A Term In Review

Yesterday I handed in my final papers to officially conclude my first academic quarter at Stanford. With that in mind, here are my initial thoughts on being a graduate student:

  1. I read a lot.

I’ve never read this much in my life, and it took me most of the quarter to learn how to sit down and read books for hours and hours every day.

Given that this was my first term and that I was only enrolled in two reading-intensive courses, I’m a tiny bit terrified of what the future (cough, studying for orals) holds. Reading for so many hours has sadly all but demolished any inclination towards pleasure reading. On the flip side, I’ve gained a new appreciation for Hulu.

  1. I’ve met amazing people.

It took me a little while to get used to the fact that I was surrounded by ridiculously intelligent people, including a classmate with his own Wikipedia page and an advisor who won a Macarthur Genius Award and who’s also way cooler than I am. All thirteen of my fellow cohort members are incredibly bright, inquisitive, and quite inspiring to think of as future colleagues. Everyone I’ve met outside of the history department has been just as impressive. Meanwhile, I have a blog that I struggle to update more than once a month.

  1. I still don’t know what I want to study.

This is going to be a recurring problem. The downside to having a focus on digital methodology is that I have yet to figure out what I actually want to use that methodology to study. I don’t like the idea of confining myself to a narrow thematic topic, but it’s a step I’ll have to take eventually (one I plan on putting off for as long as possible). In the meantime, I’ll just have to keep answering the questions of “American history? Anything more specific?” with “Um, no. Not yet.”

  1. I made the right decision.

Stanford has been a phenomenal fit so far. The best example I can give is that I had the opportunity to take a non-history course titled Literary Studies and the Digital Library taught by Matt Jockers. It was a seminar class in the English department, and included undergraduates, graduate students, and a fairly broad sample of various disciplines. The course centered around designing a digital text mining project to examine over one thousand American and British works from the nineteenth century, culminating in a three-paper proposal to the Digital Humanities 2010 conference in London (fingers crossed). Matt has since extended the course into the next quarter to let us continue to work on the project.

I could not have been happier with the course, and it embodies many of what I consider to be the core tenets of the digital humanities: hands-on technical problem-solving, interdisciplinarity, and intensive collaboration. I have almost no background in English - during class discussion I at one point googled “buildings romane,” which a helpful classmate had to correct to “Bildungsroman.” Despite this, or maybe because of this, I learned not only about cool things like epistolary novels and the rise of serialization, but also the differences in how literary critics and historians approach questions and problems. This interdisciplinary experience will serve me well in the future.

At the end of the day, I feel incredibly lucky to be given the opportunity to be doing something that I love. As one of my classmates said to me over lunch, “Isn’t it absurd that we’re somehow getting paid to be here?” Not yet jaded from TA’ing, orals, dissertation writing, or the job market, I could not agree more.