Welcome to Graduate School: Seeking the Salon

Peter Krause

Peter Krause

The author of this piece, Peter Krause, is a first-year PhD student in the English department at Fordham.  

In 2012 I graduated with a major in English and a minor in Anthropology from Goucher College in Baltimore and spent some time abroad before beginning my M.A. in English at NYU in the fall of 2013. Beyond the major transition of moving to New York City, the most significant difference between my undergraduate and graduate studies is, not surprisingly, the amount of unstructured autonomy inherent in many graduate programs in the humanities. While as an undergraduate I took a few classes that met once a week, more often courses would meet two or three times per week, meaning that reading was broken down into smaller chunks and we got to “check in” frequently. At NYU it became apparent that the vast majority of graduate study in English is independent reading and research. While as an undergraduate I might have been expected to complete a novel in a week and perhaps seek out my own extra source on JSTOR as a scholarly exercise, as a graduate student we were responsible for the equivalent of two or three lengthy works per week per course and were expected to seek out other material pertaining to our final seminar paper or overall M.A. thesis. I quickly learned that in graduate school when a professor assigns Manhattan Transfer by John Dos Passos it is prudent to read not only that text but also Three Soldiers and a good biography of Dos Passos simply because doing so will yield a more vivid understanding of the author, the works, and the context.

Beyond the increase in reading load and autonomous study it is vital to note the important differences in social and departmental dynamics between undergraduate and graduate programs. As an undergraduate, my social life was almost entirely insulated from the English department because most of my friends and roommates were not English majors. I greatly enjoyed my literature and creative writing classes, but otherwise I did not seek out other English students, attend departmental events, or interact very much with my professors until I decided that graduate study in English might someday be for me. I regret this detachment (was I nervous? was I too cool? was I just naïve?) and did my best to remedy it at NYU. For the most part as a graduate student one lacks the collegiate social scene of the quad, the clubs, the parties, and most importantly, the large body of undergraduates of similar age and similar uncertain position in life. Especially in New York City, where your peers are spread out between multiple boroughs and might even commute in from upstate, New Jersey, or Connecticut, there are few social hubs beyond the department and the library. Essentially, the graduate school experience can sometimes seem like this: three times a week you surface for a couple hours to discuss the readings, doing your best to contribute to the conversation while jotting down as many smart things your peers and your professors say before plunging back into the depths of the library. Keep in mind that the entire time you are awash in rich, fascinating literature, but you are often navigating it on your own while most of your friends outside academia are commuting every day to centralized places of work where there is no uncertainly about their role as a member of a larger team or community.

While at Goucher I tended not to socialize with my fellow English majors, at NYU I made an effort to get to know each one of my peers as well as I could and went not only to departmental events, but to university events as well. I did this not only to familiarize myself with the students and professors in the department, but also to remind myself that there is more to the study of literature than long hours in the library. It is in my experience heartening and restorative to attend the lecture of a visiting professor or mingle at a departmental function simply to know that fascinating ideas like structuralism and poststructuralism, the work of metaphor, and the “death of the author” and marvelous writers like Proust, Said, and Byron can be brought to life in conversation and in debate, in bars and cocktail hours, in jest and in incredulity - all necessary components of intellectual inquiry and exchange that are not so present in the classroom or library. All of this is to say: Engage! Attend! Go to that talk on Medieval iconography. Attend that event put on by the Political Science department about the current political climate in the U.S. Seek out professors in their office hours, get lunch with classmates, and don’t be afraid to meet up to swap papers, critique each other’s work, bounce ideas around, etc.

Somewhere in my early education in literature, probably between Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and the biographies of Rimbaud and Verlaine, I was seduced by the idea of the literary salon: the idea that writers, thinkers, artists, and critics might gather informally to socialize, swap ideas, and debate. Surely there is a component of this concept that is a bit insubstantial and romanticized, but I also think there is something very valid and useful about seeking out such social exchange, especially when graduate work can be so isolating. I’m only a month into the doctoral program at Fordham, but so far I’m happy to report that the department seems to foster a balance between the individual and the social. I spend a tremendous amount of time at home and at the library reading articles and novels, but that is to be expected and, frankly, it’s enjoyable to curl up on the couch with Shaw or take that first sip of coffee at the library and tackle Benjamin. There have been a few departmental social events in just the past month where I met other students and faculty over appetizers and drinks. As graduate students we’ll never enjoy the fabled salons of the Belle Époque or post-war Paris, but with a little effort we can begin to build salons of our own.