As my first year in my master’s program in American literature comes to an end, I have been reflecting on the last few months. I decided to get my degree after the pandemic had already started. I wasn’t doing much, and I wanted the extra stimulation. I didn’t have my undergrad degree in literature, so I had a lot to brush up on.
These are some of the things that helped me through the first year.
Brush Up on MLA
For my undergrad degree, we used APA for everything. It’s not very hard to make the switch in your head, but it is easy to get small details confused if you are not paying close attention.
Read Some of the Classics
I also recommend reading some of the classics so that you have a framework to build on. When you are writing papers and trying to think of topics for discussion or research, it helps to have something you can compare your reading to. These are also books your professors might refer to or expect you have already read.
So, which books do I recommend? For my focus on American literature, having recently read Little Women and The Scarlet Letter were both very helpful. I also recommend reading Frederick Douglass, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Poe is good too.
Buy Your Own Books
I know it’s easier said than done. Books can be expensive. Here’s the thing: I can’t have books I can’t write in or highlight. I take a lot of notes. I have copies of the Norton Anthology of American Literature because they contain so many foundational short stories that have been used in several of my classes. I got them used for a decent price on Amazon.
If it has been a while since you were in school, start with just one or two classes. My advisor told me that most people do not take the three classes that make a full workload at my school, so don’t feel like you have to jump in.
Brush Up on Research Skills
You will be writing a lot of research papers, and you need to know how to find peer-reviewed sources. You also need to know how to write an annotated bibliography. You will likely have access to databases and other sources that help you find the right articles to inform your research. I have a folder saved with the best databases for literary criticism.
Expect to Give Some Presentations
For most classes I’ve taken, I’ve had to give some sort of presentation. Sometimes it’s live on Zoom or via a PowerPoint. In a few cases it has just been a written presentation. Never just reiterate a summary of the book. Add a new perspective.
Expect Some Extra Reading
The syllabus may not list every bit of reading you’ll need to do. You might have to read an extra book or set of articles for a presentation, for example. Keep this in mind when you consider your workload and schedule.
It’s Going to Be Fun
I’m halfway through my program at this point, and I’ve loved the whole process. My degree program has been about so much more than reading. It’s about assessing history, criticism, culture, and humanity. It’s about reading different pieces from different lenses, trying on new perspectives as you read.
If you are set on pursuing an education, make sure that you love literature. Have realistic expectations and get ready to read a lot!