In search of a theme
February 24, 2010 3:13 AM   Subscribe

I need a subject or a theme. I'd like to read a wide range of books and discover lots of stuff. Last time I did, I was at the university, studying to get a degree in Comparative Literature.

I'd like to go back to University to get another one, but with a different subject. The problem is that I don't really know what questions, what themes, what subjects are the most worthwhile to study these days. I'd like to focus on something that's both full of content, leading to new meanings or ideas, and connected to reality.
If you could do a research work in that field, what would you focus on and investigate ? Thanks for your ideas !
posted by nicolin to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Why don't you have a look at the syllabus of some universities near where you live? That will give you better answers than anyone here.

See if there's some subject or majors that really leap out at you. The criteria you list could encompass a wide range of majors in your average humanities department, from art history to anthropology, to sociology and linguistics, and everything in between.

In my opinion, every subject is worthy of study, so I'm reluctant to recommend what happens to merely float my (small, apt to capsize) boat.
posted by smoke at 3:29 AM on February 24, 2010

Also, be sure you're clear in your head whether you are studying for fun, for job, or for both. Being mixed up about this in Australia where you can often take a cheap loan from the government for education is bad; doing it in the US or other countries where you have to pay *a lot* for a degree would be madness.

A degree is not a ticket to a new job unless it's very vocational; humanities are rarely that.
posted by smoke at 3:32 AM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: What smoke says, absolutely, and:
I would always start by chiseling my own interests out of the mass of 'quasi-interests' that reside in my brain. This takes some time but is well worth it. If you aim at a success story (I say this because you wrote "worthwhile to study these days"), you'll inevitably come to a point where your input in some way should exceed expectations in your field; this works only if your soul is in the matter.
That said, at the moment I'm most fascinated by what I should call post-Latourian sociology, that is, thoughts that build up on, or criticize in an informed manner, Actor-network theory. This approach opens up old-school Sociology (Latour uses the quirky term "sociology of the social" for this) to true cross-disciplinary thinking, and it might be just the thing you're looking for.
posted by Namlit at 3:41 AM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: The answers above are very pertinent. However, in the spirit of the question, if I were to go back to full-time study I'd do a course in water resources management, which will be a big issue in the years to come; for purely academic interest I'd love some time to study world-systems approach to history more formally.
posted by Abiezer at 3:56 AM on February 24, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks... I've checked local Universities and I'm not quite satisfied with what they offer. Mainly French Literature (I'm in France), very few Comparative Literature. I'd like to come up with something that's really out of the box. Don't hesitate to give me specific ideas, that's what I've asked for. I need some fresh input to rearrange the old stuff that's in me head !
posted by nicolin at 3:57 AM on February 24, 2010

Study a foreign language, maybe? Or do a history degree?

I did an literature degree as well. It was set up at my university in a way similar to the history degree in that everything was divided into groupings by time period and you had to take a set number of courses from each grouping (e.g. 2 courses from 2 different groupings of the first three). Great way to ensure a well-rounded overview for a bachelor's degree.
posted by JoannaC at 4:24 AM on February 24, 2010

Response by poster: Oops ! I think there's an issue with the word "subject" here : I don't want to study anything but Literature (or ideas, or art forms) : I mean, the field I want to work within is Comparative Literature. What I meant by "subject" was the theme, the question I would work upon, the literary works I would have to read searching for some kind of interpretation...
For example, my previous work was about "Contemporary European Literature and fascination of the Far East".
If I had to study anything outside the field, it would have to contribute to my study of the field...
posted by nicolin at 5:09 AM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: "Contemporary European Literature and fascination of the Far East"

erm, how about Contemporary East Asian Literature and fascination of the West?

maybe digital literature? I think the field is woefully underdeveloped at the moment, but it's still interesting. sample syllabus here.
posted by acidic at 5:40 AM on February 24, 2010

Response by poster: I'd like to come up with something that's really out of the box.

Well... I meant outside the box.
posted by nicolin at 5:49 AM on February 24, 2010

It might be helpful for you to try a field that will help across any field of study or occupation you might encounter, such as Knowledge Management, Instructional Design, Information Visualization or other practical arts related to visual production and communications. My second degree was in something called Strategic Foresight and was particularly oriented towards a genralist's perspective.

In other words, instead of studying a subject, learn skills that will help you organize, relate, connect, and communicate knowledge on any subject.

Then your road to polymath-dom will be wider and straighter. And your employability will be greater as well..
posted by cross_impact at 6:11 AM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: What about looking at Graphic Lit, you know, comics? It would have Eastern and Western components, it would be under the umbrella of Comparative Literature, it'd be somewhat new and fresh and "cutting edge," and it would be interesting and fun. You can come up with your own questions, but the ones I would think about are (1) is it literature? (2) how does the presence of images change the character of the expression? etc
posted by sallybrown at 6:14 AM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: I'm going back to university to finish a B.A. in comparative literature this summer. My thesis is about E. E. Cummings. I decided to write about him because his manuscripts are kept at a nearby university (1 hour by train). Looking at manuscripts is both fun and good scholarly practice. You should check out local libraries and universities to see if there are interesting manuscripts, letters, diaries or any other kind of papers which would make for an interesting subject to write about.
posted by Kattullus at 6:32 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When I was casting about for a dissertation topic in the humanities, I was encouraged to read recent dissertations in my field. Reading them as well as recent journal articles are great starts to a scholarly journal (move from reference to reference until you discover a question not yet addressed in the literature). Totally fun!
posted by Pineapplicious at 7:03 AM on February 24, 2010

scholarly journey not journal. (sorry)
posted by Pineapplicious at 7:14 AM on February 24, 2010

Best answer: Hi there. I have a PhD in comparative literature, and used it to teach for several years afterward, mainly in English departments. If you're considering an advanced degree in Comparative Literature, here's a few things to think about. First, more than likely your department will have some sort of language requirement; at least one foreign language, probably two or more. While you probably have this covered between French and English, the real reason for this requirement is that it's meant to reflect your literary interests. Most grad students in Comp Lit enter it because they specifically want to do comparisons between one literary tradition and another. "I want to compare notions of the abject in British Modernism and French Modernism" etc. In fact, in my program, the qualifying exams specifically required comparative work, as did the dissertation. So rather than thinking about what theme you want to work in, I'd first give some significant thought to what languages and literary traditions you want to work in. And it should be languages you're already very comfortable with; you're going to tear your hair out if you're trying to learn your target languages at the same time you're trying to do advanced literary analysis in those languages. It's quite common for students to enter a comp lit program with only a general sense of what ideas or themes they want to explore within their target languages, but I've never heard of somebody not knowing which languages they wanted to work with.

Second, some old school Comp Lit programs require you to know or learn at least one classic scholarly language (I'm looking at you, Ivy League). That's because the field was originally aimed at seeing what could be learned by comparing Latin and Greek texts. Consequently, there are some fossils out there in comp lit, though that's mostly changed, with Comp Lit departments becoming more known now for being places for more experimental or non-traditional work (at least, that was my impression of the field nine years ago when I got my degree). Make sure you know what language requirements might be involved before you sign on.

Third, Comp Lit degrees can be difficult to market if and when you want to teach. Given that most Comp Lit departments are small, and the professors within them are usually adjunct from other language departments (i.e., they're home department is Italian Studies, but they teach part-time in Comp Lit), the number of entry-level teaching positions hired directly within a Comp Lit department are few. More than likely, you'll be applying for positions within one of your target languages. But in that process, you've got all the problems faced by other humanities degree holders (lots of competition, very few positions), plus you'll be seen as a "lesser than" candidate by language-specific departments. English Departments won't quite see you as an English lit scholar because of your other interests, French lit departments won't quite see you as a French scholar, etc. Additionally, because you're getting your degree in a different field, you won't have made the same kinds of professional connections that lead to recommendations, etc., within a specific language field. In my case, though most of my research was within my target language (Danish, in this case), I was able to develop a secondary research and teaching interest, American film, that was appealing to English and Film Studies departments, and I ended up marketing myself as a film and popular culture generalist.

I'm really not saying all of this to be a downer. I have no regrets about my degree, and I can't imagine having done it any other way given my interests. I'm just pointing out a few things for you to consider before you get committed to a particular program. You're going to devote a fair amount of time and energy to any advanced degree, and a fair amount of money if you study in the US as was mentioned above.

Having blabbered on about all the above, let me try to respond to your actual question. If you decide to do a Comp Lit degree, you can expect to figure out the ideas and themes you'll research once you're actually in the department. It doesn't hurt to have an idea in advance, but in my case, I didn't really know what my dissertation topic was going to be until I was about two years into the program. Any notion I had of what I would write on was seriously influenced by the courses I took and the professors I worked with; even if I thought I knew what I was going to focus on in advance of starting, it would have changed radically by the time I was done. Pick your languages, figure out an area of general interest (Romanticism, Modernism, poetry, whatever), and pick a program. The rest will get filled in as you go. Feel free to contact me through MeFi-mail if you want to discuss it more off-thread.
posted by ga$money at 7:29 AM on February 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I left my Comp Lit program, I was doing Trauma Studies. It was really fascinating and I'd love to take it up again someday.
posted by kitcat at 10:52 AM on February 24, 2010

Ecological economics? I'm currently in a Masters program in Resource and Environmental Management, and issues around valuing nature and ecological services are a huge theme, and affect many resource management decisions.
posted by just_ducky at 5:11 PM on February 24, 2010

Response by poster: All right...definitely some paths that I'm going to explore. Thanks !
posted by nicolin at 2:01 AM on February 26, 2010

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