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Need Help Deciding Between Comp Lit, Critical Theory, and English


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Hello everyone,

Welcome to my pre-graduate educational crisis. 

I'm currently a Junior in a BFA Creative Writing program; however, I studied English at my previous college. I need help deciding where to focus my academic efforts over the next 9 months so that I'm not applying to programs which are beyond my skill-set.

I've considered pursing an MFA, but after speaking with my advisors I feel that a PhD program better suits my current interests. I'm much less interested in publishing creative work in literary journals than I am in understanding the rhetoric of artistic forms and the culture/experiences they encapsulate. 

I've been primarily looking into Comparative Literature graduate programs (the interdisciplinary potential excites me,) but

  1. I only have an intermediate level of French; I can read fluently and speak fairly fluidly, but my writing skills are comparatively poor.
  2. I'm very interested in Showa Era Japan, particularly post-war, and the cultural exports of Japan to the United States and France, but my Japanese is very rudimentary.

My McNair advisor suggested I pursue the UCSC History of Consciousness program or another program rooted in Critical Theory. I really took to the whole 'liberal arts' thing and waded into every pool of the humanities (visual art, philosophy, identity, etc). My small college doesn't have much to offer me in this area so I'm researching this field on my own.

I'd also be happy to focus on methodologies (Narrative and Rhetorical Theory, Marxism and Critical Social Theory, Writing Studies/Pedagogy, Cognitive Studies) so I'm open to English programs that allow me to focus on this aspect. 

My areas of academic knowledge are broad but very shallow. I'm not sure what level of experience in these areas I'm expected to have as an undergrad. I've only just started looking into some academic journals this year. My classes have focused more on theory and I've only written a couple of serious research papers. None of them have been in any of my areas of interest so far. The closest I've come was when I was translating Baudelaire, discussed its poetics, and mentioned its depiction in a manga/anime, Aku no Hana (this wasn't even a traditionally academic paper, more of a poetry/creative essay/academic hybrid.)

Is it a bad idea to pursue academic research when I've been more trained to pursue an MFA? Would an MFA allow me to explore these academic areas without jumping ship into what's essentially another discipline?

Is a bad idea to pursue interest areas in which I have only limited undergrad academic experience? 

Thank you for any feedback you can give me. I hope I have enough time between now and November to course-correct my time and studies towards a viable area of discipline. 

 

 

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As someone who has been caught in a similar quandary, it seems like interdisciplinary programs may be the way to go here, unless you're willing to modify the scope of your research interests to suit the terms of more conventional English programs, or unless you're able to brush up on your language skills in time for you to apply to comp lit programs (not only will you need to know how to speak, read, and write adequately in your chosen languages, but I believe that a certain familiarity with their associated national literatures would be helpful as well). 

3 hours ago, RoughlyHewn said:

My McNair advisor suggested I pursue the UCSC History of Consciousness program or another program rooted in Critical Theory. 

UCSC's HisCon would be a great example of one of such interdisciplinary programs, but I'd be slightly wary of applying there now, given the considerable lack of funding and the working conditions that have given rise to the recent grad student strikes. (The way that the university's administration has retaliated with threats of mass firing isn't reassuring either.) You could also consider programs like Stanford's MTL, UCSD Lit, Duke Lit, Berkeley Rhetoric, JHU's Comparative Thought and Literature (I've just realized that they require only one foreign language at the time of admission), and Brown's MCM (if you're into cultural and media studies). I hope this helps! 

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Regarding the MFA: I'm assuming you want to do creative writing. 

I would say for your particular set of interests - no. Some MFAs are very studio-centric. Others have strong lit requirements (I took five lit seminars, overall, myself). However, the focus is very much on your writing output. I loved my MFA experience, but workshop is a pretty brutal time in most programs, and juggling serious investigation of your interests and deepening your knowledge base with that is going to seriously split your attention and I doubt you'd have time to pursue other languages on top of those pursuits.

My lit seminars definitely helped prepare me to write at a higher level than my BA, but because I never undertook an extended academic research project, I think I am going to basically come into grad school as a slightly-ahead undergrad, if that makes sense. I wouldn't try to focus on both creative work (especially if you're not actually interested in that as a career) and academic work when you're in the exploration phase.

On top of that, applying to MFAs is, if you can believe it, even worse than applying to literature schools! It is very common to apply to 12-20 schools and be shut out for two cycles at a time. They basically only care if they like your writing. I wouldn't put myself through that if I had a choice!

Edited by merry night wanderer
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11 hours ago, BwO said:

You could also consider programs like Stanford's MTL, UCSD Lit, Duke Lit, Berkeley Rhetoric, JHU's Comparative Thought and Literature (I've just realized that they require only one foreign language at the time of admission), and Brown's MCM (if you're into cultural and media studies). I hope this helps! 

Thank you, this helps a lot! I was looking into Stanford's MTL, Duke Lit, and Berkeley's Rhetoric so it helps to hear I'm on the right track. I wasn't aware of the grad strikes either, so I appreciate the information. 

I'm meeting with an advisor today so hopefully that will provide me with more direction.

Since you were in a similar situation, can I ask what influenced your school application decisions? 

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5 minutes ago, merry night wanderer said:

I loved my MFA experience, but workshop is a pretty brutal time in most programs, and juggling serious investigation of your interests and deepening your knowledge base with that is going to seriously split your attention and I doubt you'd have time to pursue other languages on top of those pursuits.

Yeah, my BFA right now it's basically 100% workshopping and while there's aspects of it I enjoy, I realized that I'm ultimately more interested in other people's creative output more than my own. I appreciate the perspective you shared because I realize I'm already feeling that split and it's not working out well. 

Do you have a sense of how much research experience we're expected to have when we enter a graduate English program? 

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Honestly, it sounds like it depends on how good of a research project your sample is, for the most part. If you can prove, through the sample, that you have solid research, my impression is you'll be fine. Though most of the schools I applied to asked about my research experience. In full disclosure, I did a summer research fellowship in undergrad, but that was my only research experience. I did a bunch of research solo for my sample.

I wonder if there are particularly flexible funded MAs (that is, with not very rigid course requirements, that might let you work on theory and languages and whatever else you're interested in) that could help you out? Either in the English or Comp Lit spaces, or even in French. 

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8 minutes ago, RoughlyHewn said:

Since you were in a similar situation, can I ask what influenced your school application decisions? 

As I was discussing with someone else in a PM conversation earlier, given that departments like Stanford’s MTL state quite explicitly that they prefer “projects that could not be carried out in a conventional department,” I didn’t know if my work would be sufficiently far-out to suit such interdisciplinary programs (as it turns out, it probably is). This was partly why I decided to apply to more “conventional” English departments instead. (Other reasons had to do mainly with funding packages for international students.) Granted, there are faculty at each of the schools to which I’ve applied who are working in some capacity on my areas of interest, but they tend to be jointly appointed in comp lit departments and — as I later learned — have less of a presence in english programs/adcomms. Besides, most of my POIs in these programs are at a stage of their career where they can put out more interdisciplinary work — precisely what interests me — and no one will bat an eyelid. But this sort of research tends not to be what’s expected of English PhD dissertations and early-career job applications, which still remain grounded in traditional periodizations/demarcations of approaches. (Oddly enough, academic publishers do prefer books that are more interdisciplinary and can reach a wider audience, so many students end up having to put in extra effort to rework their dissertations into their first books.) 
In this sense, I don’t think the “fit” was quite there for most of the programs on my list. Like I mentioned in another thread, if I had to do over this cycle, I’d probably apply to more of the programs that I’ve listed above (or, if possible, just spent more time working on my language skills to apply to comp lit programs), though I really hope I don’t have to undergo this arduous application process again. 

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From the perspective of someone in Comp Lit (though my undergrad was in English), language may well be the biggest hurdle for you if you are looking for more traditional comp lit programs, many of which expect research experience of a non-English literature, read in the original, at the time of entry. If you plan to work on post-war Japanese literature, remember you will be competing against native speakers and those with near-native proficiency when you go on the job market. The French will be useful, however: save for the folks who really do French literature, most people learn French just so they can read French theory in the original, so writing is not all that important. 

One difficulty with highly interdisciplinary programs - despite the quality of training, the wealth of experience, and how well they can fit your interests - is that sometimes they lack in-depth training in national languages and literatures, in the traditional sense. This is not a problem if you don't plan on finding an academic job, of course, but something to keep in mind otherwise. Sometimes jumping ship into another discipline (by doing more academic research or getting more language/national literature training) may not be the worst choice, depending what your longterm goals are. Just my two cents, of course!

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Similar to what @EM51413 just said, my only note, as you're thinking of which type of program you would like to apply to and prepare for, is about the market. My first cycle I applied to both Comp Lit and English programs (as well as Berkeley's Rhetoric) and one of my professors (who has been a leading scholar in comp lit for years yet teaches within an English department) told me to keep in mind that comp lit PhDs have a harder time getting hired. Of course, being interdisciplinary means you're not limited to a single market, but the perceived lack of specialization can make it tough when a hiring committee is looking at you and wondering if by hiring you they will cover a teaching area or period.

This is not to say that you should follow the market (in fact the market changes). I wound up applying anyway, because that was the work I wanted to do at the time, but I did so knowing that I might have a harder time finding an academic job in the future (this can be mitigated (to what degree? who knows) by applying to program that successfully place candidates, of course.

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Also, as a general piece of advice, you might want to apply to some MA programs first. It sounds like you're still in the process of totally figuring out what you want to specialize in, and MA programs are great for that, since you get some more time to develop the depth, etc. that you say you feel like you're currently lacking. Good luck!

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19 hours ago, BwO said:

Besides, most of my POIs in these programs are at a stage of their career where they can put out more interdisciplinary work — precisely what interests me — and no one will bat an eyelid. But this sort of research tends not to be what’s expected of English PhD dissertations and early-career job applications, which still remain grounded in traditional periodizations/demarcations of approaches.

This is a really important observation.

 

I'll just add to the sage advice offered by @BwO, @EM51413, and @WildeThing and say that before attending an interdisciplinary or comp lit program, it's certainly a good idea to look very closely at their placement record and I would also advise taking some time to look through what sort of jobs get posted here: https://academicjobs.wikia.org/wiki/Academic_Jobs_Wiki

It's true that one can't predict the market 5-10 years out, but I also think the volatility in desired specialties is just as likely to mean that the market for a given specialty will get worse as it is to indicate that there may be an increased demand for a particular specialty. 

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