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AdornosDoorknob

What areas of study are there, and how do I choose?

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Hello folks.

How did you pick your area of interest? What areas of interest are getting attention? Which areas are being neglected?

I'm wondering what areas of interest exist in English literature studies. I know of some; for instance, I know most people choose to focus on an author, a period, or a location. For those, I am interested in American Southern literature, especially Southern modernist. However, I don't think I am particularly interested in focusing on the more popular contemporary topics of race, class, and gender. If I focus on something outside of those areas, am I less likely to be published or find tenure track positions?

Furthermore, in addition to southern literature, I am also interested in studying contemporary literature in order to identify how modern art and culture are moving beyond the postmodern era and to work toward defining how we might view the new era.

Are these areas of interest comparable?

Not that I think postcolonial, race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. studies are unworthy of study, but I personally am not interested in making them the focus of my academic career. However, when I read faculty research interests, these seem to be ubiquitous. Is it possible to carve out a space for myself in lit studies without dealing exclusively with these issues?

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From what I know, people focus on things like race, class and gender in Southern lit because those are such essential components of what makes that sub genre of literature unique and interesting to those folks. That certainly doesn't mean that they are the only interesting things to say about that kind of literature, and I'm sure you can carve out other modes of inquiry within that field, as I'm sure others have. But It does stands out to me -- as a grad student, so take this with a grain of salt -- that studying something so broad and pervasive as the shift from postmodernism to (whatever it'll be called) would be kind of strange when paired with such a geographically narrow field of study like Southern lit, unless there is something unique about Southern lit that makes this shift easier to see. Not that you can't do it, but that you should be able to articulate a reason for doing this if you decide to. This is just something to chew on as you think about defining your specialty. 

My areas are built through a combination of my interest, where I do my best work, and where I think I have a unique perspective on the literature or theory in question. 

As to your last question, I have a few thoughts. Yes, you can make an academic career while not focusing on race, class, or gender, but you probably cannot make an academic career without being deeply engaged with and willing to converse/teach/write in those areas, even if they're not your stated focus. That is, you don't have to specialize in them, but you can't avoid them, and you should be able to make the critical moves associated with those fields when prudent and necessary in your scholarship, even if you're focusing on economics or narratology or (post) postmodernism. 

I hope this is somewhat helpful as you think about these questions. Navigating the maze of your own personal interest and what's possible in your field based on the history of that discourse is always a difficult dance.

Edited by fmd

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@fmd thanks for the insight. I know, of course, that these areas are unavoidable. Throughout undergrad, my interests have mostly centered on race and male sexuality. I have written on issues of race and male sexuality in southern literature, particularly in Faulkner's fiction. I have also written broadly about race and male sexuality more broadly, primarily in the art of Hemingway and James Baldwin and in modern advertising. In rhet/comp, I have done a been of work on male identity and learning styles in writing center tutorials. So, now that I think about it more explicitly, I would say that most of undergrad has been shaped by those two interests.

I enjoy these lines of inquiry, however I am also interested in the larger, more abstract project of defining post-postmodernism. A quick explanation of why I think Southern lit and Southern culture are relevant: if you read John Crowe Ransom and the other agrarians, Faulkner, and people earlier, you see opposition to industrialism, modernism, and capitalist excess. I think those same sentiments are taking hols today. Many counterculture movements today (organic produce, craft beer, focus on local arts, the New Sincerity in television and Fiction, the tinyhouse movement, etc.) seem philosophically identical to the anti-capitalist sentiments of the older South. However, there's also been a rise in overt racism and a reewed push from the black community to engage refor. I think looking back to the post-romantic, pre-modern South can help us understand many cultural shifts occurring in our new metamodern era, good and bad.

 

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AdornosDoorknob, I'm saying this as an Americanist, though not as an expert in Southern Literature, but any decent admissions committee will expect you to account for the white nationalism of the southern agrarian project if you decided to pursue it. I understand that you don't want to work on race, but I think critical race theory is going to be viewed (rightly, imo) as central to the project as you are articulating it right now. 

In terms of wanting to define post-postmodernism, well, I think that's a HUGE project that many people are already engaging in--even though, simultaneously, many people are also becoming tired of precisely that sort of labeling. I work on contemporary American literature, so I'd be happy to talk more over DM about recent work in the field.

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On 4/22/2017 at 4:08 PM, AdornosDoorknob said:

I'm wondering what areas of interest exist in English literature studies. I know of some; for instance, I know most people choose to focus on an author, a period, or a location. For those, I am interested in American Southern literature, especially Southern modernist. However, I don't think I am particularly interested in focusing on the more popular contemporary topics of race, class, and gender. If I focus on something outside of those areas, am I less likely to be published or find tenure track positions?

Furthermore, in addition to southern literature, I am also interested in studying contemporary literature in order to identify how modern art and culture are moving beyond the postmodern era and to work toward defining how we might view the new era.

Are these areas of interest comparable?

 

To give you a quick answer--you would define yourself as a 20th-21st-century Americanist for the sake of getting into graduate school. Or you might think of yourself as a post-1900 Americanist. I also know people who define themselves as doing American literature post-1945 or pre-1945, if that's a possible dividing line for you.

As far as the "art" thing goes--you might identify yourself as someone who's interested in aesthetics.

And yeah, you'd have to address race at some point. Race is central to American culture, history, and literature, on both sides of the 1900 divide. Ignore it at your peril.  

Edited by Bumblebea

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@Bumblebea Thanks for your input on which terms to use to define myself. Those were helpful. How does something like this sound: "post-1945 Americanist studying Southern modernist aesthetics, Southern identity, and male sexuality/masculinity in Southern literature."

Your response to my question about studying issues of race, however, was not helpful, and I could use further input there. I'm not planning to "ignore" race. I did not say that in this thread. I said I am not interested in focusing as exclusively on the issues listed as many contemporary established scholars do.

In no way do I intend to (nor do I think my post states that I intend to) act as though race has no scholarly bearing or impact on American culture. I'm simply not interested in writing on it exstinsively because I do not believe I have anything useful to add to the conversation in that area.

My main question should have read something more like what other lines of inquiry are of interest in american lit studies?

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"My main question should have read something more like what other lines of inquiry are of interest in american lit studies?"

 

Ecocriticism and/or wilderness studies, narrative theory, economic theory, post humanism and/or animal studies, new formalism, visual culture, religious studies, children's books and children's studies, (post) postmodernism, and genre studies, to name a few off the top of my head, are all used effectively as lenses through which to look at American lit, while not being race, class, or gender studies. 

It sounds like you have a good understanding of your potential project, though, and while we can give advice on how to formulate your SOP and that sort of thing, I at least would feel pretty uncomfortable commenting on the efficacy of your proposed plan of study, being a grad student who is stumbling around half-blind her/himself. Hopefully you also have some good professorial mentors whose opinions you trust. 

Edited by fmd

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18 hours ago, AdornosDoorknob said:

@Bumblebea Thanks for your input on which terms to use to define myself. Those were helpful. How does something like this sound: "post-1945 Americanist studying Southern modernist aesthetics, Southern identity, and male sexuality/masculinity in Southern literature."

Your response to my question about studying issues of race, however, was not helpful, and I could use further input there. I'm not planning to "ignore" race. I did not say that in this thread. I said I am not interested in focusing as exclusively on the issues listed as many contemporary established scholars do.

In no way do I intend to (nor do I think my post states that I intend to) act as though race has no scholarly bearing or impact on American culture. I'm simply not interested in writing on it exstinsively because I do not believe I have anything useful to add to the conversation in that area.

My main question should have read something more like what other lines of inquiry are of interest in american lit studies?

You say that you don't want to focus "exclusively" on race (and I'm not sure that anyone does or what you think that would look like) but you also say that you want to study Southern identity and specifically male sexuality/masculinity in Southern literature. Well, as @echo449 pointed out, constructions of Southern masculinity and sexuality are intimately connected to issues of race. I'm not sure how you could make that a focus and not deal extensively with race. It's a bit like studying Milton and not wanting to focus on the religious contexts in which he wrote, or like studying the Irish literary revival and not wanting to deal with the question of Irish nationalism. 

Having said that, I think you're getting ahead of yourself. No one is required to have a dissertation topic mapped out before they enter graduate school. 

Edited by Bumblebea

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@Bumblebea Yes I am contradicting myself. Thanks for helping me see that. I clearly need to work more on my explanation and approach to that particular project.

How do I go about defining my interests in an MA level SoP? Is that as simple as selecting a period, selecting certain authors, or selecting a critical approach? Should I be naming particular theorists and critics who influence my approach? Should I be detailing certain topics in certain periods? For example, would it be adequate to say something like "interested in constructions of southern masculinity and identity as seen in the works of Cormac McCarthy and Faulkner." Or would I need to throw in buzzwords to specify that I will be taking an approach informed by New Historicist and post colonial theorists like Stephen Greenblatt, Jane Tompkins, Spivak, bell hooks, etc.?

Anyway, thanks for taking time to engage with me here.

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Some standard SOP advice for MA students is to show that you are both critically engaged and teachableIt isn't as important to map out a proposed project as it is to tell a compelling story about you and your academic interests. Most adcomms recognize and maybe even expect your area of interest or project to change. 

You might think of what makes you unique as an applicant and why you're interested in southern lit, and then tell a story through your SOP that highlights your academic and maybe even personal engagement with that kind of literature. What theoretical approaches have you used to help understand that field, and how does your writing sample show these interests, etc.

For example, for my SOP, I started by talking about a lecture that I saw by a famous academic, and how it impacted how I conducted my research from then on. I followed this up with a short discussion of how the classes I've taken and the mentorship I've received from professors has influenced my writing, and then went on to detail the theorists and literary periods that were important to me, and what questions I was interested in answering. I then showed how my writing sample commented on this discussion, and showed what I had gotten from those influences. I was telling a story about my development as an academic, and how I might use that development to make original contributions to the field. Basically, I am critically engaged and teachable, is the story.

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Lots of good ideas here, so I'll just add one thing: don't be afraid to step outside the box and carve your own niche. A good friend of mine is about to start her dissertation on the poetics of 1960s music. Her other interests include the Beats and Transcendentalists. So don't feel like you have to choose from a dropdown box of options in the sky, if you will. I think the most important thing is to choose a program that has the resources to support whatever it is you're trying to do, i.e. faculty with common interests. Your SOP should lay out a clear roadmap of what you plan to do in that program and how that program is prepared to support you. 

From what you're saying, I would try to find a program that has strong support for gender theory and Southern literature. I think I understand your stance on race; however, as you research further, you may find you do indeed have something valuable to add to the conversation. Good luck :)

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22 hours ago, NoirFemme said:

Just throwing this out there: "white" is a race too. And the South (or any geographical area in the US, period) is not solely defined--or shaped--by a black/white racial binary.

 

Really good point. Your discussion of race could be reframed toward classism, i.e. white elite or white "trash"; plenty of discussion of that to be found in contemporary American lit. My writing sample for my MA discussed this, in fact.

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My interests somewhat parallel yours, in that I like contemporary American lit and as a subgenre - Southern Lit. My M.A. thesis was titled The Disillusionment of Cormac McCarthy. It focuses on how McCarthy's disillusionment with American ideologies challenges them and calls for change in his three periods. In preparing for my thesis, I did a lot of research on the origins of these ideologies and how writers contributed greatly to creating falsehoods within and about the ideologies, so I was reading a lot of Puritan through 19th century stuff. I have been all over the American Canon doing research and will continue as I work on research for a dissertation.

Where will you be attending Adornos?

 

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