Fordham GSAS: Grad. Life: An Origin Story, with Fireworks

Monday, July 9, 2012

An Origin Story, with Fireworks

Hello Readers,
     Happy Monday! I hope everyone had a nice 4th of July week! As I celebrated 4th of July, with city-folks trying to stay cool, donning red, white, and blue, and with crowds gathering together to watch as fireworks burst overhead, I was prompted to remember what inspired me to follow my current path as an Americanist in the graduate English department. Without any irony on my part, I have to say that it is sort of a patriotic story -- probably the only genuine feeling and act of patriotism that I have experienced in my adult life. (Which, I guess, is sad.)
Photo from The Library of Congress Website

     Before I tell the inspiring story (ok, the irony is back), first I'll just give a little bit of reflection on the reflection. Since graduate students' interests have a tendency to morph as they learn more, think more, and work through the critical problems they encounter, it makes sense that I was not always an Americanist studying 18th and 19th century novels. But it is also true that to commit to a certain discipline of scholarship for so many years at such a high level, it is not uncommon that graduate students often have specific reasons for choosing what to study -- sometimes practical, sometimes academic, and sometimes emotional reasons --  as well as a great degree of conviction about what that field means to them. Becoming an Americanist who studied novels was not a given for me, and even now, on a daily basis, I do not consciously think about the reasons that turned me in that direction. But on Independence Day, as flags waved, I felt more connected to that origin story than I usually do.  I thought I would share the reasons that I study early American literature, and then invite you to share your stories about why you study what you study.
    My path as a student of literature began as an undergraduate, when I studied Early Modern, Modern, and Contemporary Drama, and also wrote a lot of poetry. As I began my Master's, I shifted my focus from drama to novels, and from poetry to fiction. I believe that happened for a practical reasons: at Fordham, the Modern Drama teacher was retiring as I began my coursework, and I began to choose classes that were centered on fiction writing and novels, and it just kind of stuck. As the semesters raced by, I fell completely in love with Victorian novels -- the classics such as Vanity Fair, Jane Eyre, Our Mutual Friend, and Wuthering Heights, and the Gothic greats like Dracula and Frankenstein, and off-the-beaten path sensation fiction such as Lady Audley's Secret.  I couldn't get enough of them -- they were like candy to me, and writing about them was proving to be so much fun. The Master's program for English required, at the time, a certain number of British Lit courses and a certain number of American Lit courses, so of course I made the rounds, but whenever I could take a class that centered around Victorian novels, I signed up.
   I had a couple of great American classes, too, and read and re-read some American classics, but they just weren't stacking up to the delicious Victorian dishes I had become so hungry for.
   This all changed when I went for an innocent visit to see an old college friend who happened to live in Washington, D.C. Believe it or not, I had never been to that city before. When my friend Heather heard that, she took it upon herself to arrange for me to see at least all the monuments and a couple of the special exhibits and sites/ sights that were so special to the city. I never in my dreams believed that a little sight-seeing would alter the path of my life! As I took in one site after another, I began to feel something I had never felt about the United States of America, and to think thoughts I had never thought about the origin of our country.
   It was, to be precise, the words that did it. It was the words I read as I crossed through FDR's monument, that ran through my brain as the fountains and waterfalls flowed and trickled around me. It was the words carved into Jefferson's and Lincoln's echoey stone houses that gave me the feelings down to my bones about the bravery of starting something so new -- of fighting for independence with nothing more than ideas pressed out into the world in the form of language.  As I read the inscriptions, something deep down inside made me want to study how it could be possible for a nation to create itself -- and how stories and words and language were the key instruments in doing so. And somehow it resonated with me personally, too -- could language and stories create not just a nation, but an individual? How does this all work? Can you trust it?
    This feeling was more than an appetite for the sweet treats of Victorian novels -- this desire was about wanting to know HOW, and WHY, and WHAT HAPPENED ALONG THE WAY. It was curiosity about the very ground I walked on, the rules I lived by, the customs I followed blindly, the social hierarchies that governed my life, the values that shaped my choices and beliefs about work, education, freedom, family, and self-hood. I was feeling, for the first time, a part of a nation, and I wanted to know more about its origins, and if the language behind those origins could be trusted and believed in.
   That was the weekend I decided to become an Americanist. I remember telling Heather about my decision as we were sitting underneath some pretty flowery trees near the National Mall. I said, I think it could matter, at least to me, to learn about what was written then, and to think through it, and to see where it veered off track. She said, "It's good if it matters." I remember feeling elated about this decision, as if it were a revelation that the universe had been waiting for me to have. I left DC that weekend feeling a renewed energy, and that fall I began my PHD and declared my field as American Literature. I had new purpose!
   Now, when I am feeling challenged and unmotivated, I do try to remember that weekend, and to recall my revelatory feelings about American literature. For me, no matter what happens in the rest of my life, I'm sure that fireworks on the Fourth of July will always remind me of that refreshing wonderful feeling of true conviction about the next step in my life path. That feeling is not so easy to come by, and I am grateful I had the experience even once in my life, even if my path twists and turns from here.

    It may sound cheesy, but that is my story of why I committed to my major field. With all that said, I am sincerely interested in your personal stories -- what drew you into what you are studying? Was it a moment, a weekend, a person, a book, an experience? And when you are frustrated and stuck, what brings you back to that moment of origin? Please share!!!
Until next time, Liza

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