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How do I develop future specializations (MA English lit.)?

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Good day, everyone!

I'm Karla from the Philippines, and I just graduated from my university's Speech Comm. program in June. I recently got accepted into our university's MA English Studies Program as an Anglo-American Studies major. You see, I've only taken 5 upper-level English courses, an introductory course in Comparative Literature, and a Critical Theory course (from Antiquity to the British Romantics) in Comparative Literature. As I haven't had formal training in literary theory because of a limited number of electives under my BA program, I've mostly been an autodidact when it comes to literary theory.

I'll be entering the MA program come January 2018. And I feel as if--since I'm not an English major (despite the fact that I do read voraciously)--my intended research topics for the program are limited. I know that I have an affinity for 20th century American literature, Romantic poetry, Modern British Literature, comics, and the suburbs, I've only seemed to have half-developed topics I might want to do research on, which can be multidisciplinary.

Here are some of my specific interests:

  • religion and cults in American culture
  • American suburbia
  • depictions of mental illness for the female
  • performing gender and queerness
  • pop culture
  • advertising

My question is this: how can I further develop future research interests? I have this idea of tracing confession in poetry and American music, connecting advertising with the American Romantics, and analyzing reality shows and classic Hollywood in connection with American literary history.

Additionally, would you be able to recommend journals which specialize in these areas? Would I be able to have access to them?

Thank you so much, and  I would appreciate illuminating insights from you.

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I'm not in English, so I can only offer general thoughts. But here they are:

You can cultivate areas of competence and specialization in lots of different ways, but they basically all boil down to reading and writing in the relevant areas.

The easiest way to do those things, of course, is by taking or auditing lots of grad-level courses in the area, in related areas, or in cognate areas in other fields (e.g. for gender and queerness, look at what's being taught in women's studies and philosophy; for religion, look at the religious studies department). When you take courses that aren't directly related to your interests, you can still make contact with them by trying to ensure that your written work makes contact with your interests. So, e.g., if you're taking a class on Edwardian literature, your research project could be about religion or gender or (female) mental illness in Wooster and Jeeves. It's really up to you to make your studies interesting and relevant to your interests.

Another easy way to build up competence is through your teaching or TAing assignments. These will force you to do some reading, often with a syllabus designed by someone who's already an expert, and force you to regurgitate the material on-command, extemporaneously, and so that undergrads will understand it. If you have some ability to choose your assignments or rank your preferences, then use that to explore new areas and shore up competencies that you otherwise haven't had the chance to cultivate. It's easier to teach or TA material that you already know really well, but that does a lot less for you with respect to developing your competencies. You'll learn more from teaching than you will from just reading or taking a class, so bear that in mind when you select your teaching assignments.

You also cultivate specializations by giving regular presentations about them, and by publishing on the subject. So if you really want to be an expert on American suburbia, then you need to write lots of papers on the subject and present them to lots of conference audiences. This has the added bonus of introducing you to the networks of scholars with whom you'll have the closest contacts later. (Note that presenting at conferences is a lot like teaching; it's another way to get comfortable with regurgitating stuff on-command, extemporaneously, and accessibly. Writing papers has a lot of the same effects.).

Finally, you can just sit at home and read stuff, and write papers on topics that catch your interest. This works, but it works best when it's reinforced by interacting with other people--especially by explaining things to other people, and answering their questions. So whatever you do, remember to interact with your peers! You're going to learn a lot more from them than you will from your classes.


On 12/6/2017 at 5:55 AM, kdcristobal said:

Additionally, would you be able to recommend journals which specialize in these areas? Would I be able to have access to them?

Like I said, I'm not in English so I'm not much good on the recommendation front. But it looks to me like the interests you've listed above are pretty specific, and likely fall under broader subfields in English literature. So the trick is to identify what those subfields are, and then to search out the journals which are best in those subfields (while keeping sight of which journals are good generalist venues, too). Keep track of which journals publish the kinds of things you're reading; those are going to be your target journals. Keep track of where the articles you're assigned to read in class (or that you're assigned to teach) are published; those are going to be your target journals. Look at where people who have the kinds of career trajectory you want (grad students, postdocs, assistant, associate, and full professors) are publishing; those are going to be your target journals. Look at their CVs, and see what kinds of things they did to get where they are/to the place where you want to be next, and emulate their trajectory as closely as you can.

As for access... that's almost entirely a matter of the journals to which your institutional library has access. I don't know what the academic world is like in the Philippines, but the odds are that if your institution has a graduate program, then its library will have access to some or most of the main journals in that field. If not, then Google around--lots of people post drafts of their papers on their websites, on, etc. If the article in question is a chapter in an edited volume, it will often be available through someone's course website--especially if it's a famous one. Similarly, academic books tend to be available online (although this is usually a violation of copyright), provided you know where to look for them.

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