Persephone and Mnemosyne
Spring, memory, and the reading lists of a first-year PhD student
Spring has arrived here in Providence. Spring-ish. I’ve stored my thick winter coats in the back of the closet. I bought tennis shoes at the mall. The weather is either in the low or high fifties, and the amount of humans walking around depends on if it’s sunny or an overcast day. Today it is both and neither (grey-ish sky with hot white light occasionally beaming through), and the crowds are medium. This is my first time living up north since 2014, so I’ve found myself playing the part of the anthropologist, noting the patterns of people, when the city feels most alive; trying to remember the cues of the seasons after eight years living back down south, where the joke goes that every month is a different hue of summer.
It’s been nearly fifteen years since I first moved to NYC from the South. I remember the tail end of that first winter, when I’d gone to a barber shop in March, getting my hair clipper-buzzed down to a number one. Closest to the skin. After, when a friend noted how short my hair was, I said I’d gotten a summer cut, and was promptly laughed at for my “optimism.” It was naïve to not know that winter can linger until June in the guise of spring. At least up here. Where I’m from, it’s quickly approaching summer heat by St. Patrick’s Day. I am always measuring these numbers and distances.
I’m no longer as callow as far a Southerner living up north goes, although that doesn’t mean it’s the same experience. New England is new for me. Providence is certainly much more green than my old stomping grounds in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Growing up in the perennial part of the South, I missed out on the miracle of winter-bare trees bursting—suddenly full with their rose milk tea blooms. As an dilettante scientist, I’ve been taking photos of trees around the city, documenting my new life here. They remind me of all those years I attended Sakura Matsuri at Brooklyn Botanic Garden—one of my favorite events out of the year in NYC. The pink petals, the grid of trees, the sound of taiko drums, and the city feeling like it is waking up from a dream….
As of May, I’m now done with the first year of my PhD coursework. Done-ish. My graduate classes are finished for the semester, although I have an independent study I need to complete over the summer. I’m done teaching, although I will still be diligently grading final projects for about another two weeks. I’m in that intersection where the toughest moments of the academic year are over, but I still need to rally my fatigued body and mind to go for ten more days or so. Thinking of “summer break” is a dangerous fantasy I cannot allow myself until grades are submitted. I have to continue to live in the oubliette of my own making. (Side note: it’s amazing how one suddenly has time to catch up on emails and write a newsletter when there’s hundreds of student journals and papers to grade….)
I’m playing the part of the cataloger not just for my own self-indulgence, but for practical reasons as well. I’ve found my memory dulled quite a bit during the pandemic. I know I’m not alone in this. It turns out when all you’re doing is working remotely over Zoom, sitting at your computer desk, and occasionally going to the grocery store, the lack of variety makes the days blend together. Sameness and stress. It’s hard to conjure the details. I constantly fear I’ll repeat a story I’ve already told to a friend—or won’t recall an important detail I’ve been trusted with—betray someone I care about by asking them to tell me a story, as if for the first time.
Although I’m a pseudo-scientist, I imagine pandemic-related stressors in conjunction with societal disruptions has led to a type of traumatic response that quite a few of us are still working through (and will be working through for awhile). A million people have died of COVID-19 as of this week (as far as ‘official’ documented deaths go). That toll is our collective trauma, and we are still holding that vigil in our bodies. The past few years have completely collapsed together for me, chronologically speaking. There are moments that I could not tell you if they were from January 2022, October 2021, October 2020, April 2020….
In an effort to try to build back up my cognitive abilities, I’ve been trying to journal more often, to catalog more often, to track the days a little bit better. One reason is because I will eventually have to do my comprehensive examinations (“comps”) as a PhD student—as well as work on a dissertation—and I’m trying to make a better practice of recording everything I have written and read and thought and dreamed. As someone who is in seventeenth grade, it’s embarrassing how much I’ve already forgotten about my MFA coursework from a few years back. Undergraduate and anything before that is already a completely blank slate. I don’t remember anything about the work and assignments I did as a teenager. Although as the adult who became the teacher, I really wish I had an immaculate recall of all those days spent in the presence of other teachers. What lessons could the adolescent memories teach me now?
I am trying to keep immaculate records to prevent my present self from becoming too elusive in the future.
I’ve thought about writing one of those “should I get an MFA” posts, although the internet already feels saturated with those takes, and I’m not sure mine is needed. There are certainly less public discourse of the “should I get a creative writing PhD” variety out there, but I’m uncertain I can contribute to that discourse either, especially after only one year. It should also be noted that creative writing PhD programs aren’t really a thing, insofar that the MFA is still the terminal degree. I imagine each English PhD program with a creative writing concentration operates slightly (or very) differently. Mine is heavy on teaching criticism and scholarly skills. In fact, I don’t workshop at all, and I did not take any creative writing classes this year. I’m essentially completing a literature PhD, although I will be able to present a creative dissertation as opposed to a critical one.
I do know many people are curious about what a PhD entails, especially one with a creative element. This post doesn’t feel like the right one to get into intracies, but what I can share is that I will complete two years of coursework by next spring, meaning I take a certain number of course credits as a graduate student. On top of that, I taught two courses for the first time this year (a short story literature course and a world literature course), which meant I did a ton of reading for my own pedagogy on top of what I was reading for my coursework.
What I wanted to share, both for myself and for people curious what a first-year English PhD student actually does, is a list of (almost) every author I read during the 2021-2022 school year. It doesn’t paint the full picture of coursework, but at least you can see what one individual read in a year. For brevity’s sake, I won’t list the title of every individual piece of literature I read (especially for my theory class), but feel free to holler if you’re curious about the specificities connected to each author.
🌸 🌸 🌸
The floral world is waking, and I’m trying to bestir my brain beside it. I’m re-learning my body in a different climate in the aftermath of winter, and I’m re-learning how to practice retention after two years of pandemic precautions (which, I should note, are still on-going, but at least I feel more liberated by the weather to go on walks). I’m meeting new trees. I’m trying to make new memories for all the ones I have forgotten. I moved my entire life across the country in the past year, and maybe I will share that story too, one day. I am in the middle of something new, and I’m grateful I can create an inventory of days, that I still feel moved to write and share these records with you.
PS: My first-year PhD reading list follows the image below. It’s not comprehensive, but it does include the major readings. I have an on-going independent study with a bunch of other readings, but like Gandalf, I must keep some secrets. Apologies in advance for any typos or name misspellings. Most of this is by memory (heh). It’s broken up by descriptors of the classes each reading was connected to.
Theory and Criticism
Sir Philip Sidney
T. S. Eliot
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing
John Langshaw Austin
Paul de Man
Best and Marcus
Gilbert and Gubar
Eve K. Sedgwick
Horkheimer and Adorno
David Theo Goldberg
Seminar on Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf — The Years, Three Guineas, Between the Acts
Foucault — “The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom,” “On the Genealogy of Ethics: An Overview of Works in Progress,” “What is Enlightenment?”, “Truth and Power,” “The Subject and Power,” , “Self Writing,” “Technologies of the Self,” “The Hermeneutic of the Subject”
Meira Liekerman — Melanie Klein: Her Work in Context
Judith Butler — Giving an Account of Oneself, The Force of Non-Violence
Jane Gallop — Reading Lacan
Eve K. Sedgwick — “The Weather in Proust,” “Melanie Klein and the Difference Affect Makes.”
Freud — “Why War?”, Moses and Monotheism
Professional Development / Graduate Studies
Gregory M. Colon Semenza — Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities
bell hooks — Teaching to Transgress
Matthew Salesses — Craft in the Real World
Kelly Anne Brown, “Beyond the Numbers: Plotting the Field of Humanities PhDs at
Katina L. Rogers, “Introduction,” Putting the Humanities PhD to Work: Thriving in and Beyond the Classroom
Gender and Women’s Studies
Judith Butler — Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity
Foucault — History of Sexuality Part 1
Saidiya Hartman — Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals
P. Carl — Becoming a Man: The Story of a Transition
Masha Gessen — Ester and Ruzya: How My Grandmothers Survived Hitler's War and Stalin's Peace
Sarah Kofman — Rue Ordener, Rue Labat
Anna Deavere Smith — Talk to Me, Notes from the Field
Heidi Hartmann — “The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union”
Michele Barrett — “Capitalism and Women’s Liberation,”
Linda Nicholson — “Feminism and Marx: Integrating Kinship with the Economic”
Silvia Federici — “Marxism, Feminism, and the Commons”
Gayle Rubin — “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the Political Economy of Sex”
The Short Story + World Literature
Note: These are combined readings from two separate undergraduate courses I taught. This is not an exhaustive list, but it is a list of writers I either encountered for the first time or had to do a substantial re-read of (often entire books) to teach—thus it feels worth noting of the ones I spent a good deal of time with in order to create/prep for these courses.
Anna Ahkmatova, C. P. Cavafy, James Joyce, Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Franz Kafka, Borges, Lao She, Aime Cesaire, Octavio Paz, Xavier Villaurrutia, Zhang Ailing, Camus, Achebe, Doris Lessing, Naguib Mahfouz, Derek Walcott, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Leslie Marmon Silko, Bessie Head, Jamaica Kincaid, Salman Rushdie, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Bandi, Ken Liu, Layli Long Soldier, Amal El-Mohtar, Ghayath Almadhoun, Edward Said, Abdellah Taia, Kim Yi-deum, Andrew Lang, Charles Perrault, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Hans Christian Andersen, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John William Polidori, Ambrose Bierce, George Saunders, Guy de Maupassant, Tolstoy, Jean Toomer, Zora Neale Hurston, Leonora Carrington, Leigh Brackett, Donald Barthleme, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ed Park, Jhumpa Lahiri, Nino Cipri, Octavia E. Butler, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Louise Erdrich, Ebony Flowers, Walter K. Scott, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, Karen Russell, Kristen Roupenian, James Baldwin, Alice Sola Kim