Tuesday, January 20, 2009

So, it's been awhile

Yeah. The first semester of graduate school proved more difficult than I thought. The written work posed little challenge, but the art of digesting (as opposed to merely consuming) the volumes of reading required time and experience. I buried myself and emerged a bit cannier for it.

But with our new president's call for responsibility firmly in mind, I've resolved to take my original task--providing random Googlers a place to acquire an honest and unvarnished take on graduate school from application to, you know, actually attending classes and stuff--much more seriously.

So: first day, new semester. What's to like? Plenty. One of my cohort mentioned that she'd decided to go to Berkeley for the express purpose of enrolling in Catherine Gallagher's Victorian Novel class. This sort of dedication makes me recall with no small degree of shame the fact that I didn't have a clear idea of what made Berkeley rule uber alles other English PhD programs until I was accepted and actually started researching the question. (This was my attitude towards a number of grad schools, really. I figured there was no point in getting attached to some institution that stood a 90 percent chance of rejecting my application. Don't make my mistakes, kids. Better to have loved and lost, etc.)

A five minutes' conversation with any female in my department would reveal the startling fact that she wants to be Catherine Gallagher. In a seriously stalkerish, identity theft kind of way. When Professor Gallagher left the room to make some more copies for the gaggle (on which more later) and asked us to prepare a short speech on why we were taking the class, the woman sitting across from me said, "Uh, because I've always wanted to take a class with a professor that actually has a Wikipedia entry?" I didn't really get this until I used Gallagher's work on the function of novelistic verisimilitude in conjunction with Bakhtin's for my Novel in Theory paper last semester. It was written simply, clearly, without unnecessary jargon, and produced far more nodding than head tilts. (Gallagher's essay on fictionality, I mean. I'll find out about the paper tomorrow when I go to collect it.) I thought to myself, "Ah ha! So it IS possible to write on theory and not sound like something out of Postmodern Pooh!"

And the first class didn't shoot me in my tender, aspiring little heart. The most interesting part was when--talking about the length and pace of Victorian novels--Gallagher asked about the chronotope of Obama's inaugural address. Alas, I a) hadn't seen it yet, having left for said class before it began; and b) had no idea what a Bakhtinian chronotope is. My glance at "Формы времени и хронотопа в романе" didn't reveal much, apart from its connection to space and time and how these imprint on the narrative. Perhaps Gallagher will elaborate next time.

What I liked less (and this applies to the Novel in Theory class I took last semester, too) is Berkeley's apparent non-enforcement of enrollment limits in seminar classes. So when my enrollment time came up on the registration system last October, I was in Arizona, in a hotel without free wireless. I paid my six dollars and got it so that I could make sure that I was in the classes I wanted. I try not to fall too readily into Wal-Mart-on-Black-Friday trample mode about classes, but what in the world is preventing everyone else from registering on time (they practically broadcast your enrollment appointment to your home television set), and Berkeley from saying "Hey, part of the value of seminars is shooting the shit, so let's make sure everyone who took the time to enroll can do that"? Part of the blame falls on professors, who are understandably reluctant to tell someone who moved across the country just to take one class that it's all full up. But a good half of it is on students who can't be bothered to register until the last minute. Grad students in the humanities are infamous for not getting their shit together, and I don't care until it means that I have to sit in some hot little room too close to someone who has elected not to deodorize and simultaneously try not to breathe while fitting something perspicacious in between the mental meanderings of a Comparative Literature student and the whiny incoherence of an undergraduate.

Speaking of which, if you're going to insist that all people in your department have the chance to enroll, why not start by kicking out the comparativists and the undergraduates? Actually, I'd like to propose a hierarchy of evacuations for over-enrolled graduate classes, based on past experience:

-visiting grad students in comparative literature who don't participate
-visiting grad students in comparative literature who participate, but monopolize every conversation just to bring up their bizarre notion that Don DeLillo is the quintessential American writer. Just like all Americans are cowboys.
-graduate students past their second year in comparative literature--you're supposed to be done with your classes by now
-grad students in comparative literature in general. Jesus, don't these people have their own department? Why are there at least six of them in every class I take?
-too earnest undergraduates who find it absolutely impossible to say less than 500 words on any subject, including cheese and water balloons
-all other undergrads--the rest of us had to be drummed out of classes. Now it's your turn.

Admit it. You agree.

Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 4:34 PM