Update: I guess I posted this without finishing it. It’s all there now. Thanks for your patience.
So a man is walking down the street after dark, when, passing by a lamppost, he sees a man on his hands and knees, looking for something on the ground. “Hey, buddy,” this man says, “can you help me find my keys? I dropped them in the alley across the street.”
The man is puzzled. “If you dropped them across the street,” he says, “why are you looking for them here?”
“The light is better,” is the response.
* * *
This joke neatly encapsulates the epiphany I recently had about my exams.
To give you the necessary background: in order to advance to Ph.D. candidacy and thus begin work on my dissertation, I have to pass the Qualifying Exams. The quals consist of questions, both written and oral, about a selection of books (about 150), which are arranged into three lists: the primary field list (80-100 books), the secondary field list (40-50 books), and the theoretical list (20 books). The idea is to build up a strong familiarity with a particular field, a supplementary familiarity with a (usually related) field, and a solid grounding in a theoretical framework. Taken together, the exam lists give an approximation of a grad student’s areas of expertise, out of which the dissertation is born, and thus define the jobs that a candidate will apply for (Americanist, Medievalist, etc.) Such, at least, is the theory.
Until recently, my lists looked like this:
1) Anglo-American Modernism (formerly “British modernism,” but I wanted to talk about Henry James), 1900-1945. Woolf, Joyce, Conrad, Eliot, Pound, guys like that. Some World War I literature, some of the Lost Generation, some Harlem Renaissance.
2) The 19th-Century British Novel. Starting with Sir Walter Scott, and going on to Austen and then through the Victorians, ending with fin-de-siècle stuff like Wilde.
3) Narratology/Narrative theory. My primary theoretical interest, studying the mechanics and function of narrative. Bakhtin is the big guy, also Genette, some Barthes, Adorno, Todorov.
The idea was that, since I’m most interested in the British stuff, and in particular in the first half of the 20th century, I’d make that my primary focus, and then go back to the 19th century to get some context. This would let me paint myself as a British specialist (not a “Britishist,” for some reason) in job interviews. Since the study of narrative is often associated with the study of the novel as a form–Bakhtin’s primary interest is in 20th-century literature, for instance–I’d also have a good base for my theoretical list as well. It all sounds logical.
But about a week ago, I was walking with a friend of mine and talking about my lists. “I’m having trouble getting started on my secondary list,” I said. “The problem is that I don’t know very much about the nineteenth-century British novel–I don’t know who any of the major critics are, and there are big gaps in the period for me. I’m nervous about e-mailing [the unnamed 19th-century scholar on my committee] and having her find out that I don’t know much about this.”
Almost as soon as I said this, the obvious question hit me: If I don’t know much about the nineteenth-century novel…what the hell is it doing on my exams? You know? If I’m having trouble naming even one of the major critics of the nineteenth century British novel, what makes me think I can somehow bgecome a minor expert on it between now and next fall? Shouldn’t I rather focus on my academic strengths?
The solution I came up with was, in retrospect, equally obvious. Rather than moving backward from the modernist period to the nineteenth-century, why don’t I broaden my consideration of modernism, focusing my first list on British and Irish modernism and my second list on American literature of the same period (1890-1945, roughly)? I have some good reasons for doing so:
–My interests aren’t as restricted to Britain as I thought. Many of the “British” people I’m most interested in are American expatriates–Eliot, Pound, HD. Similarly, with an interest in World War I, it makes sense to include Hemingway.
–Some of the issues that interest me mostly take place in American literature. Race is the most prominent one of these; by doing a list on American lit I can do a fairly thorough study of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as the black literature before and since.
–From a professionalization standpoint, logically (and we know how logical university hiring practices are), it would seem to make sense to learn about the wide range of modernism, rather than hedging my bets and learning about the nineteenth-century novel. If a school is looking to hire someone from the nineteenth-century, they’ll be looking for great expertise and work in the field, which I don’t have. On the other hand, a school looking to hire a modernist would want him or her to have some exposure to U.S. modernism as well. Right?
–Let’s face it: I know modernism better and I like it more. I’m more familiar with the period and the criticism, I’ve read more of it, and I understand my relation to it better. Certainly I think that grad school should be about broadening, not narrowing, one’s knowledge; heck, some of that should even take place during the exams. But grad school is also about defining one’s specialty, And, while I enjoy a lot of nineteenth-century work (Austen, most of the Victorians), I also enjoy Shakespeare, or Joseph Heller. Modernism is what I’m most knowledgeable about, so I’m going with that.
The chair of my committee has signed off on this already–she seemed a little puzzled that I was asking for permission on it. I’m meeting with another committee member today, the one who suggested the nineteenth-century approach (and who, other grads have informed me, has reservations about transatlanticism as a viable field). If he tells me that it’s a bad idea to sit on the Atlantic fence, I’ll consider changing back (though I’ll make it Victorian Literature, rather than the 19th-Century Novel; I know a lot more about that stuff). In the meantime, though, I’m developing these new lists. This revelation has gotten me excited about my exams for the first time since I began the process. And the light is much better here.