Memoirs and Confessions of a Second-Year Ph.D. Student

Here are the facts as I know them: 1. There are never enough hours in a day; 2. I have students who still think I don’t know that changing their font from Times to Courier adds at least a page to their essays; 3. The long 19th century is such a joy to study.

I didn’t always know these facts. When I was an undergraduate English major, using Courier in every paper I wrote about books that I only partially read, I was aimless. I took classes in order to get my degree, I earned A’s, and I didn’t minor in anything. You could say that I wasn’t the most pragmatic person on the planet. At the time, I wasn’t fully focused on school or my future; my older brother had left for Israel instead of attending law school as he had originally planned, and I struggled, trying to understand his decision. Later, as I pondered what I might do after my B.A., I was torn between graduate school and law school. A Romanticism seminar in the fall of my senior year tipped the scales.

One of the first books that we read was Frankenstein, the first assigned book of my undergraduate career that I read cover to cover. What sold me on Mary Shelley’s work wasn’t the fact that she wrote in response to a ghost story competition—instead, it was an anecdote shared by my professor. He told us how he had inscribed the creature’s words: “I will be with you on your wedding night” in a card at his friend’s wedding. How clever, I thought. I, too, wanted to be that witty, literary friend at weddings, but I realized that I should not and could not quote a book that I had not read. It was the first time that I fell in love with a canonical work.

We read a lot of other interesting works in class, and– in case you’re wondering–I did actually read them in their entirety. However, it was the last assigned work of the semester that changed my life. But Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice didn’t grab my attention right away. So, to make it more animated, I began reading it aloud to my cats with different voices. Soon, I was invested in the characters. And then I brought my interpretation of the novel to class: I said there was an erotic attachment between Darcy and Bingley. My classmates reacted with violent disagreement. They took it personally—that is, they were uncomfortable with any reading of a famously heteronormative text that involved queer desire. In all honesty, their disagreement delighted me. It motivated me. It led me to attend office hours and read literary theory for the first time. I read Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Freud, Lauren Berlant, and Michael Warner. I wrote multiple drafts of my end-of-semester paper. And I realized that—just as my brother had done something unconventional that he loved—I loved writing about literature that I had actually read and thought about in unconventional ways; I needed to read for intellectual engagement, not just for pleasure or for finishing an assignment.

I didn’t know it then, but I had stumbled upon the subject I am most passionate about, the deconstruction of heterosexist interpretations of texts. You could say that Pride and Prejudice was my patient zero. As a MA student, I continued working with Austen; the next text that I plunged into was Persuasion, and then it was Emma. In my M.A. thesis, I argued that the heteronormative relationships depicted in Austen’s three novels are built and premised upon queer desire.

As a Ph.D. student who will enter into her final semester of coursework in January, I am actively compiling my exam lists and just as actively kicking myself for not actually reading for my first three years of college. The list of works that I’ve read, while growing, is woefully underdeveloped, and I see my exam lists as an opportunity to atone for my undergraduate sins.  Even though I’ve been exposed to theory and a variety of tropes and texts, I remain interested in looking at texts—especially famous heteronormative love stories—and analyzing the ways in which desire functions. My dissertation will be a transatlantic study of desire and will further the ideas that I’ve been so passionate about since that seminar on Romanticism in my senior year of college.

PS. In case you’re curious–I have read Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner and therefore feel okay about using parts of Hogg’s title.

 

5 thoughts on “Memoirs and Confessions of a Second-Year Ph.D. Student”

  1. I’ve never thought about desire between Darcy and Bingley! There’s got to be a whole trove of fanfiction written about them. Cool post!

    1. Thanks, Deven! I really enjoyed your post about reading books as material objects. I’m thrilled to learn more from you!

  2. Would you believe I didn’t read Austen until my Master’s program (Sense and Sensibility was my first one, then P&P, now I try to teach Northanger Abbey semi-frequently) and Frankenstein until I finally taught it as a Ph.D. student? We’re all catching up, especially in the nineteenth century, where there are so many books to choose from! I’m still woefully underread in Scott (I’ve only really read Ivanhoe and sections of Waverley) and don’t get me started about the Victorian period.

    I feel that imposter syndrome is especially prevalent in academia, when you feel that somehow everyone else has access to this reading list that you just didn’t get. But everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps we should all try being honest and/or confessing once or twice to dispel that feeling. Thanks for this great post!

    1. Thanks for reading, Roger! I’m excited to pick your brain further about your Austen experiences.

  3. Part of the attraction of scholarship and criticism is that there’s always something more to read, something more to learn. I remember that in my first year of graduate school, I was surprised but deeply impressed to hear a brilliant and highly accomplished professor say to a student in a seminar, “I’m not familiar with that book, but it sounds like something I should know about. Can you tell me more about it?”

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