Welcome, all you MA students both new and returning, to the 2017-18 school year of Mercy College’s Master of Arts in English Literature program. At the end of this letter I’m going to share some helpful program information/links. Before that though I want to encourage each of you, even challenge each of you to consider and pursue as best as you can the following four points over the course of this new school year.
I. Find Your Thing
Consider: what is your primary literary interest? What is the author, or type of literature, or era, or genre, or theoretical focus, or any other thing that you love to read, study and explore more than any other? Of course you each likely have many literary interests and loves, many different authors and works that come to mind. And naturally you might have a different answer depending on the day or semester. That’s all healthy, and the MA program encourages you to get prepared in and excited about a diverse range of writings, from traditional to eclectic. You should get a solid footing across as wide a range of writings as possible during your time in the MA program. But if you had to focus in on one area or author, on one thing that is your thing above all else, what would it be? Even if you’re just starting out the program and graduate studies you might still consider this in terms of: what was the literature that inspired you to pursue MA studies? Or: if you could design and teach one course on any topic, what would that topic be?
Why might you want to reflect on this now? Here are two of many reasons:
When you get to the final course in the program, ENGL 599, you’ll basically be asked to do this very thing—to select your favorite topic of focus and then to design a thesis and customized reading list around it. In many respects the 599 course is a custom course that you design and execute with the help of your mentor. If you start thinking now about what your thing is you should have an easy and fun time later when it comes to deciding upon a focus for your final 599 course.
Also: by becoming more conscious of your deeper interests and literary affections throughout your progress in the MA program, you can start personalizing your coursework—all of your coursework—in ways that can make any course more relevant to your personal interests. So for example you might find yourself taking Medieval Lit. in order to fulfill one of your Literature Group 1 requirements, and might (hopefully) find meaningful the study of the medieval texts and ideas. But maybe your thing is psychological approaches to literature, or British modernism, or gender studies, or Toni Morrison, etc. If so you can integrate any such pursuit into your medieval studies by (a) designing a paper topic that blends your particular interest with any course’s content, and (b) privately augmenting your required readings with other readings that cross between the course’s focus and your interests. (More on that in a second).
You don’t have to take my advice here—perhaps you prefer to remain a bit more nebulous in your approach to education, and to absorb the curriculum as it comes to you rather than actively engage it and turn it as you like. That’s entirely up to you. I would understand that approach, as different approaches have different qualities. But I encourage you to at least reflect on this point here at the start of the new year: What is your thing?
II. Read Beyond the Syllabus
Your reading loads will vary, sometimes significantly, from class to class and from unit to unit. That’s just part of graduate literary study and is something each of you must balance and navigate in your own way, in your own time. But no matter your reading load you should consider your courses’ syllabuses as starting points. You don’t have to go deeper into and research further everything you encounter. Some semesters you might not read anything other than the specific syllabus texts and whatever sources you find for your term papers. Some semesters you’ll be so swamped with responsibilities that reading beyond the syllabus would be absurd (we only have so much time in the day, the week). That’s fair and understandable.
But when you do discover a reading or author that turns on the lights, well go off the syllabus and go research related primary and secondary sources. Don’t wait for your professors to tell you to go exploring off-syllabus. We hope that something we’re doing in class is sending off sparks which might ignite your further interests throughout the semester.
Remember that one thing the MA program seeks to do is develop you into a professional-level literary researcher and scholar. Going off-syllabus and exploring further the things that interest you is one sign that you are developing as we hope you will.
III. Upload an Avatar
Okay basic technical thing here but this is important. An avatar is an image that will appear alongside each post you make in every Blackboard class you’re taking. An avatar allows you to provide some small but meaningful visual representation of yourself which complements your written words, and it provides all of your fellow students with a recurring visual icon by which to get to know you better throughout the semester. Avatars are an essential part of any online community or learning environment and you should all have one. Click here for instructions for how to upload an avatar into Blackboard. There should be no avatar-less accounts in any online classroom.
IV. Make Friends
Distance learning, for all its strengths and advantages, has the potential (ironic) disadvantage of leaving some students feeling disconnected. Not every student feels this, and not every student cares. Some students actually prefer that they can orbit in and out of the virtual setting, meet their minimum commitments and do their work, and then get back to whatever is the rest of their life. That’s fine. Other students though value, yearn for, even need the connectivity and development that can happen, week in and week out, in the discussions. For those students here are a few suggestions for making sure you get the level of engagement you want in discussions.
First, make the first move by responding to someone else’s post. That is, reply to other conversations rather than waiting for others to join in on a conversation you may have started. And don’t hesitate to join in on any conversation that seem to be “in progress” no matter how many others have already posted there. Those are the best conversations to join in as those are the closest the virtual room comes to matching the dynamic banter of a physical seminar session. I’m still waiting eagerly to see the single discussion thread in which every student participates. The bottom line here is to be proactive about talking to other people rather than waiting for someone to talk to you.
Also, get into the unit discussions early and come back at least a few times throughout the unit to develop and carry on discussions. If you’re looking to develop connections well don’t wait until the last few hours of a unit to sign in and make your posts. For one thing posts that appear at the very end of a unit will probably not get many or any responses due to the timing. For another thing, students look to see who shows up and when they do in order to figure out who’s looking to talk and converse and who’s just doing the basic requirements. Again, there is nothing wrong with just doing the basic requirements. For many students that is the great advantage of distance learning, that it gives you much more power and control over the timing of your weekly course responsibilities. But if you’re looking to talk, to discuss—to make a few colleagues or even friends—well signal this by jumping in earlier in the units and increasing your presence in the discussions.
Finally, and this gets at the situation from the other side: be friendly. Keep an eye out for those in the room who aren’t getting much feedback or response. Reply to them! Even if whatever they’re talking about isn’t something you’re interested in talking about, find something to say about their post which might carry the conversation forward a little. It can make a world of difference if someone gets even a little acknowledgement, just a little response, that lets them know that they’re not invisible. You all probably know how deflating it can be if you make a post and no one responds. Because you know that feeling, be on the lookout so that no one else has to experience it.
Okay that’s it for the four main points for this letter.
Before signing off let me link you to resources of which every MA student should be aware. This information repeats information found elsewhere on this blog. Okay this blog post here contains a rundown of resources and contact-info that Mercy College provides for its students, whether on-campus or online. On this post here you’ll find critical information about the incomplete “I” grade which some of you might occasionally receive. For those approaching their last semester, you must pay attention to your required comprehensive exam, to the instructions for how to enroll in the final 599 course, and to the application you must complete in order to graduate. For those hoping to enter the college teaching job market check out this post here where I introduce a variety of resources and information on that topic. If you’re going to be applying to anything in any academic field you’ll need to have your curriculum vitae (CV) polished up and also need to know the difference between a CV and a resume. I talk about that here.
Finally, remember that although you can get advising from Student Services, I serve as faculty advisor to every student in the MA program. I am here to help and to answer any questions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Okay that’s it! Have a great school year and fall semester, everyone. The spring schedule and registration date/time will be posted here on the blog before the end of this month so as always, check back here periodically to stay up on the latest.