Reasons for pursuing English Ph.D. dropped in pursuit of it

Thomas H. Benton argues that succeeding as an English Ph.D. entails giving up the things that attracted you to the subject in the first place.

In a course I taught last spring, after three months of tracing the development of literary theory from humanism to structuralism to poststructuralism to the dilemmas of the present, I finally asked my students the question: “So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?” I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest.

They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:

  • Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.
  • Feelings of alienation from one’s peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.
  • A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.
  • A “geeky” attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas….

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