In the stress and haze of writing your dissertation and grading countless composition papers it can be easy to forget about the wider world. Despite all of the other work that needs to get done one thing to be aware of are the numerous opportunities that exist in terms of professionalization, networking, and research opportunities outside of our home institutions. One particular opportunity that I have been fortunate enough to take part in is the National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminars for college teachers. Every summer the NEH funds participants that attend dozens of different competitive programs on subjects as diverse as “Performing Dickens: ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘Great Expectations’ on Page, Stage, and Screen” to “Pictorial Histories and Myth-Histories: ‘Graphic Novels’ of the Mixtecs and Aztecs.” Seminars range from two to five weeks and allow those who attend the chance to study with experts in their field and to conduct original research while working with other university teachers who share similar interests to you. This summer I have been fortunate enough to attend the seminar “George Herbert and Emily Dickinson” as run by the influential University of Chicago poetry scholar Richard Strier. For the past month fifteen participants and I have gathered three times a week at the University of Chicago’s beautiful movie-set-worthy campus to discuss Herbert, Dickinson, and questions of textual criticism.
For the first two weeks we focused on Herbert’s The Temple by close reading individual poems in class and keeping up with a hefty secondary source reading schedule during our off time. The third and fourth week focused entirely on Dickinson with an eye towards the ways in which Herbert may have influenced her. The final week will have us presenting work in progress that intersects with the themes of the seminar. One of the most useful aspects of the seminar has been the ways in which it’s helped me to contextualize the wider world of Herbert scholarship. I’ve become more familiar with critics like Michael Schoenfeldt, Rosemond Tuve, Gene Veith and of course Richard Strier. The genesis of the seminar’s concept goes back to Dr. Strier’s classic 1986 text Love Known: Theology and Experience in George Herbert’s Poetry. The last sentence of that book claims that Herbert may have had a strong influence on Dickinson but that that argument needs to be addressed with greater attention. Dr. Strier is known for reading Herbert and other early modern poets like Donne with a greater awareness of the Reformation theological issues that motivated their poetry. For an early modernist like me it’s been fantastic to delve into these deeper theological issues by reading Herbert in light of Luther and Calvin. My fellow seminar members come from a variety of different institutions and academic backgrounds. The NEH encourages a diversity of experience in these seminars so there are scholars from R1 universities and small liberal arts schools, there are 17th century poetry specialists and writers on the American Renaissance, there are poets and there are critics. Most of us in the seminar have been living in the dorms and we often eat together, visit Chicago landmarks together, and try to convince ourselves that deep dish pizza is somehow actually pizza together.
For a graduate student it is a tremendous experience. I have had the opportunity to share research and writing from my dissertation on Herbert with engaged and talented professionals at every stage of the career. If you are out of coursework and miss going to seminars (and this does happen) you once again have the opportunity to experience reading and writing about the same topics with other interested students. One of the most useful aspects has been the chance to take part in detailed, New Critical style close readings of lyric poetry. If talking about punctuation in Love (III) or Because I could not stop for death for three hours sounds exciting to you (and it should) than this sort of thing might be for you; it’s basically been a close reading boot camp. In addition to the actual class time and the interaction with your colleagues you also have the resources of world class research institutions. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do dissertation research at the university’s Regenstein Library as well as the Newbery Library which is a short Metra and El ride away from Hyde Park. And don’t get me started on the used academic book stores……
The NEH normally announces their offerings in September and applications are due in March; the number of graduate students (you have to have already passed your doctoral comprehensives) is limited to two per seminar. Just as attending conferences or sending out papers for publication is crucial to the profession, so are opportunities such as these. As a graduate student it has been invaluable in helping me to connect with the wider scholarly world. Come September you should consult the NEH website and see if there is a seminar that sounds right for you.