On Seeing the Big Picture: Graduate Student Musings

As professional academics, present and future, we trade in ideas. And, sometimes, it’s enough just to be surrounded by those ideas and not necessarily knee deep in them. Sometimes, ok a lot of times, it is easy to get lost in the minutia. Reading Bayard’s “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read” for our Intro to the Profession course, I’m reminded over and over just how many types and levels of interactions we have with not only books and ideas, but also the interactions with a spectrum of other folks who too have their very own personalized interactions with books and ideas. Whilst I may talk to a colleague about the critical lens through which I’m examining a text, I might discuss with a friend the plot of that same book, or with the writer, the context and import of the work.
In class this past week, Professor Mentz asked us to choose just one thought from Semenza or Bayard that would, hypothetically, act as our primary guide through this grad school experience. (See Kathleen’s post from earlier this week, which is a fantastic break down of both texts.) Personally, the decision to go with Bayard wasn’t even a decision. Whilst I genuinely appreciate Semenza’s methodically pragmatic grad school game plan, I was never one for such a concrete thought process. I am drawn, rather, to Bayard’s more abstract approach to the study of books. The bit I identified with most in the Bayard was the image of the library – the very systematic organizing of ideas. In a library, books, and subsequently ideas, are mapped in not only contextual spaces, but also in physical locations. The librarian, in Bayard’s example, is only too happy just to be situated within that map, surrounded by the books, noting that to read all the books would disrupt the relationship he has created with the books. He genuinely understands his position. The You Are Here arrow on the map of ideas? He knows where that is. As grad students, then, mightn’t we need to very truthfully understand our own relationship with the ideas we read? Since we ultimately claim to have the authority to discuss these ideas, shouldn’t we genuinely be able to locate ourselves on the map?
Kerouac writes, “I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another ’till I drop… I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.” I do sometimes feel that way about Academia, with a capital A. We may, at times, have nothing to offer except our own madness and confusion. The goal, there’s the rub, however, is to be able to situate that confusion and locate it in the system of larger ideas. It’s particularly important to remember that we, like the books, are a part of a structured system – an organized web of thought, both potential and manifested musings. We need to be able to orient and locate ourselves in the system of knowledge so as to relevantly and meaningfully participate in the dialogue. Just as the librarian knows he is the tour guide, perhaps our own role is to be that of a discoverer or a creator or an instructor. Or a combination of it all.

In order to make accurate maps, to plot location and orient oneself, cartographers need elevation. They need to be able to see things from above – the larger picture, if you will. I take from Bayard his reminder to look at the larger scope of this enterprise in trading ideas. We will all specialize and be drawn to beautifully nuanced nooks and crannies of language and literature, but we must not lose sight of the library, the map. Organization, focus and precision are necessary, but so is remembering to find the joy in being surrounded by the books and being surrounded by the ideas. It is important to know that I am somewhere on this map – the weeds sometimes, I fear. That is what will make this (ad)venture sustainable, for myself at least. Soon enough we’ll be knee deep in the minutia and sorting out the madness, and talking plenty about books we may or may not have read. So, uh, who’s ready for Comps?

About Steve Mentz 1262 Articles
I teach Shakespeare and the blue humanities at St. John's in New York City.


  1. I am particularly drawn to Erin’s discussion of the necessity of self-orientation here-—even if what we are initially orienting is, as she notes, our own confusion and madness—-as we work to situate ourselves in the larger dialogue of our given discipline. Embracing this idea “that we, like the books, are a part of a structured system—an organized web of thought, both potential and manifested musings,” and consistently seeking to understand our relationship to the ideas we read may be what one needs to find his/her scholarly voice and to help to assuage the anxiety surrounding what Semenza deems the “imposter syndrome” (108). Meaning, if, in reading, one actively questions, challenges, expands upon the ideas read, over time one may fear less that his/her “scholarly voice is somehow different than–meaning less authoritative than–the voice of publishing scholars in [one’s] respective disciplines” (Semenza 108).

  2. I really enjoyed your comments especially about understanding ourselves and our ideas before we can successfully position ourselves to speak, write, or even think about others’. I also agree with you that organization is good, to a point; too much can stifle our imagination and creativity which in turn could make the difference between a well written piece of work and a piece of work that is well written.
    I also enjoyed Bayard’s discussion this week on the ‘inner book’ and look forward to discussing this concept further in class including the idea of the ‘great (or perfect) book’.

  3. The tension or worry Kathleen points to, between organization (shall we call this the Semenza-principle?) and creativity (Bayard) is a potent stumbling block or anxiety in our field. I’ve increasingly come to think it’s not a real thing, that organization and creativity do not conflict — they only seem to, sometimes. Though perhaps that’s a distinction w/o a difference. As we discussed last week, we should be working across or between the Semenza-Bayard interface, or at least try to.

  4. Apologies for multiple posts, but Erin’s plea for “elevation” seems especially apt, and interesting also from a cartographic angle. Let’s take this up in class. Readers of *The Faerie Queene* might remember Redcrosse Knight’s view from the House of Holinesse and the value of verticality in that landscape.

  5. I was trying to find commonalities between Semenza and Bayard while reading and did not find there to be many but when I read Erin’s line on elevating ourselves to an angle where we can get the bigger picture, it reminded me immediately of the subsection in Semenza’s text, ‘Situating the Argument’. I realize this is far-fetched but it seemed to connect quite well. Bayard, in his relaxed approach, writes his views in a general way, while Semenza focuses on the seminar paper but there is a link. Bayard asks us formulate views in our discipline based on the books all around us and Semenza specifies our views in our seminar paper, ‘situating their arguments in relation to previous scholarship’ (Semenza 107). The idea is looking at things written before us (the big map) and try to place our own unique (hopefully) voice amidst it.

  6. Very nicely connected, Neelam: you’re exactly right about the perspective-creating move, the shift of focus from the local (the book) to the more general (the field, the “inner library”) that enables the writer/critic to generate insight. The might differ in the kind of insight created: Semenza would emphasize contributions to an evolving discourse (“early modern studies,” in his case) which Bayard thinks we’re basically writing about ourselves, or about literature in the abstract.

  7. I think, Erin, our inner books may have collided for an instant through the common texts of the Beats. I have been feeling slightly disturbed by the intense panic that reading Semenza’s book seems to cause in me. His filing cabinets and codes for behavior, not to mention the sheer scope of what we have to accomplish at a seemingly dizzying level of excellence (one student’s paranoid interpretation of viewing the graduate school map from above) make me feel like I imagine Kerouac and his friends could have felt in response to the conventional expectations of society: Wait, I might lose myself in this process. I can’t possibly overnight clean up my messy act of “running from one falling star to another.” And do I really want to? Isn’t that who I am? When Semenza begins his second act and starts talking about the meat of research and writing—yes—that’s how I feel that I will “situate that confusion,” as you say. There’s room for creativity there in the wide wide field of ideas, and adding the structure (of files and of systems, and of colleagues) will enable that part of our lives in academia to flow freely, as we discussed in class. In our research and probably a little bit in our teaching we will be able to indulge madness (thank you, Bayard) and some degree of managed messiness. So, I don’t have to lose myself. As Dr. Mentz points out, Bayard suggests we’re always writing in some way about ourselves, and it’s this anchoring of ourselves in the intellectual substance of books that will ultimately be stabilizing. We don’t have to feel that we’re surrendering to the oppression of any filing system, just to the vast starry universe of ideas. So we can be just as romantic as Kerouac sounds.

  8. I am of the mind that just as their are many ways in which we might position ourselves to a text, just as their are many ways which one can organize their approach to writing and adding their voice to the world of writing whether scholarly or creative. Semenza and Bayard offer two radically differing approaches to the process of organizing one’s thoughts in the creative stages of writing.
    My personal approach to my personal space has always been one of organization. My room must be organized before I even begin to write or address my homework. Sometimes however, I need to sit amongst the books and position myself in an atmosphere outside of my comfort, which is usually when I go to cafe. My focus is sharpened by the chaotic noise around and the similarity of heads bowed over work of their own.
    I cannot say there is a formula yet there is a need to know oneself to maintain creativity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.