What is it that prods students in the direction of odd projects and paper topics?
Sometimes, of course, it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the assignment. The student who decides to do a "close reading" of Comus for her first paper--even after being told, repeatedly, that a close reading needs to take either a single short poem or a passage of no more than 20 lines as its subject--simply doesn't know what she's doing.
Other times, it's less clear whether the student does or doesn't know what he's doing. That student who chooses to do a close reading of an obscure sonnet--one that wasn't assigned and that would require a considerable amount of historical background even to paraphrase? Well, who knows why he chose it. Maybe he misread the syllabus and thought that it was assigned. Maybe he knows enough about the context of the poem to have been intrigued. Maybe it struck him as baffling, and therefore compelling.
It's those last possibilities that interest me most. Is it intellectual curiosity that motivates someone to write on something about which he knows very little? Or is it a desire to do something new--and maybe in some senses easier--by avoiding the well-trod path?
I must admit to a personal interest in these questions, since I work on texts that are generally understudied--even those by well-known writers tend not to be counted among their "literary" productions. These days I don't think of what I do as particularly unusual (we all have our weird specialties), but as I puzzle over what could possibly be going on in my students' heads, it occurs to me that I was one of those students. And it also occurs to me that I don't have a clue what was going on in my own head then--or possibly even now.
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As a sophomore I took a course on Milton, and I became fascinated by a minor work that we'd barely read or discussed. I had absolutely no familiarity with its genre or the issues behind it, and I don't think I could have told you, even then, exactly what attracted me to it; it was just weird! and different!
So naturally, when my senior year rolled around, I decided to write my thesis on it. And naturally, my thesis was a total fucking disaster.
Now, that disaster wasn't entirely my fault--my advisor was a straight-out-of-grad-school junior faculty member with no experience as an advisor, nothing but a cursory familiarity with the texts I was looking at, and (as I later found out) some significant drama going on in her personal life. But deciding to work on something so different from any text I'd ever encountered, and mainly because it was different. . . well, maybe that wasn't a smart decision on my part.
The experience was so traumatic that I became convinced I wasn't cut out for grad school.
Somehow I wound up there anyway.
While there, I proceeded to write a bunch more papers on weird texts and topics, some of which were equally disastrous and some of which started to be halfway decent as I learned how to ask the right kinds of questions. I designed a special topic for my oral exams (we had a bazillion topics that we were examined on at INRU, so this was just one of them) that might as well have been entitled, "weird stuff that interests Flavia mainly because she's never read or encountered it before." I spent a summer in a rare books library doing keyword searches ("WEIRD and STUFF") and indiscriminately paging everything that the catalogue turned up, whether ponderous 300-page tomes or broadside ballads.
Basically, I didn't have much more of a clue what I was doing than I had had in college. (I continued, and still do continue, to be unable to explain exactly why I'm interested in certain things--in the early stages of a project, I'm likely to say something like, "Well, I'm working on [totally random work]. Some of the stuff that [author] is doing seems weird. So yeah. I'm trying to figure out what's going on with that.")
Eventually, it became a dissertation. And now that it's done, and some of it's in print--and now that I have a job and some professional status--it doesn't seem odd at all.
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But sometimes I still wonder why I always went for the neglected stuff--and not so much the cool neglected stuff, but the stuff that even many of my grad school colleagues let me know they found hugely boring.
Now, I'm absolutely in love with the material that I work on, but I wonder whether I wasn't also, however subconsciously, intimidated by the thought of working on more canonical works. I remember walking through the stacks at INRU at some point in grad school, looking for the four or five books that at least briefly discussed one of the works I was writing on, and passing the endless shelves of books on Shakespeare. "God!" I thought. "How does anyone write a dissertation on Shakespeare?"
I still wonder that. Somehow, writing on Shakespeare always struck me as more work than writing on the weird stuff I wound up devoted to. Maybe that's a sign that I took the easy way out--or maybe it's all a matter of perception. After all, I'm perfectly content to bumble about blindly as I try to come to grips with an entirely obscure text in a hybrid genre that deals with a historical event I know nothing about.
Or as I've been known to say in the classroom, "My God! I love this! I don't understand it AT ALL!"