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Preparing for grad school

Hi, all. I just finished up my BFA in dramatic writing--playwriting, specifically--at NYU. I'm entering NYU's MA program in English and American literature in the fall. (Don't worry--I have a scholarship--I'm not paying anything.) My undergrad advisors knew nothing about English, so this community played a huge role in helping me apply without making a complete ass of myself.

So, what materials do you folks think would be good for a non-English major preparing for graduate English study to read over the summer? Remember, I've had no formal training in the novel or poetry--only drama. Recently, I read Peter Barry's Beginning Theory, a survey of literary theory. But I face a steep learning curve, in terms of both literature and criticism. Any suggestions? I've got to get a serious head start. Thanks!

By the way, for anyone who's doing the CUNY Language for Reading program this summer, so am I--in French.

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( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
anglophile318
May. 14th, 2009 01:23 pm (UTC)
Congrats again on NYU! When I was visiting schools, I asked a professor how I should prepare the summer before entering school, and he recommended reading secondary sources and strengthening your theoretical approach to literature. He pointed out that you're going to be introduced to lots of primary sources in your courses, so it's more important to focus on how you will interpret them before entering school.

Thus, I think you're on the right track by reading Barry's Beginning Theory. I have also heard that Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory: An Introduction is a good way to learn about various schools of theory. I would also recommend Jonathan Culler's Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. Rather than giving a history of different schools, he talks about the implications of theory on how we consider language, meaning, identity, performance, etc. I've found it to be really useful in helping me think about literature in its bare essentials and consider the questions at the core of all our future work: what do we mean when we call something "literature"? What is the relationship between literature and language? What determines meaning? Plus, since I'm hoping to take a class with Culler in the fall, it kind of counts as homework for me. :)

Beyond the most general of books on theory, I would recommend finding 2 or 3 seminal theoretical works or comprehensive lit histories on the time period you're going to study. I'm focusing on 19th century American women's literature, for instance, so I'll be reading Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers, a comprehensive history of U.S. women's writers. I also reread A Room of One's Own and will be getting into Butler's Gender Trouble. I'm not planning on going too in-depth, considering the likelihood that my interests will change once I'm in the program, but I'm just trying to get my lit juices flowing after several years out of the classroom.

My last recommendation is to figure out the top journals in your time period and begin reading them with some regularity. Not only will this help you see the directions in which your field is heading, but you'll also be familiar with journals to target when you're ready to publish articles.
ldn9001
May. 18th, 2009 03:17 am (UTC)
Eagleton's book is fantastic. He's a very clear, very engaging writer--funny, too.
e_k_p
May. 14th, 2009 02:54 pm (UTC)
The three texts anglophile318 suggests were all on my bookshelf before I started my program last year, too, and they served me pretty well. I'm a dramatic lit person, so I feel you - I'm constantly reminding my program that drama exists and is legit ;) Try Richard Schechner's seminal book "Performance Theory" for some theoretical background in drama - you may have come across this before now in your previous program. Good luck!
nyc_playwright
May. 15th, 2009 09:52 pm (UTC)
Given my background, I think my specialty may very well end up being dramatic literature, but I'm a bit disconcerted by the seeming obscurity of the field. Do English programs consider drama a legitimate focus? From what I can tell, most departments have one or two drama specialists on faculty, but I can't quite get a handle on drama's position on the spectrum of English subfields. What do you think?
silasflannery
May. 14th, 2009 05:49 pm (UTC)
I also recommend _Critical Terms for Literary Study_ edited by Frank Lentricchia & Thomas McLaughlin. It is a collection of introductory essays organized around keywords. Each essay is written by a notable literary critic: a chapter on "narrative" by J. Hillis Miller, a chapter on "culture" by Stephen Greenblatt, a chapter on "canon" by John Guillory, and "race" by Kwame Anthony Appiah. After reading this book, I became conscious of how just using a word like "discourse" or "ideology" tends to situate one's argument in a certain camp, and that there are no "neutral", value-free approaches to literature; even the evaluative vocabulary we use is charged with meaning.
greekdaph
May. 15th, 2009 11:53 am (UTC)
These are all such helpful suggestions--I've added a ton of books to my list after reading this thread.

I e-mailed my future DGS just yesterday asking what I should read in preparation for the fall, and she also recommended the Eagleton book. In addition, for thinking about different theoretical perspectives on 19th century American lit, she suggested:
-Ross Murfin's edition of critical essays on The Scarlet Letter
-Cathy Davidson's Revolution and the Word
-Philip Fisher's The New American Studies
-Donald Pease's(ed) National Identities and Post-Americanist Narratives

I'd love to hear from others about what you think the essential texts are in your field.

And, nycplaywright, I'm going to do the Language for Reading program, too. I'm choosing between French and Spanish but leaning towards French. Are you going to do the session that starts on 6/15, or the one that starts later? Whichever language I choose, I'll definitely do the earlier session.
nyc_playwright
May. 15th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC)
I'm only able to do the later session. But I'd love to hear how the program is once you're in the thick of it.
greekdaph
May. 16th, 2009 01:52 pm (UTC)
Bummer we won't be in the same class, but I'll certainly let you know how it's going after a couple class sessions.
windsweptvoid
May. 20th, 2009 01:59 am (UTC)
I'd recommend something like this: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0312095457/ref=cm_rdp_product. That one is of Jane Eyre, but Bedford St. Martins has a whole set of books like it. The first part of the book is a primary text, and the second half of the book is an assortment of essays.
It'll give you an array of examples from different critical standpoints-- so when you read terry eagleton (or whatever intro to theory book), you'll have these essays that are all on a primary text you've read, to see how the theory lines up with how an actual lit critic employs that theory. And these books are designed for students (rather than a Norton Critical edition that is designed more for scholars), so it should be considerably easier to read than straight theory.
When I read Eagleton just before I started grad school it went right over my head. Just a lot of philosophy and i had no sense of how this stuff actually worked with literature. So that's my suggestion-- and it doesn't matter what the primary text is, choose whatever you'd like.

I'll also say that the reason I stress this is because in my last two years of grad school I've had quite a few courses with students who weren't used to lit studies. They really *really* struggled with how to talk and write about the primary texts. So I'd really suggest you get a sense of how the field does stuff.

One more thing--- you might also want to check out Gregory Semenza's book on Graduate School. It's a good primer particularly if you're thinking you might go on for the PhD.
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