April 2015 English Major of the Month
Grace McLaughlinYear: Senior
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Why did you choose to major in English?|
I actually came into NYU thinking I wanted to be a psychology major. But after a year of taking MAP classes--and in the process reading, growing up, etc.--I realized that what I wanted from psychology I would actually get through English classes. I took Literary Interpretation and Brit Lit I the first semester of my sophomore year, and that confirmed it for me. Analyzing how characters, landscapes, emotions and social contexts are created in and appear through literature, and how language works to create meaning has been really fulfilling to the part of me that wants to figure out how and why people work and has been a great way to spend three years.
What has been your favorite part of your experience in the department?
I really haven’t had a bad experience in the department. I’ve been able to take so many fascinating courses, and even the classes I thought I might not like were made really interesting through the efforts and enthusiasm of the professors and TAs. My thesis, though, is one thing that stands out from my experience over these past few years. It’s caused me a fair amount of anxiety, but now that I’m on the other side, I’m so proud to have produced a substantial piece of original research. Spending months really learning about one topic (and, inevitably, about myself) has made my senior year satisfying and interesting, in spite of the stress. I’ve also gotten to know some great people, both students and professors, over the course of writing it.
Are you pursuing any minors, internships, or fields of interest outside your English major? How do you feel they interact with or enhance your study of English?
I am! Since sophomore year I’ve supplemented by major with a minor in Gender and Sexuality Studies in the Social and Cultural Analysis department and a job as a peer writing tutor at NYU’s Expository Writing Center, and since June I’ve been interning on the literature list at Oxford University Press.
I mention in another answer why I think SCA courses are useful for English majors/all people, but basically my Gender and Sexuality classes have not only introduced me to some great thinkers, but have also fostered a way of thinking critically and challenging normative assumptions that’s been a really great tool to apply to studying and close reading literature. Being a writing tutor has also been wonderful, especially since I’ve mostly tutored English classes. I’ve learned so much through reading other people’s writing and seeing how they approach texts, and my own writing and reading of literature has benefited from editing other people’s--I end up seeing the problems in my work much more clearly. My internship has also been fantastic for my major, and especially for my thesis, which is book history-based. Seeing what scholars are writing about, what texts they’re engaging with and what sources they’re using has given me insight into what sorts of things I might do if I continue as an academic (as I hope to) and models for my work now. I’ve also been working on finding and licensing over 150 images for this one book we’re publishing for months now, which has allowed me to hone my research skills and practice approaching a long-term project.
Explain your current thesis in one word.
Wild(e)--too easy, I’m sorry. Also, excitingly: finished.
What is your favorite paratext?
This question is a very specifically targeted one, in that the person who asked it knows that my thesis is about the paratexts of editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. In my epilogue, I argue that we might consider the popular discourse around Wilde that’s developed across the 20th and into the 21st century as a sort of extended paratext that informs the way we encounter the so-called “text itself.” The character of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s recognizable, metonymic body and his decontextualized aphorisms all circulate in culture and affect our reading of the story--in a way, they’re reverse paratexts, in that they leave the text and exist beyond it, but they also serve as part of the contexts and paratexts for what we end up reading. All of that said, I found this great list online of “10 Oscar Wilde Quotes for Sales People” that’s just so misguidedly earnest. If we can count that as a paratext, that’s my favorite.
What is something about the English department that most people wouldn’t know?
I feel like a lot of people don’t know about the events and department talks, since we don’t get emailed about them all that often. I didn’t start going to them until this year, but they’re wonderful. Faculty and visiting speakers talk about their research, and very smart people ask very smart questions; I’ve not been to one that didn’t expand or complicate either my knowledge of texts, canons and authors or my theoretical approach to the things I was reading. Also, there are always cheese plates and wine, and once Professor Crain gave me a Duane Reade bag to take food home in.
I feel like many people know this one, but in case they don’t: the department assistants Shanna, Patricia and Taeesha are all great people and are so helpful and understanding if you have any issues with your schedule, major/minor, or anything else. So don’t be afraid to email or meet with them!
What did you take away from the experience of studying abroad in London and Berlin?
That’s a big question, but one primary thing that I took away, I think, is a deeper understanding of the role space has in relation to culture, literature, politics and memory. I studied abroad at the NYU program in Berlin for six weeks and in London for a semester, and in both cases my professors really tried to incorporate the cities and surrounding countries in their lessons. Because I was encountering the places we visited from a different, but not entirely alien cultural background (as distinct as they are, Germany, Britain and the US share some common culture and history), I was in a position to think about how subtle things like how the architecture and complicated, often upsetting history individual buildings have in Berlin, the urban layout of London, both city’s different destructions after World War II, or both countries’ relative physical positions in relation to the rest of Europe have affected and continue to affect how people in those countries/cities approach their histories and what kinds of cultural or literary trends develop. I brought that mode of thinking back with me to New York and San Francisco and have been increasingly interested since studying abroad in thinking about how cultures develop out of and through, not just on, spaces.
Opinion on the Oxford comma?
Vampire Weekend said it best, I think. I know that there’s that example about Stalin, Lenin and strippers that’s meant to prove its necessity, but I think that it’s rarely necessary, and sort of clunky looking.
What course(s) would you recommend for majors? For non majors who want to take an English class?
Professor Fleming’s Derrida class is absolutely amazing. It’s a bit of a dangerous supplement to one’s schedule--it’s not for the easily frustrated, but reading and talking about Derrida regularly for a full semester can help English majors access a new, challenging way of looking at their texts and assignments. It certainly had that effect on me. I’ve also been lucky to take two classes with Professor Freedgood. All of her classes are rigorous and challenging, but she combines that with a genuine interest in her students’ ideas--no matter what year or disciplinary background. Anyone who’s willing to work hard and do all of the reading would benefit from any class she teaches. And Professor Crain is also fantastic! She’s so incredibly well-informed and nice. If you are at all interested in 18th or 19th century American literature, or in book history, any class you take with her will be helpful and engaging.
More generally, I think SCA is a wonderful department, and it’s a shame that more people don’t discover it sooner. My introduction to SCA was actually through Professor Harper, who’s cross listed in the English Department, so I was spoiled in that his approach is very close-reading based and was really exciting to me. But all English majors (and probably all people) should take a class or two on the theory and historicity of race, sexuality, gender and identity, even if the professor isn’t cross listed. I’ve learned so much in SCA classes, and I’ve been grateful for the way that they’ve made me challenge and engage critically with a lot of my normative assumptions in a broader way, which is a mode of thinking that’s been really beneficial to my approach to literature and, of course, to my existence as a person.
As for non-majors specifically, I would recommend surveys like Brit Lit II or Am Lit II if you want to get a sense of the departmental approach without dealing with Old English or Puritans, or a more directed class like Queer Lit if you already have a specific area of interest that you want to pursue within the English context. Generally I’ve found that even if you aren’t totally familiar with the discipline, if you try hard, are interested and are willing to talk with your professors or TAs, you’ll get a lot out of whatever class you take.
If you could create your own topic for an English course at NYU, what would it be about?
I wish I had a better answer for this question, but the one thing that comes to mind for me is a class considering the cultural afterlife of either one author, or authors and texts generally, perhaps with each student picking one thing/person to do a project on. In writing my thesis, I’ve become fascinated with the way that Wilde has circulated and been appropriated through culture since his death, and I’m sure that other authors and texts have been remediated and put to specific uses in other interesting ways. Lolita, for example, has had a wild cultural afterlife, as have Uncle Tom’s Cabin, James Baldwin texts/James Baldwin as a figure and Shakespeare and many of Shakespeare’s plays. Using reader response theory, book history and media or cultural studies to think about how authors or books are mobilized beyond their control could be really interesting, I think.
I also think it might be good for there to be more theory classes, just generally. Affect Theory, Major Texts in Critical Theory, Contemporary Literary Theory--Reading Derrida and Queer Literature have been some of the most rewarding classes for me, so if I were to teach a course, I would definitely try to make it very theory-based.
When you’re not in class where can you usually be found on campus?
Probably in Professor Freedgood’s office, at Oren’s or lurking around 244 Greene Street.
Who is your favorite theorist and why? Use evidence.
This is a great question that I don’t know how to answer! I love so many theorists, and so many of them are informed by and in conversation with each other, so picking one means picking his or her intellectual history and contemporary moment: you can’t have Derrida without Rousseau, Plato, Saussure, Foucault, Beckett and Althusser, among about a million others, whom he was influenced by and/or reacting against. Also, Heidegger, for example, is a hugely important figure for affect theory, but I don’t know whether he would be more accurately considered a philosopher or a theorist. And then on the other hand, Foucault said in the History of Sexuality that he’s more interested in providing an analytics, rather than a theory, and if Foucault’s not a theorist, who is?
In summary, this question might be better for someone not quite so hung up on semantics and guilty about choosing just one person.
What is your most stereotypical English major trait/behavior?
The other day someone asked me what I had been listening to, probably meaning music, and I responded honestly by saying a BBC recording I found of Jeremy Irons and Eileen Atkins reading “The Wasteland.” That’s neither a trait or behavior, I realize, but I feel like it’s a representative answer. More generally, I guess I read all the time and refuse to stop talking about affect theory, both of which could be English major things. I might need more distance to fully realize how entrenched I am in English major behaviors, though, since from where I stand all of the things I listed are at least moderately normal.
What are your plans after graduation?
I’ve decided to go to Iceland for two weeks immediately after graduation. More long term, though, I’m starting NYU’s Performance Studies MA in mid-June. I’m incredibly excited to bring my experience as an English major to a new academic area and to extend my knowledge and disciplinary experience.
Now that you’ve finished your thesis, what will you do/how will you celebrate?
Any shout outs or comments?
I haven’t yet name dropped Jonathan Flatley. He’s going back to his home university next semester, so I didn’t want to recommend his classes in bad faith, but if anyone happens to transfer to Wayne State, take a class with him! Or just read his book. He’s ridiculously smart, and his affect theory course entirely changed my academic focus/orientation and probably my life.
I also want to recognize all the TAs in the department, who are sort of unsung heroes. My TAs Blevin Shelnutt, Collin Jennings and Sarah Ostendorf are all excellent and so good at helping make the material covered in big lecture classes manageable and accessible, as are all the TAs, I imagine.