A fugitive piece on reading and writing, Part II

From Part I: And with some chagrin, I had to admit that my list of guidelines — although I stand foot-firm behind them — represent part of the problem with my discipline, perhaps with the academy as a whole, or at least the humanities. Getting a Ph.D. in literature (in my case, American Studies), can actually strip from you whatever love of reading and writing you may have had as a child, your very identity as a writer. …

hunt and peck

Part II: What do you do?

The other day I told a colleague I adore about a screenplay I’ve been wanting to write, a popular eighteenth-century British play I’d adapt as an American high school comedy. “If you’ve got a creative streak like that, go for it!” she said. The comment, intended as well-meaning encouragement, still kind of stung. I mean, after all — we’re both paid to write books for a living, and even our teaching involves a serious amount of creativity.

But I know where she’s coming from. Somewhere along the way, academic training, at least in my branch of the academy, has a way of taking the very things that set you on this track in the first place — the joy of reading and the prospect of writing books — and turning them into something onerous or, worse, intimidating, even paralyzing. My first day of grad school the director of my program sat the incoming class around a seminar table and opened with these lines: “You’re about to set out on a risky career path, but if it all works out, you’ll spend the rest of your lives being paid to read and write and talk about books. What could be better than that?” So where, along that path, did my identity as a writer — something I’d carried with me since my parents bought me my first typewriter at age six — fall like a lost glove on the sidewalk?

can you help me? i'm lost.

The process of identity loss was rather gradual, I think, and stemmed from many sources. For one, I’d always wanted to write fiction, but at some point realized that in order to get a tenure-track academic job — still following that early advice my parents gave me — I’d have to be a literary critic first. Though I realize, of course, that tenure-track jobs in fiction writing exist, they seemed even more elusive than jobs teaching literature. Somewhere during my years as an undergrad English major, I convinced myself that I liked literary criticism, and so, when it came time to move on to grad school, my vocational goals had shifted accordingly. I no longer wrote stories; I wrote about them.

Then there’s the process of submitting to what’s aptly termed an academic discipline. In my specific discipline, through much of the 20th century, writing literary criticism was less about being “literary” than it was about trying to seem scientific in the classification of literature and in explanations of how language and literature work. On top of that, through much of the ’80s and ’90s, critics spent more time exposing literature’s complicity with systems of male dominance, white supremacy, and bourgeois class values — or even the failure of language to represent what it purports to represent — than they did appreciating its imaginative power, the way a good novel can suck you in, the way the last line of a poem can hang in the air like a breath waiting to be taken, the way a song can change you.

On a fundamental level, the process of entering a field — even an interdisciplinary one like American Studies — can be rather traumatic. You learn which critics and theorists matter most, which journals and presses are hot, which questions are smarter than others, which conversations and debates have the most important participants. You try to figure out how your professors write and why, and how they expect you to write. Disciplinarity originally arose alongside the concept of expert knowledge; you have to figure out how to make yourself an expert at what you do. To some degree this requires a maverick sensibility — compatible, I think, with the impulse to be a writer — but more often it requires submission to authority, which to someone with a maverick sensibility can be demoralizing.

And there’s simply the experience of answering, through several years of grad school, the question “What do you do?” with an answer about what you study. Or, you finally get a job and start answering the same question with “I teach.”

it looks like a professor, it must be a professor!

Whatever the reason, you may find yourself a decade later looking at a stack of admissions applications and feeling like they’re postcards from a foreign country you spent several months in but haven’t visited in years. And the very qualities that set you off about some of them — the naiveté about the rigors and risks of the profession, the anecdotes about childhood loves of reading and writing — turn out to be the things you miss most deeply about what brought you to this career in the first place. Undergrads still have the freedom to think of themselves as “writers”: they can submit to journals and magazines they edit themselves, enter and win departmental prizes, read poems to one another in coffee houses, register for fiction writing workshops, even if they’re just electives. They’re young enough to encounter fresh writing for the first time, to relish a really fine sentence without feeling self-indulgent or the need to establish one’s smartness through an equally fine reading of that really fine sentence.

Though I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing something — a paper, a book, an editorial, a story, a thesis, a dissertation, a novel — at some point on my way to Bildung and vocation that early identity as a writer suffered some serious damage. I realized this when I was finishing the book that had been my dissertation, sitting in the back corner of my neighborhood bar with my laptop open, when an annoying patron over lunch kept peppering me with questions. He started with: “What are you, some kind of writer?” And I remembered that the right answer should be


These days, with my own grad students, I hope to strike a less cynical pose toward the profession — the vocation, and yes, even the craft — than we were subjected to in the ’90s, when the humanities seemed poised to fall apart, under external pressure from conservatives waging a culture war and internal pressure from the need to establish the relevance of what we study in the context of a corporate capitalist culture. I try to check my own impulses to reward early professionalization over naïve wonder or clever conformity over careful consideration. I hope to keep their writers’ identities alive under duress — it’s no secret that writer’s block is endemic in Ph.D. programs — and to recognize the creativity my own work requires.

I think I’m getting something right, at least part of the time. Last semester a grad student took me aback with the observation that I’d often say, during the course of a discussion, how a piece of writing made me feel. Somehow, against all the years of training to denigrate sentiment, even if you acknowledged its historical power, I had become a sentimental reader. “What ever happened to the idea that a book can change your life?” I asked as part of the conversation that followed. A few present even snickered, certain that it was a trick question, that grad school was no place to own up to a love of reading. I recalled the answer a favorite professor had once given to that same question: “You should never forget how you felt the first time you finished Invisible Man.” I was especially struck, during this recent admissions process, by a handful of applications that came from places where writing still mattered — where novelists or poets could be considered enemies of the state, where they were routinely exiled or imprisoned. Does all writing matter like that? Of course not. Should it? No. Can you trust the feelings produced by any given piece of writing? Not always. But if a story offends you, it’s time to make up another one, not to pretend you’re somehow removed from the problems and pleasures of the words themselves.

25 responses to “A fugitive piece on reading and writing, Part II”

  1. Marleyfan says:

    This is a very powerful contribution. It sort of reminds me of the movie Jerry McGuire, where he has this epiphany, about what he is doing professionally versus what he really wants to do (but they can be done simultaneously). My sister always has this ability to make me feel like I can accomplish anything I want, and if I could pass on even a little of her enthusiasm and optimism, I’d pass this- GO FOR IT. Write the novel and screen play, take a chance, life is too short to not to. We are taught not to be selfish, to give of ourselves to our loved ones, children, and our jobs, and many of us forget to keep some for ourselves. Go create a good novel which can suck you in, write the last line of a poem which can hang in the air like a breath waiting to be taken, or sing a song which can change you.

  2. Jeremy says:

    Wow, this is such an interesting and thoughtful self-reflection, Bryan.

    It got me thinking about my own identities that have been lost (or that’ve gradually morphed into other identities) over the years.

    From skateboarder to student, for instance… In fact, a huge part of my transition from adolescence to adulthood coincided with leaving skateboarding and academic probation behind.

    Also, from student to teacher… Initially, this seemed like the most difficult and unnatural transition of all, partly because they are such different roles, of course; but also because as a student I was taught how to read and think about literature, and as an instructor I’m teaching freshman how to write expository essays… somewhere along the way, someone decided that literature majors should be tapped to teach general education writing courses (at least in community colleges), and so this became part of my identity shift as well. Now, I’m much more comfortable teaching and talking about literature within the framework of teaching composition.

    Anywho, this post hit close to home, partly because although I’ve never really identified myself as a writer (at least not a very ambitious one), I still fantasize about that identity, and partly because I’m also reading applications for teaching positions (in fact, I better quit slacking and get back to it).

    Thanks for the post, Bryan. I love it when you write about work…

  3. Tim Wager says:


    As one who tried to fit into academia and couldn’t find the place where I’d be at home, I very much appreciate your awareness of how you have changed yourself as you’ve adapted to the profession, combined with your simultaneous refusal to leave your other selves behind entirely. You have become the change that you wanted to see in the profession, primarily when it comes to how creativity and affect are held in suspicion by too many academics. What a pleasure it is to read your meditations on this subject!

    For myself, I managed to find a job that combines some of my favorite things about teaching — advocating certain books and writers; helping writers with their writing — while eliminating the aspects of it that really wore me down — grading; resistance from students and administrators; and, well, writing. Writing is so hard for me that having a writing task will send me into a panicked funk when I try to begin. Then, once I’ve actually begun, I become obsessed and possessed, forever worrying over the smallest details, realizing that there’s too much to say, cutting it down, re-reading, revising, revising again. By the time I’ve finished, I’m exhausted, wrung out. It’s like I’ve been inhabited by a virus, taken over and sent into a feverish sweat, and then left used and spent.

    Working as I do now, I have the pleasure of participating in the creation of books, but I get to be the doula instead of the one in labor. Of course, there are many discouragements along the way — rejection after rejection, unreturned phone calls and emails, reading so much dreck to find that one pearl — but I still have my romance with this job. There’s nothing quite like the joy of discovering one of your favorite writers and having the chance to collaborate with her by helping edit her work and finding her a publisher.

  4. Rachel says:

    Then there’s the process of submitting to what’s aptly termed an academic discipline. In my specific discipline, through much of the 20th century, writing literary criticism was less about being “literary” than it was about trying to seem scientific in the classification of literature and in explanations of how language and literature work. On top of that, through much of the ’80s and ’90s, critics spent more time exposing literature’s complicity with systems of male dominance, white supremecy, and bourgeois class values — or even the failure of language to represent what it purports to represent — than they did appreciating its imaginative power, the way a good novel can suck you in, the way the last line of a poem can hang in the air like a breath waiting to be taken, the way a song can change you.

    Bryan, while I totally see your point here, in some ways I find these disciplinary practices, these critical frameworks, enabling. They don’t steal away the magic from literature; they multiply it.

    One of the things I initially found exciting about feminist criticism, for example, was the way it sought to rediscover writers who were forgotten or under-read. To me, it felt less like exhumation than meeting someone fascinating at a party who had been standing on the other side of the room the whole time, obcsured by the crowd.

    I have done some of this work myself, and while I occasionally am still met with (and I quote from an Ivy professor with a few beers in her) “Who the fuck cares?” about obscure works, the joy of finding them, and reading them, and teaching them, more than makes up for it.

    Some people are also wary of historical/cultural approaches, because they seem to be less about the ineffable art of story or language than they are about context. Again, though, I have to disagree. I love to see all the connections between a text and its time, its past and present and future, the meanings spiraling out endlessly like Mandelbrot sets, or stretching out like huge spiderwebs heavy with dew.

    To put it differently, as beautiful as your conclusion is (and as susceptible to beauty as I am), do you really believe in such a thing as “the words themselves”?

  5. hey rach — i hope i didn’t come off as too grumpy there. i wasn’t trying to disparage the critical approaches i catalogued, nor do i think we’re past a point where people should be doing such work. (i want to do some of it too!) my real point is that it’s easy for methods and disciplines to codify to the point that no new knowledge is being produced; everythings a factory product instead. i’m concerned that when things get down to factory work we lose sight of how creative we need to be to do what we do. it just feels like work.

    of course i find the sort of recovery projects you’re talking about rewarding, and of course i take pleasure in reading for a text’s cultural politics. but a line like this — ” I love to see all the connections between a text and its time, its past and present and future, the meanings spiraling out endlessly like Mandelbrot sets, or stretching out like huge spiderwebs heavy with dew. ” — is lovely because you’re a lovely writer, not just because you’re making a good point. i do believe in words, my sista. they hurt, they heal, they confuse, they confound.

    having said that, i should make it plain that most of what i read for work is not aesthetically pleasing. but i still find it engaging, in part because what i enjoy about my work is asking how writing worked in different times and places for different people, and lord knows there’s more bad writing than good out there. it also makes my rare pleasure reads more pleasurable.

  6. hey, thanks, marley, tim, and jeremy, for the nice thing you’ve said.

  7. Eleanor's Papa says:

    Thanks Bryan. Is there any vocation so contradictory as being a writer? Like you, I feel like I’ve made a career out of avoiding the impulse to “write” — while ironicly making a career out of “writing” something else. Law and academia are the traditional refuges from the Muse, and yet I’ve still foolishly managed to keep all the stresses of writer’s block and deadlines, but with yet another brief cleverly defending Wal-Mart’s employment practices rather than the great american novel to show for my labors.

    I read a good book this year about the psychology and physiology of writer’s block (“Midnight Disease,” by Alice Weaver Flaherty) that like your post is an elegant reminder of the paradox of this particular kind of creativity. But how do you revive inspiration?

  8. annie says:

    Wow, Bryan. An interesting post. I identify with a lot of what you wrote. And I agree with Tim that you have become the change you wanted to see in the profession. I also think you are quite a writer, even if you don’t self-identify as one. Why else do you think so many folks tune in here regularly to see what you have to say?

    I empathize, too, though, with the challenges of writing and believing in writing while being a part of academe. Honestly, this is part of why I left. But I think you and the responders here also raise interesting questions about the challenges of writing–or pursuing any creative endeavor–while the demands of jobs and the rest of our lives simultaneously ask for our attention. Many of these demands aren’t so conducive to creating. What I appreciate about TGW is that it calls out and allows an audience for creativity and ideas that might not otherwise have had much of a home.

  9. Lisa Tremain says:

    I feel some haiku coming on…wanna join me?

    please, feel the poem.
    block the academic eye
    for a lil’ minute.

    you’re not a robot
    of deconstructionist parts.
    hell, write one yourself!

    you are also a critic.
    the world needs both.

  10. Rachel says:

    For all its ups and downs, Tim’s job sounds kinda sexy.

  11. I hope to have some more substantive responses tomorrow. Tonight, though, I wanted to pass on a set of questions I received offline (from a friend) in response to this post:

    “Your post on GW made me wonder about the trope of grad school as the destroyer of love for literature. But is the trope a myth? Your essay about crying for Mary Wollstonecraft would seem to be a counter-proof. And if it isn’t a myth, must it be so?”

    What do you all think — esp those who’ve been or are in the trenches? I don’t want to suggest that I didn’t have an amazing time/education in grad school. I don’t think I actually lost my love for literature or reading, but I do think my identity as a writer was altered, and that it took several years to put it back together. (Annie — with that psychedelic YES! I hoped to suggest it was back!)

    Or you could just declare where you fall on the great Lakisha/Melinda divide of ’07.

    night, all.

  12. us says:

    g’night, bry.

  13. Beth W says:

    I find this topic of identity, academia, creativity and inspiration so exciting and interesting. As the child of two PHDs, it took me a little longer to discard my “academic” self and pursue a field in the arts. First, I had to prove myself by earning that BA in math that I now try to avoid telling people about in case it would confuse my identity as a graphic designer.

    One of the most important things I learned in design school was about identity. I was told that regardless of whether I have ever been gainfully employed, I should identify myself as a designer. It was a turning point for me from uncertainty to confidence.

    Lastly about creativity, after leaving design school and the pressures of school in general, I have felt more creative than I ever before. I now fill notebooks with ideas I will never have the time to realize. I’m curious how different people discover inspiration. Is it just brain synapses firing, a blessing from the heavens or truly a sign of genius?

  14. annie says:

    Bryan, Beth W et al….

    Ironically, while graduate school did not make me feel like a writer, it did teach me how to write, and something about the pleasure of leading a contemplative life. It also taught me what it feels like to carry an idea around day after day (and year after year!). How ideas and topics can come to be companions that alter and color everything else you see, and that what you see alters what you understood the initial idea to be. This is something I love about the creative process.

    In my life now, there is little time for contemplation or creation, but I ironically (again) feel more creative. Like Beth, stepping away from a certain kind of school has done something for me. But at the same time, I miss the daily invitation to lead an idea-filled, contemplative life that grad school provided.

  15. Robert says:


    I really enjoyed this post. I do think there’s something to the notion that the academic world can, and often does, take at least some of the pleasure out of art. I had that sense frequently while researching papers for undergraduate courses, and in large part I think it came from reading the work of academics. When you decide to write a paper on Emily Dickinson and head to the library to see what other people have written, you start to see that there are lots (lots and lots) of pretty joyless words written about some amazingly beautiful poetry. Does this in and of itself condemn the profession? Of course not. No more so than the idea that bad poetry condemns the entire undertaking of writing (or reading) poetry. But it did plant some doubts in my head. Would I end up being one of the ones who cranked out tedious essays about inspiring art? I guess I’ll never know, but it seemed at least plausible, for some of the following reasons:

    I think it’s a pretty fundamental aspect of human nature that what you experience every day tends to fade, in much the same way that an odor you notice on first entering a room diminishes over time. The first Gabriel Garcia-Marquez novel I read really blew me away, but the second one had considerably less impact. Some of it is just aging and the accretion of experience. Bands that once may have really gotten me fired up I can now much more easily dismiss as sounding like a combination of Band A and Band B. How does this relate to academics specifically, though? Because maybe being an academic speeds up some of these processes, with regard to art. An academic might expose herself/himself to an amount of art that would take most other people several lifetimes, which means you reach those saturation points sooner than most people.

    Also, I think knowledge can make it harder to enjoy some of the simpler pleasures. Being a connoisseur of wine makes it harder to enjoy that $8 bottle of table wine. You tend to seek ever more rarified pleasures. Is that bad? No, but it can decrease your everyday batting average, because as a law of averages thing, you’re going to get served a lot more bottles of $8 table wine than good bottles of wine. As someone who has tried to write short stories, it can sometimes be harder to get myself out of writer mode (dissecting mode) and into reader mode (pure pleasure mode) when I read short stories now. Etc.

    Of course, I’m sensitive to the fact that I’ve chosen a different route, and that’s bound to strongly affect how I think about the academic life. I don’t think I necessarily chose my path–there was lots of happenstance. But however you end up where you are, you’re bound to make some effort to justify your choices. In spite of that tendency, in a grass is greener kind of way, I’m sometimes wistfully envious of the lives of you who have chosen the academic path, because it does sound really great to have a life so singularly devoted to reading and writing about ideas, activities that are some of life’s greatest pleasures (for me, anyway).

  16. Stephanie Wells says:

    These two posts speak to me on so many levels that it’s like you’re narrating my life, between the teaching, the reading, the writing, the intellectual pleasures of grad school, and the reading of applications (I’m always telling my applicatin’ students the same thing: don’t write “I love literature!” It’s assumed!). I love these musings of yours so much.

    It’s become a cliché among English teachers (at least, those of us who teach four classes at once) about how ironic it is that you go into it because you love to read so much, but end up in a job where you read so many student papers that you can barely have time to read one book a year. I also think that I’ve been so trained to recognize and study great, great writers—the greatest there are—that my own creative abilities are paralyzed because I can’t ever measure up to the canon I’m so well versed in. But it seems some of you manage to do it all and write too, and so well. Bryan, the answer to your question is emphatically, bubble-letteredly, YES–you certainly are, and as your tears for MW show, the magic needn’t be lost—we need not “murder to dissect.”

  17. Leisel says:

    Hi Bryan,
    As an undergrad who may apply to Ph.D. programs next winter, I sincerely enjoyed reading your last two posts. I met to discuss an upcoming assignment with one of my TAs and after talking for awhile, he remarked, “I’m amazed at your enthusiasm and genuine excitement for Beckett and (gasp) literary critics. Don’t worry, if you go to grad school, that enthusiasm will die within the first two years. Your peers will laugh at you for being so blissfully engaged.” I was stunned by this comment, considering I dream about continuing on to grad school and spending the next few years as a perpetual student. Maybe I am, in fact, naive, but I don’t think I can ignore the bizarre spark that ignites every time I read Beckett or Melville or Woolf or any of the critical writing that is produced by people who I want to believe still feel, or once felt, a similar ardor. I understand that a certain amount of professionalism, formality, and maturity is required for any advanced degree program application, but why must we always craft a persona (in the classroom, the bar, the office, etc.) of cool detachment? I’m not advocating that a “serious” critic should write (or act) like Carrie Bradshaw or any of the emo lyricists, but why does it seem like years of literary study leads to cynicism or a dislike for the creative impulses that led you to this career in the first place? I’m not accusing you of harboring these feelings, but I am beginning to wonder where the shift in sentiments takes place. Is it after the completion of your MA thesis? Is it when your first rejected by an academic journal? Is it when you realize more people will read Danielle Steel (in one day) than will read your work in an entire lifetime?

  18. Leisel says:

    *you’re first rejected… how embarrassing!

  19. Hi, Leisel. I’ve been meaning to update, amend, and respond to comments on this post over the last week. I’ll try to do all of the above by starting with your question first.

    So–the response from your TA seems to confirm the narrative I offered — one of blissful love of reading and writing, followed by disciplinary distress in grad school. The point I wanted to make most in these two posts, though, was that you don’t have to abandon creativity or a sense of self as writer in order to become a member of the academy. It’s a lesson I wish I had taped to my computer for the last dozen years, and it’s one that I will aim to convey to students in my office whenever I get the chance.

    I do think there was a general, if perhaps unconscious, sense of the failures of language and literature in the 80s and 90s, even if a lot of the criticism that betrayed this anxiety prided itself on cleverness. I don’t think things have to be so pessimistic.

    That said, I think my good friend Rachel is right to point to many of the ways in which disciplinarity can open up writing in ways we never experienced as lay people. Same with teaching for a living. I love to teach. Part of the reason why is that I love the moment when someone first realizes how amazing certain pieces of writing are. The ah-ha moments. Last night I found myself at a concert with a group of students–at my own instigation. They have amazing energy and enthusiasm, and not just for the artists we were there to watch. One of them unabashedly gushed about a class taught by one of my friends, and how it had led him to make a pilgrimage to Melville’s gravesite. We talked about Melville for a good 15 minutes before the show started. Those are key moments that remind you why you chose this profession.

    I wanted to give a sense both of how difficult it can be to enter a profession (one that requires your skills as a writer but never quite lets you think of yourself as a writer) and how important it is to resist the intimidation to perform in safe, controlled, acceptable ways.

    Consider this analogy: Painters who seriously enter the market have to perform for critics, collectors, curators, academic institutions. I’m sure that pressue could be crippling if you let it. Same for any other artistic profession. Hello, Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix, members of my cohort who never quite made it to graduation. But if you play it safe, or if you worry too much about pleasing readers or critics or professors, you probably won’t make it. Trust your gut. Love to read and write. Make sense of your materials and tell the stories you need to tell, no matter if it fits the current cookie cutters of what’s acceptable.

    I have a little more say to folks in earlier comments, but I’m exhausted. Among other things, I was accidentally imprisoned tonight in the Tenement Museum when a guard decided to lock me and half my class in there. He didn’t realize we were in the middle of a late tour. Oy veh.

  20. Liesel says:

    Thank you for the response. It was simultaneously enouraging and realistic. I most certainly will continue doing what I love and see where it leads me. Corny, perhaps, but true nonetheless. Thanks again for the wise words.

  21. well, one of the other things i wanted to do (and this, i hope, is apparent in the tone shift between parts one and two) is be both realistic and encouraging — and to check my own impulses when it comes to some of the profession’s blindspots or memory lapses.

    do you spell your name leisel or liesel? not that it matters. i just wondered.

  22. Rachel says:

    Your remarks are terrific, Bryan. I’d love for some other profs to weigh in on these ideas, as well.

    My own desire to pursue graduate study definitely emanated from my sense of myself as a reader, not a writer (and maybe that’s why I was ABD for so long…but that’s another story). One grad student stereotype is the aggrieved, overworked and underpaid, snarky know-it-all complainer–and while there’s some truth to that stereotype, it’s far from the whole story. Graduate school can be heavenly. How cool is it to have several years during which reading and writing is your JOB?! Later comes the pressure to publish and engage in Machiavallian politicking, but hey–that type of jockeying exists in most careers.

    During my first semester in graduate school I took a Faulkner seminar, and over the course of those four months, we read pretty much all of Faulkner. It was basically a full-time job. If getting that far into an oeuvre sounds appealing, then grad school is far you. Learn? And get paid for it? The reader in me knew that I would probably never have that luxury again, so I relished the experience. But some people, some very smart people included, would rather get their fingernails slowly pulled out than go on a four-month Faulkner binge. To each her own.

    With the state of the humanities as they are, I wouldn’t advise someone to go to grad school without knowing the steep odds of turning it into a stable profession. A love of literature simply isn’t enough to bet on those odds. But it is something–the most important thing. And if you’re lucky, you’ll love research and teaching too, and then the odds start to improve. A little.

    What’s the saying? Nice work if you can get it.

  23. Liesel says:

    I actually spell it “Liesel.” I’m unsure as to why it is misspelled in my first entry. Perhaps, I was concentrating too intensely on formulating a response and actually forgot how to spell my own name. In any case, I probably should work on that before I even consider looking at a grad school application, ha. Again, I thank both Bryan and Rachel for their honest words and while I’m not sure how often you check this board, I would like to pose another question to either of you while I have the opportunity. Exactly how difficult is it to secure a university job in the Humanities? I’ve heard similar comments from other people, but I do see that some English department web sites list high placement rates (although I do know they are not always accurate statistics). Is it that there are far too many 20th century specialists opposed to Renaissance PhDs? Does it really depend on what’s “hot” in the market at the time, such as Post Colonial Lit (or so I’ve heard)? Thanks again for your time.

  24. liesel —

    academic jobs are always a gamble, in part because (unlike legal or medical professions, say) the job market is so tightly controlled that you’re able to apply for jobs (once the arduous process culminates in a degree) just once a year. plus you’re limited to a small number of institutions actually deciding to hire in your field in a given year. you have to make decisions about what kind of school you want to work at, where you’re willing to live, etc. and you have to realize that most positions will have dozens, if not hundreds, of people applying for them.

    that said, and in spite of the fact that i know some really brilliant people who never got the job market to work for them for one reason or another, i feel basically pretty optimistic about it. my adviser, early in my grad school experience, stopped me on the sidewalk one day, looked me in the eye, and said, “do you really want this?” i said sure, and she replied: “well, that’s half of it, right there.” a good quarter more is blood, sweat, tears, and the willingness to let go of writing before you think it’s perfect (because it’s never perfect and you don’t have forever to perfect it anyway). the final quarter seems to me to be just plain luck, or maybe luck and pluck.

    i don’t advise people to go into it unless they feel it almost as a calling. and unless they’re pretty damn good at it to start out with. and certainly not unless they’re decently funded. i wasn’t, unfortunately, and i’ll be paying for it for a while yet.

    as for fields, you can’t just say you want to work in a certain underpopulated field in order to get into grad school. you have to be able to demonstrate some awareness of the field. it’s fine to say you don’t have a solid field commitment yet, but you should still specify major interests. and your writing sample should show that you’ve got a serious working knowledge of one of the fields you identify. it’s true that some fields are overpopulated already percentagewise and overrepresented in the application pool — post-war American fiction, for example. But if that’s what you’re devoted to, go for it.

    Once you’re in school, though, remain flexible about your education. Take classes from good professors regardless of what they teach. I went in thinking I would do late-20c comparative American lit; my turn toward historical methodologies (and a few really amazing teachers) dragged me back in time, first into the 19c and then into the 18c when I started dissertation work.

  25. Miller says:

    I can’t believe I never responded to this post. I printed both parts when they were posted (nerdy) for fear that I wouldn’t be able to access them in the future. I’ll join Liesel in thanking you (and Rachel, with her thoughtful comments) for presenting such introspections. I refered to these posts many times as I wrote my grad school apps these past few weeks. Once again: thank you, thank you.