Literature Pre-Grad Intern Travis Alexander
A Final Course Reflection: Looking Back and Looking Ahead
The semester now coming to an end, I can't believe my internship is over. I have had a phenomenal time, and I'd like to take a moment to reflect, briefly, on the highlights of my experience and the lessons I learned. Before moving into specifics, I might say, here, that over the course of my internship, my desire and resolve to apply for graduate school were strengthened; at this point, it is simply something I have to do. I have moved from seeing graduate school as a means to an end-a necessary path to being a professor and researching-to seeing it (the doctoral program in literature) as something entirely valuable in its own right: the best way to spend six to eight years. At one point this semester, a professor told me that "if there is anything other than graduate school that could make you happy, don't go." Daunting, right? Perhaps. But at this point, there is nothing that would make me happy in that way. And so, the decision, it seems, has made itself.
I'll begin by noting a few of the observations I have made on my field as a whole. After speaking with a grad student, I have learned that the sociology of the field of literature-perhaps any field in the humanities-is remarkably isolated. After the first two years of coursework are completed, I learned, students lose track of most of their colleagues to a large extent. By the time the dissertation is in full-focus-with the possible exception of a class to TA-most graduate students seem to be mostly alone. While this would deter some students, it suits my working style and social preference. I also learned a fair amount about funding opportunities within a humanities discipline like literature. While outside funding in the form of grants and fellowships is available, my mentor noted, this avenue is not always possible. And for that reason, he recommended that I look thoroughly into the funding "package" offered by the schools that I apply to, as this may be the only financial support I can expect to receive. Again, this seemed daunting at first, but as I began to research the issue, I realized that the schools I was already interested in do compare very favorably in terms of funding.
Once these factors-funding, prestige, and ranking-came into perspective for me, I spoke to my mentor and he confirmed that, in fact, graduate programs (doctoral programs, at least) seem stacked in every way toward schools at the top. Not only are they ranked higher, which increases the chances of their graduates finding a job upon graduation; not only are they more prestigious, which means, generally, their students have more access to top scholars in the field of literary criticism; they are also the best funded, which makes the entire experience a bit less stressful. In putting together a list of schools I will apply to, I decided to contact a few other professors in the English department who had attended the schools I was considering, in order to hear not only about their experience there, but to hear if-based on my particular area of interest-there might still be some faculty members at that school who would be in a position to work with me in my graduate studies, should I be admitted there.
And so, I did a bit of research and met a few professors-both in the English department and the American Studies department, and found my discussions with them incredibly helpful. One professor in particular pointed me to a faculty member at UCLA, who, as it turned out, had written one of the books I was using in connection with my thesis. I was then able to contact that professor, who seemed quite enthusiastic about my research plans. In fact, we are scheduled to meet and discuss UCLA when I am in the area in early January doing research for my thesis (a topic I will return to below). This process spurred me to conduct a bit of research on my own on the faculty pages of the schools I was considering. I gradually filled out a document that outlines all the professors at a given school who had research interests in-line with my own. I feel that, with the aid of this research, my applications will be much more informed and targeted. After discussing these schools with my mentor, I believe my list now includes: UCLA, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Michigan, Cornell, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Harvard, Duke, Chicago, and Penn. My mentor and all the faculty I spoke to continually emphasized the fact that, though these schools are remarkably difficult to get into (about 4% acceptance rates each), they are perhaps the only schools worth going to, worth devoting seven years to, and worth taking the post-graduation job-market gamble on. I also consider myself much more informed now about the actual phases and mile-markers that divide and constitute the Ph.D. program-those parts that account for the six to eight year period. One of the professors I met with-my second reader, in fact-is responsible for the graduate admissions in UT's own English Ph.D. program; he provided me with great insight into the crafting of the "dossier" of materials that comprise an application for admission. Though I have learned over the course of my internship that the road ahead is anything but easy, I am at least knowledgeable about the particular obstacles that stand to lie in my way, and, moreover, I know how to address them should they arise. But as I was doing this research into the admissions and work component of graduate school, I was also working on my honors thesis on Charles Bukowski.
And it was this component, actually, that accounted for the greatest (in terms of time, at least) component of my internship. Since my internship mentor-Dr. Bremen-is also my thesis supervisor, combining the two elements was very feasible. Over the course of the semester, my thesis claim has not only become more sophisticated, but it has come closer to showcasing the research that I did over the summer (chiefly: interviews and reading) and continue to do. I gradually developed a routine that made the thesis work much less intimidating than I imagined it might be. At the outset of the internship, I set up a schedule with Dr. Bremen that allowed us to meet for at least an hour every other week. Before each of these meetings, I would hold myself to making some progress-either reading (researching) or writing. And most often, I would be able to draft between five and twelve pages before each meeting. I would then send these pages to Dr. Bremen; he would read through them and offer me advice or critique in some form during our meeting. I found it tremendously helpful to hold myself accountable to him. Knowing that it would be embarrassing to go into a meeting with nothing new accomplished, I worked consistently, and now-going into the winter break-I have about forty pages written and edited.
While I have never had a problem in college with time management, I found that the thesis component of my internship is quite a different project in every way from something like a twenty-five page seminar paper. And so, I had to be completely honest with myself about my work habits. While I knew before that my preference is to write in the mornings, I had to adopt a policy this semester that I would write something every Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday morning-be it an edit, a new page, a new paragraph, or simply a quote from a book I read the night before. This skill, I think, will help me in my writing-intensive graduate studies. The reading techniques at my disposal also increased in the course of my internship-related thesis research. I learned to become selective, not only with material in books, but, further, with the books themselves. I came to the conclusion that all sources are not created equal, and moreover, that I don't have the time to address every source. This, too, is a skill that-forced upon me by my thesis work-will stay with me and make future projects less onerous.
I can also say that, as a result of my research, I am much more knowledgeable on the field of literary criticism as a whole. I learned that at any given moment, there exists something of a dominant critical lens, shaped by the preoccupations of the period. Right now, for example, a project like mine-on Bukowski-seems to run against the grain of current scholarship, in that its engagement of cultural critique does not seek to illuminate the present day much beyond the scope of the critical schools an writers I'm considering; this, though, might change by the end of the project. I have learned, also, where literary theory-as opposed to criticism-might be applied. I have, for example, borrowed heavily from Michel Foucault's theories on control and discipline, even though his writings (Namely: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison) don't directly concern them with literature as such.
Finally, in connection with my internship, I was attending a weekly graduate seminar taught by my mentor, Dr. Bremen. Not only did I learn a great deal in this class about its subject-modernism, but I also learned about the attitude of grad students and the nature of their conversation in class. What I have learned, I think, in the broadest sense, is that grad students-while certainly advanced-are not wholly different people than my peers or myself. And in realizing that, I also realized that graduate school is entirely graspable.
I might note, here, that I am also grateful to the IE program for providing me with funds that will enable me to continue researching. With the grant I received, I will be able to travel to the Special Collections library archives at UCLA and UC Santa Barbara in January before the spring semester begins. Conducting primary research like this has provided me with a great sense of fulfillment along the course of the project, and I am indebted to the IE program for allowing me to continue.
My internship experience, in short, has been incredible. I have formed connections with faculty and students on campus that, otherwise, I likely would not have made. I immersed myself in the closest thing possible to the graduate experience for an undergraduate, and I am now ready to begin next semester-my last as an undergraduate-looking forward to the next step that I am surely ready to make: graduate school.