>Yes, I’m still here. Holiday travels and events, plus getting back into the swing of organizing my unstructured time, took a toll on my blogging. Also, I was trying to decide what to write about next and dithering over it until I got an e-mail today asking me to give advice to a first year undergraduate student at another institution who’s interested in medieval literature and in possibly pursuing graduate studies down the line. And I thought, “Wow, that would make a great blog post, especially since it’s medieval in content and I haven’t written a medieval-related post in awhile (which means that Jonathan Jarrett has probably taken me off of his blog roll or is about to!).”
So let me share a draft of what I might write to him when he writes to me (it was his professor who first contacted me on his behalf and the student hasn’t gotten in touch with me) and see what you think. Please feel free to add to or argue with what I say. And since it’s advice for a student at a very small college, where departments consist of 3-5 people and no classical languages are taught, perhaps in the comments we can also make suggestions for those students at bigger colleges and universities. (And note that in the letter I *gently* address the “whether you should go to graduate school at all” issue. He *is* only a freshling.) Also, if my tone is too condescending, please tell me! I’m not used to talking to first years about graduate school!
Edited to add: with some minor revisions, you could easily adapt this advice to apply to any English major. Do a few more revisions, and it could apply to any humanities major or any other liberal arts major. Feel free to use, adapt, and link!
So, here’s what I might write:
I’m so glad your professor put you in touch with me. I’m happy to answer your questions and give you some general advice about what to do to pursue your interests in medieval literature now and in the future. You’re already *way* ahead of the game by thinking about graduate school already as a first year student. I didn’t realize that I wanted to pursue a Ph.D. until I was already out of college, and I felt like I spent the first couple of years in graduate school catching up with what I didn’t know. So, in a way, the advice I’m giving you now is what I wish I had done myself as an undergraduate.
OK, first of all, you have three and a half years to explore: to find out what you love, what you’re good at, and who you want to be. Don’t be so focused on the goal of getting into graduate school to study medieval literature that you miss your chance to learn new things — things you might not even yet know you’ll love. You can get more advice like this about college in general and how to get most out of it from the book The Thinking Student’s Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education by Andrew Roberts (University Chicago Press). Not all of his advice will apply to you, since the author works at a big research university (Northwestern) and bases a lot of advice on what resources students at such big places have. For example, he says not to take too many courses with any single professor, but there are only 5 professors in your English department, so that can’t be helped. Also, he has an annoying habit of saying that most professors are more interested in their research than teaching. That’s definitely not true at your college, which is committed to undergraduate teaching, and it’s not even true of everyone at a research university like his. But most of his advice is excellent and equally applicable to you as it is to a Northwestern student.
But now, on to the more specific advice about your plans to pursue medieval literature. First of all, as an undergraduate, you shouldn’t narrow yourself too much beyond the major, and your major is English literature, not only medieval literature. Make your goal being the best *English* major you can be and you’ll actually be helping your chances of getting into a good graduate program. Admissions committees in Ph.D. programs don’t want to see someone so focused so early that they seem unwilling to learn or incapable of making connections across a wider literary history. As professors we often have to teach outside of our specialties in surveys and introductory classes, so the better educated you are in English studies more broadly (including English literature, American literature, comparative and world literature, and rhetoric and composition), the more flexible a scholar and teacher you’ll be. If your department offers a literary theory course, be sure to take that, as you’ll need it in graduate school, and it will give you the tools to think with as you study and write about literature now. Start thinking of yourself now as one who studies and thinks about literature and how it works, and not just someone who reads lots of literature. And to do that really well, it helps to think about how language works, so if take a history of the English language course if it’s offered. It also helps to have experience thinking about as many different genres and cultural and historical contexts as possible, so try to take a range of courses that teach you about as many periods and types of literature as possible, even ones you think you might not like. Even if you still want to be a medievalist, those other courses will help you think about how literature works, and therefore how medieval literature works, perhaps in contrast to how a novel or short story or modern play or contemporary poem works. Take the maximum credits you’re allowed in your major department, but don’t skimp on related fields: history, philosophy, art history, literature from other cultures and languages (more on languages in a minute), and theater (especially theater history). As you’re doing all this, get to know your professors, not just in class, but out of class in their office hours and any department events. The more they know you, your work, and your goals, the better their letters of recommendation will be for you. At a small college like yours, it’s really easy to know your professors and for them to know you — take advantage of that opportunity.
And as you get further in your major, start doing research and reading criticism about the works you’re writing about. Write research papers for as many classes as you can — ones that don’t just summarize what other critics have said, but that enter into conversations with them, argue with them, and get ideas from them (with all due credit, of course!). Ask your professors for advice on what to read, on how to do research (if there isn’t a course on research methods), and on how to write in conversation with the criticism you find as you progress in the major. (I recommend the book They Say / I Say as a good guide to writing research papers, and librarians are *great* human resources for helping you learn to do the research.) If your college or the English department offers you the chance to write an honors thesis, take it. Graduate school and a large part of being a professor is about doing research and writing original scholarship about literature — again, in conversation with other scholars — so the earlier you learn to think that way and to read what others have written, the better jump you’ll have on graduate school and being a scholar yourself. After all, one of the best ways to learn to do something is to imitate someone else doing it, and in reading and thinking about literary criticism, you can start using that criticism as models for your own writing.
While on your college’s web site, I saw that your department offers a summer study-abroad trip to England with the professor who teaches medieval and early modern literature in English. If you can afford it, go on this trip. You get course credit and a great experience all in one, and there’s nothing like being in the places you’ve only read about. Even if you’ve been to England before, being a student there is different from being a tourist, and includes opportunities you’ll only really get as a student.
Now, there isn’t time in four years to take every course ever offered, and you have other requirements and educational goals to meet, too (and you should aim to get that broad liberal arts education in the best sense — don’t skimp on the science and social science courses). So you should be choosy in some ways. Since you want to be a medievalist, choose courses in related fields most closely related to your interests. You’ll still get the benefit of breadth, since you’ll be learning how different disciplines have different goals and objects of study. If there aren’t enough specifically medieval offerings in history, art history, philosophy, etc., take courses on the ancient Greek and Roman worlds (especially Roman) and on the European Renaissance. Or find out what was going on in Asia and North America while Europe was in the Middle Ages.
And take as much of a foreign language or two as you can. Be serious about learning the language beyond the required two years. Unfortunately, your college doesn’t seem to offer Latin, so take French or German, or both. If you passed out of the language requirement, take another one anyway, or get better in the one you know. Most Ph.D. programs require proficiency in at least one foreign language, and sometimes two. For medievalists studying English literature, Latin, French, and German are the most useful, commonly-taught languages to know. There are intensive summer programs in Latin, if that’s an option for you now (Google the phrase “intensive Latin summer courses”); you could also leave that for later, once you’re in a graduate program.
And finally, start looking into graduate programs in your junior year. Most applications are due in December and January of the year before you plan to start. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking time off from school — I took three years — but if you want to go straight from college, you’ll really need to start getting applications ready over the summer and early fall of your senior year. While you’re doing all this, talk to your professors, especially the more recent graduates of Ph.D. programs — the ones with the title “Assistant Professor” — and ask them about what graduate school is like, where they went, what being a professor is like (especially beyond the classroom), and how they got their jobs. I’ll be honest: I don’t recommend graduate school for everyone. But you’re off to such an early start thinking about it, that if you start preparing now, even if you choose to go another route, you’ll still have given yourself a great and enjoyable education. If by this time two years from now, in your junior year, you’re still thinking about graduate school and no one has given you the “bad news” talk, get back in touch with me. And in the meantime, use the resources of your career center and learn about other career paths you might take. There are a lot of interesting careers out there you’ve never even heard of, as well as a lot of smart people in the world who love literature but who aren’t professors and have fulfilling lives. It’s good to have options.
And any time you want to ask me more advice — especially about graduate programs for budding medievalists — drop me a line. Best of luck and keep in touch!