My Milton students are freaking out about their final essay. Part of this is about the essay's length and part of it's about the period and the subject matter--but a huge amount of their anxiety boils down to the problem of choosing and developing a suitable topic. Because to their great consternation, I didn't supply them with any prompts.
Now, obviously, I didn't just send them off to write 15-20 pages on whateverthehell; I gave detailed guidelines and instructions--a sense of what makes a topic both broad enough and focused enough, of how many sources to use, of how to go about contextualizing historically and generically--and over the past few weeks they've submitted prospecti, annotated bibliographies, draft thesis statements, and that kind of thing. By now their ideas are shaping up. But yeah: their original proposals were pretty rough.
I expected that. It's part of the process. What I didn't expect was to identify as strongly as I have with their perplexity and frustration.
Because right now I'm in the same position. A few months ago I signed up for an SAA seminar that seemed more or less up my alley, but I had no back-burner projects that were suitable and hence no idea what I'd write about. All semester long, I've been trying to generate ideas based on the plays I've been reading with my Shakespeare class. At last, I came up with two different. . . things. Not ideas. Not even topics. Just a vague conviction that there are patterns there that might mean something. You know?
Well, no: you wouldn't know. Because neither is anything I can articulate in coherent sentences. All I can do is point and say, "There! in All's Well that Ends Well! And in Twelfth Night! And in Measure for Measure! All three of these moments are, like, uh, [RANDOM STRING OF NOUNS]. Isn't that interesting??"
Which is okay--after thirteen years in the profession, I know that, like most of my students, my ideas always begin in stupid fumbling incoherence. The problem is that, for me, the blind fumbling lasts for a really long time.
And the bigger problem is that I have to submit an abstract of my paper topic. Tomorrow.
All this past week, I was seriously considering withdrawing rather than having to submit something idiotic and incoherent. Also, what if it's totally obvious and someone's already written about it? Or what if I wind up changing my topic entirely between now and February? What's the point of writing something now, when I don't know anything about anything?
And then I realized that I'd heard exactly these same objections from my students, and that I told them that's the point of the prospectus, or the abstract, or the draft thesis: you flail around a bunch until eventually you flail less.
And by God, if my students can flail, so can I.
Heads-up to my seminar leader: expect [RANDOM STRING OF NOUNS] in your in-box any time now.