Friday, February 27, 2009

Money for Nuthin, Pedagogy for Free

The grad school process has inched its way to the front of my mind again. A trip to Chicago to look at art, talks with friends who live in the city, and my desire to unload my car and give up driving are all factors pushing me toward city life. That is, if I can get into a school in that city.

I am applying to the three big private universities - Northwestern, Loyola, Depaul. Northwestern is incredibly competitive but it would be worth a move downtown, Loyola is not at the top of my list but it's in a nice neighborhood, and Depaul does not have an English PhD. It's one of my "safe" MA application choices in case I don't get accepted to any PhD programs.

The possibly slim prospects of getting into a Chicago school are not weighing so heavily on my mind as my vision of city life, or of a two-hour commute. If I don't go to school in this city, I don't want to go to school in any big city.

But what of my disdain for suburban life? I was hoping grad school could take me to a better place; into the thick of something. So the rest of my choices (and some of my top picks) for grad school therefore lie in smaller cities. Places with public transpo, groovy and affordable flats, local flair, and some kind of outdoor culture.

Following is a list of my choices with some explanation of why I want to go to these schools and places. I'm listing this here for feedback, and because I have not made myself a complete list since the considerations have become serious.

Univeristy of Tennessee Knoxville, MA program
Place: It doesn't drop below 40 degrees, it's a small city about the size I'm used to, there is a huge biking culture incl. mountain biking out of town and bike lane systems in town, seems like people are down to earth
School: Faculty includes scholars of subjects that interest me, incl. a Virginia Woolf scholar. English grad programs encourage interdisciplinary study. They have PhD program that I could probably get into after completing the MA.

University of Arizona Tucson, MA program
Place: Tucson is my sometime home. Friends, family, the outdoors. Also, I know where to go for everything -- sandwiches, beer, a place to read. It would be nice not to have a new place to learn, since I've had so many already. And there is no such thing as winter there.
School: It's not the fanciest school on my list, but the abundance of funds for grad students who are willing to work is quite enticing. They allow first year grad students up to two positions, and those run the gamut from boring things like grading exams and helping freshman write papers, to exciting things like assisting in teaching creative writing courses, a Brit lit survey course, and even a "film as literature" course. Most schools assign the TAs to composition 101, which is boring for the TA and doesn't help the first year students get the best foundation. I could get a decent education and never have to worry about money.

I already know my way around those mountains.

University of Wisconsin Madison, PhD program
Place: Madison is cold, but I think I'm used to that now. The city is very liberal, even hippie-ish. Everyone rides a bike or a skateboard or something without an engine (unless it's a bus). There are plenty of nice places to live, health food stores, and book stores. It's close to Chicago so folks can visit us from there. And Wisconsin is always good for beer.
School: UW Madison is a top notch school for the English PhD. It is competetive but they also have more spaces than private schools and more money than some other state schools. The faculty seems to be very involved with the grad students (I mean that in the most proper way), and there are enough of them to form a strong English grad culture in town.

Madisonites know a thing or two about gatherings.

Villanova University, Villanova PA, MA program
Place: I honestly don't know what to expect from Villanova PA, I just know it's close to Maryland where my family is. It's outside of Philidelphia, but far enough that it's not city-like. I may have to keep the car there, but the campus and environment are beautiful.
School: Villanova is the only out-of-town school I'm considering that doesn't have a PhD in English. The MA program however, is not a terminal one, but a program that encourages students to move forward to a PhD if they desire, and helps them define their goals for further study in the two years of earning the MA. This might help me since my interests are all over the place. The only PhD offered at the school is in philosophy, and occasionally an English grad student will stay at Villanova for this program, resulting in a list of dissertations including "Philosopher X and Poetry," "Philosopher X and Aesthetics."

Who can resist the draw of the Gothic?

Cornell University Ithaca NY, MA to PhD bridge program
Place: Ithaca is pretty goddamn awesome. It does get cold in the winter, but it's a perfectly sized town of educated liberal folk and outdoor adventures. The houses are painfully cute.
School: Laugh at me if you want to, but I feel I can't short-sell myself by not including at least one Ivy League school. This one would be perfect for me -- they have a separate department for theory and criticism within the English department, the faculty hails from Yale, Oxford, etc, the MA and PhD are a combined program (I have no doubt about wanting to continue after the MA), they offer several choices for foreign languages and have summer workshops in them so you don't have to neglect your school-year studies, and they have an entirely separate school of theory that holds summer seminars that seem to turn into learning and idea festivals! Complete with vegetarian and family friendly BBQs! These are open to all grad students, so even if I can't make the big time, I will definitely spend a summer or two in Ithaca over the next few years. Oh, I forgot to mention that Cornell has boatloads of money. My stipend and one TA or research job per semester (plus summer grants for languages) would seem like I was "rollin' in it" after all these years of toiling.

One of Cornell's several amazing libraries.

Applications are not due until November or December of this year. The GREs are in October. I will spend my summer reading novels and exploring poetry to prepare, and drafting letters of intent in which I will pretend I know exactly what I want to study.

3/18/09 UPDATE: I'm adding University of Colorado at Boulder to the top three! What a town. And a great school. Like Madison, it's a good program with decent money for a state school and more openings than a private school. Very cool faculty include Jeffrey Deshell (philosophy and lit, aesthetics, 20th C American lit), Karen Jacobs (modern/postmodernism, experimental novel, visual culture) and more professors who like all the same things I do! I'd HAVE to get a TA job going in to be able to afford to live in Boulder, so money is a factor. But if I can get a job, this takes the #3 slot on my list, behind dream school Cornell and hometowny University of Arizona.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

My Personal Lost & Found

So I was on the second floor of the library, spacing out. I had been on the first floor spacing out, but too many people were looking at me. That didn't embarrass me or anything. I think I moved upstairs to save the other students the discomfort of looking at me.

Upstairs is where they actually keep the books. I found a good spot next to the window so I could look out -- it was a glowy gray day. Luminous instead of dull. I settled into the forty year old chair with its matching green metal desk. I looked up at the aged fluorescent lights, some bluish, some yellow. Our library has been the same since about 1963.

I thought about students studying here and talking about Martin Luther King, Jr. or Robert F. Kennedy coming to town. But mostly I just thought about how I like the peach and green linoleum floors and the stale scent of yellowing pages.

When my blank stare landed on a stack of medical textbooks, I started to have thoughts about the study of "sciences" like nursing. My school is a big pseudo-science school -- nursing, education, communication. And so on. I wrote on my notepad, "Students in the practical sciences are told what to think. Memorize; regurgitate. Take it in; churn it out." And I thought about how a literature student never quite knows what to think, and often has qualms about regurgitating anything.

Past freshman year there is no such thing as a "textbook" for an English major. All we have are texts. There are no model experiments, helpful pie charts, or inset boxes with "hints" in a work of literature. Unless you count the often intrusive footnotes. So we don't even want that kind of prescription of how to do things, the kind that the future nurses and child counselors get. But sometimes it sure is hard to be without it.

Then I noticed how every section of practical textbooks has the test guide for its respective grad school test. They don't put those in the English section. I got up to look. Nope -- either they know better, or they just forgot about us.

Walking down the last aisle of literature stacks on my way back to my chair, I saw something familiar at eye-level. It was my silver thermos, which I had misplaced almost a month ago! I had a feeling it was in the library, but attempts to recover it at the lost and found had failed. And there it was in the 809 section, sitting next to "Arthurian Myth and Legend," shiny, silver, and untouched with a few ounces of Good Earth tea fermenting in the bottom.

So you see how very often this aisle is frequented by enthusiastic students of literature. This is the aisle that contains titles on "poetics," "medieval writing culture," and "philosophy in literature," and in which you can pull out any given title and expect the last stamp on the card to read "nineteen-sixty-something." No one ever checks these out, or even pulls them from a shelf for a closer look. If they had, the librarian would have been back here by now and would have recovered my lost travel mug.

So I guess if I ever need to stash some contraband, or just run out of room in my bag, I can leave my stuff on my own little storage shelf at the library. King Arthur and his buds will watch over my goodies 'til my return.

The funniest thing is, I got an email from the library this morning listing all the lost and found items. Their collection was burgeoning, and they needed students to come claim their scarves and water bottles and rap CDs. Perhaps all of those things had been left in the nursing textbook section, and turned into the circulation desk by nightfall.

My library. I like it when they leave the windows open and
you can sample the book flavors from the sidewalk.

Library Lost-n-Found update: 3/2/2009 I actually left a valuable item in the library -- my laptop power supply. I wasn't intentionally testing my LnF theory, I was just working on a paper about Hegelian dialectic that nearly put me to sleep. Hence the forgotten power supply in my haste to escape the soporific screen glow and get some seasonable cold blasts of fresh Aurora air.

Sure enough, when I called the circ desk hours later, no one had turned the power cord in. So even my little study nook is not a popular hangout. I called back and asked if they could look in my nook, and there the library girls found my neglected computer accoutrement. I'm not sure how I remembered the exact spot where I didn't remember it. That is a mind mystery for another day.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Ecstasy of Analysis

I am writing a paper about a John Donne poem. I won't tell you the poem or my thesis, because this might end up being a grad school sample. But I'll tell you a little about the process of writing about poetry.

I have to analyze the poem using formalist methods. Put simply, that means you look at nothing outside the text. Only words and structure -- word choice, metaphor, irony, paradox. You consider neither the author's time nor place, and certainly not his biography.

Many literary scholars use other methods of analysis that look at influences outside the text. Contextualism, for instance, places a work on a historical timeline and considers its relationship to social climes, political upheavals of the day, etc. While this type of criticism has its merits (it makes understanding history a whole lot easier for me), I don't like to do it. I feel like I'm studying to be a sociologist or something, once I stray too far from the words on the page. And I can't stand sociologists.

So I photocopied my Donne poem and blew it up big so I could write on it, in preparation for the formalist paper. I thought I might make some underlines and a circle or two.

The photocopy is now completely covered in criss-crossed underlines, circles and arrows, colliding blocks of notes, and exclamation marks -- all about the words themselves. I needed a separate page to make notes on the structure.

Once the tide of analysis ebbed a little, I went back and numbered the fourteen lines of the "Holy Sonnet" (so I can cite line numbers in the paper). Writing those tiny numbers, pressing hard so they could be seen through the haze of scrawl on the page, I felt a kind of euphoria.

I'm in for a lifetime of this sort of stuff. And I'm ecstatic to know it can bring me this kind of satisfaction.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Ode to A Greasy Muffin

Whenever I am tired at school I find myself writing about food.

In art school, years ago, I had a notebook page full of food doodles. Stacks of drippy pancakes, floating pieces of crispy, stripey bacon, McDonald's oblong hash browns peeking out of their little sleeves.

A year ago, during a semester of poetry, I found myself writing an elegy to the hot chocolate machine. I actually did two revisions of it before I tucked it away in my old notebooks, with all the other ramblings of sleep-deprivation.

Today, in the midst of a particularly trying semester of literary analysis and philosophical reflections on aesthetics, I yawned a big yawn, and got the urge again. Out came: "Ode to A Greasy Muffin."

I won't blast your sensibilities with that text here, but I will share with you my inspiration. Then someday, when the Ode is on the page next to other Odes (I was making reference to Keats' "Ode to A Grecian Urn" for those of you who aren't English majors), you can do a contextual analysis of it. And then the formalists and I will disapprove of you.

I was tired and hungry enough to consider a nap on a sunlit couch in the atrium of Dunham Hall. Upon closer inspection, the sunlit couch was found to be a stinky couch. I considered going to McDonald's for an Egg McMuffin, sans Canadian bacon. Then I remembered my promise -- I swore I wouldn't eat McDonald's for a year. It's not like they even have much I can eat. But something always draws me back there.

So I looked like a damn fool pacing around the building, looking out at my car on the street, weighing the options. If I go, I lose my parking spot. And it's a good one. If I go I'm going to feel shame for padding Ronald McDonald's pockets. But I'm so goddamn hungry! I started outside.

Halfway to the car: "WAIT! They have egg sandwiches at school!" In the same building, there is a little snack bar with some packaged sandwiches and soups. I snagged one, tossed the ham in the garbage, and popped the muffin in the microwave. It tasted ten times better than the "Mc" version, and I didn't break any promises or waste any finite resources (unless you count "pig" as a finite resource).

If I ate ham, which I don't, I would have been even further impressed with this little muffin. It was real shaved ham, folded over so that there was more than one layer of meat. Nothing like the round piece of pink stuff that McDonald's factory stamps out of a twenty foot wide sheet of Canadian bacon. Or do they squeeze it out of a tube and cut off thin slices, like kids do with their Play-Doh factories? No matter.

The thing was good, and it deserved an Ode.