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Siren Song

A student at heart returns to graduate study

September-October 2001

October 31, 2000, 4 p.m.

I've just had one of those brief but potent conversations in which a casual comment by someone I scarcely know hits me with the force of revelation. I was on the phone with an editor at a political journal to which I contribute, haggling over how to tackle a certain feature story. She had patiently but insistently explained how my thinking would have to be "retooled" in order to "work." Exasperated at my stubbornness, she finally sighed, "You're thinking like an academic, not a journalist."

I am frustrated because a journalist is precisely what I am trying to be. Since graduating from the College in 1998, I have spent two years in Israel pursuing a curriculum of advanced Jewish studies and beginning a career as a freelance writer. Despite professors' and parents' urging, I have never seriously considered graduate school in the American sense: that is, with grades and papers and the goal of a scholarly career. Instead of particular expertise, I had hoped to cultivate a number of informed intellectual passions, to be stimulated by the reading I would do in the course of my journalistic research. My ideal has been the life of the mind that Wendy Lesser '73 writes about trying to lead, a life modeled on what she calls the nineteenth-century gentleman: an autodidact and voracious reader, listener, and general apprehender of the world. How better to lead this life than by writing? How better for a young writer to earn a living than by journalism?

Yet since completing my program in Israel, returning to the States, and transferring writing from the "extracurricular" to the "professional" column in my mind, my ideal has been called into question. Yes, freelance writing offers a context for exploring interesting ideas, but that exploration must be compressed into three- or six-week blocks and yield a result that fits a publication's "editorial needs." I have also become increasingly aware of the distinction within factual writing between words meant simply to inform and those intended to endure.

Journalism has begun to feel more like an activity than the identity I'd hoped it would. Perhaps I ought to study literature. Because my husband, David, is now a graduate student in Jewish studies at Harvard, I am living near several universities. Taking advantage of the proximity, I am already taking Arabic at the Extension School.

A couple of weeks ago, I experienced shopping-period envy. When he saw that I'd plastered his course catalog with color-coded Post-It notes (alas! the opportunities missed as an undergraduate!), a perplexed David reminded me gently that I wasn't in school anymore. As I think about these disappointments, hopes, and yearnings, the words of the editor I spoke with today seem oracular. Maybe I should go to graduate school. At least then they'd send us two course catalogs.


November 8, 2000, 9:45 p.m.

Even if I go to graduate school and train to be a scholar, do I actually hope to teach in academe? Tonight I've begun to think maybe I do. High on endorphins, I've just gotten home from teaching the second session of an introductory Talmud class for adults, my first formal teaching experience. My students, of varying abilities and textual backgrounds, are uniform in their enthusiasm and determination to learn. They are so curious, so appreciative of the study aids I've prepared, I can't wait for the next class. If this is what teaching feels like, I want always to be engaged in this activity. If I felt any lingering uncertainty about graduate school, the Talmud class has sealed my decision to go back.

Meanwhile, though it is only early November for me, it turns out that it's already early November! in the year-ahead world of applications and admissions. I hastily register to take the Graduate Record Examination in less than a month.


December 4, 2000, 10:45 a.m.

Wheezing with a cold, I've arrived at an anonymous brick office building near a mammoth construction site in South Boston, 45 minutes early for my scheduled rendezvous with the computer-administered GRE. As if to combat the dreariness of Prometric Testing's office, an effusive greeter mans the waiting room. People my age peer nervously into thick books with bright covers boldly proclaiming "Ultimate GRE Prep!!!" and "Ace the TOEFL!!!" Cheerfully, the greeter says they'll have an opening for me to take the test early if I wish. For "testing integrity," my request to take a pocket pack of tissues into the testing room is denied.

The GRE practice book that I leave outside with the tissues has been my constant companion during the past month. I recall eighth-grade algebra and geometry as distant old acquaintances, glimpsed across a crowded, hazy room. I enjoy the exam's verbal section but am entirely undone by the section testing my analytical reasoning. Simple-sounding questions about summer-camp schedules and paint-color schemes quickly entangle me in a labyrinthine web of tortuous logic. There is no confidence-wrecker like being unable to figure out, "based on the conditions stated above," which room must be painted green but must not be painted orange.

Unlike the old paper-based version of the exam, the computerized test tailors questions to performance, rewarding correct answers with harder questions. This technological sophistication is diabolical. If terrorized by hopelessly difficult questions, you have reason, in your misery, to hope. But if you breeze through, leisurely wondering at your good luck, you ought to be nurturing myriad fears and self-recriminations--where did I err to have been granted such ease?

December 31, 2000

The applications are due in two days, and finally the "statement of purpose" (an undergraduate application's "essay" sounds so limp and unfocused in comparison) is written. After thinking very carefully about where to apply, where I could in fact study the several and somewhat disparate literatures that interest me, I settled on Harvard. I'd been happily challenged as an undergraduate, and as I said, I wanted another crack at the course catalog. But admission to the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) can't be assumed, so I am applying to three departments, as one might apply to three different universities.

I have formulated my interest as the interplay between literature and religion in the modern period--especially the way literature comes to compete with and even supplant religion as a source of moral guidance. My undergraduate background in Hebrew made the modern Jewish experience a logical starting point for my investigation. I will have to learn Yiddish; I also want to use my English and Spanish. I am submitting applications to the department of comparative literature; the committee on the study of religion; and my undergraduate concentration, the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations (NELC).

To make sure I could actually pursue the course I intended in each of these departments, I spoke with a lot of professors. The application form furnishes two lines on which to list faculty consulted about admissions or future plans of study. I am enclosing a list of 14 names.


January 2, 2001, about 1:30 p.m.

I walk from the NELC building on Divinity Avenue, where I've picked up one last letter of recommendation, to Byerly Hall. In a corridor just off the stairwell sits a woman at a table with two filing bins, ready to take my three applications with only the most professional, deadpan smile. She stamps my six envelopes (a set for admissions and for financial aid for each program) "Received," informs me that I should hear a result by March 15, and bids me good day. Do they think we applicants don't know about the ides of March?


February 28 – March 10, 2001, 1:14 p.m.

The first fat envelope is neither fat nor an envelope. It is an e-mail from Professor Jan Ziolkowski beginning, "It brings me considerable pleasure to write to you in my capacity as chair of the Department of Comparative Literature..." and ending "Enthusiastically yours, Jan." The second fat envelope arrives three days later in my non-virtual mailbox, sent from the GSAS admissions office to inform me of my acceptance by NELC. A week later, I receive a hard copy of the comparative literature offer and a similar packet from the committee on the study of religion.

The second admissions letter appears to be personalized; I read it with gratification. After all, the author writes, "It is not often that I write such a letter. Acceptance by more than one department..." I am mildly disappointed, then, to note that the third letter, except for its later date, is virtually identical to the second. I cheer up (I wasn't all that blue to begin with, I admit) when David points out the compliment implied by the University's lack of a form letter appropriate to the academic situation I've created.


March 21, 2001

I returned the form officially accepting the offer of admission extended by comp lit. I chose that department because literature lies at the core of my intellectual passions and the department will allow me to work in the several languages I hope to, and add new ones as well. Besides, when David and I go looking for jobs, at least we'll be in different fields. Although attending graduate school here will be its own reward, I want to treat myself now that I'm assured of getting my own Harvard catalog. I'm going out to get a new, multicolored pack of Post-Its.