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basicpolitics

Advice for ugrad sophomore

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I'm currently an undergraduate sophomore studying English. I'm definitely interested in pursuing a PhD in English—my interests right now are the realist novel and American lit 1918-1939.

Although I've read a decent amount of theory, I'm looking for lit crit/theory texts that are must reads if I'm preparing for an advanced degree in English.

Also, any suggestions as to productive summer activities? I'll be doing an internship around 15 hours a week, so I'll have time to spare.

Thanks for the help.

Edited by basicpolitics

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Although I've read a decent amount of theory, I'm looking for lit crit/theory texts that are must reads if I'm preparing for an advanced degree in English.

Try and get a working knowledge of the history of criticism as opposed to just the C. 20th stuff. It's invaluable to see where some of the ideas came from ie. Longinus' setting the stage for Kant and Burke. For that, check out the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (3rd ed) or Adams' Critical Theory Since Plato. Both provide solid overviews.

From there, I would see what approaches interest you the most as potential lenses through which to read. I quite like Northrop Fry's Theory of Modes myself.

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I'm currently an undergraduate sophomore studying English. I'm definitely interested in pursuing a PhD in English—my interests right now are the realist novel and American lit 1918-1939.

Although I've read a decent amount of theory, I'm looking for lit crit/theory texts that are must reads if I'm preparing for an advanced degree in English.

Also, any suggestions as to productive summer activities? I'll be doing an internship around 15 hours a week, so I'll have time to spare.

Thanks for the help.

Kudos to you, basicpolitics, for getting a jumpstart on this process! If you have the opportunity, I would definitely suggest pursuing some sort of independent study/thesis project during your junior/senior years, which will facilitate the writing sample development process. Also, (though it sounds like you've already done a decent amount of theory reading), my mentor suggests Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction to most students who express an interest in English graduate study.

Hope this helps, and best of luck!

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Try and get a working knowledge of the history of criticism as opposed to just the C. 20th stuff. It's invaluable to see where some of the ideas came from ie. Longinus' setting the stage for Kant and Burke. For that, check out the Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (3rd ed) or Adams' Critical Theory Since Plato. Both provide solid overviews.

From there, I would see what approaches interest you the most as potential lenses through which to read. I quite like Northrop Fry's Theory of Modes myself.

So would you recommend just reading straight through the Norton Anthology instead of picking a few authors to focus on? Although I've taken survey philosophy classes that have basically covered Plato to Foucault, my approach to teaching myself theory outside of class has just been to pick authors that interest me and then read representative books. The field just seems overwhelming sometime, every professor seems to have their pet theorists they bring up all the time. Is it expected to have a very broad knowledge of 20th C. criticism and a solid background on pre-20th C. stuff, or is it expected to have a few authors you know really well in the 20th C. and a shallow knowledge of pre 20th C.?

Kudos to you, basicpolitics, for getting a jumpstart on this process! If you have the opportunity, I would definitely suggest pursuing some sort of independent study/thesis project during your junior/senior years, which will facilitate the writing sample development process. Also, (though it sounds like you've already done a decent amount of theory reading), my mentor suggests Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction to most students who express an interest in English graduate study.

Hope this helps, and best of luck!

Would you recommend doing independent study junior year or just taking seminar classes, and then doing an independent study senior year? I've read the Eagleton book, it's really good. I just feel like the expectation is to have an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary criticism--to be able to regurgitate Butler versus Austin, etc.--is this a complete misperception?

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I just feel like the expectation is to have an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary criticism--to be able to regurgitate Butler versus Austin, etc.--is this a complete misperception?

This always is how it feels, but I perceive that an encyclopedic knowledge of criticism/theory isn't necessary, nor is it really possible from the undergraduate level. Some programs definitely favor theory and criticism, and probably desire candidates who display knowledge in that area, but others may not. What matters most is that you seem to have a good grasp/sense of the subfield that you'd like to go into. Because my area is Romanticism, for example, it doesn't hurt me that I couldn't debate Jameson's postmodernism with a theory buff. Conversely, it wouldn't hurt me if I *could*, but that never would make up for deficiencies in my primary area. A couple of courses in criticism/theory would be good enough, I think, to show committees that you know how to do that stuff. Now, if your focus area would be in theory or criticism, that's another story.

Edited by TC3

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I'll PM you the syllabus from the class I took on the history of theory which served as a great overview, but is by no means comprehensive. It'll show the readings we focused on, and give you a sense of who you might want to go after. The whole point of the course was to demonstrate the foundations of C. 20th theory that people most commonly use. As with philosophy, criticism is an ongoing conversation with one thinker poo-pooing the work of those who came before them -- so understanding what came first is kind of vital. Keep in mind that what you're doing is going to be leagues ahead of your fellows, and much of this stuff is a pain in the ass to read as theorists are famously poor writers.* (Read this amusing post for examples: http://flowbear.blog...le-at-last.html). My advisor told me to double, triple and quadruple up on theory during undergrad, which I believe to have been sage advice as many of my peers don't have the critical toolkit they could have simply because they ran from theory as fast as they could in favor of fluffier stuff.

Another good source can be found here: http://oyc.yale.edu/.../class-sessions but as Fry points out in one of the opening lectures, the study of criticism can be split into two periods, somewhat marked by Eliot's writing. The lectures mainly stick to C. 20th., but are really strong. His discussion of Deconstruction is complex and difficult, yet fascinating.

I'd forgotten about the Eagleton text, and yes it's great. You might also want to take a look at Robert Parker's "How to Interpret Literature." It might actually be a little too crude as you're already exploring theory, but it shows you how to apply the critical lens. Also keep in mind that you can break outside of the prescribed canon and employ other studies. I recently wrote on empathy and used some narrative theory combined with the more scientific work of Theordore Lipps. There's some good theory that works with visual art too, stuff by Breton, Hal Foster etc. Much of that translates well into literature.

Lastly, although New Criticism has been pretty much laughed out of the discipline, I really liked this piece by Charles Altieri that calls for its return. Worth a look: http://socrates.berk.../Modernism.html

* The more contemporary ones, at least. Aquinas, Sidney, Coleridge, Eliot, Shelley, Wordsworth, Pater and Wilde wrote beautiful, poetic criticism.

Edited by truckbasket

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Would you recommend doing independent study junior year or just taking seminar classes, and then doing an independent study senior year? I've read the Eagleton book, it's really good. I just feel like the expectation is to have an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary criticism--to be able to regurgitate Butler versus Austin, etc.--is this a complete misperception?

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Would you recommend doing independent study junior year or just taking seminar classes, and then doing an independent study senior year? I've read the Eagleton book, it's really good. I just feel like the expectation is to have an encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary criticism--to be able to regurgitate Butler versus Austin, etc.--is this a complete misperception?

I paralleled independent study and thesis writing since I'm not sure how your department handles that sort of thing. At my undergraduate institution, there isn't any sort of "official" thesis-track/seminar option for students who aren't members of the honors program--I assumed they'd have to enroll in independent study and make the necessary arrangements with professors if they wish to pursue an extensive research project in lieu of traditional course work. Also, electing independent study could provide you with an opportunity to interact extensively with one or two professors, which would enable them to write you strong, specific letters of recommendation.

And I think TC3 did a solid job answering your theory query. B)

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Also, any suggestions as to productive summer activities? I'll be doing an internship around 15 hours a week, so I'll have time to spare.

One thing that I don't yet see on this thread is studying a foreign language. If you pursue graduate study in English, you'll have to have a reading proficiency in at least one foreign language. I was shocked when I learned this when I was in your place (sophomore exploring graduate study) because I did a "Pre-Graduate Studies" emphasis in my English BA, and they didn't require a foreign language. I signed up for French classes as soon as I could because I didn't see my High School Spanish taking me very far. If you're not already taking a language, summer would be a great time to pick up some books and study on your own.

My other advice is to read and write as much as you can. No matter what you're reading or writing, it will help you when you enter a graduate program. In case you're wondering, I'm currently in my last semester of an M.A. program.

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One thing that I don't yet see on this thread is studying a foreign language. If you pursue graduate study in English, you'll have to have a reading proficiency in at least one foreign language. I was shocked when I learned this when I was in your place (sophomore exploring graduate study) because I did a "Pre-Graduate Studies" emphasis in my English BA, and they didn't require a foreign language. I signed up for French classes as soon as I could because I didn't see my High School Spanish taking me very far. If you're not already taking a language, summer would be a great time to pick up some books and study on your own.

My other advice is to read and write as much as you can. No matter what you're reading or writing, it will help you when you enter a graduate program. In case you're wondering, I'm currently in my last semester of an M.A. program.

In terms of the foreign language stuff--I have a reading knowledge of German, but don't have any classes on my college transcript indicating this. Do you think it would be wise to start a second language, take an upper level german class to get it on my transcript, or none of the above because adcoms don't care if it's on your transcript/there are other ways of indicating language proficiency on the app?

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I'm currently an undergraduate sophomore studying English. I'm definitely interested in pursuing a PhD in English—my interests right now are the realist novel and American lit 1918-1939.

Although I've read a decent amount of theory, I'm looking for lit crit/theory texts that are must reads if I'm preparing for an advanced degree in English.

Also, any suggestions as to productive summer activities? I'll be doing an internship around 15 hours a week, so I'll have time to spare.

Thanks for the help.

I'm in the same boat as you: I'm a sophomore studying English and am interested in pursuing a PhD. In asking around the English department at my university, the most frequently-recurring advice I've been given is to gain a strong proficiency in a foreign language (I'm taking French). I've been advised to take more French classes than my school requires (4 semesters) so that I can possibly minor in it. The other major piece of advice I've been given is to take a wide berth of courses outside my major: for example, a bunch of history and philosophy courses. From what I've heard/read, taking more English courses than is required for one's major isn't a particularly good idea (many graduate courses are simply more-difficult reiterations of upper-level undergraduate courses).

As far as criticism goes, I don't really know. I personally have a very underdeveloped hold on literary criticism, so that's one area that I'm going to have to improve.

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In terms of the foreign language stuff--I have a reading knowledge of German, but don't have any classes on my college transcript indicating this. Do you think it would be wise to start a second language, take an upper level german class to get it on my transcript, or none of the above because adcoms don't care if it's on your transcript/there are other ways of indicating language proficiency on the app?

An upper level class certainly isn't going to hurt you, but it might not be necessary. Most applications will ask about your foreign language experience, and you can also indicate it on your CV.

I'm not sure about other programs, but if you were applying to a program like mine, an upper level class taken while you're an undergrad would be an alternate way to complete the language requirement. Then you wouldn't have to take the exam itself, which is one less thing to worry about.

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Most applications will ask about your foreign language experience, and you can also indicate it on your CV.

Yeah, there seems to be some flexibility as to how this is done. A couple of the schools I applied to asked for a signed statement of proficiency, something that detailed when and where I learned the language. But I also have some ABD friends who just took a couple of six-week courses specifically devoted to grad translation, and that seemed to work.

One other thing you might want to think about doing is getting involved with departmental stuff or even tutoring if that's available. I was fortunate enough to serve as the student rep for the dept., and that introduced me to some great people. In addition, I spent 2 out of my 3 U.G. years as a TA and a writing tutor. I think that's partially due to the nature of the school I went to, but if you can get your hands on anything like that, it can't hurt! I've had some good responses based on that alone.

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All of this advice is really sound--and congrats to you for doing such serious planning ahead!

I just want to reiterate what others have mentioned: foreign language. It's super important, and it's the one thing you can do now that might actually decrease the amount of work you'll have to do as a ph.d. student. I'd suggest continuing in German, since you have a background already, and perhaps trying to take some beginning french (or spanish, if you prefer) classes, if you have room in your schedule.

Getting involved in the departmental events is also a great idea; not only will you see great films/speakers, you'll strenghten the relationships you have with professors (your future recommenders), you will also get a bit of insight into how these events are connected to the all-over workings of the department.

Two things you might also want to do: try to present a paper in an undergraduate conference. We had ungergrad conferences at my school in the spring, and I had to present at one as part of a requirement for a course (I hate speaking publically, so I probably wouldn't have done it otherwise). It's a great experience, allows you to gain some knowlege of how to field questions from the audience, see how panels are put together, etc. The other thing you may want to do is take a history course in your area. Since you're more or less interested in 20th century american lit, it may be a good idea to take a course that is focused on ww I and ww II, the depression, labor movements, and so on.

Lastly, it's awesome that you've already tried to narrow down your interests, but just remember that there is a big chance your interests may change. Try to take a variety of coursework. And I think theory is extremely important (though I'm a bit biased, I suppose): if you do decide to change your field, a strong foundation in theory will help you do that without losing depth to your interests. Good luck!

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If I could time travel to my sophomore self, I would say this: PUBLISH. Presenting at UG conferences is great, but think bigger, too. Submit original research and critical essays to peer reviewed undergraduate journals (they're out there!). Develop relationships with professors who collaborate with students on research and see if you can participate. Respond to calls for proposals; even if you get rejected by the conference, it will be great experience in writing proposals! And if you get in, you'll have that presentation to put down on your CV. Publishing is tangible evidence that you can conduct scholarly inquiry at a rigorous level. Adcomms like making safe bets.

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All the advice here is really great, but I'll throw in my two cents anyway.

As far as theory goes, I wouldn't worry too much about it unless you're thinking of pursuing it. Getting an idea of the different schools of criticism/theory (20th c.) is probably most helpful. What is really useful about a lot of theory reading is that you develop a methodology of your own, and being able to articulate that in an SOP and show that in a writing sample is always a plus. Additionally, it will help you when you start looking at schools as you'll be able to determine how that faculty looks at and understands literature (psychoanalytic vs. formalist vs. new historicism, etc.) and see if it matches well with your own approach. Being able to parce fine distinctions between theorists is less important, I think, than understanding on a broad level how schools of theory differ.

Talk to your professors. All the time. And let them know you're interested in graduate study. Pick their brains about schools, their field, their methodology, etc. Ask them about themselves and their opinions more so than "What should I do to prep for grad school?" However, if you become close to a professor on an adcomm, they can be a really useful resource when you go to apply if they're willing to look at your writing sample and SOP. But just generally speaking to profs lets them know that you're looking at grad school and you may eventually come to them to ask for a rec letter. I took repeat classes with professors I really respected and they wrote 2 of my 3 rec letters. I felt really confident having them write them on my behalf because I knew they were very familiar with my academic work and goals.

Absolutely do an honors thesis/independent research project. This will help you solidify your interests and give you experience doing independent research (and it provides a great writing sample, especially if its been polished and read by a number of professors and peers). On a similar note, and echoing what someone said above, take a broad range of English courses, even if you already think you know what you're interested in. When I was a sophomore I wanted to do 18th c./restoration lit, but the more courses I took, especially as a junior when I started writing really substantial essays, I settled on the 19th c. And going back to my previous point about profs... I took two courses with the prof who is now my thesis advisor and who also wrote one of my rec letters. She has helped me immensely, from advising me on how to revise my SOP and writing sample to compiling a list of schools when I started applying (she is also in 19th c. studies, so she could recommend great faculty members for me to work with, too).

But mostly, just keep doing what you're already doing. Keep challenging yourself inside and outside of the classroom, talk to lots of people and get as much advice as you can, and hone your interests.

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While everything everyone has said is very helpful, I feel obliged to point out, as my professors have done over and over again, that the job market is very bad, that despite the challenges of getting into PhD programs, many people do not finish their PhDs and many of those that finish do not find jobs they find desirable. So, I would encourage you to think very hard about what it is you think you would like about professing, and if there are other career paths that you might find similarly amenable. There are a number of careers well suited to academic types, in addition to college teaching: high school teaching, non-profit administration, grant writing, academic publishing, academic or student affairs, library science, various types of research, and the list goes on. Prior to going to graduate school, I worked as a researcher and then an editor for an academic press. That is a field in which jobs are also not plentiful, but they are more flexible in terms of location, they often pay more, and you have similar perks-- somewhat flexible schedules, work trips to foreign locations, smart colleagues. What is your internship in? Why aren't you considering that as a career path?

Getting a PhD is something I aspire towards as well, so I naturally understand your inclination. As an undergrad, I intended to go that route immediately, until I spent a year writing an honors thesis. I got burnt out on "the academy" and spent the next five years of my life working, until I decided to get an MA, which I love love love. Going to grad school right out of undergrad does have its perks, but I notice in my younger colleagues a lack of focus and energy that I feel I have, having surveyed the professional landscape before jumping in.

So, my advice is to take some time to really explore what else is out there, whether it's through internships, jobs, international study/travel, etc. Oh, and that's one thing I'd add to your pre-PhD to-do list-- study abroad. It is the best way to acquire a language, and will give you some transnational perspective on your own research.

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Yes, talking to professors is incredibly helpful. I'd also add that you might want to talk to your TAs (if you have them); they have just been through this application process, and probably know some helpful stuff.

Also, maybe try to take a few grad-level classes if that's allowed. I found that was a great way to just get a taste of what kind of work was expected at the graduate level. This way you won't be completely shocked or anything once you do enter grad school.

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I think I was also a sophomore when I began to seriously plan for an English PhD program. I talked to my then academic adviser, and in addition to all the great pieces of advice everyone else has shared, he really emphasized the importance of letter of recs! I'd say it's a good idea to already target 3-4 professors in the field that you want to specialize in and start to build solid, close relationships with them... you want them to be able to write a letter of rec that's really detailed and upwards of 3 pages long. Not only frequent their office hours, but also take as many independent studies with them as you can. That way in their letter of recs, they won't only be able to comment on your capabilities as a student, but as a researcher and writer. They'll have essentially been somewhat of a dissertation adviser to you and in the letter, they can make reference to the qualities required in graduate school that you're already familiar with through writing long research papers, intense revision, a heavy reading load and the like. If your independent studies are only a quarter/semester long, take as many of those as you like and then your senior year try to do either a thesis or a year-long independent study. I'd also like to really stress, as others have mentioned, the importance of publishing in academic journals and presenting at conferences.

Now, this is a bit of an odd piece of advice, but I might even suggest taking a year or two off after graduation (maybe teach English in Germany? The teaching assistantship through the Fulbright for Germany offers the most assistantships out of any other European country. In retrospect, sometimes I wish I took German instead of French!) as a way to strengthen your application. When I spoke to the director of my undergrad's Humanities Honors program, who's also on the board of admissions for History PhD applicants, she actually told me that the committee prefers applicants who have had a few years of "real world" experience under their belt. When I asked her why, she said that she's noticed applicants straight out of undergrad with only a summer in-between tend to burn out more quickly than the 30-something year olds who have come running full-speed back to academia with a kind of perspective and enthusiasm that she implied, is difficult to conceive of without having worked in the "real world." Lastly, since TAing could likely play a big role in your grad career, you might want to try tutoring university level writing now (maybe something like a peer editing program at your school?). Since competition is so high these days, already having experience with teaching undergrads and grading/revising their writing could only help give your application an extra edge.

I just thought of something else, something I really wish that I did as an undergrad but simply didn't have time to. During my senior year, I was given the opportunity to audit a graduate seminar on Faulkner taught by my thesis adviser, and just sit in and get a sense of the level of learning that goes on there (and be able to join in on the discussion of course, given that I had completed the required reading as well... kind of a big commitment, I know, but I think it would have really added something special to my application). This is just one of the many opportunities that will become much more available to you after you work closely with certain professors. Good luck!

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