Most of what I wish I’d known in grad school are practical things. Some have been alluded to in other posts (Stephen’s about administrative work, for instance, which comes to most of us, no matter how much or little we want it; plan for it, and do your best. In my case it turned out I actually liked it). Some I figured out only as I went on. Some I’m still figuring out now. But if I could give advice to grad students, one of the best pieces I think is: be broad.
It’s easy to specialize. To learn everything you can about some area that not too many other people know much about, to create new knowledge. It’s also exciting. And there’s a practical reason to do so: if you’re working in an area that no one else is, you might get an interview that could lead to a job. But I’d be wary of being too specialized, of having your SLA and SRA, say, be too neatly tied to your dissertation, or of taking only fiction courses on your way to an MA/MFA. This has nothing to do with job prospects, about which I can’t give much advice. Instead, it has to do with sanity.
I teach a lot of workshops, everything from introductory creative writing courses all the way through the graduate ones, and I like doing so. Over time, I think I’ve become pretty good at it. But if that was all I taught—never any lit courses, never any comp—I’d probably be burned out already. 202 isn’t much like the graduate course, in the way I conceive of them, or in the suggested course outcomes for CW. But they’re still relatively the same thing: talking about form and structure, language and imagery, dialogue and enjambment, asking how things work, how we can make them better, what’s missing from a draft, what we want more of, less of, what confuses us, thrills or saddens or enrages us. In lit courses, we talk about some of those things, but generally not in the same ways. In one you figure out how a car engine works, like a mechanic, in the other you critique the entire car, the industry, the very notion of consumer culture. They’re linked, but sometimes only tenuously, and it’s the differences between them that I’m talking about.
In my lit courses, I get to read books I might not otherwise, exercise different parts of my brain, figure out ways to teach texts I use in a CW classroom in vastly different ways. It keeps literature from getting stale for me, me from becoming an automaton, from the repetitive nature of teaching the various elements of craft to new students year after year. It’s all interesting work, and I’m lucky to have it, but even a job that you’re lucky to have can become dull, if you let it. Hard to do, but imagine that you’re going to be teaching something—your current area of expertise—for twenty or thirty or forty years. Look around, in our department, and in others. What other subjects or areas might you be interested in learning about? What might keep your mind fresh, and save you (and your students) from boredom? It’s never to early to start.
Paul Griner is a Professor of English.