Wednesday, February 9, 2011

NIU Attitude

That's supposed to look like NEW attitude.  Did it work?

I am three or four weeks (who's counting?) into my first semester at Northern Illinois University, but my second semester as a graduate student.  That last semester was spent writhing in discomfort at DePaul University.  Now the consummate relief of being here, out past the corn fields, a Midwestern wind farm (and some farm farms) on the horizon, is bathing me in some much needed serotonin.

I met with the graduate director today, to introduce myself, to make a plan for this next year and a half, and to make sure it's okay that I'm taking Milton even though I'm a professed Victorian.  Breadth is rewarded in early graduate study here. ( I can even take three philosophy classes toward my master's degree!)  We're not all supposed to know what we're doing.  We're just expected to have a general inkling about it -- and to be curious.  The graduate director is approachable, friendly, open, and taught one of my former professors.  She says it's a family here, that the incoming teaching cohorts bond together and share war stories.  You should see the graduate assistant offices.  Workspaces packed in like Tetris blocks, eager student/teachers facing one another over back-to-back hulks of 1960s steel that used to pass for desks.  I think it's a beautiful thing, housed in a mid-century hall full of creaky wooden doors, outmoded split-level floor plans, and gorgeous vintage wall-to-wall linoleums.  It looks like nothing from the outside. Blase university architecture.  But inside it's a protective cave!

So today I told the DGS about my DePaul experience. I had planned to gloss over it, but she asked to hear about it.  I had rehearsed a thousand times in my head how to explain this awful, awful fiasco.  Would she, upon hearing about my fearful exodus from another school, kick me out? Refuse me a teaching job?  As I ran down what was uncomfortable about the DePaul program, the professional students, the distant professors, the inexplicable competitiveness (there's not really anything to compete for), she seemed to understand.  There was no disapproving "hmmph" or anything like that.  Just a reassurance that that's not the way things work around here.  At NIU, we're all in this English thing together.

I'm writing this three or four weeks into the semester because exactly three weeks into the semester at DePaul I knew I could not stay there.  Now, after the same number of meetings with the faculty and students of NIU, I know I'm in the right place.  Fancy it is not.  No one is throwing dinner parties in DeKalb.  Prestigious, maybe not. I'm lucky to be in a discipline where your writing and intellect are much more important than where you earned your degree(s).  Comfortable, practical, friendly, and even exciting are apt words for this program.

At NIU, conversations are had before class and at break, rather than fake smiles being exchanged as well dressed women pile out of the classroom to pretend to buy something in the vending machine.  Professors say "Great discussion!" at the end of class, rather than "Let's see how many of you are left at mid-term."  The PhD students are helpful and encouraging when they spot a new student.  Faculty offices have chairs arranged for students to sit and talk with them, and bowls of candy sitting out, rather than having to move all their research work off a buried chair just to find you a seat before rushing you out of the office with your head in your hands after five minutes of berating your work. There are schools like that.  And then there are schools like this.  I'm so glad to be here!

I'm in the library (a former favorite blogging/procrastinating hangout for me in undergrad) for the first time.  There is an escalator in the middle of it.  Things are of huge proportions on a state school campus.  It doesn't bother me, because I'm on my way up to the rare books room to learn about the history of the book.

P.S. My research class is what brought me to the rare books room, where I learned that not only does the library specialize in collecting George Eliot, but also science fiction, from the pulpy to the "serious."  The head of special collections seems devoted to making that genre something of scholarly interest.  Consequently, NIU owns one of the largest H.P. Lovecraft collections outside of his hometown of Providence.  I can have my Victorians and my colorful space-traveling blobs too! 

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