds me to feel proud even of small accomplishments.

  1. Have a routine

Establishing a daily schedule is crucial, but it’s very difficult for me to maintain. I tend to decide on a day-to-day basis how to spend my time, and about halfway through this semester I switched up my entire routine. This is a problem, because if I don’t have a set time to complete tasks, I might not do them at all! Although I’ve been somewhat wishy-washy, I do have a general idea of how to divide my time. For example, I usually do school work in the mornings, because I have the most energy and concentration then. Just a few years ago, I never would have called myself a morning person, but through trial and error, I figured out what works best for me.

  1. Remember your “Why”

Here’s a video that inspired me last semester to start waking up early. It’s made by a creator named Rowena Tsai—I would recommend all her videos on productivity and mindfulness—who talks about how she started waking up at 4 a.m. every single day. Of course most of us don’t want to wake up at 4 a.m., but her approach is applicable to many different projects. Rowena points out that it’s no use trying to attain a goal if you don’t have a good reason for it (skip to 8:25 to hear her explanation).

All through elementary school, middle school, and high school, I was a high-achieving student, but I wasn’t doing it for myself. My personality was naturally rule-abiding, so I did the work I was assigned and went to the classes on my schedule. If I were to skip classes in high school, I knew I would get in trouble, but in college I could skip days of classes before anyone even realized. What I’m trying to say is that when I came to Bryn Mawr, I couldn’t rely on external pressure to do well, so I had to find an internal motivation.

I don’t want to write too much about the mental and emotional challenges of college—my fellow students already know how precarious it can seem, like one wrong move will lead to abject disaster. Or conversely, how onerous life can become, turning into a stream of meaningless assignments, that make you feel like your only purpose is to employ the rhetorical techniques and jargon that will produce a good grade. The question is, how to make meaning. How to make each day a little memorable. How to push yourself to think more deeply, to question more intensely, to feel your brain moving.

Maybe that’s my real motivation. When I procrastinate, my brain feels slow, and I feel like there’s a piece of gauze between my senses and the world. I’m not saying that doing homework gives my life purpose—far from it!—but rather, that avoidant behaviors like procrastination make me feel disconnected and disinterested. Being productive can mean doing homework, but it can also mean exercising my creative energies in any way that brings something of value into my life and into the world.

Visiting Special Collections: the Ellery Yale Wood Collection

On a recent Wednesday morning, I stopped by Bryn Mawr’s Special Collections to look at some materials from the Ellery Yale Wood Collection of Children’s Books. The Ellery Yale Wood Collection was donated to the college in 2016 and includes around 12,000 books, with materials spanning from the 18th to the 20th centuries. I was hoping that the collection would help me with a project for my Transatlantic Childhoods class, which is taught by Professor Chloe Flower, English department’s brand new specialist in children’s literature and culture. Working with such rare primary materials is a wonderful opportunity, but this was actually the first time I visited Special Collections outside of a class.

I looked at two texts, The Orphans of India: a Tale for Young People, and The History of Little Fanny, published in 1815 and 1810 respectively. Both of these little books have survived remarkably. Although brittle, the pages are intact (with the exception of 17 pages from the middle of The Orphans of India; sadly I’ll never know the full details of the fates of the orphans in question). Nonetheless, the materials are fragile enough that it’s best to look at them on foam supports, with weighted cords to hold them in place.

In class we’ve been reading and discussing a wide variety of American and British genres such as poetry, pedagogical texts, picture books, and novels. I became interested in the recurring theme of orphans. In modern children’s books, orphanhood is often romanticized: conveniently absent parents allow for greater independence and adventuring. By contrast, in texts from the 19th century, orphanhood seems to be held up as a threat. Children who are disobedient or ungrateful are punished with abandonment, a fear which is based in the historical reality of widespread child labor and cultural anxieties about delinquency.

The Orphans of India and Little Fanny share an instructive purpose; the characters who, through their own faults, become orphans, serve as examples to the reader. These books were written to teach children literacy, but they also work to maintain a social order, hinting that a disruption of the status quo would mean not just a breakdown of society, but of the most basic sources of childhood stability. In The Orphans of India, a girl named Ellen tells a petty lie that causes the deaths of her father, aunt and brother. In Little Fanny, Fanny’s mother tells her not to stray from home, and when Fanny disobeys, she ends up a homeless beggar. She is re-accepted by her mother once she learns to be “pious, modest, diligent, and mild.”

Handling original copies of historical books adds a richness and context to the texts. The History of Little Fanny, for example, came with paper dolls that correspond to the various phases of the narrative. Fanny has a new outfit for each scene, complete with little accessories like a feathered hat when she is a pampered rich girl, and a basket of eggs to carry in her lowered status as an errand girl. These pieces of material culture reinforce the text, and perhaps helped a very young child to internalize its message.

Read more about the Ellery Yale Wood Collection here: http://bulletin.brynmawr.edu/features/once-upon-a-time/

October days

Happy October!

I took some photos walking back to my dorm after my morning class. It’s hard not to appreciate Bryn Mawr’s beauty in all seasons, but you can always take the time to look a little closer. Just this morning, I saw two things I never noticed before: a blue jay and the most fairytale-perfect toadstools. We are in the throes of a moody mid-autumn: thick mist in the mornings, tizzies of rain during the night. The rain has nurtured soft carpets of moss on the trees, and some of the leaves are starting to blush with the promise of their changing colors. I love it when the sky is bleached, and the buildings and trees, darkened with rain, stand out so starkly. It can be a bit melancholy, but in a pensive way. Weather like this gives me a feeling of solemnity, like the world is quieting down in preparation for something important.

The last week has been quite busy for me, and this past weekend I had to finish three essays, two in English and one in Spanish. I’ve also been keeping busy with quizzes and tests in German. Studying a brand new language has been a good change of pace from my other classes, but the barrage of new material can be overwhelming. As you can imagine, I’m very ready for Fall Break, which starts on Friday. I’ll be going home to Minneapolis for the first time since June, and I’m so excited. I know I’ll have to use some of my time off to catch up on reading for my classes, but I also hope to start some creative projects and spend time outdoors.

Studying children’s literature this semester has been making me nostalgic for some of the books I grew up with. Aren’t there some books that just fit perfectly with certain seasons? I think summer is for nonfiction so you can learn even when there are no classes, winter is for big sprawling novels to read alongside a mug of tea, and autumn is for cozy books: poetry and children’s stories.

“October arrived, spreading a damp chill over the grounds and into the castle. Madam Pomfrey, the nurse, was kept busy by a sudden spate of colds among the staff and students. Raindrops the size of bullets thundered on the castle windows for days on end; the lake rose, the flower beds turned into muddy streams, and Hagrid’s pumpkins swelled to the size of garden sheds.” –Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

(In case you needed more proof that English House is magical, look at these little umbrellas for elves that I found growing on the lawn outside.)

 

ear-whispered: Works by Tania El Khoury

This fall, Bryn Mawr is exhibiting four of the five interactive art installations that make up ear-whispered: Works by Tania El Khoury. Tania El Khoury is an artist who works in London and Beirut. She partnered with Bryn Mawr as a part of the 2018 Fringe Festival. In September, I was able to see two of El Khoury’s pieces, Camp Pause and Gardens Speak. I wanted to write a little bit about my experiences with these installations, but it’s been difficult to decide what I wanted to say.

Camp Pause is a video installation that can be viewed all semester in Canaday Library. It pieces together the narratives of four Palestinian residents of the Rashidieh Refugee Camp in Lebanon. Various storytelling threads come together in Camp Pause to create an unsettling but powerful impact. When you walk in, there are four screens facing each other, all playing simultaneously through headphones; while you can only concentrate on one story at a time, you are aware of the others going on at the same time. Some visual elements appear in more than one of the videos, hinting at common threads among residents of the camp. The ocean is a strong motif in all of the stories. It makes up one of the camp’s borders—the other being a military checkpoint—and therefore represents the refugees’ feelings of entrapment and claustrophobia. At the same time, the videos’ subjects often feel drawn to the water, entranced by the beauty and mystery of the natural world.

It’s hard to draw a clear moral from Camp Pause. Pieces of the camp’s historical background are interspersed with the often gut-wrenching stories of the camp’s residents. The one that struck me the most followed a young girl, because of the normalcy with which she viewed her life in the camp. In fact, her biggest complaint about her community was the abundance of litter by the seaside. It made me wonder how the generation that is growing up in Rashidieh will come to understand their situation.

Gardens Speak was only open for a limited length of time at Bryn Mawr. The piece was inspired by people who were killed by the regime in Syria. Their families are forbidden from holding public funerals, so the martyrs are often buried in secret or private graves. Gardens Speak gathers these stories through interviews with survivors, and creates a really singular experience. Although it was entirely immersive installation, it was an experience for the senses of touch, smell, and hearing, rather than vision.  This seemed quite unique for any piece of art, and I felt a bit apprehensive as the small group of us were ushered into the Hepburn Teaching Theater.

The space was entirely black, with only dim lighting. We were asked to leave our shoes and electronic devices at the entrance, and then we put on plastic coats over our clothes. Then we were led to the room, where we saw what looked like a plot of earth. Simple headstones stuck out of the soil, and each of us took our places at a different “grave.” Our guide had instructed us to begin digging in the dirt by our headstone; the dirt under my hands felt moist and smelled strongly of real vegetation. Soon enough, I found a sort of inflated cushion, from which a voice emanated. To hear, each of us had to lie down with our ears pressed against the speaker. The dirt was very uncomfortable under my body. I soon learned that the voice I was hearing was telling the story of Abdul Wahid al-Dandashi, as if in his own words. He told a brutal story of being tortured in an army prison, learning that his brother had been killed, and even after that, choosing to return to Syria and fight.

When each of the graves had finished speaking, all of us were invited to write a letter addressed to the person whose story we had heard, responding to the experience in any way. We then buried our letters back under the soil, where they would later be collected and added to the exhibit. As you can imagine, this was a sobering experience, and I found it interesting, once I had retrieved my shoes and washed the dirt off my hands, to go downstairs to see all the letters from past exhibitions displayed. Many of the letters—maybe even most of them—expressed a loss for words. Like Camp Pause, it’s hard to find an easy symbolism or moral to Gardens Speak. One might feel anguish over the senseless loss of life, or sympathy for someone whose loved one was killed, but what is there to say? “I’m sorry” is inadequate and feels detached, even meaningless. At the same time, it seems patently untrue to claim you can feel the pain of something so removed from your own life. Some of the letters I read expressed hopelessness, thinking of how many people could sacrifice their lives for freedom, yet still that dream is unrealized. The reaction that I most appreciated reading, which came from only a few letters, was inspiration. Some people, after seeing Gardens Speak, felt energized to dedicate their lives to a great cause, or to live for something truly worthwhile.

Letters written to Syrian martyrs, displayed in Goodhart Theater

 

 

The Vitality of What Will Be

After a busy summer of working at a historic house, reading submissions for a Philadelphia literary journal, participating in Bryn Mawr’s summer beekeeping apprenticeship, and dog-sitting, I am back for my final year at Bryn Mawr. This was the first year I did not return home to Minneapolis for the summer, and I feel like I was launched into the school year without a chance to catch my breath. It’s already the fourth week of classes, and the semester is barreling forward at full speed. I am currently taking two senior seminars, one for my English major and one for my Spanish major; a class on British and American children’s literatures of the 19th century; and introductory German. I am still finding my routine, and carving out space to reflect and develop the non-academic parts of myself.

 

This year I am living in Rockefeller Hall, which was also where I lived my first year. Rock has a distinct personality; it is full of little eccentricities, like the lower-than-average doorknobs and that clean, bright “Rock smell” that no one can quite define, but always makes me nostalgic for freshman year. People unfamiliar with the building find it labyrinthine, with all its winding corridors. Just in these first few weeks, I have had to give directions several times to some confused soul looking for a friend’s room. One of my favorite parts of Rock are all of its public spaces, natural gathering places like the sun-filled nooks at the end of each hall. We also have—in my opinion—the best common room on campus, with alert owls on the bannister and a coven of armchairs. 

One Rock-specific tradition is the painted windows. Most rooms have a window set into the door, and each resident can choose to customize it with water-soluble paints. The tradition is that if a painting is five years old or more, the current resident is encouraged to leave it untouched as a legacy door. This year I got “the Central Perks room,” which has been a traditions door for longer than I’ve been at Bryn Mawr. Although it would be fun to leave my own mark, I am happy to leave this wonderful painting for future generations.

The other thing I am so excited for as a senior—something I have anticipated for three years!—is getting my own carrel in Canaday library. My desk is in the corner by a window, reasonably well tucked away. Canaday has the mostly-deserved reputation of being the site of sleep-deprived studying under the unforgiving glare of fluorescent lights, but when you have your own corner to come back to, it really seems different.

Can you guess what my thesis is about?

What could be cozier than having a little space for yourself, to be able to leave your books and pencils someplace that will always be waiting for you? Maybe I’m getting the nesting urge because it’s autumn now and it’s been raining. This is my favorite season. But if you dread the impending cold weather, I’ll leave you with some wisdom from Mary Oliver who reminds us, in Lines Written in the Days of Growing Darkness:

Every year we have been
witness to it: how the
world descends
into a rich mash, in order that
it may resume.
And therefore
who would cry out

to the petals on the ground
to stay,
knowing, as we must,
how the vivacity of what was is married

to the vitality of what will be?
I don’t say
it’s easy, but
what else will do

if the love one claims to have for the world
be true?
So let us go on

though the sun be swinging east,
and the ponds be cold and black,
and the sweets of the year be doomed.

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play

Bryn Mawr’s mainstage production this spring, “Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play,” could be described as dark. Not just because of piece’s post-apocalyptic themes, but because it took place without the usual burst of stage lighting that one might expect at the theater. As audience members entered, they were requested to hand over all electronic devices to an attendant for safekeeping, and informed that the only electricity used in the show was that which cast members could generate themselves. Because I didn’t have my phone with me, the only photo I can share from the evening is of the program.

The dimness of the scenes pulled the audience into the post-electric world of the play’s title. At a typical theater production, it’s easy to suspend your disbelief and grow accustomed to the unnatural lighting of the stage. In this play, the lack of light was at times a challenge, making it harder to see what was going on, and at times drew me into the performance, making me feel the reality of the events onstage.

Another example of the wonderful creativity of the production was how each of the three acts took place in a different location. The audience walked as a group to each, led by lantern-swinging attendants. The first act took place outdoors near the goose pond. In a previous, professional, production I  saw of this play, this act was shown onstage in a conventional theater space, and used a replica of a flickering campfire as a prop. In Bryn Mawr’s production, the actors and audience sat around a bona fide fire. We could smell the smoke and feel the cool dusk air on our skin. Nostalgia, memories of childhood summers and beach sunsets, became flooded with unease as the characters’ conversation revealed that they were the survivors of a nuclear disaster.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the plot—if such a word even applies to the work’s nontraditional format—of this innovative play. The script is naturalistic, poignant, funny, and truly committed to the world it builds. The unexpected ending is a tour de force. To me, “Mr. Burns” works to discover how rituals originate. Maybe the myths we tell are not literally true, but they don’t need to be; they don’t exist to be logical, they exist to make sense of the world. The traditions that seem arbitrary, or irrelevant to the modern age, exist because at some time, our ancestors, sitting around a campfire, looked around the dark world and searched for patterns that made them feel safer.

Blossoming

The first time I visited Bryn Mawr’s campus was in April of 2015. I was a senior in high school and the cherry trees were in full bloom. I stayed with a current student whose life seemed unbelievable to me. She lived with her roommate in a chaotically messy room, unsupervised by adults, and at around 10 p.m. she took us to the art studio to paint, which seemed to me like the height of freedom and excess. I’ve been thinking of that weekend lately. Campus has been filled with the newest batch of prospective students, including one from my own former high school.

The cherry trees are in bloom again; we had a couple of hot, summery days this past weekend. It was a heat that seeps under your skin, a tangible heat. Now it’s back to gray, but I wanted to share some photos of the blossoms. The draping trees on the pathway outside of Rock erupted in garlands of pink and white petals overnight. The campus still looks wintry in some ways—the trees along senior row are totally bare—and it’s kind of funny to see the unevenness of the turning seasons.

A while ago I stumbled upon a treasure at a used book sale called “Twelve Moons of the Year,” which is a series of 365 little essays by Hal Borland. Each essay corresponds to a specific date, and observes some aspect of the natural world in that point of the year. It’s a very specific year, of course, a temperate, deciduous rural North American year. The whole project has an old-fashioned tone. It’s something from before the era of global warming, and long before the era of ubiquitous screens and social media. And that makes it all the more comforting to me: this idea that the world will always ebb and flow, and the beautiful things you remember will always come back faithfully. One of the essays in late April reads, “Now come the surge and the insistence of growth. For a few weeks we will scarcely be able to keep up with change, which is everywhere. The miracle is not so much in budding and leafing and the opening of petals, but in the very magnitude of burgeoning and blossoming…And every day is another moment in the incredible, inevitable genesis of another year.”

Why shouldn’t we call this the new year? We’re racing to the end of the semester, but it’s also a time of beginnings and returnings. High schools seniors prepare for the beginning of their college careers, and college seniors prepare to head down unknown paths. The blossoming around me is a reminder of where I was three years ago, just as much as it is a furious and insistent call toward new adventure.

Bryn Mawr Reading Series: Ocean Vuong

 I found a seat in the Great Hall just minutes before the poet Ocean Vuong’s reading began. The setting sun cast rosy light through the high stained glass windows. “Ocean Vuong’s poetry takes a complex approach to all that geography holds, the intimate failures of history, and the victory available in visiting and revisiting one’s memories of space and time,” Professor Matthews of the Creative Writing department said in her introduction. Then the poet stood up and gave us a shy wave as he approached the podium. He said it was fitting, although almost redundant, to read in the church-like setting of the Great Hall, because “poetry is a kind of church.” With his round reading glasses and high collar, Vuong transformed into a temporary priest of poetry.

He read several poems from his collection “Night Sky with Exit Wounds” and then a sizable excerpt—a “hybrid essay”—from a forthcoming novel. At some readings I’ve attended, the visiting writers will tell stories in between poems, tell the backstory of how that particular piece came into existence, for instance, or some other musing that comes to mind. Vuong was spare with his comments. He drew our attention to themes of fatherhood, marginalization, and queer identity, but for the most part the poems spoke for themselves.  

Vuong’s soft voice echoed and dispersed. He drew out soft consonants. The rhythm of his poetry is a steady ebb and flow. At one point in the excerpt from his novel, a character sings, and instead of simply reading the lyrics, Vuong broke out into song. Unexpectedly. Mournfully. Watching him sing was like staring into a bright lamp. After I looked away everything else seemed dim.

Exploring Germantown

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I will be interning this summer in Philadelphia. Specifically, I will be working in Germantown. A lot of people I talk to are not familiar with this neighborhood, so I thought I’d write a little bit about it.

Located in northwest Philadelphia, Germantown was once a separate township from “old Philadelphia.” The area was largely isolated from the rest of the city until 1884, when a railroad line was built to connect Philadelphia with outlying parts of the county. This led to heavy development in Germantown, and it became a thriving commercial and residential district. By the 1970s, however, due to white flight and blockbusting, Germantown suffered economically. Stores boarded up their windows and the area became crime-ridden. In the present day, you can clearly see that Germantown has had a turnaround.

Walking along Germantown Avenue, you can see restaurants, bustling shops, pedestrians, and cafes. Germantown strikes me as a friendly neighborhood. Elderly neighbors walking outside wished me a good afternoon, while parents picking up their children chatted in the early spring sunlight. The history of the area is easy to see, in the beautiful old houses, the church graveyards, and the many marked historic sites. For example, George Washington’s “Summer White House,” his escape from the Yellow Fever epidemic of the city, is located in Germantown.

Germantown is not very accessible from Bryn Mawr by public transit—it is possible to take a train and then a bus, but the trip takes about an hour. This summer I’ll be living much closer, and I’m excited to have more opportunities to explore.

Searching for an Internship

Beginning my sophomore year, I started feeling a lot of pressure to find a summer internship. There are many reasons to work as an intern: to network with professionals in your field, to learn new skills, to gain experience, or to see if a certain job might be right for you. Unfortunately, many internships are unpaid, and it can be hard to predict how useful a certain internship might even be. Not to mention, many positions are very competitive.

This year I applied to 11 internships before being offered a position—had I not heard back when I did, I would have continued to send off applications to many more. After putting so much effort into pursuing an internship, I wanted to write a blog post with some tips and tricks that I learned along the way.

  1. Narrow down your interests.

At the start of this process, I made a list of the fields in which I would look for an internship. My list included magazine and literary publishing, nonprofits that promote literacy or the arts, and museums. I knew I was looking to develop my writing skills and to work with people, especially doing educational work of some kind.

Having this specific set of criteria helped me eliminate any internship that did not suit my interests and goals. It’s also important to have some idea of where you want to be during the summer. For the past two summers I have gone home to Minneapolis, but this summer I looked for internships in the Philadelphia area.

  1. Google research.

Once I knew what I was looking for, I started doing research in the broadest way possible, just to get a sense of what was out there. I just typed keywords into Google—for example, “Philadelphia literary journals”—and clicked on anything that looked interesting. Many websites will have a “careers” or “opportunities” page, where any internships will be listed. If you can’t find anything listed, it never hurts to send an email (from your .edu email account!) asking if the organization ever does offer internships for college students.

  1. JoinHandshake.com

JoinHandshake.com is a website where you can find so many job and internships listings, and often apply directly through the website. There are filters to find jobs in certain geographical areas or fields. You can also create a personalized profile so that the website will recommend jobs that fit you.

This website is how I found my internship for the summer, so of course I would recommend it! I found it very efficient and easy to use, and since Bryn Mawr students automatically get accounts, you might as well try it out.

  1. BookJobs.com

BookJobs.com is a website that might be of interest to other English majors that lists jobs from all over the country that relate to the publishing field. I responded to a couple of postings on this website. You can narrow down the results to just internships or just jobs. As you might expect, many of the positions are concentrated in New York, so if you are looking to be in that area you should check out this website.

  1. Have confidence in your application skills!

This might seem obvious, but if you don’t know how to write a cover letter or format a resume, make sure to brush up! Bryn Mawr’s Career Planning Office was a lifesaver last year when I needed to learn these skills. After a little practice, I had my application-writing process down to a science.

Job hunting of any kind is stressful, and it’s easy to feel paralyzed—by the sheer amount of options in front of you, but also by the fear of failure or rejection. I am by no means an expert, but the most important piece of advice I have is to cast as wide a net as possible. In other words: apply for jobs you might not be qualified for; apply to jobs you find fascinating but have no experience in, apply for jobs that are ridiculously competitive. A year ago, I agonized over every application I sent out, pinning all my hopes on one prospect. This year, I applied to everything that looked intriguing. An internship is kind of like a trial run—it’s a short-term commitment to explore your interests and learn about what you need from a work environment. Good luck to everyone who is waiting to hear back about summer plans, and I hope these tips were helpful!