Since I’ve been home after my first semester as a Comparative Literature graduate student at Berkeley, I’ve spent a lot of time fielding questions from friends and relatives about what, exactly, I’ve been doing. My usual response – “Oh, you know; comparing the literatures, to see which one is the best” – tends to elicit nervous, confused laughter, and only thinly veils what I’ve actually spent all semester doing: wondering what, exactly, I’m doing.
As an undergraduate, I regarded graduate students with a certain baffled admiration. Their language was both idiosyncratic and predictable, as if codified in some dictionary whose existence it was their duty to deny. They all talked with the same calculated haltingness, in the contained cadence of seminar-speak. Where did they all learn to discreetly smirk at Lacan, question whether violence was being effaced on the level of the text, and wonder about the role of “affect”? Where did they learn to speak as if everything was in quotation marks (and/or parentheses)? And where could I learn to do that too? (This is a good place to start.)
As much as I rolled my eyes at this kind of academic posturing, I had an overwhelming desire to crack the code and join the ranks of this secret society. I also really liked reading things and writing about them. So I applied to graduate school, struggling to frame my questions of purpose as statements, awkwardly incorporating snippets of that foreign grad student language and hoping that by the time I got there, I would be problematizing, historicizing, and reifying with the fluency of a native.
Berkeley’s Comp Lit students, however, turned out not to be the jargon-spouting aliens I had feared. Worse: they were human, and spoke English, and were perfectly nice and friendly, and I still didn’t understand what was going on half the time. I felt like there were certain unsaid assumptions shared by everyone else about how to approach texts, assumptions too obvious to put into words and thus impossible to ask about. I became quite sure I didn’t know how to read, and wondered what it was I had been doing to books all these years, since it certainly couldn’t be called reading. The areas I thought I was interested in now seemed like they weren’t “areas” at all. I realized I didn’t know what “area,” or any other remotely abstract word, even meant. After stumbling through my first few seminars, never sure if I was saying what the professor wanted to hear or exactly the opposite, I took some solace in the fact that the rest of my cohort seemed as lost as I was. Second-years, third-years, and even seasoned dissertators assured me that they still didn’t know what they were doing, but I didn’t believe them; their claims of confusion were suspiciously coherent. They dutifully asked me if I had any questions about the program, and if they could offer any guidance, but I was too confused to even know what questions to ask.
Sitting around wallowing in a vortex of self-doubt, and dragging my peers in with me, turned out not to be much help in figuring out what I was doing in graduate school. What did help was actually doing stuff: immersing myself in texts, trying to work through them, tentatively venturing ideas about them. A professor’s advice to consider seminar papers as works in progress, potential springboards for further exploration on a topic, helped quell my anxieties about my general lack of direction. It also reminded me why I wanted to go to graduate school in the first place: I think literary analysis is really fun.
Starting graduate school at Berkeley just as the university was hit with budget cuts and their fallout both amplified and helped refine my existential woes. I started to wonder more and more about the economic value of intellectual labor, especially in the ostensibly insolvent humanities. How do we assign a monetary value to the pricelessness of literature, and why should I be getting paid to study it? (That last one I didn’t want to question too rigorously.) These questions ended up informing my academic interests, and both of my seminar papers touched on the relationship between literature and money. Graduate school, for better or for worse, turned out not to be as isolated from the “real world” as I had imagined.
Though I’ve tried not to think too much about school since I turned in those seminar papers, I do feel like I have a little bit of a better idea of what I’m doing than when I started. I’m starting to understand how my more-experienced peers could express their confusion with such calm countenances, and that a lot of graduate school is realizing that we don’t know what, exactly, we’re doing, but that trying to figure it out – by reading, by writing, by exploring, by interacting – is a worthy and rewarding goal in itself. And if all else fails, I can always say that I’m engendering the linguistic construction of the specular economy with an eye to the historicization of desire.