Becoming an English major requires a certain patience with having oneâ€™s life choices
questioned. Fielding interrogations from friends, family, and random strangers is just part of the
literary life, creating the kind of quick wit and evasive verbal maneuvering skills useful for
navigating the world. Yet the questions are valuable in and of themselves too, as answering
unanswerable questions is the fundamental project of the humanities. So when confronted with
an uncle (and everyone has that uncle) wanting to know, â€œWhat is it you English majors do,
precisely?â€ it pays to think deeply about the answer.
Finding my own explanation for the what and why of literary study has structured my journey as an English major and a scholar, a journey
I hope to continue for the rest of my life. And while there is no definitive answer to the question
of purpose, working to find one has developed me as a reader, writer, and person in ways
impossible to achieve otherwise.
Entering college, at least for me, was less a triumphant progress than an unceremonious
reminder of just how much I had to learn in the next four years. I came to Berry College already
passionate about writing and reading but too steeped in the high school five-paragraph essay to
be an impressive scholar. I had to relearn writing by breaking out of my old patterns and finding
something new. Surprisingly, the classes outside my major started this process. My status as an
Honors student brought me into contact with two excellent thinkers, Dr. Brian Carroll and Dean
Thomas Kennedy, within my first semester at Berry.
While it was a trial by fire to survive their
rigorous classes, these two professors forced me to think deeply about the structure and content
of my writing. In weekly assignments for Dr. Carroll, I learned to avoid vague language while
also producing work on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, Dean Kennedyâ€™s essays required attention
to detail, argumentative clarity, and the effective synthesis of important issues. In rising to the
expectations of these two professors, my once formulaic and vague essays became sharper and
freer at the same time as my mind did. Though both these courses were outside my academic
specialty, they paved the way for growth within my major by shattering mental barriers left over
from high school.
Releasing my old writing habits was only the beginning, however. My next lessons,
learned in my first English and Rhetoric classes, involved the definitive English major skills:
research and interpretation. Judging literature based upon surface-level characteristics or
personal opinion was no longer considered sufficient basis for an argument, as it had been in
high school. Thus, in writing my first essays within my major, I had to wend my way through the
jungle of literary criticism, theoretical frameworks, and research databases and make my own
judgements about what I found there.
My preliminary attempts seem somewhat juvenile now;
expecting to find a definitive â€œtruthâ€ in the library, as I then hoped, was an exercise in futility.
However, my forays into research did transform my understandings of reading, writing, and
learning. Rather than passively receiving knowledge, I had search for it, wrestle with it, and
condense it into intelligible form.
Perhaps my best production from this time period is the
included literature review of critical responses to William Faulknerâ€™s short story â€œA Rose for
Emilyâ€. I was confused by the storyâ€™s hints of necrophilia and social subversion and so I hoped
to find its â€œtrueâ€ meaning with the help of the critics I analyzed. But the critics had no definitive
interpretation of â€œA Rose,â€ forcing me to reconcile various perspectives with my own
understanding of the story. I had to trust my own judgement in the end, which was both
terrifying and liberating. More to the point, this project provided an experience of fundamental
aspects of literary study, an experience which enthralled me infinitely more than I expected.
After discovering the infinite possibilities of literary interpretation, my confidence and
interest in literary studies developed by leaps and bounds. I realized I enjoyed scholarship for its
own sake; writing about writing in this way helped clarify the world I lived in and connected me
to others miles and centuries away. My discovery of feminist critical perspectives in my early
years at Berry fueled this attitude. Some of my best work in my first two years of college drew
heavily upon feminist thought, as feminist explanations of the world seemed close to the
definitive â€œtruthâ€ I had always longed for.
However, as my close reading skills improved and I
read outside the canon of â€œclassicâ€ novels in my various English courses, I found my narrow
focus on a universal experience of gender was far from accurate. In particular, the modernist and
postmodernist works I encountered in junior year seemed too multivocal to analyze with simple
binaries of male power versus female oppression. Reality, even fictional reality, could not be
contained within the simplistic personal theory Iâ€™d built for myself. Again, I had to find
something new, a way to embrace the variety of identities and possibilities both within and
outside of literature.
So I paid more attention to other elements: class, race, sexuality, and the
infinite other permutations which shaped depictions of gender. I also began acknowledging the
importance of genre, structure, and historical context in interpreting literary works, an
understanding which enriched my analysis by taking me deeper into the works I read. I still
accessed the world through literature, but that world had expanded.
Close contact with professors inside and outside class particularly encouraged this
Once I expressed interest in scholarship for its own sake, I found faculty willing to
serve as mentors and support my evolving academic work. The most notable of these were Dr.
Zeynep Tenger, who first exposed me to feminist theory; Dr. Thomas Dasher, who encouraged
my reading outside the canon and advised me through numerous crises; Dr. Mark Taylor, who
introduced to me to the beauties of structure and genre; and Dr. Christina Bucher, whose incisive
editing and nuanced reading perspectives were inspirational. Yet the entire English department
contributed to my academic evolution, supporting me as I cobbled together new critical
perspectives from the ashes of my simplistic understanding of feminism.
The first product of this growth spurt was the included analysis of Frank Norrisâ€™s
naturalist novel, Mcteague. Though the novelâ€™s scientific racism and complicated attitude toward
human agency first caught my eye, I found connections between the structure of the work and
the science supporting it which deepened my understanding without distracting from the novel.
Rather than diminishing the role either historical context or the work itself, I could think of the
two as intertwined. For once, I had assembled a holistic theory of my own which actually
From then on, I became a more careful reader of both literature and literary criticism.
Instead of reading only the surface matter of plot or social context, I searched for the connections
between structure and society to find deeper layers of meaning. My growth as a scholar
accelerated after this point; I produced work Iâ€™m still proud of by following my new trajectory.
the most recent example of this is the attached paper on Chimamanda Ngozi Adicheâ€™s Purple
Hibiscus. Reading the bookâ€™s structure as an essential reflection of the themes helped me go
beyond the plot and understand how the lessons of Purple Hibiscus revealed complex truths
about the colonized world. I had a similar experience with the included essay on Henry Jamesâ€™
While the literary value of the novel an important part of this paper, the
connections I found between The Bostonians and gender ideology in the society which produced
it added exponentially to my understanding. These papers not only encouraged increasingly
nuanced theoretical perspectives; they also furthered my original project of connecting with
others through literature.
By addressing both the social and structural details of the works I read,
I found I could forge deeper links between life and art than possible otherwise.
Looking back on these experiences leads me to consider my next steps. All the transitions
and discoveries which marked my undergraduate years have taken me in a new direction career wise. Though I originally intended to become a librarian, living the life of the mind for four
years was a revelation to me. The joys and frustrations of literary scholarship gave me such
fulfillment that I canâ€™t bear the thought of leaving them behind.
Thus, Iâ€™ve come to the
conclusion academia is the niche for me. The way I see it, reading and writing can make a real
difference by showing students the world is more complex and beautiful than everyday life
would indicate. I feel teaching literature on the collegiate level will provide both a fulfilling
career and way to spread my personal delight in learning to others.
To that end, I have applied to
eight English literature Ph.D programs and hope to start the next phase of my education in the
fall. The writing, reading, and thinking skills I learned at Berry will be crucial here, as academics
will literally become my life in the years to come. However, I feel much more prepared for life in
general than I did four years ago. Not only have I gained new perspectives on literature and
writing, I have also learned an enormous amount about myself and my capabilities. Perhaps most
important of all, I have learned truth is too complex to hold within a single theory or even a
single book. And in this, I suppose I have an answer to that starting question: â€œWhat is it English
majors do?â€ We look for truth, and it is in the search itself that we find it.
Four years of English classes at Berry College total thirty-six credit hours. Now I am asked
to compose this reflective essay to answer the question: How does â€œ36â€ translate into writing
development? My development as a writer has followed a natural progression. Initially, my
writing always took a very safe route. I only tackled topics I comprehended fully. Through my
time at Berry, I have been challenged to write about things I did not understand.
Sitting down to
write an assignment began to take much longer. I could not sit down with an idea and compose
freely. Progressively, I would begin an assignment and draft something shallow, but the initial
composition triggered thoughts that would develop after I shut my computer down for the night.
Revelations would occur in the moments between sleep and awake, between rinse and repeat,
between stir and heat. Some of these mind-blowing thoughts would slip away before I could jot
them down; others began foundational pieces of my work. Overall, Berryâ€™s English department
has been not only a venue for me to grow and develop as a writer, but it has also been a supplier
of endless food for thought and frustration, but, many times, joy.
It might be relevant to explain that my first English professor at Berry was Dr. Troy
Gregory in a class dedicated to the study of literature of carnival and rebellion. Half way through
the semester, Gregory asked students to compose an attack on him (p.51). We were challenged to
criticize as many aspects of his character as possible in a personal address. This task was difficult
in the beginning, but it was not for lack of material. There is plenty to say about Gregory, but this
is not the kind of writing with which I was familiar.
This assignment forced me out of the safe
comfortable shell I had wrote in through high school. The personal attack started the movement,
but Dr. Gregory required us to continue the momentum and write about topics I had never
considered. Reading â€œMidsummer Nightâ€™s Dreamâ€ was a completely different experience with
I was enlightened to the fact that, to quote Dr. Dasher, â€œall literature is about sex
and death.â€ The entire course culminated in the paper â€œThe Autonomous Womanâ€ after I was
advised to watch Dangerous Beauty. The movie follows the scandalous life of a courtesan who
values the power and education her position lends, but desires a monogamous relationship with
her courtly lover. It is a rebellious movie in many aspects, to say the least. In my final paper, I
synthesized the movie and all of the courseâ€™s reading material.
Though I have always been a
thorough synthesizer, â€œThe Autonomous Womanâ€ turbulently connects all the pieces we read. It
is not smooth, but the various connections, somewhat ineffectively articulated, demonstrate the
passion found in relating so many interesting texts. This paper was the first of many at Berry
that, when I got into the passionate heat of writing, I wished I had more time to devote to my
work. Had I the chance to resubmit the paper, it may have had a clearer flow.
One paper I was
given the opportunity and drive to improve was an analysis of Faulknerâ€™s Absalom, Absalom!
(p.38) in Dr. Dasherâ€™s class. This paper I expanded and enhanced into a presentation, complete
with prezi, for the student symposium of 2014. These assignments I credit with opening my mind
and breaking me out of thinking within a safe conservative bubble of thought.
Through the next couple classes I grew in my skills to communicate the connections in my
mind into more eloquently composed sentences, paragraphs, and papers. Then, in English 240,
the class lived up to its name. In the â€œIntroduction to Literary Studies,â€ I learned of the different
approaches to analyzing literature. Jumping into many of the perspectives is impossible. Dr.
Trolanderâ€™s assignment (p.16) to understand literature through a psychological perspective
taught me the extensive research required in this type of writing. Significant research must be
performed in the specific field while also relating back to the literature.
The literature review
(p.7) I conducted for Dr. Whelanâ€™s 240 class is the start for any good paper. After diving into the
literature on a text in a specific field, one can begin to construct their own analysis and
subsequent claim. From this assignment, I learned the time-consuming bookwork it takes to truly
build a foundation of understanding behind oneâ€™s thesis and supports. As the student coming out
of Dr. Gregoryâ€™s rebellious class, I was provided with the literature other researchers and writers
have done before and my new wild streak called all of it into question.
The authoritative voice of
a published researcher no longer held 100% in my mind. In my work, I began to question othersâ€™
ideas and pose alternative ones rather than simply restating the conclusions to which they had
arrived. My writing became more than it had been before â€“ more than the safe affirmation of
anotherâ€™s thoughts simply with a personal eloquence added. I took chances and made statements
I could not fully support, but I felt they were true.
Although this portion of my writing development is not the most impressive, it was an
important part of the writing I would later come to produce. I understood my theories were not
well supported. However, I still yearned to write out of the safe zone. Understanding the writing
process through Dr. Dillerâ€™s Principles of Writing Pedagogy gave me the permission to use
writing for what I had always needed and had recently begun to do. I began to use writing to
discover my own thoughts and to piece together parts of my own theories that I was initially
been unable to articulate.
Using writing to discover was an amazing tool. Too many times in high
school I was under the impression that good ideas would come from knowledge and thought, but
that they did not require writing to be sorted out. In college, professors explained this, but I was
too set in my way to understand exactly what they were encouraging me to do. Finally driven to
the process facing abstract ideas, I could no longer get by in writing the simple ideas that first
came to me. Dr. Tengerâ€™s assignment (p.28) to synthesize three texts from widely different times
and places is a prime example of when I used writing to discover.
Beginning the paper, I had no
clear direction. I started with an outline that identified thin similarities and worked from there. In
assignments like this, writing became more than a way to publish and present knowledge; for me
it has become a manner in which to process and gain new knowledge. In this way I find writing
more useful for the individual.
Often, however, writing is not meant for the liberation of an individual mind, but it is
meant to be shared with others for their benefit as well. The track my mind follows when writing
to discover is nowhere near what a member of the audience would need in order to follow points
logically. Today, I write to discover then rewrite to present. Although my plans for the future are
to be a teacher, the skill to clearly articulate personal logic in a way others can understand is
Dr. Dillerâ€™s teaching portfolio assignment (p.53) required me to consider
my concept of the classroom from my studentsâ€™ perspective. Not only did this help me create a
document I can use in my job search, it also helped me to write to discover and clarify my own
thoughts in regards to how I would conduct my classroom. Additionally, I hope to get my
Masters in the Art of Teaching and my Specialists degree. The course work for these degrees
will require much writing and I will be able to use the foundation Berry has given me to move
forward in my career.
Lastly, I plan to engage in Educational Leadership through professional
organizations and professional development initiatives. I plan to read and apply research in my
classroom, but I would also like to contribute to the field as well by publishing my own work.
Overall, these four years have been a journey in so many ways. I have grown as a person,
as a think, and also as a writer. Berry has truly inspired me to be a lifelong learner. For me, as an
English major from our department, to be a lifelong learner would not be complete without the
reading to encounter new information and ideas and also the writing in which to engage, muddle
through, digest, and recreate everything in my own understanding.
During my interviews with elite groups, I did not always draft formal questions, but I made sure that I was familiar with the topic so that I could comfortably develop a natural rapport with the respondents. Interview times ranged from thirty minutes to up to two hours, and respondents commonly offered me some data sets to consult, which followed with some discussion. I was often required to submit a formal application to access these files, and although I formally submitted a request letter to the Ministry of Urban Development, my efforts proved futile, and it became increasingly frustrating for me to access the data sets I needed.
In some of the interviews, I found that political elites provided evasive answers because of the politically sensitive nature of some of the questions posed. The general etiquette according to Peabody et al. (1990) suggests that political elites should ideally not be interviewed using recording devices as it can cause elusiveness and anxiety â€“ although I did not use a recorder, I continued to receive elusive responses which sometimes left me frustrated and disillusioned with my project.
I felt particularly irritated because the absence of a recording device meant I was unable to get hold of a verbatim record of my interviews. Because I had to write down observational notes while engaging with the respondent, it was difficult to record all the information and I lost out on some important points. I tried to strike a balance between note taking and the interview process, but I found this to be a difficult endeavour. I was able to access more political elites than initially anticipated, however it often felt futile because I couldnâ€™t source as much information as I had wanted from this sample group.
I tried to counteract these limitations by shifting my focus to the second sample in my study, the slum dwellers, although this was also fraught with some complications. Comparatively and overall, the second sample group proved to be more cooperative and I quickly learned that I had wasted a significant amount of time focusing on political elites, when a lot of the responses I desired could have easily been sourced from policy documents and government reports.
As mentioned, I discovered that slum dwellers, after gaining their trust, provided a great deal of nuanced insight into my understanding of urban regeneration in Rwanda, which was very beneficial for my project. Harvey (2011) has highlighted how field researchers must endeavour to earn the trust of their respondents to gain access to high quality data and looking at the results I garnered, I believe I was able to do this successfully.
The data acquisition from the sample group was however, not without complications. The first complication pertained to my status as a foreigner, which I realised made several people wary of my presence. After visiting the research site continuously over a period of time, they became more familiar with me and thus opened up to the idea of participating in my study. I also ensured that I hired a local research assistant, and I realised that my association with a local gave me a greater deal of legitimacy in the eyes of my potential research respondents.
While oftentimes the data collection process was extremely stressful, and sometimes precarious, I learned to be resilient in, and how to maintain focus on meeting my set objectives. Concurrently, I also learned when to change approaches in the field â€“ especially when a particular research method had proven to be unsuccessful. In hindsight, I should have changed my approach much earlier to save a lot of the time I wasted.
Looking back, I would have placed less emphasis on the elite sample group as primary data was not necessary for addressing my research questions concerning government policy. I could have saved time and effort in sourcing this information from secondary sources such as government reports and books. I also would have employed a local researcher much earlier in the process as it paved the way for gaining the trust of respondents. At the same time, I realised that I should have provided a lot more training for the research assistant who also served as a translator, due to the events that ensued in the field.
According to scholars such as Temple and Edwards (2002, p.2) â€œthe interpreter is a conduit linking the interviewer with the interviewee and ideally is a neutral party who should not add or subtract from what the primary parties communicate to each otherâ€ but in my research, I quickly realised that this was not the case. Generally, the research assistant was highly opinionated and in some instances tried to impose his political views on my respondents.
Looking back, I think I could have done a better job in training him and getting him to understand why the responses of interviewees should not be pre-empted. There were several instances where I also noticed that the translation process was not as effective as it should be during the fieldwork process. Due to my increasing familiarity with local dialects, I was able to discern when the translator was not providing the full picture with respect to the responses of the respondents.
In my opinion, this was indicative of the lack of training which the translator received and I learned to not just assume that job roles were obvious, especially in this context. In instances where omissions were obvious, I questioned the translator to gain further details. During the early stages of the fieldwork, he was also far too independent and in some instances, did not stick to the script, in terms of the interview questions I had drafted. In hindsight, I should have done a trial run or pilot study, so that he was better acquainted with the standard of research I was expecting.
Overall, the process was a challenging one that introduced me to the iterative nature of fieldwork. It became increasingly obvious to me that in the field, nothing ever goes as neatly as planned on paper. I realised how imperative both resilience and flexibility was in the field. In hindsight, I would have prepared back-up alternatives for each aspect of my study, since in some cases I was completely thrown off guard and had to take a few days off to re-strategise.
I lost a few valuable days by doing this and if I had managed my expectations with more caution, I believe I would have been better prepared for the unexpected occurrences in the field. On reflection, I would also have taken my positionality far more seriously, as I never imagined that the way I was perceived by others could affect my study. During my interviews with elite groups, they were often bemused and yet intrigued at the same time about my role as a foreign female researcher.
Scholars such as Kobayashi (1994) have highlighted how gender identities play out during fieldwork, meaning women are often discriminated against on the basis of their sex. I did not experience discrimination, but I feel my being a woman helped me gain access to certain respondents that I never anticipated to access, because I was somewhat perceived as a damsel in distress who needed help. While the pity I received worked in my favour, it had no bearing within the interviews themselves as I was not able to acquire the data that I hoped to. Having a better understanding of the cultural nuances would have helped me to manage my expectations better.
Indeed, researchers such as Denzin and Lincoln (2011) have highlighted how a researcherâ€™s ability to gain access is shaped by personal characteristics, including gender. Looking back, I believe my fieldwork project was fairly successful, mostly because of its ability to gain nuanced insight from the second sample involving slum dwellers. The major pitfalls of the project mostly pertained to the logistics of the project â€“ specifically the lack of training for the research assistant, and the general lack of a research focus.
Harvey, W.S., 2011. Strategies for conducting elite interviews. Qualitative Research, 11(4), pp.431â€“ 441. Available at: http://qrj.sagepub.com/content/11/4/431.abstract [Accessed May 6, 2015].
Herod, A., 1999. Reflections on interviewing foreign elites: praxis, positionality, validity, and the cult of the insider. Geoforum, 30(4), pp.313-327.
Highley, J., Deacon, D. & Smart, D., 1979. Elites in Australia, London: Routledge.
Hoffmann-Lange, U., 1987. Surveying national elites in the Federal Republic of Germany. In G. Moyser & M. Wagstaffe, eds. Research Methods for Elite Studies. London: Allen & Unwin, pp. 27â€“ 47.
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