“You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous”: on finishing my PhD coursework

“You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous,” says Seamus Heaney at the end of his poem “Station Island.”

This is how I’m feeling right now: finished with my doctoral coursework, I am dangerous and unleashed, as if transitioning out of a long and difficult fast. There are no more grades, no more marked up syllabi with all my semester deadlines meticulously mapped out, no more looming seminar papers, and no more evenings on the horizon where I’ll stay on campus until long past dark.  The “labor large, exceeding far my might” is done—four years of constant graduate coursework finally finished.  (The labor large isn’t completely finished, of course; there are still prelims and a dissertation, but I’m summoning up all my energy to celebrate this little finish right now.)

I was lucky to have a few weeks this summer to be still and process what those four years of graduate work have taught me—other than, you know, a general working knowledge of literature written in English.  I have this great sense that the work has changed me in ways I will struggle to articulate for years to come, and it’s been difficult to put those feelings into words.  I am a writing-processer, though, so I’ve attempted to distill this four-year-long pilgrimage into the top things I learned about the literary life thus far.  Not comprehensive, by any means, but it’s a good start.

Speed is depressing; steadiness is uplifting.  At the beginning of my MA, and even into the start of my PhD, I felt the need for speed.  I wanted to be the first to finish my courses, my language requirements, and my examinations, for no other reason than the mistaken belief that speed was good.  Speed can be helpful under certain circumstances (i.e. trying to read all 500 pages of Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia in one week—not that I would know), but mostly it’s depressing.  Intense periods of speed and productivity are nearly always followed by listless, frothy-minded days of anti-productivity.  Steadiness, however, reorients your mind to a natural rhythm of thoughtfulness.  I learned this over the summer when I had time to read some Shakespeare works on my prelims list slowly: one act a day is the perfect amount of time to let Shakespeare simmer, something I’ll have to remember for teaching.

Enjoying a subject is not dependent upon excelling in a subject.  I wish I could find more creative ways to emphasize this to my over-achieving students, but I really sympathize—I’ve lived in the over-achieving mindset much longer than they have.  The thing is, getting on in graduate school has shown me that you can absolutely enjoy a subject without getting perfect marks.  I especially feel this way about all my Anglo-Saxon coursework, something I’ve confided to my Medievalist friends.  I’ve struggled to imprint all the particulars of the AS grammar system onto my brain, but that doesn’t much affect how much I love reading and talking about the literature.  Slow and laborious translator that I am, I’m still a proud advocate of Old English fandom.

Reading books takes time.  I admit, this is obvious.  But can we consider for a moment how “strategic” reading has become in literature classes, from high school on?  There is an entire online industry grounded in plot summaries and pithy critical analyses of literature, an industry that makes its money on no one having time to actually read the book.  But the popularity of these websites only proves a truth about the literary life: books can take a long time to read.  They are supposed to last a while, and that’s okay.   I have done my fair share of “strategic” reading, and never once has a book from that pool truly impacted me—impact always takes time.

It is possible to forget how to pray.  I was hesitant to include this, but I think it’s the truth.  When I came up from my coursework fog, I made a few attempts at focused prayer and was amazed to see how unnatural it felt.  My hyper-individualistic, Protestant upbringing always encouraged original prayer (as in, speaking extemporaneously to God), but these days I need ancient structure.  I need old prayers that put the right words in my mouth and form me slowly through spiritual osmosis.  I’ve quoted this prayer by Aquinas here before, but I’ve been returning to it so much recently I’ve got to quote it again:

Creator of all things, true source of light and wisdom, lofty origin of all being, graciously let a ray of your brilliance penetrate into the darkness of my understanding and take from me the double darkness in which I have been born, an obscurity of both sin and ignorance.

Give me a sharp sense of understanding, a retentive memory, and the ability to grasp things correctly and fundamentally.

Grant me the talent of being exact in my explanations, and the ability to express myself with thoroughness and charm.

Point out the beginning, direct the progress, and help in completion; through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I am in charge of my education from now on. I’m assuming my friends from high school and college who didn’t choose to spend a decade in higher education have already realized this, but it’s strangely new to me.  I am in charge of my learning.  I pick what goes into my brain.  I choose the time periods and genres of my written work.  I am my own best teacher.  Maybe this last one has always been true, but for some reason I now feel that I’ve earned the right to run my educational show.

There’s probably much, much more to add to this list.  But this is where I am right now: fasted from years of living by the academic rule of others, light-headed at the prospect of a new season, and dangerously ready to finally break out on my own.