The last few weeks I’ve been going through the kind of stress most students have to go through: thesis stress. But I have the feeling this kind of academic stress might be different for students in more subjective courses like literary studies. After all, what the hell am I doing?
Technically, this is what I’m doing: I’m writing my thesis on the representation of the bohemian in literature from the nineteenth century. I’m looking at three different works to see how this character is represented and I’m having an opinion on what this means. To support my opinion, I’m quoting people who are so smart they actually got books and articles published.
What I feel like I’m doing: I’m ranting about books. Some of my fellow students do a very philosophical thesis, but my method focuses more on close-reading (which is fancy literary talk for talking very long about books). I am being told that a good close-reading is also an academic skill, but I have trouble believing that. University should be a place for academics, and in some parts of literary studies, it can be hard (at least for me) to feel very academic. Sometimes our data is so subjective, it’s hard to know when you’re saying something useful and when you are just talking. To quote Woody Allen: “It’s all mental masturbation.” Sometimes it feels like literary studies is just about talking like you have something interesting to say about books, but is it really useful?
So let’s talk myself out of this. Of course humanities are useful. Art is an important part of human culture, and understanding art helps us understand ourselves. And although I might not end up in academics, the skills I learn can help me in future jobs. For example, as I am focusing on representation in my thesis, I’m learning a lot about how these structures work. As a feminist, this is important to me, because it helps me see if a book has the kind of representation I can approve of. And if I ever get a job at a publishing house, it might be useful to be able to judge a book on its representation. Or on its structure, another skill I learned. Other people might have a hard time to explain why they like a certain book, but I have skills to say why a book might appeal to a certain public or not. And that is really handy.
Also, I like ranting about books.