Dissertation Spotlight: Dr. Roanne Kantor

Dr. Roanne Kantor headshotThis interview is part of a series profiling recent UT graduates specializing in Latin American literature. Today’s interview features Dr. Roanne Kantor, a recent PhD in comparative literature and long-time contributor to Pterodáctilo. You can reach her at roannekantor@brandeis.edu.

Tell us briefly about your work!

My research explores relationships between Latin American and South Asian literature over the course of the twentieth century. For the majority of that time, connection between these two regions occurred at the level of individual authors (writing Spanish, Hindi and Urdu) whose diplomatic commitments brought them into unprecedented contact with the other side of the world. In the later part of the century, however, as first Latin American and then South Asian novels surged in the international Anglophone market, texts surpassed their authors as the primary agent of cross-cultural exchange between these two regions.

In a nutshell, the dissertation is about recovering the literary relationship between two areas that almost never get studied together, and ends by arguing that we can’t understand the dynamics of the contemporary Anglophone literary market unless we contextualize it within that relationship.

What was your favorite thing to research during the dissertation? Was there a specific text, problem, historical moment, question that you found especially exciting?

This is tough because I actually found most of my research to be really fun: I’m studying very adventurous people who traveled all over the world and tended, in the case of the Latin American authors I study, to produce their most experimental work as a result of living in South Asia. I’m also not troubled if the writing is sort of… bad? It’s still interesting to read and analyze, even when my eyebrows are lifting up to my hairline like «WHAAA?»

That said, the most fun research experience for me was working in the archives and speaking with librarians and archivists in Chile. In the dissertation I have chapters on two Chilean authors who were diplomats in South Asia – Pablo Neruda and Augusto d’Halmar – and I found material relevant to both of them while I was there. I’ve written about that for Pterodáctilo before, so I won’t go into it a lot now, but suffice it to say that archival work is *so* fun! Everywhere I lived while working on the dissertation –in Austin, in Ithaca, in Santiago de Chile – if there was an archive there, I would find it, and find a way to put some piece of it in the research!

Did you travel to do research, give talks, or present your work outside of UT? Tell us about a recent trip you made. What was good about the experience? How did you fund it?

I did! As I mentioned above, I got a Tinker pre-dissertation field research grant to go to Chile, and that was huge. If you are a graduate student reading this right now, and you are eligible for a Tinker or some other «small» grant, APPLY FOR IT!

During the last year of my PhD, I felt like a band on tour—that’s how much I was traveling for conferences. In my case, a few of those were funded or subsidized by the conference, and one was partially funded by a UT professionalization grant. For the other ones, I was drawing on the extra income I got from a dissertation fellowship. If you’re trying to do a lot of conferences and you don’t have the funding, it can be really challenging, and we should be talking more about the difficulty it poses for our graduate students.

There were a lot of highlights. One of the best things was hooking up with an interest group at LASA, Asia and the Americas, which led me to a really great conference at Rutgers and then a panel presentation at The Association of Asian Studies, all with other people who study relationships between Latin America and Asia. If you have a very «specialized» research area, the tendency is to feel isolated, but actually it’s often very specialized groups that have the most solidarity and can be the most welcoming and supportive. That was definitely my experience.

What are you doing now? What excites you about your new position?

I’m currently working as a Visiting Assistant Professor of English, with a focus on «global English,» at Brandies University. Even though Spanish and Latin American studies are no longer part of my job title, I do get to teach a certain amount of literature related to Latin America, either in translation or by looking at Latino literature in the US. I’m very lucky, in that my courses now are exactly what I hoped to teach when I first started the PhD process, and that I get to teach, at least a little, in all of the areas I studied as a student of Comparative Literature. Boston is also a very exciting place to be a young scholar—the density of schools means there are tons of academics working here or coming through for a conference, an invited talk, etc. Of course I’d love to be settled in a «forever» job, but for now this position is a dream come true.

Do you have any wisdom you’d like to offer about the job search or the dissertation process?

Advice for the dissertation is easy, advice for the job market is hard.

For the dissertation, it’s all about consistency. There’s a lot of good advice out there about developing good writing habits. Luckily for me, the first year I was writing up, I was also teaching a course on thesis writing to UT undergrads, so I read a lot of that advice! I tried to write almost every day, but I was also pretty gentle on myself about how much I got done each day and the quality of work I put out on the first try. Writing up, teaching, and applying for jobs is very stressful, and you have to set limits and give yourself rewards or you will burn out.

The other cliched, but very useful advice is to give yourself permission to write terrible first drafts. Playing with words on paper, even terrible words that you hate, is half as hard as staring at a blank page and trying to get it right the first time. I also found that a writing group – either a group that reads each other’s work, or just a group of people writing together in the same room – was the best motivator. Don’t isolate yourself!

As far as the job market, it’s pretty rough. The common wisdom is «don’t take it personally,» but for me it’s like, putting all your accomplishments on a piece of paper and sending it to a group of strangers and having them tell you «not good enough,» that feels personal. So the advice I prefer is «be gentle on yourself» (are you noticing a trend?). I used to love to free read capital «L» literature on my time off, but during the job market I developed some really hard-core telenovela-watching and paperback-mystery-reading habits, because I didn’t have the energy for complicated characters and sad endings anymore.

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