I started my PhD three years ago with about as much knowledge of literary theory as I had of astrophysics–pretty galaxy, no real idea how it got that way. While I still can’t claim to be a theory expert, today for the first time in three years I actually felt that I could hold my own in a theory-specific class. Sure, it’s an introductory class–a very similar class to the one I took three years ago that made me feel like a dolphin on rollerskates–but it grapples with concepts that I once found utterly alien, and am now happy to say that I can at least talk about with some confidence.
If I’ve learned anything in the last three years, it’s that very little in the world of literary theory / critical theory can be explained “in a nutshell.” Well, it can, but it’s not going to help you much. (I do recommend Marx for Beginners, though–fun pictures and accessible language that isn’t completely dumbed down). When I first began reading Derrida and Deleuze and Foucault I desperately wanted someone to tell me what the hell was going on–to just explain everything in layman’s terms, or to summarize the author’s key aims. Now I see that, while those explanations got the ball rolling, what I really needed was a solid three years of reading, re-reading, and reflecting to really begin to understand. Again, I’m nowhere near the expert level, but it’s kind of thrilling to just be able to participate in a conversation about the significance of post-structuralism without feeling like everyone is speaking a foreign language.
My friends and I bemoan the state of academia on a regular basis and tend to contemplate quitting at least a few times a year, but little moments like this–when the light suddenly (or really, gradually) goes on and you see the world in a way you hadn’t quite seen it before–make it all worthwhile for me. It may be naive of me to think that an academic career will allow for these kinds of epiphanies on a regular basis, but I think if I can just get them every now and then I’ll be happy.