Life After English

At this time last year, I was a few months into my Masters degree and preparing to speak about the MA program at Carleton University English Department’s Life After English event. Today I will be speaking at the same event as a graduate from the MA in English program. To honour this huge mistake on behalf of the English Department, I thought I’d post here my speech from 2013. Enjoy!

First off I would like to thank Professor Whiting for asking me to speak at this event, and I would also like to thank all of you for coming. As a warning, this talk might be a little focused on my experiences. Just thought I should give you a warning or a MPAA rating of sorts (the next twenty minutes has been rated Slightly Narcissistic) because what this talk is really supposed to be is something that will prove helpful to you as a person. Choosing what post-grad path to pursue is difficult, and events like this where you can talk to people who were recently in your very position is unbelievably helpful. I’m really approachable, so if you have any questions, just ask. Yell at me on the street. I’ll do my best to answer. As a part of the Life After English lecture series (?), I am here to talk to you about the English M.A. as a possible (or probable?) venture after finishing a Bachelor’s degree here at Carleton.

So, a course-work based Masters program is exactly like doing a second fourth-year, except that it’s nothing like doing a second fourth-year. Basically, the structure is more-or-less the same; your grades are based on seminar presentations, final papers, class participation, and perhaps some other assignments.

Sure, there are fewer classes with far fewer students sitting around the table, but believe you me, this means that expectations are drastically higher. This is the unspoken obligation of entering into an M.A. program: you have to step up your game significantly. While thinking about what I was going to say today, I asked a friend, “what does a good propaganda speech need?” She said, “always a good idea to have something akin to a thesis statement,” and I thought to myself, “Damn, I probably should have thought of that.” That is the kind of thought that you probably shouldn’t still find yourself thinking half-way through your Masters program. When I say that an M.A. asks you to step up your game, what I really mean is that you shouldn’t keep saying, “Damn, I should have thought of that.” Nevertheless, it’s a thought that I apparently cannot shake. This talk is going to explain how becoming a graduate student usually results in a development of impostor syndrome, the feeling that but not knowing what you’re doing is not necessarily always a bad thing.

Entering into a Masters degree is a good idea for both the extremely passionate and the severely indecisive. Luckily, I am both. (It’s also a good idea if you want to postpone coming to terms with your ridiculous burden of student debt, but that’s beside the point.) I’ll dismissively tell you later that I decided to apply to the M.A. program at the last minute (don’t know if crippling indecisiveness is a thing, but I guess I identify with Price Hamlet), but that does not mean that I am not happy to be where I am.

The current student blogger for the English department said in one of her recent posts that she is taking a degree in English because “reading is fun”. This is true: reading is fun, and it will continue to be fun, I promise. If you’re doing it right, taking an English degree means signing up for courses that genuinely pique your interest and contain assigned texts you’ve always wanted to read and/or study. This is also true for an English M.A. Throughout my B.A., I noticed a progressive specialisation of course content, which allowed my study in the later years to focus on texts and subjects that I was genuinely interested in. So, it may go without saying, but I’m pretty passionate about literature, and continuing on to my Masters degree has started a whole new chapter in my academic writing career that I am embarrassed to say I actually don’t hate… all the time.

Now, don’t take my strange and masochistic academic pleasure to mean that I am notably talented in English. When Professor Whiting asked me to speak on behalf of the English M.A. program I was sure one of us needed to be placed on a 72 hour hold: either I was hearing things or she was making a big mistake. You see, I was ineffably nervous when I applied to the English M.A. program. I looked back on the less-than-solid-might-have-been-an A- average of my undergraduate degree and said to myself, “Self, you are surely the most inadequate person to be in a Masters program, let alone competent enough to be telling undergraduates about a Masters program.” However, this feeling of inadequacy and unsuitability is apparently common. In fact, the first thing I learned upon entering this program was that everyone shared the feeling of being a fraud or an impostor. I had the distinct impression that the achievements that had brought me to where I am now were based on luck, and that I was running out.

In fact, I Googled “impostor syndrome” in preparation for this talk (because no matter what level of study you reach, a Google search will always be the quickest way to research a topic) and clicked the second link that appeared. It led me to a website for a book by “impostor syndrome expert Dr. Valerie Young”. The promotional material was steeped in a kind of emotions behind the words, witness to my experience, kind of thing, but effectively said, “You may feel like a fraud but in truth your fear of being inadequate pales in comparison to your fear of being extraordinary.” Now, I would never call myself extraordinary, but there is definitely a shared feeling amongst new students of an M.A. program that any past successes are no longer noteworthy and that there is no reasonable way to live up to the new academic expectations.

So, moving from a B.A. into a M.A. seems, at first, like only a minor change. Perhaps if you have ever taken a full course load of English classes then you won’t feel overwhelmed at all. The required reading class-by-class is about the same if not a little more than any fourth-year English course. So, no big deal; all is well. It’s just the same old same old. Chim-chim-cheree, right?

Well, I would be lying if I said that the expectation is the only thing that changes between a B.A. and the M.A. in English. The biggest change I have experienced in my transition has been the importance that literary theory plays in every course. Now, if you are at all like me, that one literary theory course that you’re required to take in third-year was the extent of your interaction with the many different branches of literary theory. And even the theory in that course was largely ignored, or skimmed and then crammed the night before the exam. So, my undergrad was completed with close readings and a few theoretical hats pulled out for the big papers. (The feminism toque (or wide-brim sunhat with silk flowers, depending on the weather) was a particular favourite wear of mine.) But, in the M.A. program, theoretical texts play a central role in the courses, and a firm understanding is required in order to truly build a solid foundation for your papers. Being able to wield the theoretical subject for use and, in my case, misuse is a truly invaluable tool in an M.A. setting. If anything is sure to make me feel out of place, it will be sitting in a room with academics discussing Foucault’s theory of liminality or Zizek’s reading of the courtly lady; connecting with these theoretical concepts does not come easily to me, and despite assurances from my classmates that they are struggling as well, it’s near impossible to shake the sense that my understanding of Lacan’s description of the mirror-stage will never reach the necessary level. I’m a theoretical fraud and that will likely never change.

This being said, there is still the incredibly supportive and enthusiastic resource of the professors. As they have always said about small classrooms, fewer students means more personal relationships with professors which means more opportunities for one-on-one “what the hell is going on in this text” sessions, as I am now going to start calling them. With help from the departmental support, the great secondary source recommendations, and the similarly confused colleagues, my theoretical fraudulence has improved. Sure, the theories will always be there, and they will always loom in their intellectual superiority, but the Masters program has shown me just how important, relevant, and genuinely interesting literary theory can be when studied and applied in a form that I enjoy. Furthermore, there is also camaraderie between classmates who are always eager to share ideas and opinions on theory or anything else literature-related. Having a supportive environment in which to discuss your passion with people who share it with you is an invaluable advantage of the program. I don’t know if anyone has ever felt that their educational experience has been an elaborate competition—a Hunger Games-esque death-match fought with words (except when racing to the last available library printer), if you will—but my entrance into a Masters program has introduced me to amazingly supportive classmates and faculty mentors. If nothing else keeps you sane during essay season then the sympathy of a group of friends writing just as many terrible essays as you will certainly keep you going. I have learned a lot since being enrolled in a programme as challenging as the postgrad English course, but I think this has been the most valuable lesson so far.

Now, I don’t mean to say any of this to discourage anyone from entering into the English M.A. program; the work I have studied and the essays that I have written in the last four months have been the best of my academic career to date. In specialisation of study and narrowing of research interest there comes an almost paradoxical freedom of thought. In my undergraduate essays, there almost always came a point where I would stop and think to myself, “Self, what the hell are you saying here? Why are you even writing this paper? What the heck do you know about the representation of patriarchal oppression in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale?” In the M.A. program, these thoughts have been less frequent, although not completely absent. Instead, there almost always comes a moment where the entire paper makes sense—a “eurêka” moment, if you will, despite the absence of baths in my enlightenments—and the paper suddenly stops being a bunch of words on a topic and becomes a solid thesis. In this moment, the paper that has been killing you becomes a surprisingly cohesive union of research, knowledge, and interest; a prideful reflection of your hard work and experience up to that point. And that moment almost makes the rest of the work worth it…

…But you shouldn’t be listening to what I have to say! What are you doing? I’m a fraud! I slept and bribed my way to where I am now. That’s a lie, but still— go and ask someone who knows what they’re doing, and if you manage to even find such a person, give me a call. Just because I’ve completed an undergrad and am a TA and sometimes wear a tie, it doesn’t mean I am any more secure in myself academically than I was on my first day of first year. I have friends who have “careers” (whatever those are) who still have no idea what they’re doing, but they’re enjoying it, as I am enjoying this Masters degree, because we have all chosen the paths that suited us. So the best thing I can tell you to do is go and figure it out for yourself. Leonard Cohen apparently said, “Act the way you’d like to be and soon you’ll be the way you act”. With an M.A. program, if you want to be there, you will get there; and if you keep wanting to be there, cheers to you, ‘cause you’ll definitely make it through.

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