So, technically, I am a Master of English (MSt). Since I’m in the two year MPhil program, however, I still have another year to go. But I could technically leave Oxford now as an MSt, which is a beyond frightening thought for the rest of academia.
With all of the infinite wisdom that I have gained from my first year in graduate school, I surely must be more informed and knowledgable about my subject. Well, in a way, that’s certainly the case. But you know Socrates’ infamous quote, ‘I realize now that I know nothing’? Yes. That’s how I feel a bit. What’s great about my program is that all sixteen of the students approached the general strand of 650-1500 with such different ideas and expectations. As you all know, I’m all about the manuscripts, and the earlier, the better. But I encountered people who were more focused on dialect, sociological factors, and unique literary instances. I met some classmates who declared that they hated working with manuscripts (which is anathema to me), and others who thought that Middle English was enough of a foreign language and French was more important than Old English. The different perspectives with which all of my classmates have challenged me to approach the same material has been so rewarding.
Here’s the other thing about graduate school. In undergraduate, I feel that professors are looking more for effort. Did you come up with an original research topic? Did you make valid, intelligent points? Can you back up your claims with research? Wonderful. I won’t lie – I wrote a paper or two (or three…) the night before they were due, and I got A’s. My argument was always clear and they were ‘good’ papers, don’t get me wrong. But, in essence, they were just foundation papers. And here’s where graduate school is different – effort is great. But it is not going to get you the highest mark. I find that graduate school looks more for publication possibility. Every last stone has to be turned, and every idea has to be cooked through and completely syncretized. Now, this is not a bad thing at all. I’ve suffered from perhaps not developing my ideas enough in my undergraduate career, and my graduate career is really ironing those kinks out of me. Every sentence, phrase, and word matters. It’s like applying literary theory to your own essays, which is quite the surreal experience. My undergraduate career prepared me wonderfully to think about a myriad of topics in a very wide range, and now my graduate career requires me to look deeper into more specific issues, and how to engage with prior research – how is what I’m doing novel or important to my field? – and potentially challenge previously held notions regarding what I study. Overall, it’s been a completely whirlwind of an academic year. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever learned this much in a mere nine months. I think the highlight of my academic year here has been accessing a manuscript at a college here, transcribing and translating the text, and then writing an argument about that same text and how the codicological aspects factor into the presentation and interpretation of that same text. Talk about a head to toe treatment. But this is what I want to do, and this immediate contact with manuscripts really fuels my passion for the period and, as cheesy as it sounds, continues to inspire me about my research on a daily basis. To be able to hold and analyze the very same book that someone wrote and read nearly 1,000 years ago is just a stunning experience. Being able to then interpet that same text within a modern setting is just even more stunning.
If anything, this year – despite the sleepless nights, the insane reading lists, and the endless cups of tea – has reasserted the fact that this is my passion, and that this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. I realize how lucky I am that I can be so young and just know that this is sincerely what I want to do. I mean, maybe I’ll have a midlife crisis at the age of 27 and realize that affording groceries would be nice. But, at the moment, I’m incredibly happy with what I do, and I can’t wait to see what next year’s academic experiences bring.
Colleen Curran '11