Retro Post: The Statement of Purpose (SOP), Part One

This post was originally published at The Grad Cafe on March 21, 2011. In it, I outline the first few iterations of the Statement of Purpose I wrote for my application to grad school, coupled with my own comments in hindsight, and the comments some very kind professors and more advanced graduate students made to help me improve it during the process of its writing.

By posting it here, I hope to share with those who are reading this blog because they are considering applying to graduate school the process and level of consideration and self-reflection that goes into crafting this kind of document. When “they” tell you this is the single most important part of your application — especially you humanities grad school hopefuls — believe them. It should absolutely go through multiple drafts and have many sets of eyes on it and be the hardest thing you’ve written to date.

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OK, here it is, FINALLY…the Statement of Purpose post. The one in which I go through and share all of my versions of this thing so you can see the good, the bad and the ugly. We’ll begin with the one I sent last year, with the school details removed, and I will render my comments in bold print. I am including both my own insights and reflections on my statements, and also professors’ and advanced graduate students’ comments on them when I have them available. I’m not including everything, because there’s not enough room or time for EVERYthing. But this should give you an idea of the thinking and reflection that went into this document.

Version 1.0 :

As a teacher and master – level student of medieval literature, I have developed a strong research agenda and a number of goals for myself that at this juncture can only be realized through continued training and research at the doctoral level. The English program at X University is my first choice because my research into the matter has persuaded me that this department offers the excellence, flexibility, and hands-on approach I need and crave in my work. (I read a book on how to write admissions essays, can’t you tell? Look at that nice, pat introduction format! Ewww…)

At this point in my career, my primary interests in terms of coursework lie in language acquisition, working with manuscripts and paleography, and further strengthening of my knowledge of historic and chronicle texts from the 11th through the 15th centuries. I have done substantial work in the poetic tradition in the medieval era, and will continue to study and build on that knowledge, but I have had little formal training in the historical texts. I feel that a good medievalist should absolutely acquire familiarity with and proficiency in that area. I have not yet had the opportunity to do manuscript studies formally, and this is an area in which I am keen to immerse myself. Although I am fluent in French (modern and medieval), am proficient in Middle English, and have a working knowledge of Spanish and Latin, I have only done preliminary work in Old English, and for a medievalist interested in spending the next thirty or forty years working in the British and Anglo-Norman tradition, I would be utterly derelict in not also seeking to master Old Irish and Middle Welsh, at least. X University has a strong history of excellence in each of these subjects, particularly under the auspices of Professors Y and Z, two scholars with whom I am eager to work. Furthermore, X University’s collection of manuscript facsimiles, although not large, is a strong selection from a well-varied tradition, including Old Irish, and would therefore permit me to develop my skills in paleography. I have been in contact with Professor Z, who assures me that he incorporates such study into his advanced language seminars. (When I asked for feedback on my application materials, this paragraph was actually singled out as being impressive by the universities that rejected me.)

My research agenda aligns itself with current interests in the field of medieval studies. As primary concerns, I focus on the overarching concepts of memory and identity (personal and national) in medieval literature. My secondary lines of investigation lie in the realms of the supernatural (alchemy, magic, monsters, and the like), provenance and fate, and courtliness and chivalry. I have a strongly interdisciplinary approach to these subjects, grounded in literature, Art History, and History, as well as hagiography, philosophy and psychology. The option of incorporating a minor in medieval studies into my PhD work in English is therefore of great interest to me. Additionally, the availability of various internal and external resources for medieval studies, such as (medieval study group 1) and (medieval study group 2), would augment my course of study and provide a network of like-minded scholars with whom to corroborate, even if the actual number of medieval – oriented students in the department itself is small. (Again, this is fine.)

Most of my work to date (in the form of coursework undertaken, courses taught, conference papers given and articles written) has been in the fields of Renaissance and Romantic literature, medievalism, Old Norse Icelandic literature, Middle English and Anglo-Norman literature, and in particular in the field of Arthuriana. I intend fully to continue my work in this field, both because it is my “first love” and also because it is still an important field with a lot of research yet to be done, particularly in terms of textual analogs, transmission, and variations in Arthurian stories from England and France. Although I am aware (to my great personal sorrow) that Professor W is retiring and will not be taking on any more graduate students, still his Emeritus status at X University renders him available for independent consultation and, perhaps, as a reader for future article drafts, if he were of a mind so to occupy himself. At the very least, his tradition of excellence in Arthurian studies has deeply influenced my own thinking on the subject, particularly as regards the textual transmission of the Matter of Britain, and it would be an honor to have the chance to speak with him in any small way during my time there. (Look! Look! I can name-drop! sheeeeesh.)

Although I have not yet fully developed a dissertation topic, I do know that I am most committed to writing about Celtic and Anglo-Norman traditions in British literature, in some combination of the subjects outlined above in my research agenda. I am, however, more than willing to adapt my ideas to meet the realities of the department in terms of available advisors and dissertation committee members in my subject field. (Have a specific area and topic in mind, even if you change it later. This is far too broad and general in scope.)

I have taught French (AP language and literature, as well as general courses), advanced literature, and AP Art History for the past ten years. I have also been a TA for French courses at the college level. In my current position at This School, a private boarding school, I have developed, written and implemented all of my courses from scratch. As such, I have had extensive experience in curriculum design, teaching writing skills and critical analysis of literature. As a prospective doctoral student and future professor, I am as interested in being in the classroom as I am in conducting my research. For me, teaching is a seamless weaving together of all three elements – academic work, instruction, and research – and I am most happy, productive, and effective when I am able to apply my research findings and what I have learned from working with my professors in my courses. I believe that my teaching is not the typical high school teaching (certainly, my students tell me so!) and that it approaches the level of first and second year undergraduate coursework in terms of level of scholarship and difficulty. The teaching assistantship opportunity available at X University is therefore of great interest and importance to me.(Leave out the self-congratulatory back-patting and stick to the facts of the work you have done.)

Furthermore, as the head of the grant writing committee for (Community Theatre Company) organization, I have written successful grants for our theatrical productions, obtaining almost five thousand dollars from the State Commission for the Arts and ten thousand dollars in local government challenge grants last year alone. I am eager to apply this skill to grant writing for academic purposes, in particular with regards to travel and research grants related to my dissertation work. This will in turn enable me to use the abilities and skills in language and paleography I intend to acquire at X University in a hands-on fashion that will, hopefully, contribute in some way to the overall research in my field. (Whatever, they didn’t need this information and it is clearly a thinly-veiled attempt to impress and to gain entrance because I could be a money-getter. Maybe this would be a great addition to a sciences SOP, but it could sooo have been left out of my statement for all the good it did me.)

Having been in contact with a number of current X Universityl doctoral candidates in medieval literature, I have been impressed not only with their willingness to answer my (sometimes numerous!) questions, but also with the degree of respect and enthusiasm they accord the program. All praise the expertise and approachability of the professors, the small size and advanced scholarship of the courses, and the encouragement they have received in terms of branching out to complete further coursework in interdisciplinary medieval subjects in order to procure a solid foundation in the whole period. Their descriptions of coursework and of their dissertation experiences lead me to believe that X University fosters independence in scholarship within its doctoral students and allows them a great deal of freedom, without relinquishing mentorship. This is exactly the sort of system I prefer and that I feel is best suited to my own temperament – collaborative and flexible, but maintaining personal responsibility and an independent research agenda that supports, but is not subsumed by, those of my professors and department.(OK, telling them you’ve contacted current students is fine, but don’t then go about using the students’ praise as part of your SOP.)

Finally, I feel it is important that the admissions committee know that I am fully aware that my field is one in which obtaining tenure-track positions is highly competitive, and that a large number of PhD candidates in medieval literature do not obtain such employment for many years. The Medieval Academy of America’s PhD registration project makes the situation clear: in 1996, the last set of data entered, of the 64 PhDs awarded in English, only 20 gained tenure-track positions, and 14 held untenured positions; the others worked as adjuncts or at community colleges, or sought positions outside of academia. I am entirely up to the task of seeking out a professorship and am eager to work at the university level. This is not, however, a crucial element of my completion of the PhD. What is most important to me is that I develop my skills as a researcher, writer, and teacher, that I become more expert in the subject matter, and that I cultivate my scholarship in the form of articles, book chapters, book reviews, books, and conference papers. A PhD in medieval literature will afford me the credentials required for a life of scholarship, which is my primary interest. Obviously, I believe that a PhD from X University will render me a very competitive candidate, but I am not unrealistic about the realities of the field. Although a professorship is the ideal, if my scholarship continues at the high school level, manifests itself in community college or adjunct positions, or results in a tenure-track position, I will still consider my work a success. (Do you, or do you not, want to be a college professor? If you don’t, lie. If you do, don’t tell them it’s OK if you don’t become one. It’s fine to be realistic but they don’t need you to tell them the statistics. They are living the statistics)

Because the X University doctoral program in English so closely aligns with my research interests, academic needs, and “wish list” of resources and opportunities, I believe that this is the ideal placement for me. I have a lot to offer in terms of energy, enthusiasm, abilities and skills, and X University has much to offer me in the way of channeling those energies, harnessing that enthusiasm, and building upon and refining those skills in a challenging and supportive program. (Oooh, lookie! A nice little formatted, summary conclusion. I read textbooks on admissions essay writing, see?)

That’s the one I sent, changing the names and available study programs in my field, to all five of my schools last year. Yes, it is long, but none of them had a word count limit, and none of them told me my statement was too long. The greatest flaws listed were a.) no specifics about my training/coursework b.) no specifics about my teaching, c.) no emphasis on my publications and d.) too much material not immediately relevant to my admissions candidacy.

SO, this year I decided to do it differently. Here’s my first draft…..

Not All Who Wander Are Lost:

Sometimes They’re Just Temporarily Delayed

In a battered, brown spiral notebook with only a handful of pages remaining between the covers, my nascent love affair with the Arthurian tradition is documented in pictures I drew and labeled as an eight-year old: “Arthur”, “Gwinivere” (sp), “Lancilot” (sp), “Gawain”, “Camelot”. This was my first “book”, “published” in 1982. In 2010, I completed my master’s degree in English, with a focus on medieval literature. Although my work is substantially more academic in nature now than it was in my childhood, my passion for the legends of King Arthur has never waned; in fact, it has grown to encompass medieval literature generally, with an emphasis on aspects related to the tales of Arthur and his knights – chivalry, courtliness, violence, the supernatural and magical, theories of identity/Other, grail and quest narratives, the medieval romance and alliterative traditions, and the blurring of boundaries between history and fiction. These are subjects and themes I hope to research and write about at the doctoral level. (Awww, isn’t that cute? NEXT. Don’t start with an anecdote from your childhood unless it is absolutely directly relevant to your admissions candidacy. Like, you had your arm chopped off when you were ten and you have now perfected the ability to re-attach severed body parts in a state-of-the-art technology you have developed. I exaggerate, but not by much – personalizing doesn’t mean getting personal, and adcomms don’t want to read this drivel.)

If a week has gone by in my life during which I have not read a text that originated in the Middle Ages, looked at a medieval image, or researched some aspect of medieval culture or history for a class or for my personal edification, I cannot recall that week – nor would I want to. Although I am teased by family and acquaintance alike for my unusual obsession with All Things Medieval, I have never found another subject that engages me more. I have taken many detours along the way towards a PhD, but those detours ultimately have prepared me for advanced research and scholarship. (Again, personalizing doesn’t mean getting sentimentally personal. Let it go. Focus on why you are an awesome candidate – you can tell these stories at the first mixer.)

I spent my undergraduate years trying to become my family’s idea of who I should be, earning a degree in French and secondary teaching certification – the “practical” choice – rather than a double major in French and English with a minor in medieval studies – my initial reason for transferring to B from A. I was so overwhelmed with meeting the new general education requirements that, even taking extra courses, there wasn’t room in my schedule for my original goals. At my parents’ urging and with the clock ticking, I cut my losses, declaring only the French major and subsequently obtaining a position teaching high school French. I love teaching, as evidenced in the 4.0 GPA I earned during my student teaching semester, my outstanding scores on the Praxis exams, and that I was chosen as one of three TAs in the French department my senior year. But I hated the monotony of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation exercises. Two years into teaching high school French, I knew I had made a huge mistake – one I would regret if I didn’t take steps to at least try to rectify it.(Here I was trying to explain why I took “the long route” to going for the PhD, but again, I’m over-sharing.)

It never occurred to me that I could completely change the path I had set out on; I was married and had bills to pay, and had no example in my life of someone who thought of work as more than “just a job”. But I did think I could at least teach college-level French classes, so I applied to C University’s graduate program in French. Although I had a 2.66 GPA as an undergraduate (I took overloads each term and worked at a (famous tourist town) tavern where the scheduling policy was for the headwaiter to demand our course schedules, then schedule us for any shift during which we were not in class, leading to my not having the time to complete coursework and research thoroughly), my letters of recommendation, together with my writing sample, convinced the admissions committee that I could succeed. I enrolled in 2000 with the goal of focusing on interdisciplinary medieval and Renaissance studies – a sort of “do-over” of my original dream. Although I was working full-time, I had learned hands-on as an undergraduate how to maximize the time I did have available for study and writing, and my grades were strong. Unfortunately, my marriage was not. The strain of trying to afford housing in Big City as a single woman, coupled with the stress of divorce proceedings, forced me to leave the city and by consequence the program at the end of the year, one class and a thesis shy of that degree. It broke my heart. But one thing it did prove to me was that if I were given the chance, I could do advanced work. I left with a 3.56 GPA- much higher than my undergraduate one had been, earned under much more difficult circumstances. (Here I was trying to explain why I took “the long route” to going for the PhD, but again, I’m over-sharing. REALLY oversharing.)

After two years of teaching French, Spanish and English in Another Location, I obtained a position with a newly-founded private school where I wrote the curriculum for my classes, developing the program from its inception. It was this experience that showed me that my own research interests, my curriculum, and my teaching could and should be seamlessly interwoven into a program; this was when everything finally “clicked” for me as an academic. Originally hired to teach French, there were not enough language students to justify this as a full-time position, so I was offered the chance to teach other subjects. I chose Art History and English, influenced by the interdisciplinary work I did at American. These classes were popular with the students, and I absolutely loved teaching them. When one of the full-time English teachers left, I was offered that position. At that point, I was brave enough to do what I should have done much sooner – I returned to graduate school for English. With a new marriage and child, as well as my job and student loan debt, we could not relocate, so I applied to the closest program, X University. I had to take two courses to prove I could handle graduate-level work because my undergraduate GPA was so low; my higher and more recent graduate-level GPA was not factored into the decision. I took the classes, earned As, and enrolled in the program. Now six months past the five-year deadline for credit transfer, I was required to eschew my AU credits entirely and earn the full 30 required at Longwood. I honestly didn’t care – I had to do this. I was obsessed with the work, with the research and writing. (An early reader for this draft said this was the only paragraph about my past worth salvaging, if I took out all the family stuff. I agree with him.)

At X University, I had the very good fortune to meet and work with two professors who have forever altered my views. Dr. M, who taught my English teaching methods course, was the first person in my life to openly question why I had not embarked on a career towards being a college professor from the beginning; his encouragement led me to my first conference presentation and subsequent academic publication. It was a passionate and highly-skilled medievalist, Dr. N, whose courses were an absolute epiphany for me – this is what I was born to do, should always have been doing, and intend always to be doing. The work I did in her classes brought me back full-circle to a path I never really left in the first place. Whereas before I loved medieval studies, now I engaged it, making demands on myself I never imagined possible; handling the news of my father’s diagnosis of cancer as I immersed myself in Chaucer, pushing through the birth of my second daughter at the same time as I completed paper revisions for the Women in Medieval Literature course, negotiating traveling the hour to and from campus and our nursing schedule to take Violence in Medieval Texts, and finally, juggling a full-time teaching job (six classes a term, five, nine-week terms a year), two children, and the completion of my graduate thesis. I graduated with no incompletes, a 4.0 GPA, and presented my thesis findings at the International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo on the day of my graduation…one week after my father’s untimely death, and in his honor. (Trying to “pay it forward” – but they don’t want to see your SOP clogged with praise for former professors. Also, a thinly veiled attempt at tugging adcomm heartstrings….don’t do that.)

My thesis deals with the concept of Arthur as a fictional representation of British identity: I argue that, as the character of Arthur changes and shifts with each successive text, so do the texts therefore demonstrate how the concept of British national identity has shifted and developed. This argument is grounded in myth theory and ideas of the collective unconscious and authorial intent. Such socio-historical textual analysis appeals to me greatly as a scholar, and I hope in particular to develop my skills in this area at the graduate level.

Because my primary focus has been in Arthuriana, my academic interests span literary periods from medieval through modern, and geographic regions from Europe to America. I have also expanded my research interests to hagiography and women’s studies. My interest in women’s studies led to my currently ongoing work with the Female Biography Project, for which I am researching a number of medieval and Renaissance figures. My language training enabled me to learn Latin, which I am using in conjunction with my knowledge of French and Middle English to transliterate and translate the MS Harley 2253, a project born of my desire to see if I can do it, to see what will result of these efforts in terms of rendering that manuscript more available to non-specialists, and to engage actively in translation theory and practice. In a wonderful turn of Fate, the work I have done in French and in Art History is absolutely correlative to my interests in Anglo-Norman and Middle English literature and manuscript culture. This is why, in the end, I think I have not been lost, and my time away from academia has not been in vain; rather, I was acquiring interdisciplinary skills and knowledge directly relatable and usable in a doctoral program; skills I did not have a decade ago.

The courses I develop and teach are deeply informed by my research interests; recent offerings include Bad Boys in British Lit, which focuses on outlaws and the differences and similarities between outlaw narratives and Arthurian texts, and the Other in Shakespeare, focusing on identity and postcolonial theories, as well as Harry Potter and the Art of the Allusion, which is an introductory research methods course designed to help my students understand how authors use allusions to deepen their narratives. I am also interested in working on developing a current project on the function of feasts in literature, and expanding ideas I have been working through concerning monstrous versus miraculous female identities in hagiographic and secular texts. These are the types of projects I intend to focus on as a doctoral student and as a university professor.(This, and the paragraph above it, are really the only good aspects of this document.)

A medievalist from the age of eight, I have come to realize how all-encompassing my passion truly is, and that I am not only able to complete advanced coursework, but that I crave the challenges of pushing the limits in terms of what I can do as a scholar. I have always been excited by the medieval world; now I am ready to extend my knowledge and abilities through training at the doctoral level. (Blah blah blah, yes, you know how to write a conclusion.)

OK, so clearly, I had some emotional angst following the first go-around that needed to be handled. So, now that we have THAT out of our system, we can go about the business of constructing an ACTUAL SOP, as opposed to our emotional outburst…. Next draft (#3):

Recent scholarship in medieval studies seems to follow three primary trajectories: attempts to “prove” the “truth” of the period by sifting through new material and material already covered and re-covered by scholars, or New Historicism; “re-vision” of the era through the application of modern principles such as gender/queer theory, Marxist theory, and deconstructionism; and comparison work between “real” medieval texts and modern versions thereof, including film studies and visual/artistic media. But the scholars I most admire, and the type of medievalist I wish to become, are the ones who sit with and engage each text on its own terms. Rather than adhering to any single theoretical movement or research trend, I prefer to work in interdisciplinary fashion, utilizing a variety of approaches to look at a text or group of texts for what is there, and for what is not there[1], seeking to reconstruct an understanding of the past based on the work of those who recorded it. (Look! I do, too, know what is going on in my field! I know the critical trends. I’m a Real Scholar! Look at me!)

As a graduate student in medieval literature, I focused much of my time on questions of gender, delivering papers challenging the established Eve/Mary construction often employed in discussion of women in medieval texts with a view that includes the central-to-the-tale, yet marginalized-by-society mystic or monstrous female in all of her variations at the Medieval Conference at UVA-Wise and the Vagantes conference. This has since become a popular topic at other conferences (most recently, two panels on the monstrous female are scheduled by the Society for Feminist Scholarship at Kalamazoo 2011), and the publication of Sarah Miller’s monograph on the subject[2] among others assures it will continue to be revisited as important in understanding the medieval world view. I am currently working on this subject as it relates to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, and this is one of four ongoing projects I hope to continue at the doctoral level and beyond. Because of the number of faculty members working in Early Modern English literature, including Dr. X and Dr. Y in particular as regards Spenserian studies, and Dr.Z’s work in gender studies, I feel this project would be ably supported at University X. (Watch me name-drop. Just watch me. There’s not a candidate out there who knows more about your department than I do. And I’m trendy with my scholarship! Check out my knowledge of gender studies in medieval lit!)

A second focus I wish to engage more specifically and in greater depth is the issue of the Marian cult, and the implicit presence of the divine feminine in the medieval view of God. I am interested in exploring the margins of medieval Christianity, where it intersects and overlaps with older, pagan traditions, and how the feminine is both exalted and subverted within the Christian tradition; Mary, for example, being a goddess figure in all but name; hagiographic and mystical texts focusing on issues of gender: Julian of Norwich’s idea of Jesus the Mother is a starting point for me in this. My ideas in this area could benefit from the work of Dr. W in medieval gender studies, while her focus in French material in particular could aid with other of my projects as outlined below.

A third focus of my work, comprising my thesis, has been the role of writers as nation-builders, exploiting specific fictional characters and character traits intentionally to bring people(s) once on the margins to the center of a nation as its kith and kin. This is the most theoretically-driven thinking and writing I have done, focusing on myth theory and especially on Jungian ideas of the collective unconscious and of alchemy. My research on Arthur as such a figure has yielded compelling results, supporting the idea that medieval writers approached the matter in a psychological fashion through textual analysis and comparison between the Anglo-Norman and Middle English versions of the Matter of Britain. I intend to expand this to include similar work in the Matter of France, making use of my training in French as well as my Latin and Old English/Middle English skills. Such research could prove a stepping-stone to larger questions of international affairs and diplomacy, as modern cultural mores are based within these early constructions of national identities; Benedict Anderson has demonstrated aptly the fictional nature of “national identity”, but he begins with early modern Europe. If I can show through my study of medieval figures specifically how earlier writers crafted “national identity” as a fictional construction and highlight the underlying human qualities of such figures and texts, then perhaps my work can help suggest a more open, human dialogue between nations. Faculty members focusing on more contemporary literary and cultural traditions and identity theories, such as Dr. A, Dr. B, and Dr. C, could help me align my work more closely with the current dialogue in transatlantic and global ideologies.

My fascination with identity naturally leads me to questions of “Us versus Them” and therefore to questions of marginalized groups and the figure of the Other. The work of scholars such as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Valerie Flint in monster culture, Thomas Ohlgren, Stephen Knight, and John Scattergood in outlaw narratives and Michelle Sweeney and Richard Kiekhefer on magic and the supernatural, has informed and guided my thinking on these topics. I have worked specifically with outlaw narratives in Middle English, especially comparison of Robin Hood narratives to Arthurian[3], issues of victim agency in Old Norse Icelandic, Welsh and Celtic and Middle English texts, and the monster as Other in Arthurian texts, specifically as regards the monster of Mont-St. Michel and his various linguistic shifts and metamorphoses from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin text through the Anglo-Norman one of Wace and, finally, to Layamon’s Old English text. I thoroughly enjoyed tracing the cultural shifts of the monster from one language tradition to the next, and I would love to continue and improve upon this type of work at the doctoral level; Dr. J and Dr. K’s linguistic knowledge would be of enormous benefit for my training. Dr. L’s work on ethnicity, race and witchcraft could positively impact my work with concepts of the Other.

Ultimately, while my interests as a scholar are diverse, the one clear pattern of thought underlying all of my research and academic interests is the idea of exploring and probing the margins of what is known. To seek to understand aspects of the medieval world not typically defined, explored, or engaged, to try to work from the outside in through a variety of academic approaches, engaging texts and the writers who authored them on their terms, rather than on my own, are my goals as a scholar and teacher. ( I read that graduate admissions essay again…)

[1] I credit this comment to Dr. Elaine Treharne, whose work presents an excellent example of this type of scholarship, and whose presentation on this matter at the International Medieval Congress, 2010 resonated deeply with my own feelings concerning how to approach and engage a medieval text.

[2] Sarah Alison Miller, Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body, Routledge, 2010.

[3] What I call the “Matter of England” in comparison to the “Matter of Britain”; a concept I would like to attempt to expand and disseminate.

Footnotes:? REALLY? It’s an SOP, not a paper… My readers at this point wanted to see more specifics. What am I going to DO as a doctoral student? What do I want to write my dissertation on?

Draft FOUR: (with professor’s commentary from one of my readers)

As a Master’s-level student, I focused much of my time on questions of gender, delivering papers at the Medieval Conference at UVA-Wise and the Vagantes conference challenging the established Eve/Mary construction often employed in analysis of women in medieval texts with a view that includes the central-to-the-tale, yet marginalized-by-society mystic or monstrous female. This has since become a popular topic at other conferences (most recently, two panels on the monstrous female are scheduled by the Society for Feminist Scholarship at Kalamazoo 2011), and the publication of Sarah Miller’s and Dana Oswald’s monographs on the subject among others assures it will continue to be revisited as important to our understanding of the medieval world view. I am currently working on this subject as it relates to Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, one of four ongoing projects I hope to continue at the doctoral level and beyond. (Starts too abruptly. Needs intro. “I am writing to apply for the X program in Y’s department of Z.” Seems a bit cute for a formal letter. I’d suggest a more direct description, eg. “mystic or monstrous female characters that are marginginalized by society but remain central to the narrative,” or something.)

A second focus I wish to engage in greater depth is the issue of the Marian cult, and the implicit presence of the divine feminine in the medieval view of God. I am interested in exploring the margins of medieval Christianity, where it intersects and overlaps with older, pagan traditions, and how the feminine is both exalted and subverted within the Christian tradition; Mary, for example, being a goddess figure in all but name; hagiographic and mystical texts focusing on issues of gender: Julian of Norwich’s idea of Jesus the Mother is a starting point for me in this.
(“Pagan” is a Christian term mean as criticism of non-Judeo-Christian-Islamic groups. I always recommend polytheistic instead. I know that modern neo-pagans like the term, but still….No offense, but this all sounds a bit earth-goddess-hippie-ish, rather than academic.)

A third focus in my work, comprising my thesis, has been the role of medieval writers as nation-builders exploiting specific fictional characters and character traits intentionally to bring people(s) once on the margins to the center of a nation as its kith and kin. (Good.) This is the most theoretically-driven thinking and writing I have done, focusing on myth theory and especially on Jungian ideas of the collective unconscious and of alchemy to probe the possible psychological undertones of such authorial choices. My research on King Arthur supports the idea that medieval writers approached this figure in a psychological fashion through textual comparisons of Latin, Anglo-Norman and Middle English versions of the Matter of Britain. I intend to expand this to include similar work in the Matter of France, making use of my training in French as well as my Latin and Old English/Middle English skills. Modern cultural mores are based within these early constructions of national identities, and as Benedict Anderson has aptly demonstrated, “national identity” is a fictional construct; but Anderson asserts that this practice begins with early modern Europe. If I can show specifically how earlier writers crafted “national identity”, and highlight the underlying human qualities of such figures and texts, then perhaps my work can help broaden our understanding of some of the complexities inherent in international relations as a result of these long-held, artificial identity constructions.
(A few thoughts: I like the sound of this, but it is a bit risky, if you mean it the way it sounds to me. Do you mean that you hope your medieval studies work would be beneficial to modern international dialogues? If so, I think this is GOOD, but many readers will react strongly against this desire for contemporary relevance. Now, you might not want to work with someone who would, but this might really limit your choices. Also, by the way, aren’t ALL aspects of ID constructs?)

My fascination with identity naturally leads me to issues of alterity and the presence and purpose of marginalized groups and the figure of the Other in medieval texts. The work of scholars such as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Valerie Flint in monster culture, Thomas Ohlgren, Stephen Knight, and John Scattergood in outlaw narratives and Michelle Sweeney and Richard Kiekhefer on magic and the supernatural, has guided my thinking on these topics. I have worked specifically with outlaw narratives in Middle English, especially comparison of Robin Hood narratives to Arthurian , issues of victim agency in Old Norse Icelandic, Welsh and Celtic and Middle English texts, and the monster as Other in Arthurian texts, specifically as regards the giant of Mont-St. Michel and his various linguistic transformations from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Latin text through the Anglo-Norman one of Wace and, finally, to Layamon’s Old English text. This type of textual comparative work in particular is of great interest to me.

These four areas of study together comprise a foundation for what I envision as my doctoral dissertation: a comparative examination of the presence and function of feasts in select Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Norman, Celtic and Middle English texts produced in England from post-Conquest through the 15th century, broken down into thematic chapters: Holy Feasts (Middle English hagiographic texts) and Unholy Feasts (those featuring monstrous or demonic individuals), Fairy Feasts (Celtic/Romance texts), Historical feasts (Latin, Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman chronicles) and Courtly Feasts (romances). My argument is that feasts serve different functions dependent upon where they are held (indoor/outdoor and mortal/immortal planes), where they occur in the narrative (at the beginning, they catalyze the action; in the middle they serve as a pause in the action and an opportunity for regrouping or reconfiguring the figures involved, and at the end, they serve as the dénouement), and who is holding them. In particular, I am interested in the differences between feasts held by men, which are a display of wealth and power and generally are of a celebratory nature either for religious or political commemoration, and those held by women, which are a display of wealth and power, usually in order to seduce, and the fact that this seems to remain true regardless of whether the text is fictional or historical in nature.) This project as envisioned ties together my interests in gender issues, questions of nation and identity, and alterity through the literary, linguistic, and socio-cultural analysis of a wide cross-section of texts. I believe no such study has yet been produced, and that such work could contribute much to our ideas as to what a medieval text can and cannot tell us through its depiction of medieval life.
The project sounds great. I wonder about this level of specificity. When I was applying, I didn’t yet have an MA – went in right after my BA – so I didn’t haven anything like this level of specificity in my letter. I think it is likely to be, on the whole, appealing, though I wonder if some readers might like to see a bit more provisional language, since they will probably want to see themselves as having some role in shaping your project. The one thing that I would worry about, were I a potential advisor, is this sounds like a very broad range of materials to bring together in one thesis – could be as many as 5 primary source languages required (do you already read OE, ME, OF, Latin, and Celtic?), and all the attendant cultural issues for all of these periods. I would suggest, were I your advisor, to narrow the focus. For the letter, what I’d suggest instead is making the language more provisional. “I am considering,” and things like that. One more concern. If you are applying to someone who isn’t yet a monster person (I totally turned my advisor to the dark side, and she’s now working on monsters, too), the fairy feasts just might sound too ren-faire-y.

Ultimately, while my interests as a scholar are diverse, the one clear pattern of thought underlying all of my research and academic interests is the idea of epistemology. To seek to understand aspects of the medieval world not typically defined, explored, or engaged, to try to work from the outside in through a variety of academic approaches, engaging texts and the writers who authored them on their terms, rather than on my own, are my goals as a scholar and academic.

(I’m sorry, I just don’t get this paragraph. We are all, I suppose, interested in epistemology as scholars, overtly or otherwise. But what does this have to do, in particular, with your foci on outsiders and outside approaches (and I don’t really see an outsider’s take, represented here, though maybe I am missing something?). Further, what things that you are describing are “not typ. defined, explored,” etc? Of course, there is much left to be done and said with this sort of material, but gender history is huge, and even monsters are a growing, legit field – hell, we’ll have an Ashgate Research Companion on Monsters and the Monstrous in about a year. So I think that you might be better shifting from the “filling a gaping lacuna in scholarship” approach (which is a pretty common one) to an “investigating a vital aspect,” or some such other approach.

And, another critique from a second reader:

You’ve certainly taken the right approach, constructing a narrative of your intellectual trajectory and indicating where you see yourself going in the future. I would merely suggest three modifications that would show off your positive qualities to best advantage. First, I think it is crucial to add a sentence or two to the start that would give your readers some critical contextual information about you and your life, and some directions about where your essay is going. At the moment it feels like you are starting in medias res, and it takes a couple of paragraphs to realize why you started where you did. Part of the reason for that confusion is your opening phrase “As a Master’s level student.” A reader’s natural response (or at least this reader’s natural response) is to wonder “What happened to undergrad?” Now here’s the thing: I know that the X University admissions director torpedoed your application last year based on your undergrad performance– which was completely unfair, not to mention stupid– and so you may be reticent to mention your undergraduate years, especially since they don’t relate to your current intellectual formation. But you really have to do so, because their absence merely calls attention to them. So what to do about this dilemma? I think a couple of biographical lines would help, of how after some years away from school you felt a deep yearning to satisfy a curiosity about medieval literature and culture, one that brought you to the MA program at Y. And then another line about how graduate school did not sate your desires, but merely whetted your appetite, leading to your delivering papers at conferences, joining professional organizations, etc.– and then you can transition smoothly into what you have already written. Those sentences would not only answer the question about what happened to your undergrad years, but it would also tell them something interesting about you, and make you a more compelling person. And that would be my second critique of the application. I’ve been your Facebook friend for about a year and a half now, and in that time have learned that you are a very interesting person with a good sense of humor, a strong work ethic, and a number of talents– and none of those aspects of your persona are coming across in your application. Remember that your application is not just going to sell them a dissertation, it’s going to sell them a student and a complete person. So a bit more of you should go into this. Why haven’t you mentioned your vast teaching experience, for instance? The fact that you have proven your ability to teach, which is half the job of any college professor, is in fact a major selling point for you. Now you may be thinking “Okay, V, fine– but where am I supposed to put all of this? There’s no room!” In answer, I would say that you should really cut down some of the details of your research, which is my third critique. There are actually three good reasons for this. First, as your text betrays, you are a bit concerned about seeming like you are going in several directions at once. I would agree. I would pick the subject that matters most to you, which I assume would be the research you plan to do on feasting, and talk about that to the exclusion of other things. You should certainly mention that you have pursued research and delivered papers in other areas, but there’s no need to engage in a criticial discussion of them, as it merely takes away the reader’s attention from your current research. Second, remember that the majority of the people on the admissions committee will be non-medievalists, who will ultimately defer to their colleagues in the field, but who wouldn’t mind reading an application that makes sense to them. At the moment the application contains a lot of information that will go right over their heads, so breaking things down would be helpful. Thirdly– and I think this is very important– you sound like you know exactly what you plan to write in your dissertation, and that is definitely not something most advisors want to hear. They certainly want a student who is competent and knowledgeable, but they also want to have an intellectual relationship with someone whom they can shape to some degree. At the moment your application sounds so self-confident about the direction and structure of your dissertation that it might actually be an unattractive proposition to a potential advisor. I would suggest dropping the chapter headings and instead simply say what aspects of food and feasting you wish to explore. That would surely be enough to pique a potential advisor’s curiosity without detracting in any way from your application. In conclusion, I will say this. You have a lot going for you. You are certainly much more knowledgeable about your field and have much more academic experience than I did when I applied to doctoral programs. I would merely suggest that you tell a little bit more about you and life experiences, and scale back the research a bit, because doing so would provide some balance to your application and let the admissions committee see the varied aspects of your brilliance.

So now, the primary criticism is that my dissertation topic is TOO SPECIFIC and I’m not focusing ENOUGH on my training and preparation for doctoral work. Why didn’t I focus on my teaching and what I am bringing that no twenty-year old could bring to a program? Gah! What do they WANT from me? BOY, am I glad I have outside readers to help me through this. Drafts Five through the end in the next post…….this one got too long!

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About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
This entry was posted in Applying to Grad School and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Retro Post: The Statement of Purpose (SOP), Part One

  1. Jennyalogist says:

    Too long? Not at all–I’m hanging on every word!

    DO you remember me asking you about your path to the PhD? I had almost your exact background: less-than-stellar (ahem) undergrad, perfect MA GPA, but afraid no one will take me for PhD. I’ve already picked two schools I want to apply for next year, so I’m following your blog studiously. Please keep these posts coming!

    Also: I’d love to learn more about your pre-application scholarly activities. You mentioned following listservs, editing encyclopedia entries, etc. I would love to know more about how you got into this, where you got your leads, how often you published/edited, etc in preparation for the doctorate. Thanks! 🙂

    • Cerridwen says:

      Thanks! I’m glad you are finding this helpful. :o) in terms of the pre-application publishing, I had some professors in my MA program who really gave me a boost. One recommended that I submit an abstract to the Virginia Association for Teachers of English based on a project I did for his class, and that ultimately became my first article, published in the conference proceedings/ the organization’s journal. Another recommended that if I was really interested in pursuing the PhD I should familiarize myself with the current and ongoing discussions in the field, and pointed me to the listservs. The first CFPs I answered were all posted to those listservs. It was a very organic thing at first because I didn’t understand academia or how it worked — I just responded to the CFPs I thought were interesting, somehow had my abstracts accepted, and because of my reading background I was able to come through — but really, when I look back at my earliest publications beyond that first article (which I am still very proud of, even though it is “only a teaching piece” and not “scholarship”) they make me squirm a little, because I know so much more now. That doesn’t mean they aren’t solid efforts, or decent scholarship — just that I know I teetered dangerously close to making an eejit of myself a few times along the way (I’ll never forget the — ummmm — thoughtful rejection I received from my first article submission — but I learned a LOT from reading through it and trying again!) So, I would say the first step is to join any relevant listservs, and the best way to find out about those is to Google your field and listserv and see what happens, or to check with a professor you have worked with and get his or her recommendations. :o)

  2. Some really good information, Glad I discovered this.

  3. Pingback: (Retro post) The Statement of Purpose, Part Two | Melissa Ridley Elmes

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