Archive for January, 2009

learning to commit

January 31, 2009

I am a commitment phobe. There are few things I dread more than having to set aside my schizophrenic set of academic interests to focus in on a specific area of research. I often jump from one topic to the next, but soon I’ll have to commit to something. The research proposal for our 15,000-word dissertation is due in about a month and a half, and we have already made our first stabs at the proposal.

Today, I had to write a 200-word abstract — or a better way of putting it might be a mini proposal since you generally write the abstract after your research is completed  —  and select a piece of complimentary visual material for my Cultural Studies Research Methods class. The abstract I wrote is more of a stream-of-consciousness journal entry, but nevertheless, better represents my ideas than a formal proposal.

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Performing and Remembering the Other: On Place, Language, and Memory in South Korea

This project started off with an interest in looking how the unique, site-specific characteristics of Seoul and South Korea could be used to expand on recent cultural and urban theory, but as I worked through my memories, photographs, and writings, I felt dissatisfied. Almost none of the visual material* I had archived adequately captured the issues of hyper consumerism, globalization, xenophobia, and identity I wished to address. Even a keyword flickr and google image search couldn’t produce the results I wanted. It made me wish I had taken more photos when I was in Seoul. The lack of visual material coupled with my beginner proficiency in Korean and faraway distance from South Korea made me wonder if this was a feasible research topic. I started thinking about: How may one research a specific location without experiencing that place in person, having sufficient visual material, or being proficient in the native tongue? How can one acknowledge the barriers of language, representation, and distance while using them as a lens for understanding the experiences and memories of being a foreigner in South Korea? How does our perception of place change when our experience is filtered through these barriers?  This project will attempt to explore these questions by describing the experiences of being a foreigner in South Korea through an analysis of my own personal memories, blogs written by foreigners, primarily by English teachers, who are living or have lived in Korea, as well as photographs taken by myself, friends, and strangers. This project is an entry point into understanding the larger issues of memory, language, and place.

*The image above is one of the few pieces of visual material I found that resonated with my  ideas. I selected this image because the phrase “my god! I have to learn English” articulates the degree to which the English language has become embedded within education and the larger political economy of South Korea. I also like this image because it has phrases in both Chinese and Korean which to my untrained eyes have almost no apparent meaning beyond a few words. I see these writings more as image rather than as text. This largely image-based and fragmentary mode of reading Korean is how most foreigners experience South Korea. I am interested in understanding how this mode of language and interpretation affects their perception of place in South Korea.

So…that’s prety much where I am at now. This is an area of research I am hugely interested in, but I am also enticed by the idea of researching New Orleans, memory, and post-disaster cities. We’ll see, I still have a few more weeks before I have to officially commit. In the meantime, please send me your feedback.

research or info porn?

January 29, 2009

It’s about 10 at night and I’ve probably spent at least six hours today perusing through my google reader, listening to podcasts, checking my email, and skimming the online news headlines. One could easily classify my web activities as what Tools for Thought blogger Andre Kibbe calls  information porn:”gratuitous reading used to alleviate boredom or anxiety rather than enable positive change or solve a problem.”

Like Andre, I am addicted to information. The first thing I do in the morning, before brushing my teeth or eating breakfast, is switch on my computer. Now I wouldn’t necessarily say all my web activities are gratuitous. As a student of the humanities, it is important for me to keep up-to-date on the latest global trends and patterns, whether related to economics, design, politics, science, marketing, or something seemingly mundane. My reading material goes beyond books and academic journals and extends into all forms of expression, including the web. But still I can’t help but wonder how much of this reading is actually productive?

Do I need to add another feed to my google reader? Should I click on this link? How much of this information is actually useful?

Where does research end and leisure consumption begin? Perhaps they are one and the same. Critics might say cultural studies research is an elite form of information porn created by middle class academic hipsters to escape the  banality of the real world and make themselves seem more enlightened than everyone else. While this may be true in some postgraduates, I would like to think cultural studies research is a source of productive information that has the capacity to transform the way everyday people think and act in the world.

This kind of research can only occur if we maintain a critical awareness of the ways in which we consume and produce information. This is why Andre suggests batch reading instead of instantaneous consumption. For example, instead of spending an hour or two reading each day, Andre would read an entire book in one sitting. This made him a much more conscious, deliberate, and efficient consumer. For him, “reading [was] no longer an involuntary response to stimulation.”

Of course, there are other strategies to avoid overindulging in information porn, but what matters is that we constantly evaulate the utility of information and its potential for change. But having said that, everyone needs little escapism every once and a while.

stills: art for the people

January 24, 2009

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Stills represents everything galleries should be: a gallery, a darkroom, a digital lab, a library, a resource centre, a communal space. It is a place that actively engages visitors, allowing them to participate as viewers, producers, critics, and everything in between.

Stills is one of the most important contemporary photography galleries in Scotland. While it has a strong program of exhibitions, its strength seems to lie in its public facilities. A strong supporter of individual expression and creativity, they have a darkroom and digital lab where both novices and experts can develop and process photos. They also have an excellent resource centre and communal space where people can browse through hardcover art books or take advantage of the free wi-fi to catch up on their google reader  while sipping on ₤1 cups of coffee.

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My friends and I spent about an hour sitting on their couches just perusing through their film brochures and debating which film to see that night. Stills is like that cool student art lounge you wish you had in uni, but never did.

Photos by Stills

thoughts on america

January 21, 2009

Surrounded by Irish, English, and Chilean friends, I watched the inauguration of America’s 44th president on the big screen of the sports bar at Teviot House, the student union building.

Watching the inauguration was like watching a rugby or football match. The room filled with boos as Bush walked onto the stage, then erupted into  cheers and applause as Obama appeared, as if he were a the star forward of the home team. What’s interesting is that for most of the 200 students at the sports bar, this wasn’t their home team. Even though the university has thousands of American students, most of the people at Teviot were non-American.

I find it fascinating that such a large number of non-Americans feel so personally connected to Obama and this new administration. It is doubtful whether as many people watched the inaugurations in 2001 and 2005.

Even though I am thousands of kilometers away from the States, I have never felt more American — and most importantly, proud to be an American. Perhaps, I would have been swept by the same patriotism if I were back at home, but the source would not be the same. Here, my sense of pride stems largely from the knowledge that my peers who hail from all corners of the world are not just satisfied, but elated by the inauguration of our 44th president, a leader whom they believe is capable of implementing positive changes in the world. Like for many Americans, he embodies hope.

While I am skeptical and critical of this symbol, which too often is merely employed as a fashion statement or commodity, it is a powerful representation. I am still proud and hopeful, but I approach this inauguration with a critical awareness of the many challenges that lie ahead.

It remains to be seen whether Obama can translate the symbolic into something substantial, but we must always bear in mind that the beginning of real political change starts with transformations in representation.

what is cultural studies?

January 16, 2009

When I tell people my field of study, they usually smile politely and say, “That sounds interesting.” Sometimes people ask me “What culture? Is it a part of anthropology?” Others will just be outright honest and demand to know, “What is that?”

That is never easy to explain.  One of my classmates joked, “We have a degree in being confused.” This entry is a humble attempt to describe Cultural Studies to unfamiliar readers. It is in no way a complete explanation, but a partial description based on my personal experiences within this field.

By its name, one would assume it is the study of culture(s). Which is true,  but what makes Cultural Studies stand out is its interdisciplinarity, intellectual history, practice-based approach to research, and self-reflexivity.

Cultural Studies is an interdisciplinary field of study that draws from a myriad of perspectives and subjects, including but not limited to Marxism, ethnography, feminism, and post-colonial studies. Our job as cultural researchers is not to define, but to interrogate the notion of culture, looking at all its manifestations — from religion to graffiti to television to the body.

Cultural Studies has a unique intellectual history and is linked to a specific set of theorists, such as Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Antonio Gramsci, and Michel Foucault. It is believed that Cultural Studies as a field of study started at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at the University of Birmingham. Drawing largely from Marxist thought, the CCCS was known for its studies on representation, identity, ideology, agency, power, hegemony, globalization, production, and many other key concepts. Even though the Centre was shut down in 2002 (due to university politics) , their research continues to have a tremendous effect on the study of culture, with many other Cultural Studies programmes and research centres building on their work.

In addition to its interdisciplinarity and intellectual history, Cultural Studies also differs from other approaches to culture in its commitment to social justice and change — to approach theory as practice. Thinking and acting outside of the ivory tower, Cultural Studies attempts to produce research that engages with the public.

Cultural Studies also involves constant self-reflexivity — a continuous assessment of what was, what is, and what might be. One of the many reasons why I find Cultural Studies so compelling is because it consistently questions its practices, ideas, and meanings. Few things — if any — are  taken for granted. This open-ended, self-reflexive approach to culture allows one to re-think and re-configure ideas to create new possibilities, and in turn, new futures.

That, in a nutshell, is why I am doing Cultural Studies.

I hope this personal description has given you a better understanding of Cultural Studies, and maybe the next time I tell someone my field of study, they won’t look at me so blankly.

here we go!

January 14, 2009

Just kicked off the first week of the second semester. It’s weird, but good being back in school. I haven’t quite switched out of vacation mode, but I’m sure I’ll get into grad school mode in no time.

This semester I’m taking Culture and Criticism II: The Practice of Culture Studies, a core course whose purpose is “to provide students with basic critical skills for understanding contemporary culture across its numerous manifestations and texts.” The course themes sound really interesting, and include: Cultural Conceptions of the Body, Digital Practices in Contemporary Music, Everyday Life and Culture, and Mobility, Spatiality, and Visuality. In addition to this core course, I am also taking Research Methods and Problems in Cultural Studies, which starts next Friday.

I’m also shopping around for an optional course. On Monday, I audited The City and Its Others, a course that “tracks the shifting character of urban theory in its attempt to account for and explain the emergence of these ‘other’ urbanisms in the context of globalization.” Tomorrow, I plan to audit Cinema: Time, Space, and Memory and next week, I plan to sit in The Holocaust and Representation and Culture of Display, a course that “introduces the theory and practice of museology/museum studies.” This last class especially interests me because it involves visits to galleries and museums and seems a lot more practice-based than the other classes.

In addition to school, I am also working. Today I started my temporary position as a Telephone Interviewer at the Careers Service. Basically, my job is to call alumni to see what they are doing. It’s not the most glamorous job, but one can’t be too picky in the UK. Plus, cold calling isn’t so bad if you’re not asking for money or donations. Most of the people I talked to were pretty friendly and receptive to my questions.

Today, I also signed up for the university’s gym. The membership fee for one semester is £60, a bit too steep for my budget, but the facilities are top-notch and I really do want to get in shape. Tomorrow, I plan to hop on a bike and maybe a treadmill. I’m hoping to hit the gym a few times a week this semester.

Overall, it’s been a good first week, but then again it’s only Wednesday…

how to turn an iphone into a moleskine book

January 13, 2009

Not really related to grad school, but a fun post relating to the title of this blog.

Re-posted from Wired Blog

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The iPod Touch makes a great e-book reader, with a large, high-resolution screen and touch navigation. You’ll need to jailbreak it first (find out how at the Wired How-To Wiki) and install either the free Books application or the $35 i2Reader (both of which are found in the Installer). Any text file can then be loaded up and you simply swipe through the pages. I2Reader also lets you bookmark pages to go back to later.

That’s fine, but the little iPod gets uncomfortable to hold after a while, and it lacks the presence of a real book. Imagine seeing an attractive girl (or boy) sitting outside a pavement café, drinking an espresso, smoking a Gauloise and reading a tatty paperback. It’s a romantic image which is shattered when you swap the book for a PDA. I decided to disguise my iPod as a book, and if that wasn’t pretentious enough, I put it in a modded Moleskine, the notebook of choice for fops and dandies the world over. Follow along to see how it turned out.

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The Tools

One Moleskine sketchbook, chosen because it has less pages than the notebook. When you have to cut a square in every one, this makes a difference. One jail-broken iPod Touch, one X-acto-type knife and some PVA glue.

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Sizing Up

The Moleskine is the perfect size. It seems pointless putting a small iPod inside a bigger book. The next stage was to draw around it with a pencil and then get cutting. I put a couple of index cards in between the last page and the thicker flyleaves so I didn’t cut through. In fact, the back part remains intact and the Moleskine’s pocket is still accessible.

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Cutting the Holes

This takes a while, and is best done using a straight steel edge as a guide. I used a plastic one and ended up taking chunks out of it, which, as you can see, doesn’t make for a very clean edge. Still, the plan is to cover this up at the end, so it doesn’t matter too much.

Gluing the Pages

This looked like it would take even longer than the cutting, so after around ten pages I mixed some of the PVA with water and used a wadded up kitchen towel to brush the liquid in from the side. This soaked the pages a little, so I slid in two index cards at each end to protect the front and back pages. Then, the whole lot went under a stack of books for a few hours.

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Finishing

Here’s the book after being glued, with a nice little iPod-shaped hole in the middle. Let’s see if it fits…

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Strangely, the psychological effect of a real book is quite strong, and I kept forgetting that I had an iPod in there. Which meant it kept falling out every time I tipped the book. The book is still a little messy, too, so I thought I’d add a flap to the top edge to keep the iPod in as well as tidying things up.

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There it is. The next step is to cut a (neat) hole in the front page and glue that down.

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The Finished Product

There it is. The top strip works well to keep the iPod in place, and holding a book is a lot more comfortable and natural than a bare iPod. The book, by the way, is Cory Doctorow’s new novel, Little Brother, freely available as a download from his website. I recommend it.

MkII of the Moleskine case is already underway. It needs a better way to hold the iPod in place, and there will also be a hole drilled top left where I will mount the clicker mechanism from a ballpoint pen to press the on/off switch. Right now, though, I’m off to a bar to see if my new pickup scheme works.

grad school kitchen: gorgonzola and porcini mushroom risotto

January 11, 2009

In my new year suggestions post, I wrote that one of my goals for 2009 was to cook one new dish a week. Well this week’s experiment was Gorgonzola and Porcini Mushroom Risotto . I got the recipe from the Food Network, and overall, the dish turned out pretty well, considering this was my first time making risotto. A bit too cheesy, but good. Next time I make this dish, I’ll get a better kind of Gorgonzola (the recipe recommended crumbled, but all Sainsbury’s had was creamy) , put less cheese, and maybe add some beans or another kind of vegetable. I’d give the recipe 3 1/2 stars out of 5.

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My risotto wasn’t very photogenic, but it still tasted delicious.

Gorgonzola and Porcini Mushroom Recipe
Re-posted from the Food Network.

Time
Prep: 5 min
Inactive Prep: 30 min
Cook: 25 min
Total: 1 Hour

Level
Intermediate

Yield
4-6 Servings

Ingredients
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken stock (I used vegetable stock instead)
  • 1 1/2 ounces dried porcini mushrooms
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 1/2 cup grated Parmesan
  • 3/4 cup (3 ounces) Gorgonzola, crumbled (I used creamy, didn’t work so well)
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh chives (Sainsbury’s also didn’t have fresh chives, so I just used dried ones)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (I just used regular salt)
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Directions

In a medium saucepan, bring the stock to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the porcini mushrooms. Remove the pan from the heat and set aside for 30 minutes until the mushrooms are tender. Using a slotted spoon, remove the mushrooms and set aside.

Reheat the stock to a simmer and keep warm over low heat.

In a large, heavy saucepan, melt 2 tablespoons of the butter over medium-high heat. Add the onion and mushrooms and cook until the onions are tender but not brown, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and stir to coat with the butter. Add the wine and simmer until the wine has almost evaporated, about 3 minutes. Add 1/2 cup of warm stock and stir until almost completely absorbed, about 2 minutes. Continue with remaining stock, adding 1/2 cup at a time, and allowing each addition to be absorbed, until the rice is tender to the bite and the mixture is creamy, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat. Stir in the Parmesan, Gorgonzola, chives, salt and pepper. Transfer the risotto to a serving bowl. Serve immediately.

the moleskine podcast #1: insights from an american couple

January 9, 2009

I just finished my first podcast, with the help of my wonderful sound-savvy boyfriend Andrew. I hope to do a moleskine podcast series featuring interviews on grad school in the UK with students, professors, and admissions officers. Let me know if there’s a perspective you’d like represented.

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I conducted my first podcast interview with my friends Ben and Julie, an American couple who are also attending graduate school in the UK. They are veterans of the British higher education system, having completed their undergraduate at Newbold College in Berkshire, England. Ben and Julie graduated in 2003 and 2004 and taught English in South Korea for four years (we all met in Seoul!). They moved back to the UK in September and are currently in living in Leeds. Julie is getting a taught masters in Development Studies and Education at Leeds University and Ben is getting a taught masters in Peace Studies at Bradford University.

Big thanks to Ben and Julie for serving as my podcast guinea pigs!

This was my first podcast, so there are more than a few editing blunders, but overall, I am satisfied. I created this podcast on my macbook through Audacity, a free, open-source sound program for basic recording and editing.

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A screen shot of a zoomed-in waveform of Audacity

I also downloaded a cafeteria ambient track by user thedapperdan from The Free Sound Project, a user-driven website that allows you to download sounds for free! Unfortunately, wordpress doesn’t let you upload audio unless you upgrade your account (one of the few setbacks of this blog hosting site), but I was able to host my podcast through Andrew’s website {sound + design} and zSHARE, a free file-sharing program. I heart free and open source.

new year grad suggestions

January 7, 2009

Hope you all had a good holiday. I just got back to Edinburgh. I have about seven months left in the UK, so I want to make the most of my time here and this blog. I don’t really believe in new year’s resolutions, but here’s a rough list of things I hope to do/accomplish this next semester:

Sign up for the gym. Because of my accident, I couldn’t do strenuous exercise for about three months, but now that my injury has stabilized, I want to start going to the gym and getting in shape. Unfortunately, the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Sport and Exercise isn’t free; a membership costs £95 for a full academic year. Considering international fees are about £10,000 a year, tuition should include a gym membership. Nevertheless, I am still planning to exercise, especially after eating kilos of pain au chocolats, gorgonzola pasta, and tiramisu on this holiday.

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Photo by flickr user I like

Blog about a class-related topic each week. To give you a better understanding of my academic background and research interests, I will blog on a different Cultural Studies topic each week. Future entries will cover cultural memory, the body, the city, and much more.

Get a more permanent job. After a months of job hunting, I managed to snag a temporary position as a Telephone Interviewer at the University of Edinburgh Careers Service. I’ll be calling alumni to see what they are doing. However, this position only lasts for about a month, so I’ll have to continue looking for a job when I get back to Edinburgh.

Start planning for my return to the States. I love living abroad, but I think it’s time to go back to the motherland — at least for a few years. I hope to move to San Francisco with my boyfriend Andrew and my sister Joy this fall. I am not really sure where I want to work, but I’d like to do something that involves creativity, new technology, and the community. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

Cook a wider variety of food. Since Andrew and I are super busy with school, we don’t have as much time to experiment in the kitchen. But, after eating a diverse array of dishes and desserts in the south of France and Italy, I’d like to start being more creative with food and make at least one new thing a week.

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Photo by flickr user 46137

Go out more. Andrew and I can be total hermits at times. We usually spend our days working on our computers at home. Fortunately, we live in a park, so it’s not too hard to get fresh air and go for walks. But, this up-coming semester, I’d like to spend more time going to museums and shows. Even though I don’t have the money to spare, it’s still worth it, especially since I won’t be Edinburgh for much longer.

I’ll let you know how things go. Hopefully, I’ll be able to keep up with a few things on this list. Happy 2009!