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Cotton Joe

Studying dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature, film, and video games

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Hi friends.

As I am deciding where to apply for graduate study, I am having a difficult time deciding on a focus area. One potential area I am considering but am having trouble finding information on is dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature, film, and video games. Under this categorization, I include anything from classic and contemporary dystopian novels (from mild to extreme dystopian setting) like 1984, Brave New World, and Infinite Jest, to more contemporary post-apocalyptic books, films, and video games like The Road, The Walking Dead, Threads, The Fallout Series, Last of Us, The Metro novel series, etc. I find dystopian art and especially post-apocalyptic art to be enthralling because I find that placing humans in such perverse and inhuman situations can be a fantastic way to investigate some essential elements of human nature and a great way to satirize or otherwise investigate current political and social trends.

I have browsed many English department faculty websites, but of the ones I have searched, I have so far come across zero professors working in this area. One reason I may not be finding anyone working in this area is because I have mainly searched departments in my geographic region, the Southeastern United States.

Here are a few questions I have been unable to answer for myself and with which I would appreciate any help that you all have to offer:

Is dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature a prevalent area of study? Are my searches for professors fruitless because I am looking in the South? Do any of you have experience researching or writing about this area? Can anyone recommend prominent scholars on the topic? Are there other broader areas of study under which a focus like this would fall? How would I go about articulating an interest in this area in an SoP, especially if my university does not have anyone studying exclusively this area?

Thanks so much for any advice, guidance, or helpful nudges that you can offer!

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I am in the South and will be attending a Southern university for my Ph.D. beginning in the fall. My M.A. thesis was on the disillusionment of Cormac McCarthy. I used a book from each of his periods to illustrate that disillusionment with American ideologies, as well as to a greater global level in The Road. It is my belief you must connect them back to whatever the writer is destroying the planet over, which means you need to go back and look at those issues in the present before the apocalypse. I don't think there is necessarily the particular genre you are thinking of, but rather much of it is post-modern and Americanists mix it up. I had a post-modern American lit class last year and out of the 9 texts, 3 were post-apocalyptic. A broad American background makes it possible to connect post-apocalyptic and dystopic texts with earlier texts. Have you considered The Road as a road trip and analyzing it against Steinbeck and Kerouac, or as a grail quest? Peter Heller's Dog Stars uses a LOT of The Road. As McCarthy once said, "books are made out of books." I once compared Defoe's early modern novel A Journal of the Plague Year to 28 Days Later in a paper. It worked -- same basic plot.

My own method is to get as broad of an American education as possible, and narrow my research reading to my particular interests, which will lead into my dissertation as an expansion on McCarthy's writing.

 

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A broader area of study might be speculative fiction; in all of the science fiction classes I've taken, we've read at least one dystopian novel, if not more. There are plenty of English programs that would be good fits for someone with interests in science fiction/speculative fiction so you could frame your SoP as a general interest in science fiction and then go in more depth about your interests in dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction. Also, maybe looking at dystopian/post-apocalyptic fiction through an eco-criticism lens? I almost took an environmental lit class this quarter and just took a glance at the reading list and there are a couple of dystopian novels on there. 

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@RydraWong Thanks for the suggestions. I have considered approaching post-apocalyptia through eco-criticism. It seems one of the genres which is most open to such an approach.

Here's my problem with taking an approach like eco-critical or feminist, or any other set analytic lens: I feel like I'm always writing the same paper. I can do a feminist reading of any text, but I'm always doing the same paper with a new skin. The same with eco-critical. Same basic tenets, new skin to make everything look shiny and new. Perhaps this is a result of my undergraduate understanding of literary theory, but I have tried several approaches in undergrad, and it always feels like once I figure out how to do X reading of text A, I can just do X reading of any text.

When I try to use a critical lens, I feel like I am always looking for the same thing in every text, never discovering the nuances and uniquenesses of the text.

So, what I'm trying to say: I am trying to avoid articulating my interests through a particular critical approach. I don't know if that's even possible or wise to do.

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@cowgirlsdontcry If it's okay to ask, which Southern university are you attending? Are there professors there who are interested in the post-apocalyptic theme, or are you finding general Americanists to study under and proceeding with the theme on your own? 

I really like your suggestion to consider the intertextuality of these kinds of works. 

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10 hours ago, Cotton Joe said:

 

Here's my problem with taking an approach like eco-critical or feminist, or any other set analytic lens: I feel like I'm always writing the same paper. I can do a feminist reading of any text, but I'm always doing the same paper with a new skin. The same with eco-critical. Same basic tenets, new skin to make everything look shiny and new. Perhaps this is a result of my undergraduate understanding of literary theory, but I have tried several approaches in undergrad, and it always feels like once I figure out how to do X reading of text A, I can just do X reading of any text.

When I try to use a critical lens, I feel like I am always looking for the same thing in every text, never discovering the nuances and uniquenesses of the text.

So, what I'm trying to say: I am trying to avoid articulating my interests through a particular critical approach. I don't know if that's even possible or wise to do.

I hear what you're saying here, but, to be honest, this kind of problem is very much a product of you being in the early stages of your academic career. If your readings, when you decide to use a "lens," are coming out the same way every time, perhaps you should consider exploring more widely in the theory/criticism. One of the limits of the "lens" framing of critical language is that it makes decades of writing appear homogenous--it is a real possibility that you'll find these approaches much more lively and exciting in the future, after you've gone beyond the introductions to these fields that you received in undergrad. 

I understand this may sound a little condescending, but, speaking for myself and my experiences here, it's very hard to understand the scope of a field, and its possibilities, until you've been reading around in it for a couple years. 

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14 hours ago, Cotton Joe said:

@cowgirlsdontcry If it's okay to ask, which Southern university are you attending? Are there professors there who are interested in the post-apocalyptic theme, or are you finding general Americanists to study under and proceeding with the theme on your own? 

I really like your suggestion to consider the intertextuality of these kinds of works. 

I will start this fall Cotton Joe and will be attending the University of Alabama. The school where I received my undergrad & M.A. is a smaller state school in Louisiana that is a Tier 1 South Regional University. My plan is to find an Americanist who works in contemporary American literature or perhaps dabbles in Southern literature because McCarthy is a Southern writer (of sorts). I want as broad of an American education as I can obtain, as it widens the view I have of the canon and my ability to teach it. My personal research interests are where I hope to find my heart. I have other interests besides McCarthy, as I like to present at conferences and will be looking at publishable papers, so I do want to spread out somewhat. I spent a year at UMass as an undergrad exchange student. There was a senior undergrad class on dystopic video games. It sounded interesting but I'm not a very good player so thought I better stay away from it. I presented on McCarthy's Suttree at the Early Americanists' Conference this year. Suttree is in no way an early American text, but McCarthy uses the canon and there was a panel on Southern writers at the conference, so my paper was accepted.

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@cowgirlsdontcry Thanks. University of Alabama is actually one of the schools I am applying to for my MA, but I have heard from several people that they have a tendency to neglect people who are not in the Strode program or who are not early modernists. Do you have any input on this? Would Alabama be a good place for a masters?

Also, I like how you are detailing your approach to cannon. I have been worried about not finding a mentor who exactly matches my research interests, but you are helping to reassure me that I can still have a niche research area without adhering exactly to the interests of my advisers. 

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2 hours ago, Cotton Joe said:

@cowgirlsdontcry Thanks. University of Alabama is actually one of the schools I am applying to for my MA, but I have heard from several people that they have a tendency to neglect people who are not in the Strode program or who are not early modernists. Do you have any input on this? Would Alabama be a good place for a masters?

Also, I like how you are detailing your approach to cannon. I have been worried about not finding a mentor who exactly matches my research interests, but you are helping to reassure me that I can still have a niche research area without adhering exactly to the interests of my advisers. 

UA only took 5 Ph.D. students this year. There are a number of Americanists who are professors. I don't really know how they treat MA students outside the Strode program, but I don't believe any school is going to take the time to carefully consider and then offer admission and funding to a student, only to ignore them. UA took a long time to select students. I figured I was at the bottom of the pile on the waitlist, but they had no waitlist. They were simply being careful.

I'm an older non-traditional student, therefore, I had another career in law as a paralegal/legal assistant, before gaining a BA/MA in English. I don't believe any graduate or professional program is going to coddle or cater to students. We are adults and quite capable, with a minimum of direction, of finding our way and getting through a program. I have just finished an MA and sometimes I felt like I was floundering around like a fish out of water, but eventually I settled down and understood this feeling of lostness has nothing to do with either the school or the professors. It's us, because we are unsure. From what the other GAs I worked with at NSU stated about feeling the same and what some of the younger professors said, it's part of the process. Grad school is no picnic.

My thoughts about selecting a dissertation advisor are: I don't want to be just like anyone else. The person I need for advisor must be an Americanist, and someone who is flexible, allowing me to make my own mistakes and find my way with their guidance. It's very simple. From the first day, you start listening and looking for that advisor who is the right person. You will find them.

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16 hours ago, cowgirlsdontcry said:

UA only took 5 Ph.D. students this year. There are a number of Americanists who are professors. I don't really know how they treat MA students outside the Strode program, but I don't believe any school is going to take the time to carefully consider and then offer admission and funding to a student, only to ignore them. UA took a long time to select students. I figured I was at the bottom of the pile on the waitlist, but they had no waitlist. They were simply being careful.

I'm an older non-traditional student, therefore, I had another career in law as a paralegal/legal assistant, before gaining a BA/MA in English. I don't believe any graduate or professional program is going to coddle or cater to students. We are adults and quite capable, with a minimum of direction, of finding our way and getting through a program. I have just finished an MA and sometimes I felt like I was floundering around like a fish out of water, but eventually I settled down and understood this feeling of lostness has nothing to do with either the school or the professors. It's us, because we are unsure. From what the other GAs I worked with at NSU stated about feeling the same and what some of the younger professors said, it's part of the process. Grad school is no picnic.

My thoughts about selecting a dissertation advisor are: I don't want to be just like anyone else. The person I need for advisor must be an Americanist, and someone who is flexible, allowing me to make my own mistakes and find my way with their guidance. It's very simple. From the first day, you start listening and looking for that advisor who is the right person. You will find them.

Our interests seem similar. Which professors at UA stand out to you as potential advisers? I am currently interested in Andy Crank, Trudier Harris, Emma Wilson, and Phil Beidler. Also, what other universities did you apply to in addition to UA? My shortlist currently consists of UA, University of Mississippi (my preferred option), and University of Kentucky.  

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Andy Crank was a professor at NSULA. He was my undergrad advisor and is a good teacher. Jay Watson is at ole MS. I went right down the SEC (LSU, Ole Miss, UA, UFL, and TN) applying, with Texas, Rice and ULL added in. As far as POIs, I want to meet the professors and get a feel for them before talking to them about being my dissertation advisor. It's about connection as much as anything with me. I believe any of them would work, but in grad school I've learned that who I thought I wanted in the beginning, was not who I wanted when it came to making the decision last summer. This time I'm watching and listening. I was waitlisted at LSU (still waitlisted) and removed myself from TN's waitlist when I received the offer from UA and received offers from UA & ULL. UA is a good fit for me, and it was not my first choice. I didn't really have a first choice, because I wanted to remain open minded and available to whatever came along. I looked over the schools well and knew any of them would work well and I would be happy attending the school and living there. Have you looked at Florida State? They seem to have a pretty awesome Southern Lit program.

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Dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature? Why would you want to study such a thing? I mean, surely there's nothing going on politically at the moment that would make studying those fields especially timely...

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Have you read Cormac McCarthy or any of the other post-apocalyptic writers? I'm not into it heavily but I am becoming a McCarthy scholar and this type of literature can be seen to relate to current issues within the world. If you look further, all issues at all times, seen through the eyes of a writer are relative and similar. As McCarthy said "books are made from books." Tell me what literature you study and I will tell you how it relates to dystopic and post-apocalyptic texts. If a successful comparison of Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year to the Rage movie 28 Days Later can be made, connections between other types of literature can be found.

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3 hours ago, silenus_thescribe said:

Dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature? Why would you want to study such a thing? I mean, surely there's nothing going on politically at the moment that would make studying those fields especially timely...

I'm always interested in which dystopic predictions become reality. I noticed that there has been an obsession with post-apocalyptic art recently. I know dystopia and post-apocalyptic has existed for a long time, but post-apocalyptic has made its way into the mainstream and currently seems a prominent genre. Just off the top of my head, there's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Independence Day, I Am Legend, The Matrix, Fallout, Last of Us, Metro, any number of zombie games/films (Shaun of the Dead, World War Z, Walking Dead), The Road, Bioshock (kind of), 2012. In a theory of horror class I took, we discussed how monsters in horror films of the 1950s and 1960s represented cultural fears of the day, like sexuality, communism, drugs, immigrants, etc. Obviously, we (Americans, at least) are culturally obsessed with the end times. Maybe another line of study would be dystopia/post-apocalyptic literature and doomsday death cults. It's all fascinating to me, and I would certainly enjoy delving deeper into the theory of the apocalypse. 

Also, I'm convinced that David Foster Wallace predicted Trump's presidency. President Trump is President Johnny Gentle from Infinite Jest.

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9 hours ago, Cotton Joe said:

Obviously, we (Americans, at least) are culturally obsessed with the end times. Maybe another line of study would be dystopia/post-apocalyptic literature and doomsday death cults.

Yeah, it's an obsession that's pretty rooted in our culture. To give yourself some historical positioning, you might even look at some of the earliest American writers, like the Puritans, who also believed that they were living in the end times and structured much of their literature/belief systems around this. 

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1 hour ago, Bumblebea said:

Yeah, it's an obsession that's pretty rooted in our culture. To give yourself some historical positioning, you might even look at some of the earliest American writers, like the Puritans, who also believed that they were living in the end times and structured much of their literature/belief systems around this. 

I totally agree with that thought Bumblebea. When we look at the American identity, much of it came from the Puritans.

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It sounds to me like you've chosen the types of texts that you want to explore (dystopian and post-apocalyptic works), but not necessarily the way that you want to examine them, which might explain why you're struggling to find programs and faculty that share your interests. So for example, there are many ways that you could use rhetorical theories and perspectives to explore the way these dystopian and post-apocalyptic texts function or how they are composed, which is what I did during my earlier graduate work. If that's your interest, you could look for programs in literature, rhetoric & composition, etc. Or you could examine socio-political discourse in these works. You could also, as you mentioned, connect theoretical perspectives like ecocriticism or feminist studies to your readings of the texts (so a traditional literature or comparative literature program would work for this). Doing that kind of ecocritical or even ecofeminist reading of texts in depth and in a way that keeps you passionately interested is something that takes practice and some graduate level coursework, but can certainly be done. You could also look at programs in film studies, digital humanities, gender studies, and so forth.

If you're interested in speculative fiction / science fiction studies (as @RydraWong  suggested), and not 100% tied to the Southeastern U.S., then I'd say to check out places like UC Riverside or UC Davis. UC Riverside is where the majority (as far as I know) of scholars interested in dystopian science fiction and speculative fiction work. For a recommendation a little closer to your geographic area, check out the University of Kansas (they have a science fiction research center that's pretty robust looking) and the other places mentioned in someone else's thread about science fiction literature. There's a LOT you can do with speculative fiction studies, so that might be a nice option for you that would still allow you to focus on working with Americanists (if that's what you're into).

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5 hours ago, EspritHabile said:

If you're interested in speculative fiction / science fiction studies (as @RydraWong  suggested), and not 100% tied to the Southeastern U.S., then I'd say to check out places like UC Riverside or UC Davis. UC Riverside is where the majority (as far as I know) of scholars interested in dystopian science fiction and speculative fiction work. For a recommendation a little closer to your geographic area, check out the University of Kansas (they have a science fiction research center that's pretty robust looking) and the other places mentioned in someone else's thread about science fiction literature.

Thanks for the suggestions. I'm not 100% tied to the southeast. However, both my family and my partner's family live there, so moving too far away would be a challenge for both of us. 

I looked into the programs you mentioned. I am only interested in MA level study at the moment. No U. California campuses offer MA level English degrees, at least not the ones I have looked into (David, Riverside, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, Irvine, and Santa Cruz). The UK program looks interesting, but I was unable to quickly find any information about funding, so that does not bode well for my chances of attending there.

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12 hours ago, Cotton Joe said:

The UK program looks interesting, but I was unable to quickly find any information about funding, so that does not bode well for my chances of attending there.

The KU website has a general funding page at https://graduate.ku.edu/funding  and you could call or email the DGS or the English Department for more info about opportunities within your department and how to be considered for them. Typically, MA candidates can work as teaching or research assistants, which would offer a stipend and (usually, but not always) tuition remission. So although they do bury their information, don't give up until you determine what their support looks like--imagine how many other decent candidates are giving up on that money just because they can't find the info. 

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Kansas State University has a funded Master's program and several faculty who do work on dystopias. I even took a grad class specifically on dystopian novels last summer with Carol Franko. It's not a terribly prestigious program in and of itself, but since there's only a Master's program, Master's students get all of the attention and opportunities. And (as has been discussed elsewhere at length on this site) the rank of a Master's program doesn't exist/doesn't matter, and students have had a lot of good luck getting into good PhD programs afterwards.

Good luck! 

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I wrote my MA thesis on speculative/dystopian.

It seems strange to me to pick a grad school because there are people there working in the same genre. My supervisor hadn't read any of the books I was writing about and was not interested in sci-fi, but she was interested in a way of thinking about books that interested me. As another poster noted, perhaps determining WHAT in dystopian lit you want to study will assist you in finding someone compatible to work with.

I did my undergrad and MA at the same school so I already knew I wanted to work with my supervisor because of the courses I had taken with her. Honestly, though, it never really crossed my mind to shop that carefully for a supervisor when I was applying to schools. The supervisor's job is simply to give you some direction and ideas for what is ultimately your own project and interest. Any good prof should be able to play that role.

What I'd be more concerned with this time through would be ensuring that the program has enough courses that I'm interested in taking. My school was old fashioned and half the courses I found myself taking were of no interest to me. If you're into contemporary stuff I'd look for a program with more contemporary faculty so you don't have to slog through a seminar on restoration lit or something agonizing. 

And the funding package is pretty important. Ultimately I went to the school I went to because they gave me the most money. 

Edited by EPC

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