College of Arts and Sciences

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Graduate Student Life

For more information and a list of resources and opportunities, visit http://www.wiu.edu/graduate_studies/programs_of_study/english_profile.php.

What Does It Mean to Be a Graduate Student?

Acquiring the M.A. degree is arguably the most intellectually transformative experience you will ever have. In commencing graduate study, you become not a student but a scholar. You learn not only new materials and perspectives, but more importantly you learn how to produce new knowledges yourself.

Your expectations for yourself and your studies must be characterized by great ambition, seriousness, and depth. You should strive to transform yourself as a reader, writer, and scholar. At every moment, you should be working not to meet expectations but to exceed them.

As a graduate student, you are no longer simply taking individual courses for grades and checking requirements off as you move toward the end of your program. More challengingly, you are now developing a coherent identity and skillset as an intellectual and scholar. As you move through the program, you are reading and writing your way into new futures.

Beyond excelling in your classes, you should be committed to contributing to the culture of the department with your professors and fellow graduate students by attending readings, lectures, colloquia, and presenting your own work along with your professors at the annual English Graduate Organization Conference (EGO, see page 7).

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Reading as a Graduate Student

Reading is the soul of English, and what distinguishes students of English from almost all other disciplines is our commitment to reading as a way of life. From your undergraduate degree, you already have great skills as a reader. As a graduate student, you will develop your abilities as a critical reader, and you will also broaden your scope, taste, ambition, and habits of reading.

Reading assignments in an English graduate course can sometimes feel overwhelming. A literature course can often have weeks that ask students to read a novel that could run to six-hundred pages, in addition to the supporting critical articles. Then again, sometimes a reading assignment will be a short theoretical argument, but its difficulty will challenge your attention and demand new strategies of reading.

Developing a Reading Life
  • Make reading is an essential part of your everyday life practice . The most effective readers are those that integrate reading into their life practice in pleasurable and sustainable ways. Instead of seeing reading as something that interrupts your life, talk to other readers about ideas to make reading an integrated part of your everyday routines. With the demands of teaching, writing, or working, this can be challenging, but it is essential.

  • Develop strategies to focus.  Different kinds of texts, different goals, different classes, projects, or interests can all demand different approaches to reading. All of your professors and your peers have spent time developing self-conscious strategies to grow as readers. For instance, Dr. Mark Mossman recalls that as an M.A. student he developed a habit of “late night and sometimes all-night reading,” but as a doctoral student he would “read very early in the morning.” In both, reading was a way of organizing the day. Finding the right places that make you a stronger reader is also key. Dr. Banash recalls that in graduate school he “would spend every morning reading for two to four hours in a noisy coffee shop, and this was productive because alone at that table there were no distractions from the book. I was free from the demands of media and friends.  I found that even the noise around me helped me focus.” You might find that different spaces help you focus differently, from the silences of a library to depths of a favorite chair.

  • Experiment with techniques for engagement.  Professor Amy Mossman recalls that as a graduate student, “ I sometimes set a timer to get through X pages in X minutes. When the timer went off, I would skim ahead and start the next section. I always wrote notes and questions in my books, no exceptions. For writing, I color-coded those notes.”  While Mossman’s approach puts an emphasis on organization and the efficient use of time, Dr. Alisha White takes a different approach that is closer to a commonplace book, explaining that for all her reading, she “wrote notes for annotated bibliographies of each class. My notes were usually mind maps or quick sketches of understandings and associations connecting content from other readings, classes, and experiences." While different ways of taking notes is one technique you can experiment with, these days, technology is changing reading radically. A computer or a Kindle can read a novel or a critical article aloud to you while you are driving or doing the dishes. Alternating between screens and paper can change your relationship to the text. There has never been more opportunity to experiment with techniques of reading. Try different approaches and see what works to help you engage.

  • Join or make your own reading groups.  Every semester, students and professors create reading groups in which we read without the pressure of grades and other assignments. Find out about reading groups, join one or two, or consider creating your own and inviting your peers and professors to join.  A reading group doesn’t need to be big—even just two is enough. For your professors, reading groups beyond coursework were a key part of their graduate education. For instance, Merrill Cole recalls that when he was in graduate school, “ students who shared an interest agreed to read material together and discuss it as a group. I participated in a Marxist study group, which meant I read a lot more of Capital than I would have on my own.” Reading groups can be a way of exploring new intellectual interests, taking on a difficult text that is too big for a class, or just experimenting and exploring.

Reading Beyond Courses

Dr Buchanan often says that one "cannot teach writing well without cultivating a writing life of one’s own.” The same is true of reading. The goal of graduate education is to move from being a student to being a scholar, which is to say from primarily consuming knowledge to becoming a producer of new knowledges. Successful scholars are often identifiable by the originality and ambition of their reading, and  Dr. Knox recalls that as a graduate student working on his exams and thesis, he did not expect the professors to choose everything for him: “ I was as proactive as possible developing my reading lists with my professors. By not leaving matters entirely to faculty, I demonstrated my background and developed a more personally satisfying set of readings.” Reading new forms and in new ways on your own can be transformative. Dr. Hamner recalls that “after finishing my PhD dissertation, I went to Daydreams Comics in Iowa City and got the owner to spend a half hour giving me a tour of places in independent graphic narrative that race, sexuality, religion, and/or science were engaged with particular depth. I bought a bunch of things and then let myself have a couple weeks to explore it and other examples from the library before I did anything for immediately professional purposes again. At that point I had never written or taught about comics; that was the genesis of a habit that's now a decade old, but even if it hadn't been for anything but personal pleasure, I would still be glad I did it.

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Writing as a Graduate Student

Graduate student writing is high-stakes. In a graduate class, a major portion of your grade may be dependent upon one seminar paper, which requires you to synthesize theory and scholarship to make an original, publishable contribution to English Studies. Much of the writing you will produce during your graduate career will serve as materials for future job searches. In other words, the seminar papers and conference presentations you produce during your time in the program will serve as the foundation for your career. Most important, learning to write as a scholar in English Studies involves taking on a new identity; thus, the writing you produce will often involve acts of negotiation and conflicts of identity as you take on a new way of being in the world.

Because graduate student writing is high-stakes, it is important for you to develop effective work habits to become productive scholarly writers. What follows are five habits of productive scholarly writers that will help you become a successful graduate student in this program if developed early in your graduate career. (Much of this material was taken from Robert Boice’s “Work Habits of Productive Scholarly Writers: Insights from Research in Psychology.”)

  1. Spend as Much Time on Preliminaries as on Writing. Boice notes that “Exemplary writers surprise their peers with their efficient solutions to finding imagination. They not only begin writing early and informally, they also work with an ever-higher level of planfulness: exemplars become active collectors and filers of information that could relate to their writing” (223). We cannot stress the importance of actively collecting and efficiently filing information that can relate to your writing and research interests. Because you will be doing an overwhelming amount of reading, both inside and outside your courses, you need to find a way to highlight how what you read may relate to your research interests and file it so that you can efficiently find it when you need it for your writing.
  2. Work in Brief, Daily Sessions. Boice writes, “How can academics, who have many other responsibilities, manage to write more? Two factors are essential: working daily and keeping sessions brief. That fact is that brief, daily sessions end up taking less time and producing more output than sporadic outbursts of daily writing” (221). Do not buy into the belief that you will write over the weekend or during Thanksgiving break. You won’t. Even if you do, the difficulties of trying to master a craft that is alien to you may stymie writing. We encourage you to work in brief, daily sessions. This may require you to carve out time to write each day. This can be extremely difficult, but if something is important, you will make time for it.
  3. Stop. Boice highlights the detrimental effects of binge writing: “When writing sessions grow into marathons (or “binges”), writers are unlikely to work again for a while. When we have trouble stopping, we tend to tire ourselves out. Writing done under fatigue tends to be confusing and overdone for readers. . . . When writers binge, they not only run overtime (into time needed for other activities), they also work with a self-focus and rushed intensity that discourage rest or revision. With timely stopping, writers develop an important kind of tolerance: a tolerance for ambiguity.” Binge writing the night before a paper is due won’t work anymore. The demands of graduate student writing are just too complex. We encourage you to give yourself time to rest and think so that you can engage in the deep revision often needed in writing at the graduate level.
  4. You Are Not Finished Once You Turn It In. Your writing should move beyond the boundaries of the classroom. That is, the writing you do for your instructors matters now, and you should seek opportunities to share your work at local, regional, and national conferences or to publish in appropriate journals. A seminar paper for a graduate class requires revision before it will be suitable for publication, so continue to work with your instructors in developing your writing projects and seek out professional development workshops sponsored by the department.
  5. Recognize That Writing Is a Social Act. The image of an author writing alone is a romantic notion that will get you into trouble. Disciplinarity is socially constructed. By extension, writing is a social act. Seek out opportunities to talk often with your instructors during office hours or by appointment. Talk with your fellow graduate students formally or informally about your writing. Take opportunities to present your writing at department events, such as the EGO Conference. These opportunities to talk will help you work through the complex ideas you will be struggling with in your writing.

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Full-time Students

Full-time students can complete the degree in four semesters, generally taking 9 hours each semester. Teaching Assistants take only 6 hours a semester but are still considered full-time and can complete the degree in two years by taking advantage of summer tuition waivers (available to Teaching and Graduate Assistants) to complete some degree requirements during the summer.

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Part-time Students

Over half the students in our program are part time, taking one or two classes per semester. By taking just one class each semester, a part-time student can complete the program in six years (the maximum time allowed). Typically, by taking an occasional summer course and doing the exit option in a single semester, part-time students can finish the program in four years.

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International Students

International students have additional requirements and forms to fill out. International students are also eligible for assistantships. It is imperative that international students attend the international graduate student orientation and work closely with the Center for International Studies as well as the DGSE. For more information, visit: www.wiu.edu/international_studies/.

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One Program, Two Campuses

Faculty and students work hard on both the Macomb and Quad Cities (QC) campuses to exchange ideas and work together in a variety of ways. Courses are sometimes offered through CODEC, a distance learning technology that allows students on one campus to participate via live audio and television screen with classmates and faculty on the other campus. Thus, you may be taking a class with a professor and students in Macomb while in a QC campus classroom, or vice versa.

Faculty from both campuses are eager to work with students, regardless of physical location, and make an effort to visit their non-resident campus for guest lectures and social events. We also try to arrange carpools between the two campuses for events like visits from guest speakers and the EGO Conference. Thus, regardless of your resident campus, we encourage you to make an effort to get to know the students and faculty to the north or south of you. You can find links to faculty bios from the department directory: http://www.wiu.edu/cas/english/graduate/faculty.php.

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English Graduate Organization (EGO)

The English Graduate Organization is, as the name indicates, an organization whose focus is on English graduate students. The organization meets once a week throughout the school year to plan and discuss upcoming events, allow students an opportunity to share thesis work with peers and faculty, and cater to other needs of the English graduate students. The EGO Conference is a graduate conference the English Graduate Organization plans and funds every fall semester during which students have the opportunity to present papers they have been working on and gain experience in the conference setting. Students are highly encouraged to take part in the conference. To learn more, visit the EGO website: http://www.wiu.edu/cas/english/ego/.

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Interdisciplinary English and the Arts Society (IDEAS)

Like the Macomb students in EGO, QC campus students have a community for engaging with faculty and presenting their work. IDEAS is open to all students at the QC campus, including English as well as Liberal Arts and Sciences majors and others. IDEAS meets regularly and like EGO, is focused on facilitating opportunities for students and faculty to come together for the exchange of ideas and to share their work, as well as take part in other activities of interest to the humanities, such as creative writing workshops, study groups, and book clubs. It also collaborates with EGO for events, such as the EGO Conference, and with other outside organizations. To learn more, visit http://www.wiu.edu/qc/student_life/student_activities/ideas.php.

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