This post is by Ms. Natalie Mahaffey, an instructor in the English Department and FMU alumna. She describes the role critical theory played in her successful transition from undergraduate to graduate studies. During spring semesters, the English Department offers a course in critical theory, ENG 465: Advanced Study in Critical Theory and Literature, which is open to majors and minors.
When I graduated from Francis Marion University in 2008 with a Bachelor’s Degree in English, I felt good about where I was going in life. I had an excellent GPA, a half dozen conference presentations, published poetry, and an English Award under my belt.
But, I wasn’t dumb to the fact that I was a very big fish about to become a very small minnow at Clemson University. That was fine with me, though. I was going to Clemson to get my Master’s degree in Literature, and all I cared about was getting through my two years unscathed with my academic reputation still intact.
However, as I sat through my first few months of Literature courses at Clemson, I began to realize something. In a class of twenty new graduate students, I was one of the only ones with any sort of experience presenting at conferences, and even stranger, one of the only ones who had ever had to deal with critical theory.
I remember sitting in on conversations and hearing students apply theory without realizing they were applying theory. They’d graze the surface of theory, only to let me down by the end of the conversation because they never quite got there. In the mean time, I was busy reading texts and delving into critical analyses all based in different forms of theory. Post-Structuralism. Deconstruction. Feminism. Marxism. Psychoanalysis. If I was writing a paper, theory was making an appearance.
I finally got brave enough to ask some of my peers about their background in critical theory, only to learn they’d never been introduced to theory as undergrads. Yes, they’d analyzed texts, but they’d never had an official learning experience that involved any sort of theory. I thought back to my undergrad courses, thought of Dr. David Cowles in English 465 cramming critical theory down my throat (because, really, that was the only way I was going to allow myself to learn theory), thought of the times I’d flung my theory book against a wall in frustration, only to pick it back up and start again. The memories made me cringe, glad that I’d survived that time in undergrad; but, those memories also made me exceptionally grateful for my experience as a student in Francis Marion’s English Department.
When I went to grad school, I was prepared. I was able to attack my work with confidence because I was not learning brand new material while some of my peers struggled; I was simply learning how to apply it in brand new ways. Some of my peers used to scoff at the fact that I came from such a small liberal arts school in a town they’d never heard of, but my small liberal arts school taught me what was necessary to succeed in grad school. I graduated from Clemson with a 4.0. I consider that Francis Marion’s 4.0 as much as it is mine. I may have worked for it, but the English Department at FMU gave me the tools to use to earn that GPA. Not so shabby for a little minnow in a sea of students.