>Hi everyone (if you’re still out there). I thought maybe I’d test the waters of blogging a little bit again — maybe a couple of times of week. The impetus at this moment comes from the fact that I’m in my office after 5pm on a Friday, no one else is around, and I just thought of something kind of funny that I should have said at our faculty meeting today, but didn’t, and now there’s no one to tell it to. So, I thought, “I know! I’ll tell the blogosphere!” It’s not really funny (so don’t get your hopes up) but I did literally think of it on a stairway, and actually, there’s something serious worth talking about in the context (which I’ll do below). Also below are questions to all you in English literature.
So at our meeting today, we were discussing this nice big bequest our department has received from a former faculty member who passed away recently. There are restrictions, of course — the main one being that the money has to go to students. So we’re setting up scholarships and writing prizes and travel funds and the like. In discussing the travel funds, one of my colleagues said we has to put some kind of limits on it so that we wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the applications of students going to “non-competitive” conferences where they accepted everybody. (I’m making him sound much snobbier than I think he actually meant to be. I think his real concern was how to keep the fund alive and not drain it by giving it away too easily. But still…) As other colleagues, usually of the older persuasion, concurred with this gentlemen that some conferences were better than others and therefore more deserving of funding, “Victoria” offered the suggestion that the applications would have to include a narrative in which students assessed the value of this particular conference to them and their education and professionalization. (I heart Victoria.) I concurred and said that, for instance, the biggest conference in my field, the “Zoo,” was created precisely to be open to all scholars at every level, now including undergrads (vs. the more “competitive” conference which was, at that time, open only to full professors), and was relatively easy to get into, but that for a budding medievalist, it would be an invaluable experience.
That’s when Smartass Poet said something disparaging about medievalists and their boring conferences, to which I responded. “Hey! We’ve got dance, mister!”
To which he responded, “Oh, what do you do dance to? Madrigals and motets? And do you dance in rounds and carols?”
I said something lame about there being plenty of the white man’s overbite, which would make Smartass Poet feel right at home. (Yes, our meetings sometimes are like a dinner table full of teenagers.)
But what I should have said is this: “Hey man, we party like it’s 999.”
OK, maybe I shouldn’t have. And I told you it wasn’t that funny.
Now here’s the serious part. What was up with the colleagues who thought our poor, hapless MA students should only get funding when they go to a “competitive” or “peer-reviewed” conference? Our students would benefit just from attending a conference, any conference, let alone giving a paper at one. They need to hear other models of presentation and thought and interaction, to understand that they should think of themselves as participating in a scholarly conversation. Most of them are so unaware of scholarly expectations and conventions — despite the models we give them ourselves and in the scholarship they read — that they’re not likely to get in a really competitive conference. Starting on a smaller scale is exactly what they need. And they also need to see other graduate students in action, to see that what we expect of them actually is possible at the graduate level. (Some of our students are under the impression that we expect too much of them — like coming to a seminar with something to say, for instance.) Many of them don’t even try to go to conferences because of the expense — because until now we didn’t have funding — so just getting them to apply and go to conferences is enough of a goal, I think. And I have a feeling some of them don’t even know about the existance of conferences or what’s done at them, so maybe the advertisement of money to go to one might make them more curious. the last thing we need to do is put stringent limits on such an encouragement.
As you can gather, I think some of our MA students are a little, well, clueless. It’s partly our own fault, I think but also partly the nature of our program and who it attracts. We have only an MA program (once upon a time we had a Ph.D. program and I think it’s very good that we don’t anymore) and its population has diverse educational needs. A number of them are local high school teachers and they are some of best students, as well as the population best served by our program, I think. Amazingly, they are also the least likely to complain about the workload, despite doing this on top of fulltime jobs! Others have started off in other disciplines at the BA level and then realize they really should have been English majors and want to follow that dream after all, and they’re also some of our really bright students. Then there are the ones who are still trying to figure out what they want to do, and they’re the most mixed bag. Some are talented slackers. Some are just slackers. Some are just plain odd.
Anyway, I can’t really change the nature of the pool of students who come into the program, but next year I’m taking over the “Methods of Literary Research” course from a senior colleague who is retiring. I have big dreams of whipping our MA students into shape, of making them realize that they are junior members of a profession, even if their two-year stay in our program is just a layover on a journey elsewhere. Of course, I’m sure that the class will rudely burst all my idealistic bubbles once Fall semester rolls around, but between now and then I can dream.
Right now the shape of the class as I imagine it is partly a course in basic research methods for literature, with visits and talks by my colleagues on their various field-specific resources and hot topics, but also a meta-discussion about what it means to be a part of a scholarly conversation and how to enter into it. I think I will also address some issues of professionalization (how to write a CV and that sort of thing). My retiring colleague currently has them do an annotated bibliography as their final project, but I think I’ll modify or add to that somewhat and ask them to assess and describe the state of the scholarship of a work of their choice — that is, where have the liveliest threads of discussion been, where are they now, where are they going?
But here’s my questions to you all:
1) If you’ve taught or taken such a course, is there a good, recent, introductory book about the broad trends and directions in literary studies today? Or one written to graduate students about making themselves part of the scholarly conversation? Book orders are due soon! Help!
2) If you were a first-year graduate student again (or are now) and feeling overwhelmed and clueless, what would you like such a course to teach you, either in terms of how to do research or what’s expected of you as a junior member of the profession?