Blog Post

How Narrow Is Enough?

As Director of Graduate Studies for the University of Washington English Department, I am responsible for reading every application to our MA/PhD program.  I just finished file number four hundred sixty five and am allowed a few days' rest.

Our admissions process still has several weeks to go.  Files will fly hither and yon, and we will have more meetings a la Pacific Northwest, in which everyone will have his or her say, exhaustively, until we reach consensus.  (Impatient people do not thrive here in Salmon-Land.)

Part of our discussions this year will inevitably concern specialization.  How much emphasis should we place on prospective students' description of their research goals?  Should we expect them to be able to engage current scholarly debates knowledgeably and articulately? Do we hold it against them if their self-descriptions do not fit neatly into the categories that are used in job advertisements?

On the one hand, it seems absurd to expect an applicant to a PhD program to sound like someone interviewing for a tenure-track position.  Isn't that the point of coursework, exams, dissertation defenses, and so forth?  Also, haven't we all seen graduate students arrive as, say, enthusiastic devotees of eighteenth century poetry and, six years later, graduate as specialists in, oh, Victorian drama?  Isn't a period of trying out different points of view an indispensible prelude to becoming a well rounded, boundary-busting thinker? 

On the other hand, there are fewer and fewer traditional faculty lines out there in the humanities.  Some folk push their students to professionalize very early.  They urge them to turn their first- and second-year seminar papers into conference presentations and peer-reviewed articles.  Without a CV full of glitzy credentials, this variety of mentor argues, how is someone supposed to catch the eye of a search committee?  There's simply no time for dithering or specialty-hopping; you'll lose the race to your more focused competitors.

In my department, instead of tackling these issues head on, we tend to come at them obliquely (another Northwestern trait!) via the word "project."  We debate whether somebody has a viable / promising / well-defined "project."  A "project," after all, is a usefully open-ended amorphous thing, existing as much in the future as the present.  It can be preliminary or nearly complete, validated or not through grants, publications, and prizes.  The one constant:  "having a project" means being able to talk like a specialist, that is, to use the requisite jargon, drop the right names, and stay within approved bounds en route to acceptable conclusions.

Should applicants to a PhD program "have a project"?  Nobody expects a prospective students to be able to outline a "project" with the clarity and self-awareness of an ABD defending a dissertation prospectus.  But it's hard not to become energized when an applicant proves able to Talk the Talk.  To declare, concisely and well, what she wishes to study and why.  To persuade you that she is a genuinely creative thinker, able to start with a close reading and spin outwards into elegant perceptive commentary on The Big Picture (as defined by the current generation of English professors and as substantiated by an extensive bibliography). 

I try to avoid giving in to the siren song of the "project" because I am acutely aware that Talking the Talk is another way of saying Already Has Access to the Institution.  Anyone outside of a narrow charmed circle is going to have difficulties proving that they have "projects," whether it be applicants from impoverished and otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds, applicants who have been away from the academy for many years, applicants from overseas, etc.

Overt bias is pretty easy to avoid.  But what about more subtle kinds?  For instance, after file three hundred or so, I found myself becoming annoyed when statements of purpose avowed an interest in contemporary American fiction but then entirely failed to mention any women writers.  "Oh no, here we go again, DeLillo, Pynchon, Wallace, McCarthy. Ugh."  As the Franzenfreude and VIDA kerfuffles illustrate, however, the publishing world and the East Coast establishment aren't exactly shining promoters of gender equity.  Should I fault a twentysomething barrista seven years out from his BA for adoring a slate of twenty-first century masters that he's discovered by reading Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times ?  It wouldn't take him long, once here in Seattle, to begin hearing and responding to alternative narratives about recent American cultural history.  And yet . . . and yet . . . wouldn't I prefer to admit someone else who has already begun to ask feminist questions about canon formation and literary value?

I hear that some East Coast schools admit students by (1) rigorously enforcing GRE & GPA cut-offs and then (2) having faculty in relevant areas read applications and decide whom they would prefer work with. Those departments, I hear, make speedy decisions, and they appear to be happy with the results.  It would sure save a lot of agonizing introspection.  They must have other things to do on the long cold winter days of January and February.

Brian Reed's picture
Professor of English
Brian Reed is Chair of English and Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Cinema, and Media at the University of Washington, Seattle. He is the author of three books--Hart Crane: After His Lights (2006), Phenomenal Reading: Essays on Modern and Contemporary Poetics (2012), and Nobody's Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics (2013)--and the co-editor of two essay collections, Situating El Lissitzky: Vitebsk, Berlin, Moscow (2003) and Modern American Poetry: Points of Access (2013). A new book, A Mine of Intersections: Writing the History of Contemporary American Poetry, is forthcoming in 2016.