MAEWP Thesis Project: Grieving in the Digital Age

Hello, World. Greetings and Salutations.

What’s that saying about the path to hell? My paths always seem to be paved with the best of intentions; my follow through game is also, always, amazingly weak. When envisioning how this project would go, I knew my limitations. I am neither technologically savvy, nor am I known for being proactive. I should probably consider listing procrastination as a skill on my resume.

Nonetheless (space-filler words are another skill one develops while writing lengthy assignments), I still wanted to incorporate some element of multimodality — digital modality to be specific — into my graduate thesis. After all, the digital age is right there in the title:


Say that three times fast.

Side note: I wonder if anyone has done a study or written a paper that looks for any correlation between the length of an academic paper and self-esteem? If not, mind that gap, would-be scholars.

Back to the topic at hand. Over the last two years, while going through the research process for my thesis, I was able to find what I believe constitutes evidence of a growing movement toward projects and products that seem to embody a diversity and approach not offered by the traditional thesis or dissertation. People are using SoundCloud, people!

But, I am not a burgeoning rapper, and my university isn’t quite ready for a truly interactive experience. Not yet, at least. Consequently, I knew that this personal site would figure into the project in some way, I just didn’t know how.

Initially, the thesis I had in mind would involve a translation of the medieval/Medieval (because, why?) anonymously-authored poem, Pearl. This is a text that has long resonated with me, and even more so since Jack died (see: and for background info).

In Pearl, when the Dreamer shares that he is:

Pensyf, payred, I am forpayned,

& thou in a lyf of lyking lyghte,

In paradys erde, of stryf unstrayed.

I am hollow with loss and harrowed by pain,

yet here you stand, lightened of all strife,

at peace in the land of Paradise.

— from Pearl: A New Verse Translation, 2016 by Simon Armitage

I recognized myself as one also “hollow with loss and harrowed by pain.” Although death might be ubiquitous, the death of a child or a child preceding a parent in death, is something that is difficult for most to fathom. Indeed, those who experience this subversion of the natural order are often incapable in expressing the myriad ways in which such a loss impacts their lives. Simply put, words often fail us.

I think that might be the real cornerstone for not only my thesis, but almost any scholarship I have undertaken over the last few years. In fact, I sense that this theme will guide my studies well into the future. At times, I have questioned what might appear to others as an unhealthy obsession with death. But, I am no alone with this concentrated interest. Loss figures quite frequently as a subject in almost every genre of narrative and form of writing with at least one noticeable exception: scholarly writing. Admittedly, the purpose of scholarly writing would seem, somehow, to preclude subject matter that is inherently personal.

But, why is that? My area of interest, English literature and all its variations, emanations, and et als, is firmly ensconced in the humanities. Does it not seem somehow paradoxical that a discipline with the root human so often tries to deny its own humanity?

In my thesis, I have tried to dive into this paradox. To be succinct, there are two central issues or questions that this project has developed around:

  1. What is permissible to write about in academic spaces?
  2. What forms of writing are sanctioned in academic spaces?

Heterotopias & My Guy, Foucault

Michel Foucault in Paris, from Michel Foucault: Eraserhead by Alexander Hawkins,

Everyone who knows me knows that aside from death and travel, my other obsession is Michel aka Papa Foucault. In particular, I have taken a deep dive into Foucault’s theories on space, discourse, and power. My professors and peers are probably sick of hearing or reading about heterotopias at this point. I won’t go into detail with this because I will be sharing my thesis, but for anyone interested, the blog posts I did for another site (with one of my colleagues for a class on rhetoric) give a pretty decent, and relatively quick run-down on the general bent of my research. Episode 5: Sarah’s research project

Note: The site linked-to above is an illustration of the possibilities afforded by digital media in academic projects. My colleague and I produced podcasts to accompany the blogs. This format was the most comfortable for us. The option to produce a multimodal project allowed me to explore material in a manner that I don’t believe would be possible with more traditional formats. Just having a dialogue with a peer — something that in the era of COVID has almost disappeared — fostered a new understanding of the subject matter.

Although that project was on Christine de Pizan, I think the issues brought up — women’s rhetoric, patriarchal gatekeeping, and personal loss — are closely intertwined with some topics discussed in my thesis: feminist narratology, grief writing, and self-writing . These various forms of discourse are typically marginalized, contained, and constrained by more traditional, heteronormative paradigms in a process that seems to mirror the formation of the heterotopias as described by Foucault.

Self-Writing and Grief Narratology

As I detail in my thesis, I have struggled to find a form of writing that bridges the gap between academic writing and personal narrative. In the Fall of 2022, I was enrolled in a creative writing class. I have never written anything that I would consider remotely creative (the few poems shared on this site do not count in my mind). I thought the structure and makeup of a creative writing class would help me craft something that reflected my story.

And, it does to some extent. One thing that I realized, or perhaps I already knew but needed it to be emphasized, is that you never know where the writing process will lead. The manuscript that came out of that class is something between creative nonfiction and family historical fiction. It is also a very round-about account of generational loss and trauma.

I am sharing that manuscript in its complete, ugly form here.

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