(on the bridge over Storrow Drive on the way to the Charles River bank)
I can finally give my final application tally as I've heard from all my schools:
6 rejections, 1 sort-of rejection (MAPH, anyone?)
4 acceptances, 2 fully funded offers.
I made the decision last night, after returning from my visit, to accept BU's offer. It is my best option and after meeting the people in the program I feel that they will be able to prepare me to succeed-- if I can manage to succeed anywhere.
I'll preface this post by saying that I am agoraphobic, so this visit was the perfectly terrifying combination of the inescapable situations that I avoid: airplanes, airports, structured schedules and generally unknown places. I have a very hard time in classrooms as well, which makes me surprised that more people don't question my choice of career, but that is another story. This anxiety manifested itself when I discovered zippers and found making things with zippers both satisfying and necessary for my trip. I made myself two kindle cases-- one that ended up too small and got re-purposed for my other electronics (zen & camera) and another that is way too big, but fits-- a dopp kit, and a makeup bag all in less than a day before my trip, instead of sleeping. I was really only limited by time and the fact that stores with zippers are ten miles away. I even lined them properly, which I only just figured out how to do with this tutorial. I suppose my spatial-imaging faculties are not that great.
The fact that I made a Cath Kitdston-esque toiletry ensemble didn't help much the morning I left as it had snowed, and it was still snowing, so severely that the weather service told everyone to stay home. If you live in Minnesota, however, chances are that somebody you know owns a huge truck that will glide through two feet of snow and at least make you less vulnerable if you slide off into a ditch or are hit by an oncoming car that is about to slide into a ditch. My dad has one that he affectionately calls "the stomper" and gets about 6 mpg-- this is what my mom and I took to drive the 100 miles to the airport in the whiteout. We drove about 25-45 mph the whole way and saw four cars and one semi-truck in various levels of snow related distress on the way, but we were not deterred.
Of course the airport was having difficulties and my plane was delayed, but the connecting flight in Chicago was delayed as well, so it all worked out in the end. I allowed myself to go wild with my klonopin (ie. actually take one of my precious pills), so I was fairly nonchalant the whole time. I'll admit that I took one each morning during of my visit days too, but I'm not all that proud of this, though it helped me be "on" as much as I had to be. I hope I'll be able to do it without them, which is why I try not to take any in the first place. /Pill talk.
I went to this lecture on Thursday after finally meeting my person of interest at BU. I had expected an aloof female professor, like the most competent female professor I've known (and who wrote me a letter of recommendation), and was surprised to find Prof. H to be very personable. I'm too embarrassed to relate the wonderful things she said about my work, but I will say that driving around Cambridge, on the way to Harvard to hear Gillian Beer talk about Alice in Wonderland (my trite but favorite childhood book) and time (one of my current academic interests) while being sort of courted for an English PhD program was nothing short of surreal.
My main thought was mostly "how did this become my life?" Probably most when I got introduced to the aforementioned literary celebrity (though I doubt she'd remember me because there were a lot of middle-aged Harvard sycophants sort of hovering around waiting to make sure she found the elevator to the gym) and when I spotted Elaine Scarry. Judge all you like, but I found it very cool.
(you'll have to forgive the bad photos in this post, because I very often had to apologize for being touristy to take them as nobody thought what was happening was a very big deal)
I've always been reluctant to connect Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to my life in academia because I like my memories the way they are, but this lecture was too good to be missed by someone who is interested in science and literature. And I couldn't have been taken to another lecture where I'd recognize more textual references. I couldn't help quoting them with Dame Beer under my breath in a way that would have annoyed me if I had been someone else in the hall. I really wanted to ask a question at the end, but was too intimidated. What I would have said was related to something along the lines of the first sentence of the book, which I have always had memorized (it used to be the whole book but now that space has sadly been filled by knowledge of celebrity lifestyles and diet tips):
Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, `and what is the use of a book,' thought Alice `without pictures or conversation?'
The lecture actually focused more on the part right after this, wherein the notable characteristic to Alice of the white Rabbit is that he has a timepiece and is checking it, and is thereby governed by issues of time, but I thought the very beginning was a great encapsulation of her point. Beer made a lot of very clever observations about the manipulation of growth, scope and time that I didn't at all resent like I thought I would because the playfulness of book was always uppermost. She emphasized, as far as I remember it, that Alice is unique in allowing us revisit childhood from adulthood, and, now this wasn't stated explicitly, but this ability has a lot to do with the potential depths of exploration inherent in the book's relative simplicity that makes it at once a children's book and a legitimate literary text full of contemporary cultural references. The book's "pictures and conversations" were a major feature of the lecture, and I think this sentence initially sets the standard for demarcation between the child and adult worlds in a conscious way that doesn't close either off to one another. The jump to the next paragraph where Alice's intellectual stance seems to devolve to considerations ("as well as she could") about making a daisy chain just signals me, as a reader, what is coming. And gosh, I had a better take on it while I wasn't wrapped up in a Winnie the Pooh blanket (as I currently am) but I couldn't form a very probing question, probably out of intimidation again, so I didn't say anything. Being a bit stoned on anti-anxiety meds probably didn't help either.
There was cheese and fruit afterward, which I've surmised in my short experience to be the usual fare for academic receptions on the east coast. The midwest, as I've seen, usually offers muffins or cookies. Perhaps we need to create more insular padding, especially in Minnesota.
Cambridge, despite my sister's insistence (she lived at MIT for a summer), is very different from the other side of the river/the BU campus.
Before I went, I'd google-street-imaged the campus and the turnpike had thoroughly depressed me. Now that I'd done everything right with my education, didn't I deserve pretty brick buildings with ivy and lots of trees? I'm not sure that I don't still feel like this a little, but BU's campus did make a better impression than I had expected. Though it isn't completely compatible with my personality (I love open spaces/rural areas), there is something a bit impressive about the audacity of this urban campus right across the river from the country's most famous university:
I am currently trying to reconcile myself about its lack of tree-age, but I like that it feels a little scrappy, like me.
The campus is, as I had read, a string of buildings along Commonwealth Avenue. I mostly saw the ones on the river side and not the farther side of the turnpike, so there could be a more campusy feel over there, but I doubt it. A pretty big change from this-- I don't think I ever appreciated the UMN campus as much as I did during this visit.
The urban environment will definitely be something that I'll have to get used to, but then again I'm always complaining about lack of resources, so living in Boston will put a stop to that. Although I heard from BU grad students that Harvard doesn't share. Humph.
So, besides the slight inferiority complex I'll have as a BU graduate student, I came away with the impression that it will be a very good program for me. The graduate students seemed happy and were willing enough to give "dirt" without much prompting, though all the "dirt" was was just the difficulties of completing workloads and adjusting to graduate school in general, so that may have all been staged if I'm feeling skeptical. The only clearly negative thing I heard was that the program doesn't offer much support before they expect you to start teaching in your second year, but it sounded as though you could get help if you really pushed for it. You get to design your own courses on almost anything. This is scary, but I love projects and the slightly wicked idea of ~molding little minds~.
The farthest section of apartments on the right is the English department building. Like every English department I've been to, it visibly suffers from a lack of maintenance inside. During the morning introductions, the faculty members there were almost incommensurately enthusiastic about their new bathroom remodel which, as I could tell, meant that their building now has a single nice toilet for several floors. They were upfront about funding issues, but the good thing is that they have limited their incoming cohorts to make sure that they can fully fund the students they accept. My stipend won't go far after a studio that will cost at least 1k a month, but it is so much better than nothing and I keep reminding myself of the total despair I was feeling about getting in at all, not to mention money. (Actually, my Dad just walked up to talk to me about 1. doing busy work around the farm while they're on vacation next week, he loves giving people tasks so he knows what they're doing-- intellectual work is invisible to him-- and 2. taking out loans during graduate school since he thinks I will definitely have a job with a PhD and 3. how I won't be able to afford to fly home for Christmas if I don't. Thanks Dad.)
Across the street from the English department is "The Castle," which I didn't get to go into, but I did get to go to the BU pub, which is just underneath it sort of.
The entrance to it is between the two lights next to the parked cars on the left.
I stayed in a B&B on Bay State Road, which looks like this:
I wish more of the area looked like this-- and that affordable apartments were available here, but they're mostly BU undergraduate residences or insanely expensive. This road is just behind the photos of the English graduate department, so it would be great to have an apartment so close, but I know I could never afford it.
Those red plates are on all BU buildings. Sort of like a nod to British blue plaques.
There are a lot of random abstract sculptures around...which I sort of think is an attempt to make it all seem more like a deliberately planned campus.
There is a lot of pretty ironwork on Bay State Road like this. However, if I'm lucky, I will probably be living in a place like so:
This is a dedicated graduate student apartment building owned by BU. They are very expensive studios, but perhaps worth the peace of mind for the first year at least. One grad student was nice enough to show me her apartment and it was very small, but well maintained and cleanable. I won't want apartment drama while I'm taking eight graduate courses so it may be the best option if I can get one in my price range.
So, the good parts: the program seems to be very flexible about requirements, language and otherwise. BU is part of a consortium of universities in the area so I will be able to take graduate courses at any one of them interchangeably, but the seminars offered at BU look very promising too. The faculty and graduate students I talked to also gave the impression that if I wanted to do something interdisciplinary that required more outside courses than I'm allowed, that I could probably do it if I can make a decent case. The program is also fairly small, about 50-60 overall students at any time, so they can give individual attention to your situation and generally care about you. A FAR cry from being a student at UMN, a school only interested in you when they want your money. BU's English department also seem very excited about having me, which is worth a lot. Hopefully they will still feel that way when I arrive in the fall.
The grad students said that the MA year (year 1) is very intense with the eight courses and language requirement. I was quite disturbed when they told me that I'll have to accept that there will be more work than than is physically doable and that I will have to ask for extensions. I have never asked for extensions, but they say this is the norm. One person rather horrified me by saying that they knew of one student who handed in a paper TWO YEARS later and got an A. Please god help that never to be me.
(the bridge from the first photo)
Sorry for the poor picture quality here, but it was cold and my camera doesn't take great photos without flash in the dark. This is the bank of the Charles River. I was running around after finding a Subway and getting a nicely baconed sandwich. The upside of being in the "athens" of the US: the people working at Subway will probably be competent enough to make your sandwich the way you want, especially when it is so fluxoming as to have just two components. I swear the workers where I live get really confused when I just ask for american cheese and toasted bacon on monterey-cheese bread.
And some insane people rowing in the cold:
I gathered most of this information about the program on the second day, Friday, during the open house. Thursday felt rather weird and surreal because the meeting between me and Prof. H wasn't formal. I just saw her for the first time in the lobby of the English department (where I met Fall-11 from gradcafe, which caused Prof. H not to recognize me because she didn't think I could know anyone there) and then hopped into her car to go to the lecture at Harvard without much ado. I don't know what would have been more appropriate, but I suppose I expected more of an ah-ha moment after our emails. I suppose it was much more dramatic for me after traveling so far.
Friday was nice because less of the focus was personally on me and I got to observe. Everyone at WGI was completely right about not needing to feel worried about being prepared because I was never grilled about anything. I only felt uncomfortable once or twice when I couldn't remember an author whose book I wanted to talk about, and once when one faculty member didn't care to hold up his end of the conversation after mentioning that he knew one of my LOR writers and then fostered an awkward silence after I'd said one or two times that I thought my professor had been inspiring etc. and couldn't think of anything else to say. I was upfront with Prof. H, when the first thing happened, about my nerves and feeling unprepared, and she was very understanding.
(the BU B&N bookstore, which was just around the corner from my B&B)
Overall, I think it was worth the money for the trip. I felt a lot better about accepting their offer, promptly after I got home last night, having met everyone in person and having seen that the campus has some integrity, despite accounts of a non-campusy feel.
I don't think I've ever socialized as intensely as I did for those two days. Not merely conversing, but just being in social mode with no real rest for that long-- capped with flights-- really killed me. This was Friday night in my cell-like room; it is best that I'm looking down because my eyes are completely bloodshot and the little membranes around them are all swollen and red:
I don't know what I would have done if I'd had more than one good offer. One visiting day was more than enough for me. I've probably given the impression that I'm completely drug-addled, so I'll just stop writing now and leave you with some pictures from my flights, because views and speed are the only redeeming aspects of traveling by air. From taxiing down the runway at Boston-Logan:
And, of course, New York: