Friday, January 30, 2009
Every society has its verbal tics, secret passwords, and words of belonging. With the beginning of the new semester in graduate school, it's time to prove once again that you know the incantation, the words to Sugar Magnolia, etc. Inevitably this will involve uttering one of two phrases in just about every class, club, or group that renews itself mid-year:
1. "I'm interested in...[the literature of the high Prussian court in 1876, transgressing international borders, beets]."
2. "I work on...[the sherry trade in the mid-Atlantic, genre formation and its significance to pea plants, joining the clean plate club]."
Like many habits of graduate students, I find this one more and more irksome the more I experience it. (It probably belongs on some sort of "Stuff Graduate Students Like" list.) But I've developed a strategy now, and I have high hopes that it will put a nice layer of fiberglass insulation between me and my madness.
I think of the cat. See above.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009sharp little analysis of what made yesterday's inaugural poem so dull. The short answer is the lack of an organizing metaphor. There's really no excuse for its absence in such a short piece. Nor is there any excuse for "brick by brick."
I'm taking an interesting course called Doctor Faustus' Books to fulfill my Renaissance requirement. (I'm not sure why I have this requirement, given that I was an Early Modernist as an undergraduate and took so many Shakespeare classes that I can almost tell you what anyone is going to say about Twelfth Night after I hear the first word of their first sentence. Not that I mind, though: it's a chance to revisit some old favorites and remember why I hate some old enemies. Hi, Spenser.)
The idea is that we're to read everything mentioned or alluded to in the Marlowe play, and thus gain some sort of MLA cocktail party comprehensiveness about the Tudor period, or enough to ask at least one misguided but not too far off-base question of a proper Renaissance scholar on a panel. Nobody's admitted this, of course. You might think from this description that I think the whole thing a sham, but actually I approve of greater comprehensiveness (and comprehensibility) among those fortunate enough to call themselves literature professors. There's a vague and not very well chewed on belief among people who take, for instance, the GRE in English Literature that superficial knowledge of a number of different periods and broad topics in the field is keeping them from something more important, like tallying up the number of times the word "she-goat" appears in the Domesday Book, but I'd argue that it's exactly that sort of micro-specialization that makes professors such good characters in novels and such mockable ones in non-fiction. Superficiality isn't always a bad thing, particularly if it directs you towards theories and ideas that better unify the answer to the question that few of us ever bother to ask ("what's the point of literature, anyway?") and instances that, upon further exploration, prove useful for whatever it is you were so obsessively occupied with in the first place. Maybe there are she-goats in other places, too. Maybe, just maybe, she-goats are the underlying cause of Victorian novels. Or the corpus of Don DeLillo. (The latter is more plausible.) And no one should be so quick to trivialize cocktail parties. Maybe if more people went in with the attitude that, you know, the actual stuff of life happens there, and that it's not such a dreadful thing to know enough about your drinking companion's work to ask a semi-reasonable question about it and get a semi-reasonable reply, the quality of cocktail parties and ergo life would be much enhanced.
Incidentally, I learned something new already. I googled she-goat to make sure it was really a word and not just a funny construct that existed solely inside my head, and I discovered that it was good luck for a Roman man for a she-goat to walk across his path on his way out of the house, because he would think on Caranus, the first king of the Macedons.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
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.