Graduate school

Reading Privilege and the Privilege of Reading

[7-10 minute read]

As a child, I was a voracious reader. Scholastic Book Fairs were the best part of the elementary school fall season; no questions asked. J.K. Rowling was still publishing book after book in the Harry Potter series, The Reading Rainbow featured heavily as parent-approved public broadcast television, and I distinctly remember the pride I felt after making my way through my dad’s airport paperback copy of John Grisham’s The Client. Did I understand the novel? Not entirely, but I did read every single word, which seemed like accomplishment enough.

Every time our elementary class visited the library, my teacher would remind me – not without a touch of frustration – that I was only allowed to check out a certain number of books, and to try reading at my own grade level. I may have been drastically reducing the quality of my eyesight, but at least I was tearing through the Encyclopedia Brown and Cam Jansen mystery series, reading all about Laura Ingalls in her family’s house on the prairie, and sneaking Goosebumps chapter books home under my mother’s disapproving eye.

Although my early years were filled with reading logs, literacy tests, and all the early standardized testing expected of a public magnet school, not once did I consider sitting down to count how many books I had read (and then probably reread) for the sake of enjoyment.

bookfair

Truly, nothing will ever compare to the exhilaration.

In the summer of 2016, I took a moment to sit back and marvel over the amount of textual material I had encountered throughout my graduate school career. I was nearing the end of reading my way through my Qualifying Exam lists, having read an acceptable amount of Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, Barrett Browning, and Rossetti, to name just a few. As opposed to a number of other universities, Syracuse’s English department allows its graduate students to create their own exam lists, with the guidance of several advisors. The aim of this is to read widely in their field, and in order to demonstrate sufficient competence and mastery.

The departmental Graduate Student handbook called for two reading lists, with a maximum of one hundred twenty titles spread out across novels, selections of poetry and nonfiction essays, dramatic manuscripts, and critical monographs. With some creative rearranging and grouping together of texts with similar topics, each of my lists came in just under the limit, at fifty-seven and fifty-six distinct titles.

Many of these texts, I could access for free online, via Project Gutenberg or Google Books; others, I borrowed straight off the shelves in my advisor’s office. Having taken many a nineteenth-century British literature course during my time as an undergraduate and graduate student, I already owned a good number of the more canonical novels, and as a last resort, I could always turn to Amazon, or the University library system.

bird

Bird Library doesn’t look like much from the outside, but judge not a book by its cover, and all.

One semester earlier, while trying to teach my students about the concept of privilege, I was prepared to challenge a lot of ideological assumptions about race, gender, and class. A quick perusal of Youtube resources led to the following video, which I showed at the beginning of class, hoping to prompt discussion:

The process is fairly self-explanatory: a group of people stand on a single horizontal line, side-by-side, while a speaker reads aloud a list of statements. Depending on whether the statement applies to an individual’s life experience, they were to take a step forward, or backwards. As an Asian-American woman, a second-generation immigrant, and the first person in my family to pursue graduate education, I anticipated several, if not many of the statements read aloud in the video. When I teach, I am highly aware of my identity, how I attempt to construct and maintain my teaching persona, and that my students – or their parents – have the means of paying one of the most expensive undergraduate tuitions in the nation.

However, one statement made me pause: “If there were more than fifty books in your house growing up, take a step forward.”

Growing up, Mandarin was the initial language of my household, but as my parents struggled to acclimate to life in the United States, the number of children’s and young adult literature in English began to overtake our bookshelves. Books were routinely gifted and received, and as of last Christmas, that family tradition still exists. It wasn’t as if I was completely unaware of our status as a “middle-class” family, but for the longest time, to me, books were just books. They weren’t Nintendo gaming systems or desktop computers; reading couldn’t really compare to seasonal passes to the closest amusement park, or annual trips to Disney World. Compared to other material goods, books seemed ubiquitous: the bread-and-butter of my daily life.

Accessibility to reading materials is still a topic of public concern, although by all means, it shouldn’t be. Lately, once-trendy e-readers have ostensibly “lost their shine,” but that doesn’t mean libraries are receiving better funding, or that bookstores are seeing better sales. In the fall of 2016, a public outcry against the closure of the last bookstore in the Bronx was enough to delay, but not halt its replacement by a luxury department store. At the present, several locals are hoping to rejuvenate the “book desert” that the borough has become, but capitalism proves to be only one of the major obstacles to ensuring free and open literacy for readers everywhere.

bkfestival

As of April 2018, Bronx native and book publicist Sareciea Fennell had successfully fulfilled her Kickstarter goal to fund the first Bronx Book Festival. The festival is set for May 19, located at Fordham Plaza.

Dear Diary…

Dear Diary,

Today I find myself in graduate school, I look around and still wonder how it is that I came to be here. In the fourth grade I cried while reading The Lord of the Rings because I believed that one of my favorite characters died. I would sneak out of the lunchroom to read The Wheel of Time in middle school, escaping to a future world in which the moon landing was known as the time people learned to fly in the stomach of firebirds. Chuck Palahnuik nursed me through high school anxieties, Bukowski through post-bachelor part-time coffee shop employment. Some time later I interned at a Fortune 500 company and Woolf taught me that a cubicle was not a room. Arthur had a vassal who disrupted the court after obtaining the love of a Fair Queen; I compared labor strategies of multinational national companies between liberal and coordinated market economies – every mythos has its own magic.

Mythos are comforting; they provide a sense of stability that belies chaos.
A narrative of elisions asserting its authority over origin that must be taken on belief.

What little evidence remains of a body’s passage through time and space would do little to comfort an empiricist, but I choose to dream. In time I will come to question their authenticity, were they ever my dreams or an overexposure to fantasy novels as a child? This is really an anxiety over whether or not I have an interiority – a crack in my phone renders the seamless continuity between body and technology an illusion. Were the avant-garde the last of the humanists?  

…legs wrapped around your stomach kissing the back of your neck…despondent and watching little flakes of gold twirling in the wind – 50 degrees on 9th of November…

I found myself in graduate school, lucid enough to know that I was not dreaming. A semester spent discussing the permeation of melancholy, mornings spent at the diner down the street reading over coffee and hash browns. A car full of strangers traveled six hours to make their voices heard, nihilism would not be revolutionary.  

I will feel like a pastiche of the materials I confront, and take comfort in that we are all hybrids. I will grow sick of melancholy, consider returning to it for my next paper, settle on the fact that affect is separate from materiality and so it becomes a question of mediation.

Then I laugh.

I spend time pulling from the stacks, and although at times have emitted a small growl, find excitement when discovering more texts than I had expected. I cross paths with graduates in the physics department, we discuss the stars. I find myself confronting new stories, reading for materials and energies that shape, and cannot shape, our bodies.

Today I am in graduate school, the humanist project has not ended.

Dear Diary,

Today I find myself in graduate school, unsure if it is the translation or the theory that doesn’t make sense. I’m sitting in a class surrounded by people I just met. I’m wondering at what point I’ll feel like a graduate student—if I can even define “graduate student?” Graduate students look like the people around me. Allegedly, I look a lot like them.

Someone once told me individuals who hesitate when talking in a room full of people are afraid because everyone else looks like a complete human being, like they are in control of their bodies. I realize first-person perspective is nerve-wracking because I do not see a composed body. I can only see hands, gestures, flailing limbs that, I hope, are somehow clarifying my point. I can only hear how weak words sound when they are mumbled into my lap.

One day, we will talk about identity politics, about identification, and debate whether or not words have power. I don’t know yet that this will become relevant all too quickly. One Wednesday in November, I will walk onto campus and feel the tired breathing of bodies, like mine, that were up until 4 a.m. the night before.

I will spend this day and the coming weeks waiting for, hoping for, dreading the moment someone wants to talk. This anxiety will be more than just a product of introversion. I will interrogate the expectations attached to this side of the desk. There’s a frail aura of authority that comes with being the one already seated when someone enters a room.

Eventually, I will need to learn how to handle the guilt of looking away to get things done, to decompress, to not lose hope. I will fight back the feeling of sickness, the stomach acid associated with the privilege of being able to think about decompressing.

I will learn that so much of graduate school feels like learning how I’m probably being irresponsible. Why new historicism? Look what happens if you combine feminist criticism with that. Didn’t you have interest in class at one point? If you’re just looking at the feminist individual, are you inadvertently “reproducing the axioms of imperialism” in nineteenth-century British literature? I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of syphoning off problematic portions of texts to read other points I have personal investments in. How close is this to paranoia?

But then, I breathe.

One day, I will relish the feeling of breaking ground, of fingers flying over keys, the paradox of excited exhaustion. I will remember the way strangers’ smiles became familiar fixtures, and how I learned to read and laugh again.

Today, I find myself in graduate school. I say it is okay to feel fulfilled while still fulfilling.

Coda: The Human in the Humanities (29 Jan. 2016)

My first semester of grad school was kind of a wreck: I was constantly sick, my nerves were bound tight with anxiety, and my back and wrists were in pain from the Soviet-era metal chair-desks in a basement classroom. None of this was helped by the ideological distress I found myself in. Two pieces of scholarly advice that found their way to me that semester still linger with me: one, there’s no such thing as the human condition; and two, your graduate program will tear you apart and remake you in its image.

A photo of a metal classroom chair with tiny desk attached at the armrest.

The chairs were still the worst part, though.

In the classroom, I mentally conceded the probable truth of the first one. My undergrad philosophy classes taught me that we have no good definition of “human.” And the conditions people live in vary so radically that there can’t really be a universal one: the Elizabethans understood the world’s functions quite differently than do the Mosuo or a New Yorker, and attempts to demand that there is one ideal understanding usually end up serving some hegemonic understanding to the exclusion and oppression of other worldviews. That didn’t stop the statement from messing with my heart, though.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I had recently graduated from a Jesuit college, and “the human condition” is a big part of Ignatian philosophy. My best friend and I had lofty aspirations of studying “the human condition” through literature in grad school; I still amuse myself by correctly identifying Jesuit-educated students and priests by their use of the phrase in discussions and homilies, respectively; and Christ’s entering “the human condition” through the Incarnation is the foundation of Ignatian imaginative contemplation, my graduate research, and my personal aesthetic. To be told that “the human condition” is inherently meaningless was like being told that J.K. Rowling’s prose is mediocre, only worse: both statements may be true, but I still love the object that they discredit — and “the human condition” informed my life and work more deeply and for far longer than Harry Potter.

A photo of tree-lined sidewalk leading to a redbrick academic building, which features a statue of a priest over the entry doors and a clocktower topped with a cross. The trees are bare but there is no snow on the grass.

Le Moyne College on a rare snowless day in winter.

 

As imposter syndrome set in and I attempted to impress my professors and fit in with my classmates through mimicking their interests and ideologies, I began to darkly wonder if there was some degree of truth to the second statement, too. As I’ve gained confidence in my ideas, my professors have all been wonderfully supportive of my research, even at critical moments of doubt, but I still felt strangely disembodied from my ideas. They were necessarily available, even susceptible, to outside influences in the name of getting a job, which could range from something as benign as entering them into a critical discourse I was unenthusiastic about to something as disheartening as avoiding theories that are no longer trendy.

Not until I took a summer creative nonfiction workshop with the magnificent Minnie-Bruce Pratt did I realize that this compulsory refashioning had nothing to do with my program, but with the state of English-language literary studies. I spent two weeks reading first-hand accounts like Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, in which Morrison exposes the subtle racism of American literary tradition not in the form of a journal article, but of a personal reckoning with that history. I spent three weeks writing in the first person about the body of Christ, the woman’s body, and the queer body not in the form of a seminar paper but in the form of a series of anecdotes and meditations steeped in medieval and Renaissance mysticism. I found myself applying my research to my life in ways that made the Early Moderns come alive — in our exchange of good-byes, classmates from diverse religious backgrounds told me how fascinating and important my research was through having encountered it in this genre.

: The greyscale cover of Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark. Morrison holds a giant floppy hat. A gold sticker proclaims that the book won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Fantastic book, by the way: accessible first-person literary criticism. Highly recommend.

Creative nonfiction enabled me to communicate my ideas — shaped by research and critical writing — with a public upon whom they had material impact. My ideas became my own again: I had a personal investment in recovering historically obscured understandings of gender and the body to not only locate the essential value of the queer and the female bodies in Catholicism but also to share old ways of embodying queerness and femininity that are relevant today. In creative nonfiction, my first-person voice had credibility, purpose, and an audience who otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t access to this knowledge.

Radical queer and feminist scholarship is somewhat better at this, leveraging the personal narrative as a source of knowledge and an act of inquiry. To assert a self in English (and, I’d wager, biology, history, math, or information studies) is to assert that you are not the implied raceless, genderless, classless entity interested only in books, but that you instead have an investment in disrupting the status quo. This trickles down into policing how we frame our inquiries: we teach our students not to use the first-person because the personal isn’t credible, and we apply the same principle to our critical essays. Consequently, I have no idea why most of my colleagues study what they do: I assume they all love literature, but if that were their only motivation they wouldn’t still be suffering through grad school. If the English scholar speaks, it is only through the voice of their subject of study, and tentatively: papers on nuns I identify with, on devotional poems that resonate with me. Our research overwhelms our selves, and obscures its own real-life applicability. And so we get accused of navel-gazing and being out of touch with reality:

Nothing like some anti-intellectual sentiment to kick-start one’s drive to inform the public.

So maybe there isn’t a single human condition, but that doesn’t mean studying the humanities can’t improve the conditions of some humans. If my experience with creative nonfiction is any indication, one of the most meaningful ways to connect with those outside the academy is to acknowledge our own subject positions, explicitly recognizing the self in order to humanize the humanities. This is what I’ve tried to do here. But now it’s your turn:

Why do you study what you do? Why do you work where you do? Who are you?

A painted full-length portrait of a nun sitting in a library, paging through a book; she wears a large icon of the Annunciation over her breast.

Also, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is just objectively rad.


Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.