English Majors Handbook

Adam Potkay
Department of English
P.O. Box 8795
College of William & Mary
Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795

Revised 2006


I. Introduction
II. What is 'English,' Anyway?
III. Writing Well
IV. Interpretation: Close Reading
V. World Wide Web Resources
VI. English and American Literary History
VII. Requirements
VIII. Creative Writing
IX. Linguistics
X. William & Mary Study Abroad Programs
XI. The Honors Program in English
XII. What Does One Do With a W&M English Degree?
XIII. William & Mary Career Services
XIV. Careers in Book Publishing, and the Ferguson-Blair Scholarship
XV. Some Common Questions about Graduate Study in English
XVI. Preparation for Graduate School: Undergraduate Courses
XVII. Applying to Graduate School in English
XVIII. When Should I Apply to Graduate School?
XIX. Which Graduate Schools Should I Apply To?

I. Introduction

This Handbook is primarily directed at English majors and at sophomores considering majoring in English. It is also aimed at non-majors who are interested in literature, particularly those who are considering the possibility of doing graduate work in English or a related field (American Studies, Creative Writing, Comparative Literature, Drama).

The purpose of this Handbook is to begin to address two basic questions: first, “What is ‘English,’ Anyway?” and second, the ever popular: “What can I do after I graduate?”

The first portion of this handbook attempts to answer the first question. It contains a few insights into what exactly a major in English is, and how to do your best in English courses. It also describes the department's offerings in creative writing and linguistics.

The second portion offers some basic advice concerning jobs and careers, and how to go about preparing for them.

II. "What is 'English,' Anyway?"

Imagine a time before there were English departments. Imagine a University in which knowledge was divided up differently from the way that it is now—a University without the divisions that you’re familiar with between the various humanities and social sciences and sciences.

The University is an institution with medieval European origins, and in the medieval curriculum, students began by studying the so-called trivium (“three ways,” from the Latin tri, “three” + via, “way”): the arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic.

It is in these three arts that the modern English department has its deepest roots.

Today, when one says one is majoring in “English,” one means three distinct things:

1. learning to write—and to a lesser extent, alas, to speak—effectively: that is, to frame cogent arguments in correct and elegant English.

This aspect of what we in “English” do bears the imprint of the classical (Greco-Roman) rhetorical tradition.

2. learning to interpret literature: that is, frame coherent arguments about what and how literary texts mean.

This aspect of what we do, while also having classical antecedents—grammar included interpretation as well as basic rules about sentence construction—owes a lot to medieval and early modern habits of scriptural exegesis: that is, from the way that people have studied and interpreted the Bible.

3. learning the history of English and American literature. This aspect of what we do largely derives from early nineteenth-century Romantic notions about national literatures as records of, and resources for, the developing “spirit” of a people (what the Germans called volk-geist).

In the following pages, I will have some things to say about all three aspects of the English major.

III. Writing Well

What follows is a more or less formal guide to essay-writing. Not all English professors share the exact same sense of what constitutes a good essay; and some professors may have different criteria for shorter, more informal, response papers; still, if you attend to the following advice, you won’t end up far afield of anyone’s expectations.

1. When to begin. One of the truly pernicious myths of undergraduate academic life is that, with enough coffee and NoDoz, you can churn out more or less acceptable papers the night before they’re due. In reality, such overnight papers are likely to be a mess. You won’t have any real thesis (or, consequently, thesis development) because odds are you won’t have discovered what it is you mean to say until the last paragraph or two of your paper, at which point the sun’s coming up and it’s too late to go back to the beginning and begin the painstaking process of revision.

Thus, you should always begin a 5-7 pp. paper at least a week before it’s due; you should give yourself two weeks for most longer papers. The way you manage to do this is to plot out a writing schedule in your daily planner at the very beginning of your semester. For instance—if you have a paper due for Class A on March 30, you should begin to jot down preliminary notes by March 16. You should have a working outline by March 21; at this point you may want to talk about your ideas with either another student in Class A, the Writing Resources Center; or your professor during his/her office hours. You should have a full draft by March 24. At this point, hide your paper in a drawer and forget about it for a few days. Clear your mind a bit. Think about other things. Then, by March 28, return to your draft—at this point, scales will fall from your eyes, and you’ll see your paper anew. You’ll now have a fresh perspective on the strengths and weaknesses of your essay, with ample time to correct the latter and accentuate the former.

2. The Most Important Thing is to have a “THESIS”: that is, a strong argument. Let me first give you an example of something that looks like a thesis but is really not a thesis (the “facsimile thesis,” or “F.T.”):

“There are representations of external nature in both Homer and [the eighteenth-century poet] Thomas Gray.”

My answer to this is: “yup, there are.” The problem with a facsimile thesis is that it’s too obvious—it hardly requires “proof”—and little can follow from it but a mechanical list of external nature sightings:

‘Here’s a representation of nature...
There’s a representation of nature...
Here’s another representation of nature...
So we see that both poets represent nature.’

I say to this exactly what you’d say if you were reading it: “Yawn.” Or: “tell me something I didn’t know.”

The facsimile thesis lacks specificity. It's empty precisely because it can be applied to hundreds of writers. The facsimile thesis quoted above, for example, is easily adapted to the demands of just about any English course: "There are representations of external nature in both William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge," "There are representations of external nature in Thoreau and Emerson," etc.

Here, by contrast, is a good thesis—one that relates only to the works in question—taken from a paper recently written by a William & Mary student:

Progressive eighteenth-century Englishmen saw the natural world in a very different manner than had their Greek forebears. While the ancients viewed nature as a powerful and terrifying force out of their control, the moderns—steeped in an ideology of progress and emergent technology—saw nature as something to be mastered and put to good use. This dichotomy manifests itself in the contrasting views of nature presented in Homer’s Iliad and Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.”

This is a strong thesis because it’s surprising (without being bizarre) and because it needs to be defended (i.e., it justifies the act of writing an essay).

Moreover, defending it will require a selection of apt quotations from Homer and from Gray, and because neither Homer nor Gray offers an explicit statement about their attitudes towards Nature (that is, neither comes out and says, “I think nature is a terrifying and uncontrollable [or a docile and controllable] force”), any quotations our author chooses will require fairly subtle interpretation to yoke them to the purposes of her thesis.

3. What a good thesis leads to is good PARAGRAPH STRUCTURE.

(Note: every paragraph should be built around one central point; that point is usually expressed in the first sentence or two of your paragraph.) Having announced a thesis—that is, an argument that is sufficiently surprising to require proof—your essay can immediately begin to prove it.

Here’s how our model paper concerning Gray and Homer proceeds—first sentence of the second paragraph:

“In the Iliad we see nature portrayed as the ultimate destructive force.”

The rest of this paragraph concerns the prevalence, in Homer’s similes, of images of destructive nature: fires, storms, “wolves who tear flesh raw,” etc.

Our author then argues, in successive paragraphs, that 1.) “The heroes of the Iliad try to imitate nature directly in their choice of battle ‑gear,” and 2.) “Although Homer’s warriors can attempt to imitate natural forces, they cannot control nature itself; for it is left to the gods to sway nature as they please in Homer’s representations of battle.”

Note how each paragraph logically follows from the paragraph that came before, and how it serves to advance the central thesis of the essay. This sense of continuity derives from having a good working outline; and it may be accentuated by making sure you have good TRANSITIONS between paragraphs. Our author effectively marks her transitions in the first sentence of each paragraph by retaining elements from the paragraph that precedes it. Thus, a paragraph on images of natural ferocity is followed by a paragraph on warriors who adopt the trappings of nature (“helmets with horse-hair crests” and the like), which is followed in turn by a paragraph on how both war and nature are under the inexplicable control of the gods.

4. The next thing our exemplary author proceeds to do is to INTERPRET quotations, showing how even those passages which aren’t ostensibly in line with her thesis can still be seen to advance that thesis. This can be seen most clearly in the next turn of her argument, as she proceeds to address Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” Gray’s poem begins with these lines:

Ye distant Spires, ye antique Towers,
That crown the watry Glade,
Where grateful Science still adores
[King] Henry’s holy Shade;
And ye that from the stately Brow
Of Windsor’s Heights th’Expanse below
Of Grove, of Lawn, of Mead survey... (ll. 1 ‑7)

Our author, turning now from Homer, writes:

In contrast to Homer’s representation of nature as a destructive force, Thomas Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” depicts a tame and subjugated natural world. In the opening stanza of the poem, the speaker surveys “the watry Glade” of the College from a position of elevation or—figuratively speaking—of superiority; indeed, the speaker is above the setting of the College in much the same manner that the College itself is poised above “th’Expanse below / Of Grove, of Lawn, of Mead.” Indeed, the speaker derives his sense of superiority over nature from the very fact that the College rises, both literally and figuratively, above its grounds. Presumably, mankind’s long ‑standing fear of the disorderly power of nature has been quelled by the progress of “grateful Science,” and thus the school, as a bastion of knowledge, symbolizes for the speaker man’s triumph over nature.

This is “interpretation”: it’s a manner of teasing out the implications of a text; of attending, in the critic Earl Wasserman’s phrase, to the “subtler language” of a literary work.

Effective interpretation is a literature student’s crowning achievement (compare here section IV, “Close Reading”).

5. OK, so much for our guided tour through a good essay on Homer and Gray. But (you’re apt to ask), what about the NOVEL? How does one formulate an effective thesis when writing about a novel, or—to maintain some continuity with our contrastive analysis of Homer and Gray—about the similarities/differences between two novelists?

The rules are the same. Consider Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. Here’s an unsatisfactory or “facsimile” thesis:

“Jane Eyre is a more active and independent woman than Fanny Price.”

The problem with this assertion is that it’s too obvious. Jane is ostensibly more active and independent than Fanny—what’s there left to say? Rather than encourage literary analysis, this type of faux thesis simply provides an occasion for plot summary—and PLOT SUMMARY WON’T DO.

Here, by contrast, is an intriguing thesis:

“At first glance, Fanny Price seems a far more passive heroine than her nineteenth ‑century counterpart, Jane Eyre. Upon closer inspection, however, the differences between Fanny and Jane diminish. For at the heart of Fanny’s passivity there lies a deep core of aggression, while amidst all the flurry of Jane’s self ‑assertion the close reader may detect an underlying submissiveness.

Or—another effective paper thesis might derive from comparing/contrasting the role of private theatricals in both Mansfield Park (the production of the play Lover’s Vows) and Jane Eyre (the charades performed by Rochester and Blanche Ingram). Do Fanny and Jane possess similar or opposed attitudes towards the lure of play ‑acting? And ultimately, what are the views of Austen and Bronte (as inferred from their novels) towards the views of their respective heroines? How far in spirit is the Victorian Bronte from the late Georgian Austen?

6. Stylistic Details. You can avoid the most common problems of grammar and usage by following these simple tips.

a.) The phrase “the eighteenth-century” is hyphenated only when it is used adjectivally: e.g., one writes “the eighteenth-century novel,” but one writes “novels written in the eighteenth-century.”

b.) Always paginate your papers.

c.) Without going thesaurus crazy, do avoid the indiscriminate repetition of the same word in a given paragraph. If you find yourself repeating the same word over and over again, it’s typically a sign that your essay, like a scratched phonograph record, has got caught in a single groove—that is, it’s not going anywhere. Here’s an example of a writer in a rut:

Jane Eyre and [Samuel Richardson’s] Pamela are both accounts of women’s development. As the events and experiences in the two women’s lives unfold, their womanly development is illustrated (quite literally) throughout the novels. It is through the changes and developments that occur in their artwork—both within their novels and comparatively—that we are able to observe both their artistic and womanly development. As we observe each character struggling to reach the ultimate goal of womanhood, their development serves to mark significant changes in the concept of women and womanly development.”

Questions: how many times does “development” appear in this paragraph? How many times does “woman”?

As an exercise in writing, try condensing this terribly pleonastic prose into two or three clear, concise sentences.

d.) Avoid “begging the question”: that is, using a term that assumes as proved the very thing you should be trying to prove. Example: “Robinson Crusoe is more believable than earlier autobiographies.” This assertion will hardly do, because it’s your job to tell me precisely what about Crusoe’s account of himself is more believable; you also need to address the question of whether or not earlier autobiographers wrote according to a criterion of (empirical) believability.

Some other phrases that generally “beg the question”: “more enjoyable than,” “more readable than,” “more pitiful than,” etc.

e.) Avoid passive constructions, as they tend to result in vague, murky, and otherwise confusing prose. E.g.: “Both Fanny Price and Jane Eyre are born poor and are sent to live with their wealthy relatives. As a result, upper ‑class norms are imposed on them.” Questions: who sends them? who imposes these “norms” on them? (Not to mention the question: what are these “norms”?)

f.) Avoid the indiscriminate use of indefinite articles and demonstrative adjectives. Here’s a double-whammy of a perplexing sentence: “Defoe...gives the impression that he is writing for an audience. This audience is absent in neoclassical writers of the period.” My question: what “audience” are you talking about? Explain your references, being as clear and specific as possible.

g.) Study proper use of the colon and semicolon.

Use a colon after a main clause when the succeeding clause or clauses explain the first clause. For example:

“Only once, for a moment, did Byron turn against his hero Napoleon: in 1814, when (so he thought) suicide would have been more seemly than abdication.” (Bertrand Russell on Lord Byron)

Use a semicolon between two independent clauses when they are not joined by a conjunction: e.g.,

“The great man, to Nietzsche, is godlike; to Byron, the great man is a Titan at war with himself.” (Russell again)

Note: a semicolon indicates a closer connection between these two clauses than a period would suggest.

h.) Use the present tense for analysis; save the past tense for statements of fact set in the past. The literary work still exists in the present; its author, however, does not. So, “Swift was a clergyman; therefore, his tract is takes a theistic point of view.”

Other examples:

Awkward: “Defoe had novelized the earlier genre of the spiritual autobiography…”

Good: “Defoe takes the eighteenth ‑century genre of spiritual autobiography and transforms it into what we have come to recognize as the novel.”

i) How to Quote Literary Texts.

—Offset quotations of more than three typed lines (prose or poetry) and delete quotation marks: see my quotation from Gray’s “Eton Ode,” above, p. 7.

—Retain line divisions in poetry, including capitalization: use a virgule (/) in short quotations that run from line to line:

According to Alexander Pope, mankind occupies a middle state on the great chain of being: man “hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest / In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast” (Essay on Man II, 7 ‑8).

—Indicate deletions from quoted materials with ellipsis marks (three spaced periods).

For Crusoe, the cannibalism of the natives remains a “hellish Degeneracy” (p. 133), and his only consideration is whether punishment ought rather to be administered by God, since “the Crimes they were guilty of towards one another . . . were National” and should be left “to the Justice of God, who is the Governour of Nations, and knows how by National Punishments to make a just Retribution for National Offences” (p. 135).

—Indicate your own additions to a quotation with square brackets ([ ]):

The effect of seeing a footprint on his island is to leave Crusoe “perfectly confus’d and out of [him] self,” just as his earlier attempt to circumnavigate the island had left him “hurry’d out of [his] Knowledge by the Currents” (p. 121).

—Note: “quote” is a verb; “quotation” is a noun. (On a similar note- “refer” is a verb, “reference” a noun.)

7. Resources and Models.

If you find yourself in need of further writing assistance, consult Joseph Williams’ Style: Ten Lessons in Grace and Clarity.

And avail yourself of the WRITING RESOURCES CENTER as often as possible (First Floor, Swem Library).

If you’re ever looking for a model of good contemporary prose, colloquial yet elegant, flip through a few copies of the weekly journals The New Republic or The Economist.

When looking up definitions of words used in older English literature, use the multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary in Swem and on-line through Swem Databases. It will prevent awkward misreadings and reveal subtle nuances.

IV. Interpretation: Close Reading

Close reading is the art of both understanding the words on the page, and appreciating what it is about an author’s words that defies your (at least initial) understanding.

Close reading is the art of attending to the play and paradoxes of literary language. Indeed, the tensions and ironies that inhabit our very best efforts at getting something said are what make them, literarily speaking, our best efforts.

For an example of close reading, let’s take a look at a few lines from the one poem every English major should read, Milton’s Paradise Lost. This is Milton’s first description of Eve:

She as a veil down to the slender waist
Her unadorned golden tresses woreDishevell’d, but in wanton ringlets wav’d
As the Vine curls her tendrils, which impli’d
Subjection, but require’d with gentle sway,
And by her yielded, by him best receiv’d,
Yielded with coy submission, modest pride,
And sweet reluctant amorous delay. (Bk. 4, 304 ­311)

Close reading of these lines reveals nuances and subtleties that may not be immediately apparent. Why, for example, are Eve’s “golden tresses” described as veil-like? Might this detail suggest that she lacks clear vision or foresight? And to what degree is this blindness balanced by Adam’s superior insight? The poet describes Eve’s hair—and, by extension, her being—in terms of “the Vine,” dependent on objects that are more rooted and sturdy; metaphorically, the poet thus suggests Eve’s dependence on Adam. However, isn’t a good deal of independence suggested by the phrase “coy submission”? The word “coy” here—both for us and, as a perusal of the Oxford English Dictionary will show you, for readers of Milton’s time—has an ambiguous ring to it: it can refer to a shy reserve that’s either genuine or affected. Given the possibility of a calculated reserve, can a person really be “coy” and “submissive” at the same time? A similar question is raised by the phrase “modest pride,” an oxymoron that may make us wonder about the precise relation in Eve’s character between a mode of self-effacement and subtle means of mastering others. Of course, these are all questions that Milton intends us to ponder as he further unfolds the story “Of Man’s First Disobedience, and the Fruit / Of that Forbidden Tree” (Bk. 1, 1-2).

Let’s say you come across Milton’s description of Eve in class. If nobody in the class can "close read" the passage—that is, if nobody can simultaneously paraphrase it into plain English, and remark on those elements of Milton’s verse that resist paraphrase—then an hour of class discussion devoted to talk about Good and Evil or Milton’s Attitude Towards Women or the Sexual Politics of the Interregnum is, in a fundamental way, empty. Close reading is the indispensable basis of all higher forms of literary analysis.

If you’d like to see more close reading in action, let me recommend a number of books that you can skim through:

Thomas R. Edwards, Imagination and Power: A Study of Poetry on Public Themes;

William Empson, Seven Types of Ambiguity;

Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost;

Richard Poirier, Robert Frost;

Paul Fussell, Poetic Meter and Poetic Form.

And anything by Helen Vendler (Invisible Listeners, Poets Thinking, The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, etc.);

Better still, ask a professor what readings he or she would recommend in a literary period that interests you.

V. World Wide Web Resources

It’s impossible to list here all the sites on the Web that can help you as you write. The best place to start is Swem Library’s Homepage (http://swem.wm.edu), which will give you an organized entry to everything from the Oxford English Dictionary to databases containing all of British and American Poetry to 1900, from indexes of professional journals to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and from dictionaries of quotations to dictionaries of foreign languages. Visit the site often to see what is available.

Swem Library Database now has dozens of very useful resources, from “A” (African-American Poetry, 1760-1900) and “E” (“Eighteenth-Century Collections Online”) to “J” (JSTOR, the Scholarly Journal Archive) and “L” ( Literature Resource Center ).

VI. English and American Literary History

Every English major should have some sense of the distinguishing characteristics of each period of English and American literary history.

Some broad or general knowledge of the particular period in which an author writes is requisite for interpreting that author’s work; conversely, any interpretation of a particular work will influence one's general sense of the period in which it was written.

In studying literary history we observe both continuities and transformations in each of the various literary genres – epic, tragedy, comedy, satire, lyric, biography, the essay, romance, and a relative newcomer, the novel.

Consequently, all prospective majors should begin their course of literary study by taking English 203 (British Literature I), and English 204 (British Literature II). Normally these courses should be taken in your freshman or sophomore year.

Here, in outline, are the major periods and the major authors of English and of American Literary History, through the early twentieth century. Datings for each period are conventional.


The Middle Ages (to 1485):
Beowulf, Geoffrey Chaucer, The Gawain-Poet, Sir Thomas Malory.

The Renaissance (1485-1660):
Often broken down between “The Sixteenth Century”(1485-1603) and “The Seventeenth Century” (1603-1660).

“The Sixteenth Century”:
Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare.

“The Seventeenth Century”:
John Donne, Ben Jonson, Andrew Marvell, John Milton.

The Restoration and the Eighteenth Century (1660-1798):
John Dryden, Daniel Defoe, Aphra Behn, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson, Samuel Johnson, Laurence Sterne, William Blake.

The Romantic Period (1798-1832):
William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley, John Keats, Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott.

The Victorian Age (1832-1901):
Thomas Carlyle, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy, Oscar Wilde.

Modernism (1901-?):
William Butler Yeats, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, T. S. Eliot.


Colonial (1620-1776):
Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Cotton Mather, Mary Rowlandson, Jonathan Edwards.

Early National Period (1776-1830):
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, Philip Freneau, Charles Brockden Brown, Washington Irving, James Fenimore Cooper.

American Renaissance (1830-1865):
Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson.

Realism (1865-1920):
Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Charles Chestnutt, Edith Wharton, Henry James, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, Robert Frost, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Laurence Dunbar

Modernism (1913-45):
Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, H.D., Willa Cather, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner.

Of course, literature doesn't stop in 1945. Many new "classics" have entered the canon in the past sixty years, and you will doubtlessly become acquainted with some of them during your four years here. Your appreciation of contemporary literature will be greatly enhanced, however, by a broad knowledge of earlier literary tradition.

VII. English Major Requirements

A major in English requires a minimum of 36 credits in departmental courses, at least 27 of which must be in courses numbered 300 and above. All majors are required to take the following:

English 203: British Literature I

English 204: British Literature II

One course in American literature, chosen from 207, 361, 362, 363, 364, 365, 366, 371, 414A, or 417B

One course in a single author or auteur, chosen from English 419, 420, 421, 422 or 426

English 475: Research Seminar
English majors may include six credit hours from Literary and Cultural Studies 201, 301 and 302 in the first 36 credits of their major program, but must notify the Registrar’s Office that they wish these courses to count toward their English major.

Major courses are chosen in consultation with a departmental advisor on the basis of the student’s preparation, background, career expectations and educational interests. The department encourages students to design a program of study that exposes them to a range of historical periods and critical approaches to literature. A sound major program should include, in addition to the requisite course in English, a coherent pattern of complementary courses in other departments and allied fields chosen in consultation with the advisor. (Courses in Black Studies, Film Studies, and Women’s Studies are particularly relevant).

A student who satisfies all requirements for the major in English will also satisfy the Major Writing Requirement.

Computing Proficiency Requirement:
Students may fulfill the Major Computing Proficiency Requirement by taking English 475 or 494.

VIII. Creative Writing
(The following section is by Nancy Schoenberger, a former Writer-in-Residence at William & Mary who continues to teach creative writing here as a tenured faculty member.)

1. Courses

What, you might ask, does the English department offer students who desire to write "creative" works? All writing, to varying degrees, is of course "creative" in that each writer is generating a text that (we hope) does not already exist in the world. Most good writing—whether analytical, argumentative, or discursive–displays insight and imagination and fresh language appropriate to its subject. But for those students who want to try their hand at writing imaginative prose or poetry, not necessarily based on pre-existing texts, the department offers six courses in creative writing, three in poetry and three in fiction, at the beginning and advanced levels: English 368, 369, 467, 468, 469 and 470).

The instructor's consent is required for all creative writing courses—this allows the instructor to let you know what you're getting into, and to put together a class of serious writers who are roughly at the same level of development.

English 369 is an introduction to writing poetry. Like all the creative writing courses offered by the department, 369 is organized as a "workshop" in which group critiques and discussions of student work form the basis of each class. Students are expected to write anywhere from a half dozen to fifteen poems which are then subjected to close reading and criticism by all members of the class and by the instructor. What are we looking for in these group critiques? The form and shape of the poem; the level of language; the effectiveness of any metaphors, images, or symbols present; where the line should be broken; the tone or mood of the poem; the authenticity or believability of the poetic voice are some of the poetic strategies that come under discussion. As in all our creative writing courses, students here learn the importance of revision.

Close readings of student work are often supplemented by oral reports on contemporary poets, and lectures on poets or individual poems as they seem appropriate. These talks will deal primarily with post-War and contemporary American poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, Elizabeth Bishop, Mark Strand, Amy Clampitt, James Merrill, and Rita Dove. Depending on the interests of the instructor, students may be asked to try their hand at various poetic forms: sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, terza rima, etc. Or the aural and dramatic aspects of poetry might be emphasized, with attention given to oral presentation and the close kinship between poetry and music.

English 368 is the first level of fiction writing offered by the department. 368, like 369, is a workshop-style course, with students writing from two to six short stories of varying lengths and submitting them to roundtable discussion. What makes a good story? How does a writer keep the reader's interest? Do we care about the characters? Are they believable? Do they act and speak consistently? Do the stakes seem high enough to drive the plot? What is plot and why do we need it? Who tells the story, and is that narrator reliable, peripheral, omniscient? As in 369, revisions are an integral part of this course, as are reading assignments from a variety of possible texts, such as John Gardner's The Art of Fiction or Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction, which includes stories by contemporary masters such as John Cheever, Raymond Carver, Margaret Atwood, Jamaica Kincaid, and Tim O'Brien.

English 467 and 468, “Advanced Workshop in Fiction Writing,” comprise a two-semester course in advanced fiction writing. Students taking these courses should have already taken 368 or submitted original stories of merit to the instructor. Students here attempt longer and more ambitious stories, and continue to read 20th-century American fiction.

English 469 and 470, "Advanced Workshop in Poetry Writing," completes the department's offering in poetry writing.

2. The Writer's Festival

The spring semester courses are enhanced by the annual Writer's Festival, which usually takes place during the first or second week in April. This literary festival, started in 1978, brings a heady mix of poets and fiction writers to campus to give readings and conduct workshops. Past festivals have featured such well-known writers as Allen Ginsberg, Mark Strand, Diane Ackerman, Amy Clampitt, Ann Beatty, Stephen Spender, Dana Gioia, Jamaica Kincaid, John Wideman, Seamus Heaney, Richard Price, Jessica Hagedorn, Ntozake Shange, Larry McMurtry, and Pultizer Prize winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa. The festival gives students interested in pursuing writing careers a chance to meet established writers and find out how one can live as a writer in the world.

Which leads us to the next question: what can you do after taking these courses if what you want is that most precarious and rewarding of occupations, a writing career?

3. The MFA

A number of first-rate universities offer two-year advanced degrees in creative writing, known as the Master of Fine Arts (or MFA). Armed with the recommendation letters of your creative writing instructors ‒ and, we hope, a publication or two in a literary magazine or journal ‒ you can apply to a range of programs. Most MFA programs consist of intensive workshops in either poetry or fiction (or nonfiction and translation, in some cases), supplemented by required graduate level literature courses. Students work with established writers, and many choose their programs based on what writers are teaching where. For example, at the moment, Mark Strand teaches in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. Jorie Graham teaches at Harvard University. Mark Levin and James Galvin teach at what is probably the most prestigious writing program in the country, the Iowa Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa. Charles Wright and Rita Dove teach in the University of Virginia's MFA program. Edward Hirsch, poet, teaches at the University of Houston where you can receive either an MFA and/or Ph.D. in creative writing.

The AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs is available online at http://www.awpwriter.org and your creative writing instructors can advise you.

Now, what on earth can you do with an MFA? There are university teaching positions available for candidates with MFAs and strong publication records, but they are scarce and difficult to procure. Writers with MFAs often do what MAs and Ph.D.s do (there aren't many university jobs for them, either): they teach in secondary schools, they go into publishing or literary agenting; they write for magazines and newsletters, for corporations and non-profit organizations; they go into arts management and/or grant writing positions. In short, they find jobs where writing skills and a knowledge of the contemporary literary milieu are valued.

IX. Linguistics

In addition to offering courses that emphasize writing and literature, the department offers courses in linguistics. Linguistics is the scientific study of language.

Linguists are interested in the structural properties of languages, and in how they are alike and how they can differ from each other. Linguists also study how languages change through time, how language is associated with social and cultural patterns, and how language is processed, produced, and learned.

Courses in linguistics can appeal to anyone with an interest in language and close analysis of data. Students will find connections between linguistics and anthropology, languages, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. Students with strengths in mathematics and the sciences often do well in linguistics courses, and students with interests in vocal music or speech and theatre have found linguistics courses useful. Some programs in the School of Education require coursework in linguistics.

Information about Linguistics Offerings

Students can begin the study of linguistics with English 220 (Study of Language), which is the prerequisite to all other linguistics courses at the 300- and 400-levels. 220 is offered every semester.

We offer three intermediate-level courses that focus on core areas of language structure: English 304 (Generative Syntax), English 307 (Phonetics and Phonology) and English 418 (Language Patterns). Each of these is offered once a year. Students should take these courses before taking English 405 (Descriptive Linguistics). Students should also take English 303 (History of the English Language).

English 400-level courses include:

404 (Historical Linguistics)
406 (Language and Society)
464 (Topics/Linguistics)
474 (Research Seminar /Linguistics)

464 and 474 can be repeated for credit with different topic.

Linguistics minor

The Interdisciplinary Studies Program offers a minor in linguistics, which requires 19 credits in linguistics courses selected from the following: ENGL 220, 303, 304, 307, 400, 404, 405, 406, 415, 418, 464, 474 and INTR 480.

Linguistics Major

The College offers a major in linguistics through the Interdisciplinary Studies Program (see the College catalog). The major draws on courses in linguistics and related fields, including philosophy and psychology. Most of the College’s courses in linguistics are offered in the English Department; about half of those are cross-listed with Anthropology. The Anthropology department occasionally offers additional courses in linguistics.

X. William & Mary Study Abroad Programs
(Thanks here to Chris MacGowan.)

Spending a summer, semester, or year abroad in one of William & Mary's programs, or one of the William & Mary affiliated programs, can be an important part of your college education. The experience of living and studying within another culture can enrich your understanding not only of that other culture but of your own. Always consult your department advisor to discuss the ways in which your study abroad could fit in with your larger educational and career goals.

For up-to-date information about opportunities for travel abroad, go to the Global Education Office in the Reves Center. If you have any questions, make an appointment to talk with the Programs Abroad director.

Students who might be abroad for part or all of their junior year, but who are interested in applying for either the junior honors seminar offered in the spring semester, or for senior honors, should make their plans known to the department's Director of Honors before leaving William & Mary.

XI. The Honors Program in English

If you’re considering going on to graduate school in English, or if you would simply like to try your hand at a more substantial piece of literary scholarship, criticism, or creative writing than any one-semester course will allow, you may consider applying for admission to the Honors Program in English.

Each Fall semester, interested junior majors apply for admittance to the Junior Honors Seminar that is conducted in the Spring. The process of admittance is selective: the Honors committee looks over the applicant’s transcript with an eye towards overall GPA (the minimum college requirement is that is be at least 3.0), GPA in English courses, and the range of English courses a candidate has taken (i.e., the committee tends to smile upon students who have taken a broad range of English classes, evidencing some familiarity with the sweep of literary history). The committee also considers the comments of faculty members who have taught the applicant.

The Junior Honors Seminar typically admits about 10-15 students. The topic of the seminar is left to the discretion of the instructor, and may vary from year to year. The primary purpose of this class is to introduce students to the world of literary scholarship: students will be required to read, alongside works of literature, essays and books of practical criticism, literary history, and critical theory.

Towards the end of the Spring semester, students enrolled in the Junior Honors Seminar may choose to submit a proposal for Senior Honors. Students interested in applying for admittance to the Senior Honors program need to pick a topic that they’d like to pursue in depth, and find a faculty member who is interested in working with them on that topic.

Students who have not taken Junior Honors may also apply to the Senior Honors program, but are often at a disadvantage; however, the Honors committee is sympathetic towards students who have spent their junior year studying abroad.

Senior Honors Study—for which the student receives a total of 6 credits for the Fall and Spring semesters—comprises: (a) supervised reading in the field of a student’s major interest; (b) presentation by April 15 of an Honors Essay upon a topic approved by the departmental Honors committee; and (c) oral examination in the field of the student’s major interest.

There are bound volumes of past Honors Essays in the English department office (Tucker 102). Recent Honors Essays include: Ryan Boyd (‘04), “The Machine and the Imperiled Body of American and British Airmen’s Narratives of the Second World War”; Stephanie Insley (‘04), “Nabokov, Kinbote, and the Construction of Authority”; and, among the Creative Writing Projects, Kathryn Hively (‘03), “The Unmasking: A Collection of Short Stories”.

The Honors Essay, it ought to be noted, need be no more than 30 pp.; quality counts more than quantity.

Well—once you’ve mastered the art of writing and of close reading, got a handle on the major periods of literary history, and completed your William & Mary degree, the next question that inevitably arises is:

XII. What Does One Do With A W & M English Degree?
(Thanks in part to John Conlee for his contribution.)

What earthly good is an English major? Our English majors have become involved in an astonishing range of activities. They are obviously able to do just about anything they put their minds to. While the English major provides a non-vocational liberal arts education, it appears that majors do incidentally pick up skills—logical analysis, clarity of expression, and sheer doggedness -- that our society values and rewards.

Most of our graduates are pursuing careers in three major areas:

1) teaching;
2) writing, publishing, editing, film, or other media;
3) law.


Many of our graduates enter elementary, middle, or high school teaching. While not just a few are teaching at the college level, some at prestigious universities, after obtaining advanced degrees. Brian Henry (‘93), for example, received his Ph.D. at University of Massachusetts and now teaches at the University of Richmond; Andrew Zawacki (‘93) recently completed a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and now teaches at the University of Georgia. Jennifer French (‘94) and Channette Romero (‘98) both received their Ph.D.s from Rutgers and Jennifer now teaches at Williams College and Channette at Union College. Of the Class of 1999, Holly Barbaccia received her Ph.D. from University of Pennsylvania and now teaches at Georgetown University and Zackariah Long received his Ph.D. at University of Virginia and is currently teaching at Sweet Briar College in Virginia.

Many of our graduates are now in Ph.D. programs, preparing for careers as educators and scholars. Kelly Ross (‘01) is at the University of North Carolina at Chapel

Hill. Of the Class of 2002, Sean Barry is at Rutgers; Alyssa Meyers is at Columbia; and Leigh Harrison is at Cornell.

A number of our graduates teach English abroad for one or more years. They have taught in China, Japan, Hungary, Bosnia, as well as other parts of the globe.


Our graduates have gone on to all sort of journalistic careers, most in the print media, but also in radio and TV (e.g., the Voice of America, and the Christian Broadcasting Network). Graduates over the past 20 years have worked for Simon and Schuster, The University of California Press, the Boston Phoenix, and Scribners.

Many grads are involved in advertising and public relations. Several are doing technical writing—or instance, Mary Coates Bennett (‘85) is a documentary specialist for the General Medical Corporation in Richmond. And some are working in instructional video: Amy Campbell (‘86), for example, works as a producer for Business Video Productions.

Several grads are pursuing interests in the arts. More than a few have made their way to Hollywood, where they are writing and acting. Patton Oswalt (‘92) co-starred on the TV series The King of Queens, and is now a regular on Comedy Central. And speaking of Comedy Central ‒ would that we could say that Jon Stewart (‘84) majored in English!

3. LAW

Many grads have gone on to law school and many are currently practicing lawyers. Selina Spinos (‘05) is attending the University of Virginia Law School and Dave Gunton (‘99) is now at New York University Law School. Bernie Gerlach (‘91) is an Assistant Public Defender in Newport News, Virginia and Cheryl Grant (‘94), Harold Fullilove (‘95), Kimberlee Smith-Doman (‘95)Jonathan Watson (’99), are currently practicing law.

But although roughly half of our graduates have gone into the teaching, writing, and legal fields, about half have worked or are now working in fields not traditionally associated with “English.” A great many choose business careers—as CPAs, as office managers, as marketing analysts, as urban planners; some have even worked for mega-corporations such as IBM, and others running their own small businesses. One has designed furniture, another involved in pharmaceuticals, another a talent scout. Several were involved in theatre management, several are librarians, some are involved in religious ministries. A surprising number choose the health profession, for example, Lindsay Sukay (’00) went to Yale Medical School. A great many are involved in technological areas, especially computer technologies, and some of these folks worked for major computer companies such as Microsoft.

Several of our grads are involved in environmental work, and several others are now in the Peace Corps.

A large number of our former students are also engaged in government work of one kind or another, at local, state, and federal levels. Capitol Hill is apparently teeming with William & Mary grads. Several senatorial and legislative staffs include former W&M English majors. Our majors are working for various agencies of the government such as the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education—and even the CIA! Quite a few are serving in the military.

There are even those who have chosen to care for children. Those folks may be working hardest of all.

XIII. William and Mary Career Center

(It is never too early to acquaint yourself with The Career Center Office while you are at William and Mary. Their office is located in Blow Hall Room 123 or better yet just check out their website at http://www.wm.edu/career. They offer a wide variety of services for graduates, ranging from interviewing and job search strategies workshops, to career fairs, to how to write resumes (or curriculum vitae) and cover letters.

The Career Center also has a job listing service where you can search through hundreds of listings in a wide variety of fields, such as, “Jobs in Education,” “Jobs in Government,” “Jobs in Arts and Entertainment,” and it also contains listings for summer, part-time and internship opportunities. There are even listings by cities.

The Center’s services also include mock-interviews, eRecruiting, Credential Files and possibly one of the best services is Alumni Mentoring.

XIV. Careers in Book Publishing, and the Ferguson-Blair Scholarship
(The following section is by Geoffrey Paul Eaton, '94, recipient of a Ferguson-Blair scholarship, former editorial assistant at the World Bank, Washington, D.C., and a J.D. from University of Virginia , [‘98]).

The publishing industry is vast and various. There are some 4,000 publishing houses in the United States, ranging in size from billion-dollar conglomerates like Simon & Schuster or McGraw-Hill to independent outfits like City Lights Books in San Francisco. There are houses that boast impressive intellectual muscle — Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, The New Press — and houses that delight in celebrating the underbelly of American culture. The latter tend to be rather more profitable. There are other types in between, of course ‒ textbook publishers, children’s book publishers, university presses, technical publishers, and many more. All are peculiar in one way or another, not least in that all of them hire English majors.

Brilliant people flock to publishing, and many keep at it all their lives. Few quit, and those who do tend to cite financial reasons. You just don’t hear about people who leave because they don’t like it. Publishing is as exciting as it is exhausting. It is intellectually demanding. It is perhaps the only industry that seeks artfulness as well as profit. Besides, it has tremendous snob appeal and it’s useful at Happy Hour (“Oh, I’m a book editor.’ “Gee, that sounds so interesting!...").

There are also practical advantages. Although it’s true that first-year employees at, say, Cambridge University Press’s New York office may make $20,000 and count themselves lucky, it’s also true that less glamorous publishers often have more pleasant pay scales. An editorial assistant at the World Bank, for example, makes about as much as a full editor (a young one, anyway) at Cambridge — and slightly more than a first-year English professor at the Alma Mater of a Nation. The World Bank publishes things like Nutrition in Zimbabwe: an Overview of the Literature, of course, but money is money. Salesmen at John Wiley, a huge textbook publisher, may get around $30,000, a computer system, and a new Toyota Camry, all for driving around to colleges trying to get Wiley’s books adopted. Salaries in general, insulting at first, usually become decent once the novice period is over; a few high-flying acquisitions editors ‒ the prima donnas who seek out and sign hot authors — make fortunes.

What’s more, publishing requires diverse skills ‒ there are many different types of jobs available, from copy-editing and proofreading (low-level grammar and typo stuff) to substantive editing (re-writing or suggesting changes to authors’ work) to production editing (book design, page layout and so on). Away from the editorial side there are marketers, who design advertising campaigns and solicit those quotations you find on book covers; promoters, who try desperately to get their author on Oprah (a rare feat calculated to be worth something like fifty thousand additional sales); managing editors, who worry about budgets and things; literary agents, who place manuscripts with publishers and skim 15% off the top; and more. Most publishing jobs involve a variety of these tasks at once, and which makes for a life of endless challenge and variety.

How to Get There From Here

Contra Michael Stipe, it can be done. It’s nearly impossible, though, to get hired straight out of college just by sending out resumes. Every ad in the New York Times produces hundreds of applications, most of which look, from the employer’s point of view, exactly the same. Your degree in English from old W&M won’t look substantially better than Richard Roe’s degree in Comp Lit at Brown or Cal State Chico or wherever; there are also plenty of magna cum laudes and Phi Beta Kappas in the mix, so don’t expect your grades to hand you a juicy job by themselves. Grades, unfortunately (or very fortunately, depending on how yours are), matter far more to grad schools than to employers.

There are, however, ways to get yourself in the door:

1. Proofread your resume six hundred times. A typo is a major faux pas in any industry; in publishing it’ll get your resume posted on the wall to be laughed at...and thence to the garbage can.

2. Schmooze with all the publishing people you know. Flatter them. Buy them pretty baubles. Knowing somebody is always, always, always the easiest way in.

3. Emphasize any publishing background you have, and be specific. If you worked on the Gallery of Writing or WM Review or the Flat Hat or Jump let it be known. If you know Adobe Pagemaker or Quark Xpress, shout it from the rooftops.

4. Study the company you apply to. Even a cursory glance at the spring list will help. Do they publish fiction? Non-fiction? What sorts of non-fiction? Saying in an interview (or on the “Objective” line of your resume, if you have one— see #5 below) that you really really Gosh-so-really want to be a fiction editor is death if the firm publishes only textbooks. Knowledge of the company’s focus will work wonders; you’d be amazed at how many people walk in utterly ignorant of the job they’re interviewing for, expecting to get hired solely on the basis of being Wonderful Me. (The sad corollary of this, of course, is that it occasionally works — but don’t count on it.)

5. Don’t put an “Objective” on your resume. People who tell you to do this are involved in a conspiracy to ruin your life. Don’t do it. Not only do stated objectives inevitably sound cheesy (“I wish to find a challenging position that will allow me to develop my ______ skills in a stimulating environment”), and encourage the kind of rump-kissing meaningless cant that English majors should despise, but they limit you to whatever you happen to say in them. If you fill the blank with ‘editorial,’ and the company has only a production job open, into the rubbish heap you go, even if you’d have been perfect for the job. Chances are the resume reader never got past the objective. These people, remember, have stacks of resumes to sift through, and they’re looking for reasons to shorten the stack. Don’t give them one.

5a. Kill the “references available on request” stuff, too. What, they’re going to ask for references and you’re going to say no? Don’t think so.

6. Go out and buy a skill. Attend an established book publishing institute. There are only a few: at the University of Denver, New York University, George Washington University, and Columbia University (there are others, but these are the best-known). Of these, Columbia is the oldest -- it was founded at Radcliffe in 1947, and moved to New York in 2000 — as well as the longest (six weeks or so), the most expensive (just over $4000), and the most prestigious. Denver’s program (four weeks, $3800) is also highly regarded; it’s run by a woman who has extensive connections in the best circles of publishing.

Any of these programs will do two invaluable things: first, teach you the rudiments of publishing, which cannot be learned elsewhere; and second, get you on the short list for every publishing job you apply for. Only a few hundred people attend the publishing institutes each year, and these few are assumed both to be serious about publishing and to have valuable and rare skills. Graduating from an institute will get you in the door. The rest is up to you.

Uh, s’pose I don’t want to pay $4000 to get in the door?

In that case you’d better either (a) find yourself a wealthy dowager to be your patron (matron, as it were), or (b) win a Ferguson-Blair Scholarship.

The Ferguson-Blair Scholarship Program

The F-B scholarships are awarded each spring to the two or three seniors who show the most promise for success in a publishing career.

Applications may be obtained from those delightful and highly skilled folks at the Career Center, and they’re pretty simple (the applications, that is): some biographical information, a transcript, and a Why I Want to Work in Publishing-type essay. Submit all this; you’ll be called later for an interview. The interview is (or was, in my experience) very casual. Be sincere, stand up straight, and don’t fidget. Let them know you’re serious about wanting to work in publishing (or fake it just as hard as you can). It helps a lot to know something about the industry. Do you admire Maxwell Perkins? What did Giroux do? What the hell is Viacom, anyway, and didn’t Faber and Faber make pencils, or something? A little background information will mark you as an unusually qualified applicant.

Winners of the scholarship receive money to attend one of the publishing institutes. I believe they make you choose from Columbia, NYU, and Denver. At least one award of $5000 is available; sometimes funds are available for two or more smaller scholarships, as well. Speak with the Career Center for more information.

The money is presented in checks made out jointly to the winner and the chosen institute (just in case anyone had thoughts of cashing them and putting the money in tax-free munis or offshore oil interests). There are other benefits — the F-G winners get to go to the Senior Awards banquet, which otherwise would remain the stuff of myth and legend — and anyway “I’m spending the summer at an institute” sounds better to the folks than “I was thinking of stupefying myself with liquor and driving to Seattle,” although the two are not mutually exclusive.

Once at an institute you’ll find it rigorous; the instructors cram a lot of information into short sessions and yes, there is homework. They give editing workshops, lessons on publishing finances, lessons on book design, trips to printers, and so on, but most of the sessions presentations by industry professionals — ‘This is what I do, and this is how I got here’ sorts of things. It gives an idea of the bewildering variety of the industry — no two people seem to have succeeded in the same way. Get to know these people. They may employ you someday.

At the end of the institute there will be a convocation of publishers looking for new hires; some people get jobs that very day, although most merely make contacts for the future. It took me about a month to find my first job, and I got my present situation about a month after that. It’s not easy, and it takes a lot of phone calls and letters, but there are jobs available.

For lovers of language, players with words, or just English majors who’re afraid that welfare reform will push them off the dole, publishing is great way to go. If you’re interested, contact the Career Center about the scholarship program. It’s a leg up, and that’s something everybody needs. There’s a career out there if you know how to find it.

XV. Some Common Questions about Graduate Study in English
(I’ve borrowed some of my ideas from a similar hand ­out made up by a friend of mine at Rutgers, William C. Dowling; still, I’ve attempted to make my own musings particularly relevant to William & Mary undergraduates.)

Let’s begin with some Q & A about the basics.

—Q.: What good is an MA in English?
—A.: An MA, which typically requires 1-2 years of study, is often viewed as a professional degree in the fields of publishing, editorial work, and secondary education. It also allows one to teach in community colleges (such as, locally, Thomas Nelson College). An MA is also a way of ‘testing the water’ to see if you’d like to pursue further graduate study, that is, a Ph.D.

Finally, if your undergraduate record is less than perfect, a successfully completed MA (and strong letters of recommendation from those who have taught you in MA seminars) will make you more competitive for a top Ph.D. program.

Information about what colleges and universities offer MA degrees may be found in Peterson’s Guide, in the reference room at Swem Library.

There are two types of MA programs:

1.) the Master’s degree that is offered by an English department that does not have a Ph.D. program;

2.) the MA granted by an English department that does offer a Ph.D.

There are pros and cons to either type of MA program.

If you go to a college that has a terminal MA program, the pros are that the program will be smaller and that your professors will pay considerable attention to you. The cons are that your professors may not be very well known in the academic world, and hence their recommendations may or may not carry much weight if and when you apply for a Ph.D. elsewhere.

The pros of going to an MA program at a place that also grants the Ph.D—let’s use Stanford for our example—are (a) that your professors will be top-notch scholars/critics (if not always engaged teachers); (b) hence, if they pay any attention to you, and if they come to smile upon you, you can ask them for letters of recommendation; and at that point, c) you’ll be an attractive inside candidate for the Ph.D. program at Stanford, and a strong candidate for Ph.D. programs elsewhere. However, the cons of going to an MA program at a place like Stanford are that, with so many brilliant Ph.D. candidates around, as a master’s student you’re apt to be treated like a second-class citizen.

For tons of information on graduate schools, programs, etc., etc., use the Career Center’s website: http://www.wm.edu/career.

The rest of this section primarily addresses those who are considering pursuing a Ph.D. and teaching at the college level.

—Q.: What type of commitment is required to obtain a Ph.D. in English?
—A.: Generally speaking, it will require a more or less full ­time commitment for a period of 5 to 8 years. During this time most of your income (unless you have a trust fund or exceptionally generous parents) will come from your graduate institution through fellowships, teaching assistantships, instructorships, library work, odd jobs, etc. Graduate students lead a distinctly low ­rent sort of life, but they tend not to mind too much.

—Q.: How’s the college teaching job market for recent Ph.D.s in English?
—A.: Statistics show that it has been very challenging for recent Ph.D.s to find employment in college teaching ever since the 1970s. There was a brief rise in the number of available jobs around 1988-90, but then the recession hit. Keep this in mind—recent hiring committees in the William & Mary English department have been able to draw on pools of about 200 applicants for any available position, however narrowly defined.

However, keep this in mind: it’s still easier for a qualified candidate to get a job in an English department than it is for a qualified actor to get steady work in film or television. Like aspiring actors, aspiring teacher/scholars simply need to pursue their goals with ardor and perseverance and, sometimes, without disregard for alternative career goals.

Well, if you’re still with me, you may ask next:

—Q.: What can I do to prepare myself for a good Ph.D. program?
—A.: This question leads to my next section,

XVI. Preparation for Graduate School: Undergraduate Courses

1.) At the level of academic preparation, there are two keys to doing well in graduate school and then, afterwards, through a lifetime as a teacher and scholar: the first is an ability to do ‘close reading’ (see section IV); the second is more general intellectual background.

You’ll need a basic mastery of the intellectual context within which literature is studied, which means you have to know some history and philosophy as well as a great deal of literature. Beyond this, the areas of literary study you choose as an undergraduate will do a great deal to determine how comfortably you adjust to a program of graduate study. Here’s my general rule: the soundest basis for advanced study, even for students who eventually intend to specialize in modern or American literature, is a great deal of work in the earlier periods of English literature.

Accordingly, here are a number of courses you should take:

Literature Courses:
1. English 203: British Literature I, Medieval and Renaissance
2. English 204: British Literature II, 1675-1900
3. English 310: The Bible as Literature
4. English 421, 422: Shakespeare
5. English 426: Milton

Non-English Courses:

1. Classical Civilization 311, 312: Ancient History
2. Philosophy 331: Greek Philosophy
3. History 359: The Reformation in Western Europe
4. History 369, 370: The History of England.
5. Philosophy 351: Modern Philosophy II (Locke, Berkeley, Hume).

This philosophical background is crucial to much eighteenth- to twentieth ­century British literature.

2.) Language Study

The three most important languages for graduate study in English tend to be French, Latin and German.

As a general rule, you’ll need excellent reading knowledge of at least one of these languages, and a fairly good reading knowledge of at least one more.

As for which of these languages are right for you, here are a few guidelines:

—it’s always good to know French;

—it’s just about necessary to know Latin if you want to pursue pre-1800 British literature;

—it’s awfully helpful to know German if you plan to pursue any post-1789 British literature, because Goethe, Kant, the Schlegels, Hegel, et al. become very important to Romantic and Victorian British culture. Even Jane Eyre learns German.

In addition, Italian is quite useful for students of the Renaissance, and Spanish is increasingly important for Americanists.

And ancient Greek is, quite simply, sublime.

3.) What About 'Theory'?

You’ll notice that the recommendations above leave out one of the most frequently ­mentioned areas in literary study today: literary and cultural theory.

Theory is an important part of modern literary study. Many of your professors’ own writings are more or less indebted to the work of thinkers like Northrop Frye, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Fredric Jameson, Rene Girard, Julia Kristeva, and a host of others. You will, eventually, have to learn something about these people and their arguments, in order to succeed in graduate school.

However, without adequate philosophical training, undergraduates (and graduate students too, as you will find when you get to graduate school) tend to ‘pick up’ theory in a superficial, undigested, third ­hand way. Theory is worthless until you are already able to operate freely in the more traditional intellectual framework I’ve outlined above.

My suggestion about theory, then, is that you prepare yourself to do so by taking a few key courses in philosophy. In particular, I would recommend any courses that might include Hegel, Marx or Nietzsche. Also consider Philosophy 406: Philosophy of Language (Russell, Austin, Quine, Wittgenstein).

Then you should consider taking English 411: Topics in Literary Theory and/or English 411A: Theory of Literature, and/or you might read the following books between graduation and graduate school:

Gerard Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History;

Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s;

Jonathan Culler, On Deconstruction;

Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism;

H. Aram Veeser, ed., The New Historicism;

Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism;

Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism;

John Guillroy, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation;

Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory;

Jerome McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature After the World Wide Web.

XVII. Applying to Graduate School

Graduate school applications typically consist of:

1. Your undergraduate college transcript.

2. Two or three faculty recommendations.

3. A sample of your own critical writing.

4. A short (2 pp.) narrative statement of why you’d like to go to graduate school.

5. GRE (Graduate Record Exam) scores for both—the General Test (an advanced version of the SAT); and the English Subject Test (approximately 230 questions on the literature of Britain, the U.S., and other English-speaking countries).

Allow me to comment on each of these five components. (I’ve been ably assisted here by a number of students who have gone through this rigmarole: thanks to Jennifer French [‘95]; Michael Blum [MA, ‘95] and Adam Morris [MA, ‘95].)

1. Your transcript. Well, let’s assume that you’ll be applying to graduate school either in your senior year or a year or two after you graduate. In either event, there’s nothing you can do about your GPA at this point, so don’t sweat it. When looking at schools you want to apply to, remember that when they list a median undergrad GPA among accepted applicants, fully half of the people they accept fall below that median. If you want very much to go to a specific school, don’t not apply just because your GPA might be (way) too low.

2. Faculty recommendations. You’ll need letters of recommendation from two or three of your professors. Always save the graded and marked ­up versions of your essays (especially “A” essays)—thus, when you ask for a letter you can quickly refresh your professor’s memory as to who you are and why you deserve a detailed and laudatory recommendation.

3. Writing sample. You’ll need an essay, preferably 12 pp. or longer, that demonstrates original thought, an elegant prose style, and some familiarity with secondary materials.

4. A Short Narrative, that typically addresses the question, “Why do you want to go to graduate school?,” and sometimes the even better question, “Why do you want to attend OUR graduate school?”

Be honest. Whoever reads these things will read through any smokescreens of bull. They also read hundreds of applications in any given year, and so will be bored by generalities such as, “I’ve always liked to read,” and “Literature adds meaning to our lives.” Try to indicate your awareness that graduate school is professional training. Without being high-falutin’, state which period/s or author/s you’re most interested in, and why; comment on sorts of approaches to literature you favor.

Also, be responsible. Check the graduate program catalogues for wherever it is you’re applying (they’re all in Swem), and see what the program’s course selection is like; see also who’s teaching in your field of interest. Seek out any book or books that person has written; skim through it/them. If it seems interesting to you, you might say so (and why it’s so) in your narrative. (Alternatively, if everything you read by the faculty at a given place strikes you as impenetrable, impossible, and/or ridiculous, you might want to reconsider applying there.)

After you’ve drafted your essay, take the essay to someone you trust to read it over for content, grammar, and tone.

5. GRE exams—General Test and English Subject Test. Each of these tests can be taken repeatedly. They cost $60 a shot for the standard paper-and-pencil version, given four times a year in October, December, April, and June. There is also a computer-based test available, which provides more flexible scheduling and faster results, for about $100. As with the SAT, opinions differ about if and how much one should study for the GRE; there are, of course, many review guides and prep courses available (Barrons, Kaplan, the Princeton Review, etc.).

The GRE tests are graded on a scale of 0-800. Graduate schools would like to see scores of 600+, but there’s no hard and fast rule about this.

All students agree that one should NOT take the English subject test on the same day that one takes the general test. You’ve got to keep them separated!

Here’s the scoop on the English subject test. 230 questions, approximately 3 hours. The questions are generally of two types: (a) identification; and (b) analysis of a poem or a piece of prose. Certain questions will combine the two: you’ll be given a poem, asked a few analytic questions about it (e.g., “how does the word ‘reeks’ function in line 8?”; “between which lines does the turning point of the poem occur?”), and then be asked a question such as, “Name one of the contemporaries of the author of this poem” (in effect, you’re being asked to identify both the poet and his milieu).

The questions are usually grouped according to literary historical period. The percentage of questions in each period breaks down something like this:

Renaissance ..........................................15-20%
Restoration & 18th C ..............................10-15%
19th C. English and American ................25-30%
20th C. English and American ...............20-25%
Early American Lit. (to 1800) .................5-10%
World Lit. and Bible ................................5-10%

This is rough, but it gives a general idea of where the test’s emphasis lies.

There are also questions on CRITICISM, both historical (Plato, Aristotle, Sydney, Dryden, Johnson, Coleridge, Arnold) and contemporary (Marxist Criticism, New Criticism, Feminist Criticism, Deconstruction, New Historicism, etc).

To ace these questions, read through The Critical Tradition (St. Martin’s Press), a convenient anthology that goes from Plato to the present day. Also read M. H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms, 4th ed. or later.

XVIII. When Should I Apply to Graduate Schools?

Earliest graduate school applications are due in December for admittance the following September. I recommend that students—even the most driven students—take a year off between graduating from William & Mary and applying to Ph.D. programs in English. There are many reasons for this:

1. You have enough to do in your senior year without the added stress and busywork of applying to graduate programs.

2. Your GRE English Subject Tests will doubtless be better if you take them in the June or October after you graduate. If (as is likely) you haven’t managed to get a handle on all the periods of literary history during your four years here, the summer and fall after your senior year are great times to catch up on your Norton anthologies, read Ulysses, brush up your Shakespeare, etc.

3. If you wait to apply until after all your coursework is through, you’ll have the time to take your best William & Mary paper (be it your Honors Essay if you’ve written one, or an essay for a 475 seminar or favorite course), polish it up. Otherwise, you’ll end up sending as a writing sample something from your junior year, which won’t represent your own best self.

4. After four years of this place, you need to break up your routines. By waiting to apply to graduate programs, you’ll get a better sense of your own calling: it will become clearer to you whether you really want to pursue the professorial life, or whether you’re really only seeking to avoid the slings and arrows of life outside the olive groves of academe.

5. You're only young once. Go a little crazy before "custom lie upon thee with a weight, / Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!"

Michael Blum (MA ‘95) writes: “Grad school will be there in a year or two, and you will certainly be more mature, as well as more sure that grad school is truly what you want.”

XIX. Which Graduate Schools Should I Apply To?

Here’s a list of good Ph.D. programs that you might find helpful. Needless to say, it’s not exhaustive. I’ve listed graduate programs according to region, which is largely an arbitrary principle of organization—though you’ll want to give some thought to what part of the country you want to live in for five to ten years.

1. Northeast: Boston University, Brandeis, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, CUNY, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, University of Maryland, New York University, University of Pennsylvania, Penn State (College Park), Princeton, Rochester, Rutgers, U Mass (Amherst), State University of New York at Buffalo, SUNY at Stony Brook, Yale.

2. Southeast: Duke, Emory, Tulane, University of North Carolina ( Chapel Hill), University of Virginia, Vanderbilt.

3. Midwest: Indiana University, Iowa (Iowa City), Northwestern University, Notre Dame, University of Chicago, University of Illinois (Urbana), University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), University of Minnesota, University of Wisconsin (Madison), Washington University (St. Louis).

4. Southwest: Colorado ( Boulder), Rice, Texas ( Austin).

5. Northwest: University of Washington, University of Oregon.

6. California: Stanford, UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, UC Los Angeles (UCLA), UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara, University of Southern California.

In general, to get into one of these programs you need to have good grades in English courses; a good range of courses (i.e., don’t just take American lit. courses); and respectably high scores on your GREs. For most of them, you also need a good writing sample.

Of course, some Ph.D. programs are harder to get into than others. Here’s my own off ­the ­cuff, admittedly subjective sense of how hard it is to be admitted to some of the programs listed above. For an equally unscientific assessment of the excellence of various graduate programs—and hence the difficulty of getting in—you may consult the annual Gourman Report (“A Rating of Graduate Programs in English”).

Hardest: Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Yale.

Very Hard: Brown, Chicago*, Columbia, Pennsylvania, Princeton, UC Berkeley.
{* Be encouraged by the fact that W&M grads have historically had great success in getting into the University of Chicago. Do consider Chicago—it’s an excellent program.}

Hard: Chapel Hill, Duke, Northwestern, NYU, Rutgers, UCLA, UVA (out of state).

A Bit Less Hard: Everyplace else. Keep in mind that there are many good programs that you might not think of at first: in the West (e.g., the University of California campuses not at Berkeley or Los Angeles, the University of Washington, the University of Texas at Austin); the mid-West (e.g., the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois); and the East (e.g., the University of Massachussetts, CUNY, the University of Florida, Vanderbilt, Emory).

As a senior you should consult with the William & Mary professor(s) who specialize in whatever literary periods or fields you can imagine wanting to study further—their advice will be most helpful to you as you consider what programs to apply to. Also note that the “Officers of Instruction” section of your course catalogue tells you where your professors’ graduate degrees are from—if you have questions about a particular program, it’s sometimes good to direct them to a faculty member who’s been through that program (especially those who have been through it in the past ten years).

My correspondent Michael Blum advises: “Decide where you want to apply. If you can, visit campuses and talk to students already in the programs you are thinking about. Then pick four schools you have about a 30% chance of being accepted to, two schools you shouldn’t be turned away from (barring leprosy), and one school you’d only get into if you had the foresight to make a pact with Satan.”

Seems to me like good advice.

Good luck!