I started having major anxiety attacks about graduate school around the time of the 2019 polar vortex. It was the first time in my life I felt school was not right for me, and graduate school was beginning to feel like a waste of time. I felt I was floundering in research I was ill-qualified to write, had no direction to pursue my studies, and, in my opinion, was delaying my career as a journalist. One day, perusing the Chronicle of Higher Education website, I stumbled across the op-ed “On Enjoying Grad School” by Briallen Hopper about the importance of graduate school as an experience in study rather than a steppingstone for studies. In the essay, Hopper states, “It makes sense for students to approach graduate education not as a straightforward professional apprenticeship but as a stretch of time and labor that needs to be made meaningful in its own right.” I took some relief in the idea of graduate school – especially a Master of Arts in English degree – as being a period of trial and error. I doubt I am the only graduate student to experience a breakdown surrounding their studies, but I am thankful for the extended time to grow as a thinker and engage with the world through literature.
During my time as an undergraduate and graduate student in DePaul’s English language and literature program, I’ve worked at exploring how contemporary culture connects to literature. I approached my studies through two methods: 1. by applying popular discourse to classical texts; or 2. enrolling in special topic courses that focused on popular or non-Canonical literature. The first method acted as a theoretical approach to keep dated texts in the current discourse, or to argue for their validity in the public sphere apart from their place in the Canon. The later method was to counter the preconceived notion of Canon literature and to apply the bread and butter of literary studies, close reading, to popular texts. As a graduate student, I wrote papers on digital zine culture. I took classes on romance novels. I traced tales from Chaucer to commonplace tropes used in both literature and film. Of course, not all of my research was perfect, but it helped carve out a theoretical space I could potentially pursue if I dare continue a career in academia. My primary research focuses on the intersection of literary and media studies, canonization, and accessibility in higher academia.
My idea of literary studies seems to be dusting books off the shelf and seeing how they fit in the public sphere. One method I found to make literary studies approachable or interesting to non-readers was relating texts to popular culture. This idea may not bode well with new historicists. In my opinion, if a text can no longer engage with current discourse, I do not see it as holding academic merit and could be substituted for other writers or theorists. For example, James Baldwin has grown in popularity among higher education in dialogue with current cultural trends such as the Black Lives Matter movement and increased acceptance of LGBT+ communities. With my studies, I have tried to relate required readings to contemporary discourse. An example of my approach to research is my “Monstrous, Musical Beings: Analyzing the Gothic Mode from Mary Wollstonecraft to Amy Lee” final, which I revised for the capstone. I modeled my analysis after James Rovira’s Rock and Romanticism anthologies, which explores the relationship between nineteenth-century European Romanticism to later musical iterations and expressions. I aimed to hybridize contemporary post-rock or gothic music with larger themes from the Gothic and Dark Romanticism genres I studied in the literature of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. My research ranged from archived music articles to music theory and feminist theory to Gothic studies. I would also argue this approach requires advanced critical thinking to be able to recognize similarities in the arts over centuries, then articulate their connection to larger themes of genre.
It could be argued that these comparisons strip Canonical literature of its intellectual integrity or over-generalize major themes of the work. This argument may be true, but my goal is not to preserve this literature in its heralded form. My goal is to formulate discussion and inquiry around literature beyond its place in the Canon or the classroom. Perhaps I was fed up with hearing people question a degree in English or tell me classical literature is boring. It does not have to be. As a journalist, as well, I noticed that new, online forms of social interaction allowed a way for literature to reenter the public conversation rather than remain apart. In trying to reintegrate literature into public conversation, I realized that meant having to make literature accessible through open-data sources, online archives, or embracing rather than rejecting new forms of dissemination.
Accessibility and public conversation go together because higher education is inherently exclusive, whether through acceptance standards, cost, or systemic inequalities in secondary education. If I wanted to publish research, it would sit in an expensive journal or be published behind costly databases. Instead, I started self-publishing my work and dabbling in new media studies, inspired partly by Professor Shanahan’s innovative Book & Media History class. This grassroots, open-source academics can be seen in my “UnEdited Zines: The Print & Digital Scene” and my “Art for Aliens: An Extraterrestrial’s Guide to Literature” finals that I published on Issuu, a free publishing website. I turned each of these essays into miniature publications that are, hopefully, visually and contextually engaging for the reader. Both rely on paratextual analysis, so the zine – or my version of a scrappy academic journal – is also in conversation with my argument. These are fun, but tedious, and can lead to subpar analysis depending on how much time I devote to design. Issuu is a suitable alternative option for publishing but is not necessarily a well-known online platform. To maximize reach, it is best to publish on mainstream social media channels, like YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook. When the Midwestern Conference on Literature, Language and Media was cancelled because of COVID-19 concerns, I still wanted to present my paper on Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties. Taking the conference theme into consideration, I uploaded a video of my reading to YouTube and shared on my personal channels and the conference page. This garnered attention from academic twitter and allowed the article to circulate beyond my small following. The video generated over 270 views and was retweeted by Machado. This is where my academic career should stop as I don’t see how it could get any better from here:
The ability to have a writer directly interact with literary criticism is a luxury, considering authors that receive the most attention in the classroom are usually dead. I am thankful for the opportunity to read works by a contemporary, queer, Latinx women writer. It wasn’t until my first year as a graduate student at DePaul that a Latinx writer was even introduced in an English course, and, even so, this was a course specifically designed for transnational scholarship between Latin America and Latinx writers. This is one aspect of the English Canon I would like to address and expand, which is happening, albeit slowly, in higher education. I know that DePaul offers rotating courses of “special topic” literature, which is mostly American literature that is not the required white men and occasional white women courses. Sectioning these courses and rotating their availability, though, continues their exclusionary nature. These authors hold as much intellectual merit, so to speak, as other Canonical writers but are studied less frequently. This became the thesis of my “Art for Aliens: An Extraterrestrial’s Guide to Literature” essay, in which I argued for the deconstruction of delineating Literature, as art, from literature, as text, to create space for voices and styles that are not recognized in the Canon.
I also tried to approach bucking the exclusivity of the Canon by blurring the lines between high-brow and low-brow literature in my studies. As an undergraduate, I took a course on young adult fiction, and as a graduate I took a course on romance novels. I wanted to study these texts as they are largely read in the public sphere and hold more weight in popular discourse than in academia. I wanted to engage with popular literature, but do so using the literary tools, techniques, and theories learned through academia. The research and analyses I conducted for these classes were no less valuable than those for Canonical literature courses and often proved to be more fun for me as a writer and for my readers.
I’m grateful for the five years I’ve spent with the Department of English, two of which I’ve spent as a graduate assistant with Slag Glass City. The online literary magazine was a perfect fit for me, as it combined research/journalism and memoir writing into creative nonfiction on urban spaces. I had already worked with website development and publishing through my journalism work, and the graduate assistantship felt like in tandem with work I would like to continue in the future. As a graduate assistant I have had the opportunity to engage with faculty and professors on a personal level, as well as work as a liaison between creative writers, students, and the university. I enjoyed drafting yearly Calls for Submissions and participating in student editorial board discussions with Professor Borich’s literary magazine class. Each spring, I enjoyed designing the Slag Glass Miniatures anthology through InDesign and later being able to hold my design in print. The COVID-19 pandemic made this process a bit bumpy in my last spring quarter, but I was thankful for the opportunity to adapt print versions back to digital by making them available through Issuu. My time with Professor Borich was wonderful, as well, and I appreciate her editorial decisions and the care she takes with the website, both in content and design. Slag Glass City has also received high regards from past and current employers, both in academia and journalism.
When I transferred from Villanova University my sophomore year as an undergraduate, I was told my multiple professors and administrators that I was making the wrong decision. I was told DePaul was not in the same echelon as Villanova. I was told I would not have the same opportunities to progress in my career or as an academic. That was not the case as an undergraduate. But, these voices and others echoed in my head last winter. Should I have taken the graduate program decision process more seriously? Would continuing my graduate studies at the same school have a poor appearance if I wanted to continue a PhD program at “top-tier” universities? Now, as I look back, I am satisfied with my time at DePaul as an experience and a time to experiment, where I was encouraged to explore new avenues of research or question traditional English language and literature courses. I am proud of my DePaul education and the knowledge, attention, and creativity of my professors in the English department. DePaul has taught me to deconstruct these preconceived notions of integrity and to rather question the structures that hold these writers, these institutions, and these prejudices as dominant. I hope I have exemplified this through my own research as I aim to integrate academia as a community entity in open-access information and popular culture criticism.