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The English Channel: A Graduate Student Blog

Letting Your Interests Change

It is easy to come into graduate school thinking you know what your interests are. After all, we're all required to specify our interests in our personal statements then have to recite them endlessly to each other every time we introduce ourselves. When I came into the MA at PSU, people often said that my interests will change. But I never believed them--not because I didn't think they would but because I couldn't imagine how or what my "interests changing" might mean.

Then you start taking graduate seminars and your brain is put on light-speed for a few years. At the end of each semester you look back and see that most of your concerns, worries, and thoughts from last semester were vague, misguided, irrelevant, confusing, etc, etc. As you stick with it, the good thoughts and ideas--the ones that you find yourself returning to and getting excited about--these rise up naturally through the process of blasting through stacks of books, presentations, and response papers.

This is what people mean when they say that "your interests will change": you just don't know where you are right now or where in the wild academic terrain you'll find yourself once the dust of coursework settles and you find yourself putting your list together for your comprehensive exam. Even if its precisely where you started (I came in wanting to study rhetoric of technology, and still do) the terrain looks entirely different out the other end.

Given this inevitable shift caused by the MA/early Ph.D process, you should keep yourself open and set aside some of the expectations and categories that you may be tempted to adopt like a name-tag ("Theorist", "Modernist Poetry"). More importantly, give yourself space to try different name tags (one semester I played political theorist, another, a Whitman scholar).  Doing so will actually teach you far more than you can anticipate. You might realize that your project has unforeseen political implications, for instance, as I did when I took a fantastic seminar called "Justice and Inequality" (co-taught by John Marsh (Engl Dept) and John Christman (Phil Dept)). Or you may find that you have a greater interest in theory, disability studies, science, or feminism than you had thought.

From this angle, you can also try to take advantage of the diversity requirements of the MA. Make these work for you to continue to diversify your knowledge and see what floats up. At worst, you'll learn that you don't want to work in that area. At best, you'll find terrific projects that round out your dissertation or provide fodder for future projects. For one of my pre-1800 courses I took a seminar by Carla Mulford on "Science and Empire" and ended up writing a paper on Newton. Sometimes you'll find that what these requirements yield is the sense that your interests are shared even by scholars not working in your field. My other pre-1800 was Garrett Sullivan's course on "Humanity and its Discontents in Renaissance Lit". Even though I'll never do anything with the paper I wrote on Marvell, I learned an amazing amount both about Renaissance science and its literature and found a shared interest, passion, and language with colleagues in another area.

Perhaps I was fortunate to have these courses pan out in the way they did. But there always seems to be a diverse enough course offering that you should be able to find something even tangentially related to what you're interested in (for the moment). And sometimes, because it's a good practice as a scholar, you should hop into something completely unfamiliar and let it see where it pushes you.

NYC->SCE

The summer before I left for Penn State, my father, a lover of Ben Franklin and pithy aphorisms, reminded me of one of Aesop’s Fables—“The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse.” In this fable, the Town Mouse, a cosmopolitan rodent, visits his country bumpkin cousin in the boonies. The Town Mouse turns up his nose at the Country Mouse’s simple dinner, and suggests they dine in the city instead. Although the city fare is sumptuous, the cousins’ meal is continually interrupted by potential predators, which renders them unable to concentrate on eating. The Country Mouse then returns to his pastoral domain, preferring safety and comfort to the opulence of the city. “You will get more work done in Pennsylvania,” Dad said, in case I had missed the point.

After living in New York City for six years, moving to State College was an adjustment. But many have been positive: in the land of small victories, over the past year and a half, I have re-learned life skills such as driving and cooking that had atrophied due to lack of use. And rural Pennsylvania has its own charms: the last eighteen months have brought new experiences, such as attending a college football game, joining a CSA, and going to Punxsutawney to see a certain groundhog.

Furthermore, State College has more culture than most give it credit for. I have a working theory that there is at least one good version of almost any dining experience you’d desire. And the town’s quirks are fun to discover—the best cocktails are found in a fusion Japanese/Chinese restaurant, while the best pasta is tucked away in a to-go shop hidden by a parking garage. In addition, the State Theatre screens independent films and mini film festivals, sometimes for free; the Bryce Jordan Center plays host to shows big and small (Lady Gaga, Bon Jovi, and Tiesto in just the next month); and the university offers a constant rotation of renowned speakers and events.

But most importantly, Dad was right—I can’t imagine being able to do the same amount of sustained intellectual work in the city. In my opinion, the lifestyle shift (from working professional to graduate student) is more marked than the geographical move. Returning to school is a challenge, but one well worth taking up. While I definitely miss aspects of New York, State College is infinitely better suited to my new life as a graduate student—this town mouse is totally a converted country mouse. And New York is always only a Megabus away.

J.M. Coetzee at Penn State

As the temperatures begin dropping, the leaves burst seemingly overnight into those fiery colors that remind me of jumping in huge crunchy leaf piles as a child, and the morning air turns crisper during a State College October, the days get a bit crazier for the graduate students of the English department. The thrill of teaching new groups of students, immersing ourselves in new seminars, getting to know new professors, exploring numerous possible projects and interesting ideas, starts to fade slightly into the crunch of the mid-semester, when we are settling into a sometimes hectic routine.

But then, a special event causes us all to pause in our tracks, to collectively inhale, and to remember the passions that brought us here in the first place. The IAH presentation of its medal of honor to South African novelist and Nobel Prize recipient J.M. Coetzee this past week was one of those events. Students and professors from the English department occupied almost the entire middle section of the State Theatre, and the buzz of excited chatter beforehand was invigorating, a reminder of how strongly connected the English community is here. Hearing Coetzee read the first chapter of his forthcoming book The Childhood of Jesus, his quiet, measured voice casting an almost musical spell, I felt a renewed sense of certainty that what we do matters, that teaching and writing and literature make a difference, and that people from across the Penn State community are in this incredible educational endeavor together. And I think, judging from the looks on the faces around me, that many of us felt the same way, impassioned, fired up to go home and take one of his books down from our shelves.

In the first half of October I also attended three readings by world-renowned poets, a talk by influential scholar Robin D.G. Kelley, and a lecture at the law school about the California state prison system that felt far outside my field of expertise. Each of these events brought fresh new ideas to my attention, ideas that as they have quietly percolated are influencing how I look at the teaching and research I am doing. The combination of these special visits, talks, and readings with the casual everyday conversations in our offices and seminars are what make the Penn State English department an invigorating place to live, a place that never lets me get complacent, a place that reminds me over and over—whether through enjoying the simple pleasures of the crisp taste of the early morning fall air, or through hearing world-famous scholars and artists speak—that State College is an exciting location to call home.

Too bad the pre-order for The Childhood of Jesus is currently only available in the UK…

English 015 in the Archives

As any first-year composition teacher knows, students sometimes struggle to generate topics for their writing assignments. Students are often drawn to topics that they think carry a sort of cultural currency, topics that everyone can recognize as somehow important (abortion, the legalization of marijuana, whether or not NCAA student athletes should be paid, etc.). I am not saying that I’ve never gotten a successful paper on any of these topics—I have. However, these kinds of topics can create a specific set of problems for first-year writers. When students try to discuss issues on a national or international scale, they often find it difficult to effectively explain their argument in a 3-5 page paper. Additionally, they sometimes struggle to establish ethos. They can do extensive research and cite credible sources, but they are still a college student. These writing tasks become more challenging when they feel like their chosen audience (students often decide to direct their papers towards politicians and legislators) might not take them seriously. I want my students to experience writing from a position of authority, not to feel like they have to deemphasize or make up for their personal experience (or lack of relevant experience). As a result, I decided to try something different with my English 015 classes. With some guidance (thank you, Michael Faris!), I created a set of assignments that ask my students to rely on their experiences at Penn State to generate topics by conducting research with primary sources in the University Archives.

Here’s how this works: I am currently teaching a set of three assignments that I am calling the Archival Narrative, the Archival Research Paper, and the Community Argument. This series gives them the opportunity to explore a topic in depth, to practice different styles and forms as they write about what they have learned, and ultimately to make that historical information matter by using it to inform their discussion of a current issue facing our campus. Before we visit the archives, I explain the assignments and my goals for their writing. The university archivists (who have been incredibly generous with their time and expertise) give us a presentation explaining what kinds of documents are held in the archives, the process of researching with primary sources, and the particular rules and regulations about working in that space. At this point, many students are skeptical: you mean we actually have to sit down in that room and look through a bunch of old stuff? I explain that, yes, this is a very different type of work. Rather than making up their minds about a topic and doing a keyword search for sources that support their position, they have to explore the artifacts in the archives, find interesting information, and use what they learn to develop an argument.

I ask them to begin to think about a piece of Penn State history that they find interesting. Is there a tradition that they participate in but don’t know the history of?  Are they curious about the people our buildings and streets are named for? Are they a part of an organization or group that they could learn more about? Is there a particular period or historical event that interests them and might lead them to discover what Penn State was like at that point in time? What sets them apart as a Penn State student—can they look for other students like them in the history of our institution? I encourage students to develop an idea before they visit the archives; if they don’t have at least some sense of what they are looking for, the amount of material available can be overwhelming. I do, however, stress that a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness is important—exciting stories can come from unexpected sources. Some of the students go in with a very clear idea, and some need to look through a few folders or boxes before they really latch on to a topic. After they have visited the archives once or twice, their attitudes usually begin to change. They don’t all come around—but many students admit that the research is “kind of fun” and that they can see what all the fuss is about (the fuss being me, begging them to believe that archives are exciting).

It has been fun. It has opened up new conversations in my classroom—we talk about why our institutional history matters, how tradition functions on campus, and the difficulties of telling someone else’s story responsibly and respectfully. Students teach each other about the history they have uncovered, and they enjoy becoming the resident expert on the Nittany Lion mascot or the first women to attend Penn State. They start to look at their community differently, and they come up with interesting and relevant ideas like restarting the tradition of classes competing against each other in games of “pushball” in order to create student activities that don’t revolve around drinking, encouraging third-party political student organizations and their continued involvement in election-season activities on campus, urging THON organizers to reconsider how they publicize the event in order to keep the focus on the Four Diamonds Fund rather than the student participants, or asking that the Penn State student body understand the real story behind the “We Are…” chant and think more critically about its uses today. The research process is difficult, but they learn some valuable skills along the way. Most importantly, my students are engaging with their writing in a different way; when the topic at hand is something that matters to a community they have an investment in, their experience matters too.

Welcome to the English Channel!

As president of the Penn State English graduate organization--or EGO, for short--I'd like to welcome you to our graduate student blog. Here, you will read about the lives and experiences of Penn State graduate students--from coursework to talks and conferences to dissertating and everything in between.

A bit about EGO, in case you're wondering. EGO is designed to bring graduate students together, both socially and professionally. Thus, we host activities like happy hours, book sales, and outings to minor league baseball games. (The State College Spikes play on campus during the summer season, and their games make for great evening activities after long days of teaching and writing. Plus, they're cheap, have great mascots, and sometimes let you bring your dog to the ballpark--basically, a graduate student's dream). We also sponsor a summer softball team, the EGOManiax--last year's runner up in the intramural coed division. On the professional end, EGO hosts graduate student run workshops on topics like writing seminar papers, taking comprehensive exams, having a life as an academic, and anything else that graduate students want to discuss and learn more about. Elections are held every year, so it's easy for graduate students to get involved in our leadership.

A lot goes on here at Penn State, and we hope that this blog gives you a glimpse of what it's like to be a graduate student here. Enjoy navigating The English Channel!