At the beginning of my first year in the English and Comparative Literature program I received a Student Handbook that is still treasured for its wit and challenge. The author wrote an inspiring message which suggested that while new students are unlikely to develop an original idea that should not prevent them from trying. The author who so succinctly described the new students’ challenge also extends a welcoming hand encouraging us to embrace the pleasures of intellectual engagement and creative pursuit. Over the last few years the tutors in our study seminars have amazed me with their willingness to engage with students’ ideas. This year I can’t wait for seminars to begin; right now I am trying to prepare for the excitement of trading ideas and perspectives with my colleagues and tutors. And should I be fortunate enough to have an original idea about the literature I am enjoying how will I express it?
Expressing myself academically and communicating the ideas I have about literature is quite a challenge. There are at least six opposing things happening at once in the study process. First, for me, is reading broadly, or placing a text in context of its period and close reading or understanding the text at the level of language. Second, is reading criticism or theory to understand opinions in contemporary scholarship, and also picking apart the structure of specific individual arguments. Third, I have to think about my own argument as a thesis, and then think about it again in steps from beginning to conclusion. Gaining an understanding of primary and secondary texts and working on how to get my thoughts from my head to the page involves what can feel like diametrically opposed material and goals. It has been known to create a state of intellectual tension that can be as frustrating as it is refreshing.
Frustrating and refreshing are notes on my process scale. It helps to find some inspiration and engagement; for me that can come in the form of writing exercises or tools to prompt creative thinking. Starting with a goal, planning content and a ten minute ‘warm up’ writing session are good starts. Grouping my ideas, talking about my outline out loud to the dog or the wall, and editing after I write the whole paper are three other good exercises. Working this way helps me to think creatively and critically.
Creativity and critical thinking might also seem diametrically opposed but in reality if you can not think critically you can not think creatively. A good working definition of creative is to generate ideas that are both original and useful. It is very nice to have an engaged group, like our study seminar groups, to test the usefulness of my ideas and process. This year it would be very rewarding to come up with that original idea but if it is can not be developed into useful and productive scholarship then what is the point.
Productive scholarship is the key term for me; I will accept the advice offered in my first study guide; despite the challenges nothing will stop me from trying. This program offers a chance to work with some remarkable scholars of English Literature. I can not remember looking forward to something as much as our seminars and the chance to write, think, and enjoy some great literature with my tutors and colleagues.