Redefining the English Ph.D. One Passion Project at a Time
Two graduate students' paths to completing their dissertations took them on journeys in unexpected directions.
Two graduate students arrived in Morgantown in the fall of 2010, ready to take
on doctorates in English at West Virginia University, one from Boca Raton, Florida,
and the other from Kolkata, India, by way of Glasgow.
But on the way to completing their dissertations they got involved in things that you don’t think of when you think of English degrees or Ph.D.s: one wanted to see how he could play a popular video game without resorting to violence. And the other sent literature into Appalachian prisons and jails.
WVU Department of English Chair Jim Harms said it’s an exciting time to study English. Recently the Modern Language Association released recommendations to re-conceptualize the Ph.D. in English to better prepare Ph.D.-seekers for careers inside and outside of academia.
“What you see in these two students is a broadening of possibilities: Not only are they expanding the notion of how literature exists in our lives – beyond some static representation of an individual reading privately and alone,” Harms said. “They’re striving to make their scholarship culturally engaged and useful.
“We’re seeing our students – and faculty – move away from esoteric scholarship and in the direction of public scholarship.”
A PACIFIST AMONG WARRIORS
Dibs Roy was not a gamer. He’d played some Contra as a kid, but it hadn’t led to mad skills.
“It’s terrible,” he said. “I get killed by zombies every five minutes.”
But his Ph.D. adviser, Sandy Baldwin, was leading a project on gaming across cultures, the first project of its kind to study video games as cultural texts to develop international gaming-as-literature courses.
They chose to study World of Warcraft, which has about 8 million users. Baldwin had his grad students tinker and find out what they could learn and teach from the game.
Roy decided that he was going to focus on one of his main interests, gender studies, and avoid the more masculine aspects of the game, like killing. Instead, he took on many of the tasks that are culturally attached to women: scavenge for the artifacts people left behind, run errands for other people and put out fires.
He chose to be a paladin in the priest class because the easygoing book-lover thought he wouldn’t have to hurt anyone, even pixelated someones. But he did. And it was weird.
“The everyday is important to the heroic, and even to be heroic, you have to do everyday things.”
“I thought the priest goes around and helps people and stuff like that,” Roy said, chuckling. “And no, you had to kill.”
But he found that you could get away with mostly doing the other things, too. So he did them. And in making it to level 10, he found that it took a long time, but he also found out the game said things about the people who play it.
“My argument is that the quotidian is important for the heroic, and in some cases defeats the heroic,” he said. “The everyday is important to the heroic, and even to be heroic, you have to do everyday things.”
His and other students’ findings became part of the overall discussion of teaching culture and literature through the games that students are living in.
PLEASE SEND BOOKS
A clarifying moment in Mike Buso’s life was in downtown Morgantown in the headquarters of a nonprofit while opening a misaddressed letter.
The letter was to the Appalachian Prison Book Project, founded and directed by WVU English faculty, from an inmate.
“He misspelled three of the four words in our name: he misspelled Appalachian, he misspelled book and project,” Buso said. “The only thing he spelled right was prison. He had the wrong ZIP code and he had the wrong P.O. box number and yet somehow the letter still got to us.”
The request was simple. While many of the people writing requests to the project ask for specific book titles or genres and offer up commentary, this man simply wanted books.
“There’s something about that basic earnest request for knowledge,” Buso said. “That to me is why I want to be a teacher, a professor. It’s why I’m here and APBP’s mission is one that I can get behind so easily.”
Buso is now co-president of the nonprofit. He’d met the project’s founder, professor Katy Ryan, and took her prison studies class around the time Buso’s husband told him that the project was a cause they should get involved in.
He took the class and he started volunteering and he started reading letters. In one instance, a man wanted a copy of “War and Peace” because he had time and he’d never read it. Buso held on to the letter until he ran across a copy and sent it.
INGREDIENTS OF A PH.D.
Anyone getting a degree today, especially a Ph.D., has to be flexible. Both Buso and Roy have their sights set on becoming faculty but are getting all sorts of experience that can make them attractive job candidates when they finish up in about two years.
The main part of a Ph.D. is of course intensively studying one idea. For Buso, that idea is the shift in the ideology of AIDS in literature, especially in books where the epidemic is scrubbed from gay and lesbian stories. He’s exploring literature such as “Angels in America,” “The Normal Heart” and “At Swim,” “Two Boys,” among others.
Roy has long been studying the atomic bomb and what it means in terms of masculinity. Through his interest in graphic novels and Japanese Manga, he discovered how literature in Japan links the bomb to the human body. And in studying the bomb in the Indian subcontinent, he’s noted how post-colonial masculinity sees – albeit mistakenly, he argues – nuclear arms development as an apparent strategy of resistance against neocolonial and erstwhile colonial powers.
“There’s something about that basic earnest request for knowledge, that to me is why I want to be a teacher, a professor.”
They both also love teaching and sought the opportunity to get practical experience that would prepare them for whatever comes next.
Roy is associate editor of the Electronic Book Review, a born-digital journal hosted by WVU’s Center for Literary Computing. He’s worked on compiling an electronic database of the department’s course syllabi, and he’s taught classes in literature, composition, technical writing, and science fiction and fantasy.
Buso helped revitalize the student organization attached to the prison book project, worked on creating an electronic database, served as the undergraduate writing coordinator for the WVU Center for Writing Excellence and been a writing instructor for the University’s Academic STARS program – a retention program for African-American students.
Among American and British literature classes he’s taught, Buso designed an American pop culture class focusing on the work of Joss Whedon, director, writer and producer for projects ranging from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to “The Avengers” film series.
The course was noticed on Flavorwire in a story on “Syllabi for 10 real college pop-culture classes we’d love to take.” It started with him wanting to combine his own interests and, like so much else in the department, flourished with a go-ahead.
“I pitched it to the Ph.D. adviser, and he was like ‘Yeah, go for it. Sounds great.’”