Now that I’m settled in York (and perhaps have too much on my plate with auditing Old French and Latin, running two discussion groups/lecture series, constructing props for the Lords of Misrule production of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and sorting out shadowing next term), I can report that I do really love my program, supervisor, and peers.  On the personal front, I love my flatmate and our similar tastes in pumpkin foods, The Big Bang Theory, Merlin, heckling bad films, wandering around York’s streets, and unwinding after a long day with one of our many, many types of tea.

Despite my success at the undergraduate and master’s levels, I still sometimes feel like I’m out of my depth.  I don’t have the background many of my peers have (I think we touched on Cimabue in my art history survey class, read Beowulf in my World Literature I class, and heard about The Canterbury Tales in my Great Books of the Greek and Roman world course).  However, a visiting student who came to deliver a paper here at the Centre for Medieval Studies last night assures me that this is normal.  She said she felt throughout the entire process that she’d be “found out” and thrown out.  It’s sometimes an unsettling feeling, but it seems like it’s a normal one.

This omnipresent feeling leads me to something that has bugged me over the years that resurfaced after speaking with this Oxford-educated woman with a DPhil already in the bag.

In my junior year of college I was in my senior seminar class on ancient epic.  I had this professor for many classes in the two years we overlapped at Gustavus and had done well in previous classes.  The seminar was designed to be graduate school-like: three hours of class time (plus film viewings) one evening a week, one big research paper at the end, and lots of small papers every week and close reading.  Among the texts were the usual suspects (the Iliad, the Odyssey, The Aeneid) plus some texts new to us (Argonautica, Lucan’s Civil War).  I stressed like everyone, but didn’t complain in front of our professor, didn’t miss a class, and got things done on time.  We had oral midterm and final exams, too, and during my feedback for my final, the professor told me I did very well, and (as word-for-word as I can remember it) said “I don’t know if you just speak quickly or speak succinctly, but you covered in 15 minutes what others take 30 to say.”  I got an A on that final and in the class.

This long prelude is to illustrate the surprise I felt when he told me that he didn’t think I was suited for graduate school because I was “too anxious.”  ???  “Too anxious” still confuses me to this day.  What did that mean?  What behaviors or essays had convinced him of this?  I was too stunned and cowardly to ask at the time.

Works cited: dreamstime.com. NB: Not a picture for instruction. If you mutilate one of my writing tools, I may have to hunt you down.

I know in my heart that he was wrong.  Perhaps I was wrong for graduate school in classics, his field and passion.  It was my passion and life as an undergraduate, and I lived and breathed the subject material.  Today, I’m working on the data for my first thesis chapter on the Aeneid and material culture as a kind of proto-romance and as inspiration for medieval authors.  I won’t argue that perhaps I didn’t see then that classics wasn’t my future and that perhaps I wasn’t quite passionate enough to slog through years of Greek study.  Perhaps because I didn’t go into Gustavus knowing I wanted to study classics he thought I wasn’t devoted enough.  Perhaps I was too wrapped up in taking classes in the field that he thought I was annoying and overly-ambitious.  Perhaps my frequent migraines and illnesses came off as simply skipping class for the heck of it.  Perhaps it was supposed to be a helpful comment.  (I have often wanted to believe this is the case, but remain doubtful.)  Medieval literature is a field that gets me excited and makes me happy like classics did because of many of the same things: the magic of classical characters, the beauty of intricate poetic forms, heroes and their quests, the power of religion and devotion, and cultural ideals behind the texts.  However, instead of Latin and Greek, I focus on English with smatterings of French and Latin.  (Learning about the Norman Conquest and the evolution of the English language might be my favorite academic moment in recent memory.)

The final question this situation raises for me is how much professors should provide advice to a gung-ho student.  I’m sure you’ve seen this video.  We’ve heard that jobs for academics are thin on the ground.  I know and I’m aware.  I’m going to graduate school because I’ll always wonder, “What if?”.  I won’t be able to get a job in the field of medieval literature without my advanced degrees, so because I’ve had some funding and have the ability to go to graduate school, why not?  I made this quite clear even as an undergraduate.  I appreciate honest feedback but with one caveat: if asked.  I don’t want honest feedback from a professor or lecturer with whom I don’t feel comfortable and perhaps don’t respect in the field as much as another who knows me well on a personal level.  With all of this in mind, how honest is too honest?  Should professors just tell students what they think in the manner they deem best?  If the student has said that s/he will go if able, even with the knowledge that a career may not develop in the way one would like?  It’s a touchy subject with the economy sliding, many shrinking humanities departments, the elimination of tenure-track positions, and the competition for funding, jobs, and prestige.

So, I go back to that professor and that comment.  The situation crops into the forefront of my mind more often than I’d like, and sometimes it makes me further question whether I belong here and deserve my place.  I have to remember that people who have been in the field for years chose to accept me into all the master’s and doctoral programs to which I applied.  I won a scholarship for my MA year and worked incredibly hard for my degree with distinction at Durham.  I must remember that I do belong here.  Perhaps I don’t have as much experience, but I’m behind other first-year PhDs by a few years, not a lifetime.  I have the privilege of being able to devote my time, work, and life to the Middle Ages, if only for the few years it takes to complete my thesis and program before the Real World comes calling.

This term has been crazy.  No, really.  Any way you put it, since Christmas school has been

mad, insane, batty, wacky, nuts, screwy, cooky, bonkers, daft.

I got back and immediately had an essay due.  After that, I had to finish whipping my applications into shape and edit my writing samples.  Next, a 5000 word essay worth 100% of my grade in my Issues module.  Now? A research proposal for my Research Methods course, which is also the cherry on top of my applications.  I’m trying to get it up to scratch so that I get funding.  There are up to eight Durham Doctoral Scholarships and 250 applicants.  Ouch.  And it’s the only funding I can apply for here as an overseas student.  So, that means I have roughly a 3% chance of getting funding.  Ooof.  And on top of this, the regular reading and classes (though, to be fair, my Issues classes are done, and in RMR I only have the daunting Dialogue Day –presenting a paper in a pseudo-conference atmosphere).  Now, before Easter break, I have to come up with a research essay topic and meet with my essay supervisor and finish another 3000 word essay.

I don’t have time for a proper post, but I wanted to update any regular readers on what’s been going on.  On the bright side, Alicia (who has a new fashion blog!!!) has turned in her Master’s thesis of 101 pages, and my former roomie, Ryan, has passed the Japanese Language Proficiency Test N1 (the highest level of mastery in the Japanese language)!  I’m so proud of them!!!

So, onwards and upwards.  I’ll try to update more regularly, and pictures by me will turn up after break begins, as my camera vanished while I was home for Christmas.  Keep rocking on, just keep swimming, and everything’s gonna be alright.

Above: probably what my room looks like from floor-level because I haven’t yet taken my Issues books back!  Black Death, the Pearl, and the Book of the Duchess, baby!

Media note: The Oscars are this Sunday, and I’m betting on The King’s Speech, Colin Firth, and Christian Bale.  The ceremony’s being taped at home, so it’ll be good fun during break!  Adele has a fantastic new album out, 21, which is her follow-up to the amazing 19 (“Chasing Pavements” is a well-known tune from that album).  Plus, I finished Her Fearful Symmetry and am now reading The Piano Teacher and Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue.  Fun fab fact: Bill Bryson is the chancellor at Durham!  Finally, I’m reading Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida and The Tempest for class.  Hooray for an amazing mix of good music, films, and texts!

We’ve finally begun our Issues module lectures on the Renaissance.  As I read dense, boring, and often ill-written articles in preparation for Monday’s class, I was struck by the eloquence of Paula Findlen’s article, “Possessing the Past,” in which she discusses the material collection obsession of Renaissance patricians.  To illustrate her point about books and the preservation of knowledge, she included a quote from Petrarch:

And I perhaps own more of them than I ought; but just as in certain other things, so does it happen with books; success in earning money is a stimulus to greed.  There is indeed something peculiar about books.  Gold, silver, precious stones, beautiful clothing, marbled homes, cultivated fields, painted canvases, decorated horses and other similar things, possess silent and superficial pleasure.  Books please the core of one’s mind; they speak with us, advise us and unite us with a certain living and penetrating intimacy.

92, adapted from Petrarch, Rerum familiarium libri I-VIII, 157 (Fam. III, 18)

Petrarch believes to truly possess a book, one must read it, understand it, and contemplate it.  It has to feed one’s mind and soul and not just his or her pride and vanity.  It’s a lovely thought.

Works Cited: language.uoregon.edu

Does this sentence make your heart leap with joy? Or does a sentence ending with a preposition make you stop and stare, dumbfounded? Do text-messege-speak emails and Facebook status updates make you cringe? Well, my friend, you are not alone.

The technological world we live in today is making our spelling and grammar suck, to be quite honest. “Your” is confused with “you’re” on a regular basis, and in recent days I’ve seen the phrase “Renaissance man” reduced to a jumble of letters without capitalization. “Saturday” is now “Satueday,” an ad’s “tattoos” is now “tattoo’s,” and compliments are returned with “thanx” instead of “thanks” or “thank you.” (And, apparently, WordPress believes that “thanx” is, indeed, a real word according to its lack of an angry red underline.)

This all goes back to my love of the written word and my shock at the lack of basic writing skills in every age group.  High schoolers, college students, advanced degree-holders (BA, MA, even beyond!), and baby boomer professionals are making basic mistakes in spelling and grammar.  I’m convinced that the necessary use of technology–computers, mobile phones, and social networking sites like Facebook–has chipped away at the English language.

Works Cited: njlplive.jex.com

I can rant as long as I want about the troubling evolution of our language and writing, but that won’t do much.  Instead, all I can do is ask each person to not reduce to text speak in everyday communication and to encourage his or her peers to use correct English.  Mistakes happen, but we can set an example like my friend, Nick.  He ended a sentence within a normal conversation with a preposition, and then corrected himself.  Perhaps writing well and speaking well will eventually lead others to do the same.  Who wants the next generation to look back on us and wonder what the heck we were saying?  Will we need an English to Text Speak dictionary alongside the French, Spanish, Latin, and Old English tomes?  Let’s hope not.  And, if all else fails, you can remember this joke an English professor once told my class:

Visitor: Where is the library at?

Professor: Around here, we don’t end our sentences in prepositions.

Visitor.  Okay…  Where is the library at, asshole?

Here’s to good writing, readable communication, and better education!

The several weeks I’ve been here have flown by, and already I’m feeling the pangs of home-/Minnesota-sickness. Not to say that Durham is in any way bad (except for maybe the darn hills which, as a wonderful taxi driver once said, “always go up”). Registration was more complicated than I think it needed to be, with students cutting into the queue, no prior computerized registration, and mixed up modules in various departments. Even though my English module is through the IMRS, the reading list was in the English department. Added to the chaos of trying to pin down my advisor with a “this is my career plan” conversation in mind were the many, many freshers (AKA freshman) signing up for classes and not having any idea where they were supposed to do or what they wanted, other than the free pizza coupons, of course.  I truly don’t believe I was that clueless when I was a freshman.  Naive?  Yes.  Clueless and obsessed with getting drunk?  No.

The one thing I’ve come to count on is the availability of my Belvedere blockmates with whom I can chat, joke, and relax.  We live at the top of one big f-ing hill (and Gusties, I no longer think our hill is that impressive.  I’m sorry.) which is immediately preceded by at least one other big hill.  I should get pictures, really.  Even though it’s literally a big pain in my already painful knee, the people here are amazing.  There are English, law, psychology, math, theology, and museum studies students, among others, and we all seem to really get along well.  In my American classes and dorms (as well as my Cambridge summer school) there has been that one person who seems to believe in making life as hard or awkward as possible, but that one seems to be lacking in this area of my college.  Maybe the trek up the hills scared him or her off?

I mentioned that I did, indeed, stand in line for registration, and I got the confirmation email today that it’s gone through.  What I’m left with is (officially) Research Methods, Issues in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, my dissertation, Narrative Transformations, and From Roland to Orlando.  Unofficially, I’m auditing paleography and perhaps an undergraduate Robin Hood class (yeah, bet you didn’t see that one coming).  The reading load looks daunting and the methods class seems long and tedious, but I have a feeling I’ll come out of this programme knowing what I really want to do and what my focus will be.  Plus, this methods class will help me to be a better writer and researcher, which can never be a bad thing.

P.S.  We had postgraduate matriculation today.  We’re now really, really and truly members of the university.  Exciting!

Oh, and next post hopefully will be a bit more organized and I’ll get to show off my new glasses I mentioned.