Here’s why you’re not getting into that PhD program:
- A merciful God is looking out for you.
- You come from a boring ethnic, cultural, sexual, or national background.
- Your scholarly writing samples read like the post-coital ravings of two hallucinating undergraduates lounging on a grassy knoll under the moonlight. Which, hey, may well be the case, so congratulations.
It’s not your fault. Generations of English teachers and professors, desperate for any sign of life from their students, have encouraged you to “get personally involved in the text” and “express yourself” and “relate the past to the present.”
Worse, they’ve (intentionally or not) taught you the linguistic trick of folding words back on themselves to sound smart and surprising, too:
“Though it is commonly believed that Moby Dick is about an obsessed man chasing a whale, really it is about a whale chasing a man…through his psyche.”
You give readers (and yourself) that little frisson of revelation and then you contort yourself through the text to prove it. Ta-da!
Here’s the thing, though: Nobody gives a fuck what you think, especially when almost everyone else thinks it, too.
I say all of this after kicking off yet another semester with students who think that their opinions (mostly variations of “This was boring” but also “Dude, this Elizabethan sonnet is totally about the unfairness of Digital Rights Management!”) matter way more than they do.
WAY more. As though those opinions have the ability to shape reality for anybody else but the person who holds them.
Literary scholarship done well is a kind of science:
- You look at a work with as little preconception as possible.
- You catalog a pattern of evidence, peculiar or troubling elements that recur throughout the work.
- You consider hypotheses (biographical, cultural, textual, theoretical) that can explain that pattern.
- You perform secondary research (biography, bibliography, correspondence, other texts, theory) to help substantiate or disprove each hypothesis.
Does that sound boring? Good. That’s why you shouldn’t be doing it.
If you approach a work of literature with a pet theory, you are going to find evidence for it. You just are. Art is a Rorschach test, and you always find what you’re looking for…eventually. Painfully. Embarrassingly.
(Watch the film Room 237 for an illustrative example.)
If you write papers with this in mind – starting with evidence, forming more than one hypothesis, and then proving it with scholarship – your professors will love you. More importantly, they’ll respect you. Even more importantly, they may even listen to you and encourage you.
And then you too can achieve the heights of scholarship to read bad undergraduate papers.