I don’t do things in the abstract. Ironic, considering how much I love theory. But for me, I need concrete examples, models, texts, things. I am far more intrigued by the mechanics of, say, eighteenth century nosepicking devices, than platonic ideals or taxonomies of poetic forms. Material things, with their heft and density and smells, count for far more with me than disembodied or universalized concepts. Hell, I am distrustful of universals, grand narratives, blanket pronouncements and bombastic generalized advice. Yes, I understand the irony here.
Before I return to my earlier topic of applying to grad school and talking about money, I’m going to tell a little story of what my advisor told me. I don’t know if it would help people to hear this earlier or later, whether it would help them to decide about grad school or impart too much information and stress too early, but it worked for me. And it’s what I’ve got.
When I officially asked my advisor to be my dissertation advisor, I only had the vaguest outlines of a topic. So vague, that I could tell it to her in a couple sentences. “Mmm,” she said. “Interesting.” Then she asked me a couple basic questions --- when? how? etc., but I had already exhausted my knowledge of the topic with those first couple of sentences, and I had no clue what my argument would be or where it would go. In fact, I was stumped. I had no clue what to do next or how to start researching my project, what a dissertation prospectus should look like or what I needed to do and what I needed to know in order to write one.
Instead of telling me where to go, what to do, how to start writing about it, my advisor told me to go wander ______, the largest bookstore in town. “What shelves do you like?” she asked, “Someday, this project will be a book and it will mark what kind of scholar you are. Where do you want to be shelved?”
She took a critical work off her own shelves and turned it over in front of me. “What key words will be up here?” She pointed to the category titles running along the top of the back cover. “What will this say?” Indicating the author’s one-line bio. “What methodologies, what theories, will appear on the back? If you were going to write the back blurb, what would it say?”
To be honest, this was partially exciting and partially terrifying.
And overwhelming. But concrete --- I could see books I cited and see publishing lines I liked, and suddenly I had models to think about and work from. I had my advisor’s book, and my advisor herself to model myself against. I didn’t have much of an answer then, and truthfully, I don’t have anything thought out at the level of “blurb” now. But in the back of my mind I had something I could always be thinking about, working on. It seemed very much a process of incremental improvement and clarifying. Every book I picked up, I was conscious as I began my dissertation research, was a potential model or a rejected one.
This process has been helpful to me in thinking through my own work --- would it be helpful at the front end of grad school? For choosing a program and the process of applying? I still have no fucking clue what should go into a statement of purpose or what they should focus on. But if the point of grad school is to discover what sort of scholar you will be and what sort of scholar they will mold you into, then perhaps thinking about this early on will help.
To close with a story from another prof here, who would clearly be named Dr. Crazy if that moniker weren’t already in use in the blogosphere, this prof ---- let’s say Dr. Nonsequitur ---- used to always blurt out in response any random comment I’d make, “That’s your second book.” Once, looking at the 5 of us TAs in the front of the lecture hall, Prof Nonsequitur told the undergraduates, “Your TAs are so smart. You look at them and see people; I see a whole bookshelf of future ideas.”
I have to admit that felt kinda nice. I wonder what the back of all those books will say?