Dwanollah Endorses…
Things Every English Graduate Student Needs

March 2005

(*Note: Like ever so many things on this site, I wrote this back in September when starting my PhD program, but do you THINK the Slacker Hacker posted it? Why, no!)

My industrial-strength backpack is ready. I have four-dozen sharpened pencils. Plus, I’ve been practicing lots of deep-breathing exercises.

I finally got into a PhD program, y’all. And I’m gonna make sure I’m ready! And I might as well share my vast stores of knowledge with you guyses in case anyone else feels the same masochistic urges that I do to bury myself in academia, toiling over articles that will be read by three people and will earn me, if I’m lucky, a free copy of the journal in which it was published. Because we scholarly types know how to party. For proof, dig: Dwanollah Suggests The Items Every Graduate Student in English Will Need to Succeed in School and Not Collapse, Sobbing, Under a Pile of Concordances and Critical Editions!

Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Yeah, it weighs more than the average kindergartener, and costs a mint, but it’s the handiest guide I’ve ever found. Especially since I’m a Semiotics Retard, it helps to have a two-page synopsis of various scholars, movements and schools of criticism to get the gist of things.

MLA Handbook (most recent edition). Because just when you think you know how to cite a journal article for your annotated bibliography, you’ll discover that they just changed it, and no, it has to be a COMMA after the book title, not a PERIOD- Or, damn, is it the other way around?

A laptop. The lighter the better, because you’re gonna lug it to the library and to your study groups and to your friends’ houses and to Thanksgiving dinner at Mommy’s house. You may want to haul it to class and use it for notes (although most of your colleagues might be annoyed as fuck by your clack-clack typing and various computer beeping). Most importantly, you’ll need it to do any work in the Special Collections department of a university library.

A shitload of change for the copier. Unless your library has those copiers-by-card. And if they do, buy one and put fifty bucks on it right away. You’ll be glad you did come Week 7 of the semester.

Antidepressants/anti-anxiety meds and sleeping pills. Trust me. Ambien rocks. At least twice a semester, be prepared for stomach-churning bouts of insomnia. And dude, grad school without Zoloft…? I’ll hafta up my dosage just THINKING about it!

A subscription to the CFP listserv. If you aren’t currently familiar with the Calls for Papers, you will be soon. Even if you have no time to write anything right now (or so you think), subscribe anyway, and see what’s going on in academia. This is a great way to see who’s working on what, on what campus or at what conference, with what emphasis.

Access to ProjectMuse/MLA online. You should be able to get to it from your university library’s website; just ask. You can get ten billion articles, or at the very least, a synopsis, online.

A therapist or counselor. Or even a phone number for a support group hotline. Seriously. The manic ebb and flow of one’s sense of identity and/or self-esteem whilst working in the academic world is tumultuous, to say the least. Most schools will have some sort of counseling service, and if you’re feeling even a little bit overwhelmed or freaked out, take advantage of it! That’s what they’re there for! They’ve had practice with stressed-out grad students! It’s okay!

A healthy outlook of your professors. I’m lucky that, this time around, I’ve actually been both professor and student, so I have a handle on both perspectives. Before teaching myself, I was very intimidated by most of my instructors, and had trouble approaching them with serious concerns or questions, much less anything that I thought might be too trivial for such an exalted creature. Trivial, like “Man, am I having trouble getting this paper together!” But it turns out, professors would FAR rather hear that than “Um, yeah, I guess my paper’s gonna be late because, um, I’ve been having trouble, and….”

Critical Theory Since Plato. Yeah, another one of those gonzo, huge, heavy critical texts. This one is a chronological anthology of most of the heavy-hitting critics/essays in Western literary criticism, from Plato through the post-structuralists. All the original sources. You’ll need that aforementioned Johns Hopkins guide to help you understand ‘em, however.

A non-junk food-based diet. I know it flies in the face of most typical grad school experiences. I mean, aren’t you SUPPOSED to mainline caffeine and live offa Top Raman and Taco Bell and pizza…? Most of us can’t afford those $8.00 packages of chicken breasts and $4-a-pop Weight Watchers frozen things when we’re in school, but that doesn’t mean you gotta live off the One Dollar Menu at McDonald’s! If you try, trust me, in a matter of weeks, you’ll be feeling like such crap you won’t have the energy to haul that Johns Hopkins Guide around. Instead, look for local Farmers’ Markets where you can get low-priced produce. Hell, if you have a little patio at your Student Digs, invest $10 in some seeds and/or plants: one tomato vine will keep you in bruchetta and spaghetti sauces for months (and it freezes well, too). Chip in with a couple fellow students and have a weekly Soup or Stew and Salad night, with everyone bringing an ingredient or two to ease costs. Make pizza at home instead of ordering that overpriced crap from the local delivery service; you can actually buy pizza dough mix or frozen dough if you aren’t game for making your own (or you can steal the bread machine that your mom’s had buried in the cupboard since she got it for Christmas in ’95 and set it to mix the stuff up for you). And don’t use that preservative and sugar-crammed shit they call sauce in the grocery stores; get a cheap can of Italian chopped tomatoes (or use the ones you grew), add seasonings, and make your own sauce. Don’t eat at the local greasy spoons too much. Ditch the sodas and coffee for herbal tea. Trust me. This comes from the student who once lived off Pop-Tarts and Pepsi for two straight weeks during final papers.

The Madwoman in the Attic. This is really the cornerstone text to contemporary feminist literary theory, and, especially as things are moving solidly into post-feminism, it’s important to understand the history of this school of criticism. Rarely have I come across any feminist-related article on just about anything that doesn’t reference this text.

Introducing…. Descartes. Kant. Hegel. Heidegger. C’mon, they scare the fuck out of you too, admit it. And while comic-book study guides are kinda toolie, they’re also a good jump-start, and not nearly as overwhelming as cracking Phenomenology of Spirit and reading it straight through. Heck, just having a starting point helps.

Flags. You know, those little sticky bookmark thingies. These’re the greatest things in the world. Buy hundreds, in different sizes and colors. I love these for the books that I’m referencing for a paper; I’ll use different colors to mark different things, so I can find ‘em easier depending on what chapter/section I’m writing. Pink is for gender issues. Blue is for a reference to a book, poem, song, or other literary work. Yellow is for specific motifs that repeat from text to text. Flags even come in ones that can be written on, for added benefit. You’ll figure out your own system, and, at two in the morning, when you’re trying to find that one part about where Mordecai is talking about the establishment of a Jewish state for your paper on “Imperial Exiles in Daniel Deronda,” you’ll be glad that you marked all of the Jewish-related issues with a special color-coded marker.

Access to your largest local library. Especially if you live in a larger city, you might be intimidated by the big, giant library downtown. Don’t be. Try to get over there once before you have an annotated bibliography due for tomorrow’s class, and just explore a little. You’ll be glad you did when you’re freaking because the university library is out of all of the six copies of Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own, or doesn’t have that one issue of Differences with the article you need. I got spoiled, living across the street from Central Library downtown for the year we had the Downtown Pad. It’s a gorgeous building, and, while during the week there were often masses of schoolchildren on field trips, skeevy people looking up porn, and other unsavories, there are still tons of quiet nooks… not to mention all the resources. And if you become a regular (especially if the librarians know you’re working on a book), they’ll often bend over backwards to help, just out of genuine interest.

A favorite study spot away from home. It really helps to pick up your books and papers and GO someplace to work. Especially if you procrastinate, she said, blinking innocently. So find a place where you’re happy and comfortable and not distracted. Turn your cell phone off. Hunker down. I like coffeehouses, but I haven’t found one here in LA that I like as much as The Living Room, where I used to go when I lived in San Diego. The Bourgeois Pig is okay, but usually too crowded. Of course, there are usually six dozen Starbuckses in a five-mile radius, and I like their hot chocolate well enough, so sometimes I’ll truck over there. I also love Central Library, and Fred 62 when it’s not busy (nice big tables to spread five or six books out, and totally yummy silver dollar pancakes!). Figure out what you like, and go. GO!

A schedule. A no-shit bit of advice, but really. Establishing a routine helps keep you organized and on track, and believe me, in those moments – nay, hours – when you’re overwhelmed, you’ll be glad. Because my classes are in the afternoons, I’ve found that I work better in the mornings, so I’ve gotten a schedule of getting up super early (which is weird for me, because I used to be a night person!) and cracking the books while I’m bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed. Of course, by Friday, I’m wiped out and am usually sacked by 9, but at least I don’t have classes on Saturday….

Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day: A Guide to Starting, Revising, and Finishing Your Doctoral Thesis. Eventually, you’re gonna have to. Be ready.

The Stock English Graduate Seminar Discussion Phrase. Be aware, I am about to impart deep, secret advice with this last bit of minutia. This is your crutch for just about any given discussion, and can be used, with variations, almost countless times. You’ll hear it at least a half-dozen times during any one class, and if you don’t believe me, try keeping track one day and see for yourself. You can hide that you haven’t done the reading, you can hide that you feel completely inferior to the person next to you who can spout theory like *that*, you can start any number of tangents with this one simple utterance:

“I find it interesting that ______.”

Do not underestimate the power of this phrase. Say you don’t know what to do with Finnegans Wake? Simply say “I found it particularly interesting that Joyce made so many references to commercial products and slogans in the text.” Someone’ll jump on it, and there you go. Even if it doesn’t spawn discussion, someone else might say, “And I thought it was particularly interesting that ____” and it continues from there. “Does anyone else find it interesting that there are all these really vivid details of whale jizz in Moby Dick?” Bingo: discussion on homoeroticism (which is really the only fun way to read Moby Dick. And yes, I did say “whale jizz” in class, too). Or the instructor puts you on the spot with a pointed question: “What did you think about the subtext in Mansfield Park?” “Well, I found the aspects of play-acting particularly interesting.” You aren’t sure that play-acting is really a subtext of Mansfield Park? Heck, you “think it’s an “interesting” way to consider the question.” You don’t have to be prepared to split hairs on a Marxist analysis of Hawthorne’s short stories, or have read The Americans six times and all the supporting criticism a couple times as well to be able to contribute actively to discussion. Just have a couple variations of TSEGSDP ready for class, just in case: “I found Poe’s tone in his poems particularly interesting.” “I thought the way James presented artists in The Tragic Muse was very interesting.” “I think it’s interesting the way Porter deals with gender issues in this story.” “Gertrude Stein’s use of language is extremely interesting.”

Comfort reading. In the meantime, make sure there’s something totally non-academic and stupid that you can read in the bath, or for a few minutes before you go to bed, to recharge. This is a great way to rationalize the Sweet Valley High, mind…. But if you find yourself thinking that Pascal’s use of sexist gender subtext is particularly interesting, just put the book down. Now.

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