Jump to content

Medievalists Applying to Comp Lit programs?


Recommended Posts

Have any medievalists on these boards tried this? Comp Lit sounds MUCH more to my liking than the majority of the regular lit programs I've been looking at, but I'm still a little hesitant because it feels like launching into uncharted waters. I just recently discovered an interest in Old Castilian heroic/chivalric poetry, and the themes so far have overlapped very nicely with the previous work (mostly in Anglophone literature) that I've been doing as an undergrad. However, I'm finding that it's excruciatingly difficult to find any one department or program that is strong in BOTH areas of interest. Even though I think my primary fields of interest fit together very nicely, I'm starting to think it may be unrealistic to try to pursue them together like I want... So, do I scrap my new idea and just try to find programs that fit one of my interests or can I still hold out for both? Also, do Comp Lit programs work well for medievalists? I've heard quite a variety of opinions on this, so I'm not sure what to think. The main reason I'm looking into this is because really I want to have the flexibility to do a good deal of interdisciplinary work, but not so much that the degree ceases to be a clearly literature degree (one of the reasons I decided not to apply to Notre Dame's Medieval Studies Center). Meanwhile, a lot of regular literature programs don't seem to support interdisciplinary work as much or as well as Comp Lit programs seem to. Is this true?

Thanks!

Em

Edited by Emelye
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yes! Comp Lit programs are great for medievalists! The division of literature into national language departments is an artificial, somewhat limiting classification that, while useful to the understanding of modern literary traditions, really doesn't make much sense when imposed upon medieval literature (or medieval anything, really). Not that a medievalist couldn't flourish in a national literature department, but interdisciplinarity is really crucial to medieval studies in a way that it isn't to modern fields, and Comp Lit departments are a great environment for encouraging the development of the broad and varied skill set and background required of a well-rounded medievalist. Not to mention that specialization in medieval literature requires one major thing that a Comp Lit program, moreso than a national literature program, will be sure to provide--command of several languages. At the same time, Comp Lit is more established as a literature degree than, say, more permissive but less structured Medieval Studies programs are. Hope that was helpful!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Meanwhile, a lot of regular literature programs don't seem to support interdisciplinary work as much or as well as Comp Lit programs seem to. Is this true?

Yes and no, depending on the program. Almost always no for medievalists. Medieval study, by its nature, is extremely interdisciplinary (and comp lit-y, given the language work everyone has to do). Medievalists are their own special creatures, and often work in wildly different ways than their fellow scholars/students in different areas of focus. The average medievalist with a PhD in English will do much more interdisciplinary and comparative language work than would, say, the average Victorianist with a PhD in English. This isn't always true, but to be a good medievalist you have to be a good historian and polyglot as you are an English scholar.

If you're interested in Old Castillian and want to make that your primary focus, you might want to apply to Spanish departments. Comp lit departments, in my experience, are really theory-heavy and less focused on (or bound to) historical periods than national language departments are. So if you want the serious theory stuff along with your medieval work, comp lit might be good for you. But traditional national departments, including English, will also probably work. Even if your home department is, say, English, you could definitely work with people in other departments (like Spanish), have them sit on your diss committee, and so forth.

Caveat: I'm not really a medievalist, in that it's not my primary area of interest, but you might call me a "part-time medievalist." I crossover a fair bit. Any real medievalists out there, please feel free to correct this post if I'm wrong. Also, my apologies to all if I've misrepresented comp lit in any way. I'm only speaking from my own experiences at my institution and from visiting at others.

Edited by Phil Sparrow
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Yes and no, depending on the program. Almost always no for medievalists. Medieval study, by its nature, is extremely interdisciplinary (and comp lit-y, given the language work everyone has to do). Medievalists are their own special creatures, and often work in wildly different ways than their fellow scholars/students in different areas of focus. The average medievalist with a PhD in English will do much more interdisciplinary and comparative language work than would, say, the average Victorianist with a PhD in English. This isn't always true, but to be a good medievalist you have to be a good historian and polyglot as you are an English scholar.

If you're interested in Old Castillian and want to make that your primary focus, you might want to apply to Spanish departments. Comp lit departments, in my experience, are really theory-heavy and less focused on (or bound to) historical periods than national language departments are. So if you want the serious theory stuff along with your medieval work, comp lit might be good for you. But traditional national departments, including English, will also probably work. Even if your home department is, say, English, you could definitely work with people in other departments (like Spanish), have them sit on your diss committee, and so forth.

Caveat: I'm not really a medievalist, in that it's not my primary area of interest, but you might call me a "part-time medievalist." I crossover a fair bit. Any real medievalists out there, please feel free to correct this post if I'm wrong. Also, my apologies to all if I've misrepresented comp lit in any way. I'm only speaking from my own experiences at my institution and from visiting at others.

As a medievalist in Comp Lit, I agree with most of what you've said. I would say, however, that not all Comp Lit departments are theory-heavy; it varies incredibly from school to school. More traditional Comp Lit departments focus on major and minor literatures with emphasis on a period of historical specialization; the benefit of programs like these is that they can combine flexibility and interdisciplinary with the rigorous mastery of (at least) one national literature on par with that obtained by a national lit program candidate, which is advantageous on the job market. Conversely, not all national literature departments are very accommodating of true interdisciplinarity, even while they pay lip service to it; again, it varies. Many national literature programs, even if they technically permit it, look at you askance if you take more than a couple of courses outside of the department. This is often a product of a school's culture; I have heard from friends and acquaintances that programs at, for example, Columbia and NYU are not very open to inter-departmental work and collaboration, compared to somewhere like UC Berkeley. Therefore, I would add to my previous thoughts that it is extremely important for medievalists to be well-acquainted with an individual school and department's philosophy and culture. In general, though, the intensive interdisciplinarity required of a competent medieval scholar is extremely well-supported by the traditional Comp Lit structure.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Sorry to be posting again, but I just wanted to add, regarding your concern about accommodating both of your primary fields of interests--it is important to look at faculty specialization and interests not just within a school's Comp Lit department but also in that school's national literature departments as well (in your case, Spanish and English), since as a Comp Lit student many (if not most) of your courses will be taken in those departments rather than in the Comp Lit department itself. You might discover some important people that you overlooked by limiting your research to faculty actually appointed in Comp Lit. Many Comp Lit departments are very flexible about whom they will allow you to work with; for instance, some would allow you to choose an adviser outside the department, or to have a certain amount of faculty outside of Comp Lit on your dissertation committee (or even faculty outside the university!). Comp Lit students can often end up working with more faculty and fellow students outside of Comp Lit than within it. Also, if an otherwise suitable program is weak or lacking in something specific you are interested in, many Comp Lit programs are very flexible about letting you arrange an independent study, or study at another school as a visiting scholar, or even take some courses concurrently at another university. In other words, as I said before, it does vary by program, so it is important to do your research, but overall I feel Comp Lit programs offer a potential for interdisciplinarity that cannot easily be matched by most national literature programs.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for the input! :) That's really helpful. However, I'm a little nervous about language for Comp Lit programs, now that you mention it. I grew up in a multi-lingual family, so I am near fluent in Spanish and have a reading knowledge (to varying degrees of proficiency, of course) a few other languages. However, one very glaring weakness of my application is that I have never ever taken an "official" language course. I finished my school's language requirement by simply testing out of Spanish. I did get 12 credits for it, but most of the comp lit programs I've looked into have recommended more than that. So, I how do I demonstrate this less-than-traditional language acquisition? Can I describe it in my CV or diversity statement or even SOP?

I'm just not sure what to do with this obvious problem that somehow slipped my notice before. I guess this is evidence of me not thinking ahead very well in planning my undergrad courses. My writing sample does demonstrate my reading knowledge of one of my primary languages of interest, so I'm hoping that will count for something ...

Edited by Emelye
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for the input! :) That's really helpful. However, I'm a little nervous about language for Comp Lit programs, now that you mention it. I grew up in a multi-lingual family, so I am near fluent in Spanish and have a reading knowledge (to varying degrees of proficiency, of course) a few other languages. However, one very glaring weakness of my application is that I have never ever taken an "official" language course. I finished my school's language requirement by simply testing out of Spanish. I did get 12 credits for it, but most of the comp lit programs I've looked into have recommended more than that. So, I how do I demonstrate this less-than-traditional language acquisition? Can I describe it in my CV or diversity statement or even SOP?

I'm just not sure what to do with this obvious problem that somehow slipped my notice before. I guess this is evidence of me not thinking ahead very well in planning my undergrad courses. My writing sample does demonstrate my reading knowledge of one of my primary languages of interest, so I'm hoping that will count for something ...

Yes to all three! If your language background is not attested by your transcript, you should definitely mention it in the SOP; in fact, many Comp Lit programs explicitly ask you to address this in the directions for the SOP. Listing languages on academic CVs is also common practice, although how closely and carefully each adcom will look at your CV is variable--still, it can't hurt to remind them what languages you know.

Using your writing sample to demonstrate your language ability is also a smart move. If you've quoted your primary source text in the original and provided your own translations into English, be sure to include a footnote saying so.

A lack of formal language training can be an obstacle when applying to Comp Lit, but it's definitely not an insurmountable one, especially if you are otherwise a strong candidate and if you are well-versed in and interested in studying theory--so if you really think Comp Lit is right for you, don't let this discourage you from applying. One concern I do have, though, is whether or not you have any Latin. Most people (not everybody) find that acquiring proficiency in Latin is more difficult and time consuming than vernacular languages, and as a medievalist in any field, you will almost certainly be expected to learn Latin if you have not done so already. If you don't have any training in Latin and if it's at all possible for you, I would advise you to take a course in Latin, preferably, or else try to teach yourself a little. Not only will having a background in Latin (even just a little) stand you in good stead as a medievalist candidate, whether you are applying to Comp Lit or English or any other discipline, but it will also demonstrate your ability and willingness to acquire languages.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 2 weeks later...

I'm going to caveat the replies already given (all excellent) by pointing out that while comp lit programs are in many respects ideal for medievalists, ultimately you will be restricted in many cases when you go on the job market. It makes sense, from a student standpoint, to go into comp lit as a medievalist, because then you are studying in interdisciplinary fashion - so that, for example, an Arthurian scholar can work in French, English, German and Latin. Ideal, right? The problem being, that when you go on the job market it will be difficult for you to be hired in anything but a comp. lit. program, and they are still rare birds. If you're in languages, they know where to put you; if you're in English, they know where to put you, - but if you do medieval studies, or comp lit, then many hiring committees don't know what to do with you if there isn't a comp lit or a medieval studies program perse - so even if you do English as one of your comp lit languages (which I don't actually think you are supposed to in most programs) they won't necessarily see you as a good fit for an English position.

Just make sure you are enrolling in a program you feel comfortable with as regards how you will be categorized on the job market. There are English departments in every major university, but comp lit programs aren't as widely present and are often "sub-programs" to the literature and language departments. It's confusing, but definitely take the time to explore your options and what you need and want both in the program and afterwards.

Good luck!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Seconding the suggestion of the Ph.D. in Lit at Notre Dame. I am there right now and I have found it very fitting to what I want to study. I am also a Medievalist, though I am more focused on the Late Middle Ages and early Renaissance than many Medievalists. I study Italian and Latin literature, but I draw also from French, English, and Spanish occasionally, and the department has supported this kind of study. I also have taken many classes with the Medieval Studies program in addition to the national literature programs.

I do agree very much with Medievalmaniac's concern about comparative programs and the job market. We can't go a week in my department without hearing about how to market ourselves to national literature programs for jobs, and comp lit programs have the same issue. I would say that if you do want to go the comparative way, try to find a program associated with a well-known national literature program and do something to prove your mastery in that area. For example, if students are graduating with an MA in that program, take the same exams as them. Your challenge will be to prove that you are as competent in each of your individual fields as someone who has studied them exclusively at the graduate level. It's a daunting task, but I would say worth it if you are passionate about interdisciplinary work.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

The problem being, that when you go on the job market it will be difficult for you to be hired in anything but a comp. lit. program, and they are still rare birds. If you're in languages, they know where to put you; if you're in English, they know where to put you, - but if you do medieval studies, or comp lit, then many hiring committees don't know what to do with you if there isn't a comp lit or a medieval studies program perse - so even if you do English as one of your comp lit languages (which I don't actually think you are supposed to in most programs) they won't necessarily see you as a good fit for an English position.

This is not strictly true. I can't speak for every program, not having researched all of them, but many, maybe even most, Comp Lit programs seek to prepare their students for placement in national lit departments as well, since that is where most of the available jobs are--this is probably more true of more "traditional" national literatures focused programs that maintain rigorous language requirements. My program, for example, basically requires everyone to obtain mastery of their major language (or in some cases, major languages) equivalent to that of a national language department candidate, with the expectation that the student will then seek a job teaching the literature of that language. In general Comp Lit students with a strong background and evidence of language mastery (teaching, studying abroad) do not find it too difficult to get national language jobs, although they should expect their language credentials to be more closely scrutinized than those of national language candidates. I know of several professors at my school who got Comp Lit degrees and are now appointed in national language departments (our Comp Lit department only has one faculty member whose appointment is solely in Comp Lit; the rest all hold joint appointments with national language departments, which I think is a very common situation). Regarding this, it will be most useful to look at each program's recent placement record when considering where to apply/accept (you should be doing this anyways, regardless of what discipline you choose)--if the program has a strong record, you don't have much to worry about.

That being said, I believe Medievalmaniac may be correct in that English may be the one instance where the above does not apply, probably owing to the insane competitiveness of the field. There is no general prohibition against using English as a language in Comp Lit programs, although some programs will specify that English can only be chosen if the student intends to study Old or Middle English--not a problem for a medievalist. Also, I believe in some programs, it may be possible for a student to choose to do English one of the primary languages and then learn an additional foreign language to make up for it in fulfillment of the requirement for x languages other than English/student's native language. I do not know, though, how competitive a Comp Lit candidate will be on the English job market--that seems to be a question that can be answered more clearly by a professor, or at least an English candidate who has seriously considered and researched Comp Lit and is more familiar with the situation. I do know that there are students in my program who are choosing to study English, though, so it definitely isn't unheard of. Alternately, since you are interested in Old Castilian, you could do Comp Lit with Spanish as a major language and be qualified to get a job in Spanish or Comp Lit.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is not strictly true. I can't speak for every program, not having researched all of them, but many, maybe even most, Comp Lit programs seek to prepare their students for placement in national lit departments as well, since that is where most of the available jobs are--this is probably more true of more "traditional" national literatures focused programs that maintain rigorous language requirements. My program, for example, basically requires everyone to obtain mastery of their major language (or in some cases, major languages) equivalent to that of a national language department candidate, with the expectation that the student will then seek a job teaching the literature of that language. In general Comp Lit students with a strong background and evidence of language mastery (teaching, studying abroad) do not find it too difficult to get national language jobs, although they should expect their language credentials to be more closely scrutinized than those of national language candidates. I know of several professors at my school who got Comp Lit degrees and are now appointed in national language departments (our Comp Lit department only has one faculty member whose appointment is solely in Comp Lit; the rest all hold joint appointments with national language departments, which I think is a very common situation). Regarding this, it will be most useful to look at each program's recent placement record when considering where to apply/accept (you should be doing this anyways, regardless of what discipline you choose)--if the program has a strong record, you don't have much to worry about.

That being said, I believe Medievalmaniac may be correct in that English may be the one instance where the above does not apply, probably owing to the insane competitiveness of the field. There is no general prohibition against using English as a language in Comp Lit programs, although some programs will specify that English can only be chosen if the student intends to study Old or Middle English--not a problem for a medievalist. Also, I believe in some programs, it may be possible for a student to choose to do English one of the primary languages and then learn an additional foreign language to make up for it in fulfillment of the requirement for x languages other than English/student's native language. I do not know, though, how competitive a Comp Lit candidate will be on the English job market--that seems to be a question that can be answered more clearly by a professor, or at least an English candidate who has seriously considered and researched Comp Lit and is more familiar with the situation. I do know that there are students in my program who are choosing to study English, though, so it definitely isn't unheard of. Alternately, since you are interested in Old Castilian, you could do Comp Lit with Spanish as a major language and be qualified to get a job in Spanish or Comp Lit.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. See our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use