Thursday, January 27, 2011

Advice for a budding medievalist (in literary studies)

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:

Dear Stu,

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!


LanglandinSydney said...

Great post Dr Virago! Those languages --check. I'm not sure how much students realize how important Latin, especially, is. I'd also add, though it probably goes without saying, that the student ought to make sure to cover some Chaucer and Shakespeare somewhere in there. Wish I'd had Quod She when I was applying!

Dr. Rural said...

That is a great post.

Vellum said...

That would've been a nice letter to read when I was in undergrad. Still, it sucks that hir college doesn't offer Latin. I so sorely wish I'd take it earlier, when my brain was still more flexible -- even a few years can make it the difference between "wow this is kinda hard" and "holy god how did the Romans ever communicate with one another?" (I suffered through the latter, as you may imagine). So yes, if you can emphasize the latin even more, you might want to. It's a prerequisite for graduate study in medieval literature in a lot of places these days.

Also, can I be the first to jump on the "Jon Jarret makes me feel inadequate about my non-medieval blog posts" bandwagon? :D I'm probably off his blog roll by now too.

Belle said...

Excellent advice (and post). Much of it translates into Grad School Advice for other fields too.I too wish I'd had somebody giving me that kind of advice at that point. And that I'd been smart enough to listen.

Bardiac said...

Superb. And helpful not only for hopeful medievalists, but for English majors who think that it might even be a possibility.

Hope you don't mind if I link :)

c . . . said...

Very nice, and the tone seems right on - friendly, knowledgeable, and not at all condescending. One thing I might suggest: you put a reasonable amount of emphasis on writing, but I wonder about doing even more. In the first couple paragraphs, you're talking mostly about reading and thinking. Would it be good to repeat the writing mantra in there as well? This may be my comp & rhet-ness speaking, but my sense is that real comfort with critical writing is an incredible asset for applications, helps shape a proto-scholarly identity, and (this is speculation) can even help ease some of the anxieties and obsessions of graduate student life.

Plus, I know more than one graduate faculty member who's said things like "If they can write, admit them."

Dr. Virago said...

Ooh, great suggestions, everyone! In the actual letter, I'll emphasize both Latin and writing (and writing and writing and more writing) more strongly.

And yeah, I think this could easily be adapted to any English major and to other majors, as well. I think I'll edit and add an update saying that at the top.

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, and Langland in Sydney -- I kind of assumed that a student already interested in medieval literature wouldn't need encouragement to take the courses offered in medieval literature! But perhaps I'll add a paragraph on getting a firm grounding in medieval and renaissance lit and on classical literature (his major actually requires a classical lit in translation class).

Clarissa said...

Great letter!

I'm amazed that you have time to write such long and detailed letters to students you never met. I don't even have time to write to my best friend. Maybe I should have gone into Medieval Lit. :-)

Dr. Virago said...

Clarissa - I'm on sabbatical, remember? (Of course, there are other things I should be doing!) Also, I wouldn't do it if the student wrote to me out of the blue, but his professor wrote to me, so I think of it as building professional bridges, especially since the student and the professor are at a local college we often recruit MA students from.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I have to disagree. While it's a nice letter, thorough, and pitch-perfect in terms of tone, I think the "bad news" convo -- if by bad news you mean the prospects for finding a career-oriented job -- needs to be had NOW and not in two years.

Dr. Virago said...

Anon - Yes, that's the bad news convo I meant. I guess what I'm thinking is that a) he's likely to change his mind (perhaps many times) over the next 3 1/2 years, and all of my advice stands irrespective of his career plans, and b) that's the kind of conversation best left to the professors he knows and trusts. That's why I said if they don't give him the bad news, to come to me; I'm assuming they will.

What I want to do is to encourage him to continue to be interested in medieval literature and to be the best English major he can be. Too much bad news and I might drive him away from that, as well.

How would you balance the encouragement in the here and now of undergraduate studies with the warnings about the risks of graduate study?

Janice said...

Dr. Virago, that's a fantastic letter. May I adapt part of it to work into my "so you're interested in grad school" speech? Particularly the part about being the best "insert field here" major that you can be. I admit to my own personal biases but at a small institution, if you over-specialize as an undergraduate, it will often hurt you badly.

Now? Back to my sabbatical.

Anonymous said...

Also, can I be the first to jump on the "Jon Jarret makes me feel inadequate about my non-medieval blog posts" bandwagon? :D I'm probably off his blog roll by now too.

You could both look, and you'd find you're both respected members of my blog-roll community and have been for ages. It was just that one entire front page of dog posts that got to me :-)

This is a great post, by the way. Not least because I think only someone who can genuinely maintain the passion necessary to make it through the mill could hope to follow all the suggestions...

Dr. Virago said...

Janice - Adapt freely!

Jonathan - Heh. Actually I *did* look and was relieved to see I was still one there. Still, you *did* warn me at NCS that sometimes you take me off!

Btw, there's another dog post coming up! :)

Anonymous said...

Dr. V -- I'm anon 10:02 from yesterday. I may not be the one to ask as I am fairly jaded -- permanent adjuncthood will do that to you -- and no longer see the point in grad. studies in the humanities at all. That said, my more balanced advice would be to study medieval lit. (or whatever lit. one wants to study) for the purposes of developing a deep critico-cultural awareness of both the past and present and how these intersect in complex, ever-changing constellations.

Sorry, I know it's not much, but from my bottom-feeding place within the academy, that's the best I can do. Well, apart from saying 'why don't you major in computer science or business, something that will make you qualified for a job above barista or adjunct'.

Dr. Virago said...

Anon - Although I can understand where you're coming from, I do think you're conflating "going to graduate school" with "choosing a major." And I think perhaps you missed the fact that the student is a freshman at a small liberal arts college. Computer science and business aren't even majors at his college! But that's OK, because anyone who sets out to be the best X major s/he can at a reasonably selective college with some name recognition (which is where this student is) is going to have options after the BA, regardless of major. And a freshman is likely to change his or her mind about what's next after the BA multiple times. I know I did, even without changing my major. Heck, even when I was applying for jobs my senior year, I applied for -- and was interviewed for, and was offered -- jobs in a range of fields and industries (none of them coffee-related), so even then I was still trying to decide. And then three years later I went to graduate school. So that's why the "don't go to graduate school" speech is a little pre-mature and why my advice was mostly geared towards just being the best English major he could. Who knows what he's going to be interested in pursuing in three years, or even next year.

And like Jonathan said, he's not likely to follow my advice unless he's preternaturally determined anyway. I mean, you give most freshman a list like that -- take *ALL* the English classes; oh, and also history and philosophy and religion, etc.,but also your general ed courses; and not just *one* language, but *two*, one of which you might have to travel to a summer program and pay extra money to take -- and they're likely to say, "Huh. That sounds hard."

So with all that in mind, I do think the hard news -- which I *do* give to juniors and seniors -- can wait. Let's let him do what he loves while the stakes are lower.

But I appreciate that you came back, and didn't just do a drive-by "I think you're wrong" post! Please keep stopping by (and forgive the occasional dog post)!

Dr. Virago said...

Oh, and just to clarify, I *don't* mean to suggest that just because he might be preternaturally determined will mean he'll get a job in academia -- or heck, even get into a PhD program in the first place. Just that it's the rare student who'd read my advice and go, "OK, then, let's get started!" :)

Anonymous said...

Fair point on the elite, recognizable SLAC. That's a key that certainly unlocks some doors, regardless of major.

As for the dog posts, bring 'em. I'm a dog guy and can go on and on about the joys (and evil) of mine. He really is part devil.

Dr. Virago said...

I think you can also make yourself stand out from a public university -- and not just the flagship -- by being the best major you can, but it might take some work to get noticed in a bigger population. But yeah, the fact of having been admitted to a selective college already puts a kid ahead -- fair or not.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Late into the conversation here, because for some reason this only showed up in my blogroll today ((shakes fist at Blogger)). While I was reading your post, I found myself thinking less about the content, and more about my approach to unknown students (and unknown blog correspondents) who e-mail me asking advice. Generally, I've been impatient -- though I do much better with students in my own department. This post of yours is a model of a much better approach, I think.

Dr. Virago said...

Notorious -- In this case it's because the professor asked me, rather than the student e-mailing me out of the blue. And by blogging it, I figure I can always recycle it for the next time I need it!