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December 5, 2007

J's Fellowship App

Jessie,

This is a beautiful description of your dissertation. I think it will strike the review committee, as it struck me, as thorough, sophisticated, and, for the most part, accessible and clear to the non-specialist. The prose is elegant and richly textured, and the tone is appealing and persuasive. The project definitely sounds interesting and important. Its background and purpose develop smoothly within and between paragraphs. My suggestions for specifying and/or expanding on ideas fall into two categories: (1) additions the review committee might expect, given the instructions, and (2) questions I have as an "academic" reader.

(1) I do think that more specifics on your goals, and on the larger significance of the specific issues in English studies to which your project responds, are in order. At the end of the first full paragraph on pg. 3, you mention that, once you have obtained a faculty position, you "can contribute to these conversations, which are shaping the face of education and the role of the university in contemporary America in crucial ways." I think the review committee will (as it should) assume that you will meet your goal of becoming a professor. Thus, they may want to know how, exactly, you'll contribute, as a professor. For example, you suggest, at the end of para 2 on pg. 1, that your study situates you to "look to new models of curricular reform in literary studies." When a professor, will you develop and implement new pedagogical models? What might your future classroom and curriculum look like, then? How would it compare to your classroom and curriculum now?

It might help to make your experience and goals more concrete by relaying an example (an anecdote from your classroom?) of when/how the current curriculum has proven inadequate. You also might explain more fully the ways in which the research you cite has revealed the inadequacies of the curriculum. For example, what does/would it mean for lit studies to "ground its critique of unequal social relations," mentioned in the same para? Why/How is "'multiculturalization' of the canon" seen, by the scholars footnoted, here, as "an inadequate model of progressive curricular reform"? What's wrong with multiculturalism?, the committee might ask. How does it threaten English?

I think emphasizing and elaborating on your argument, also in this para, that this "mode of curricular reform not only constrains the ways that students can understand authors and texts, but also oversimplifies the complexities of identity formation and representation," is in order. This is so beautifully put. However, I may get what you mean by this more than the committee will, and I think arguing more forcefully and specifically the real damage that you think "multiculturalism," as defined in the university today, does, would help to clarify your politics and the urgency of your project. And you might use a more detailed explanation of how you would define and teach "multiculturalism," identity, authors, and texts differently than is en vogue at present, to not only help define and address the current and future crises and challenges English faces but also elaborate on your own professional goals.

Other places in your text where you might address this: in first para on p. 2, what's at stake "as English departments attempt to modernize and retain their institutional salience in the changing contemporary university"? And what's driving this change (what makes it a kind of 'modernizing')? Who/what is English trying to be salient to? You might, here, briefly introduce a general reader to such terms/events as the "canon wars" or "culture wars" (actually, I've never been sure what the latter phrase means, exactly), or even, if possible, (perhaps in a footnote) E.D. Hirsch's "conservative" idea of "Cultural Literacy" and the reactions to it (do you think that's relevant?), and, most importantly, explain your politics and goals in relation to these.

A key explanation of the state of the field and your place in it comes up in the last para of Part II, pg. 3: "While 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism' have become buzzwords in most educational institutions, it is imperative that educators keep these concepts from losing real meaning by maintaining a critical pedagogical focus on how they play out in curricula." This is wonderfully put. But I wonder if, again (or earlier), you might give a concrete example of "how they play out in curricula." Also, bc this strikes me as such a key claim in your argument, you might move it up to pg. 1.

Finally, in reading your proposal, I wondered if the committee might wonder why you've picked the turn of the 20th c to compare to the turn of the 21st c. I think you touch on your reason for this when you suggest that the former period witnessed "the creation of middle-class reading practices." Can you make this "creation," and any explanations for it, more explicit? Also, I think you've said outside this proposal that the turn of the 20th c saw an unprecedented explosion of autobiographical texts. Is this correct? If so, can you emphasize it more, here? How does the latest autobiographical rise compare to the earlier one? Is it, as you suggest, here, but might clarify, that the latest one is in the university (is it in the popular book press too?) while the earlier was only in the publishing market?

(2) Questions I have that I'm not sure will concern the reviewers are: Do the middle-class readers you study have a particular racial or ethnic identity? Do you argue that these readers' race/ethnicity was constructed by and/or against that represented in autobiographies written "from cultural locations outside of their middle-class readership," as you put so beautifully in para. 3, pg. 2? I get, from this para, that your study looks at "ethnic" writers, but do you also, or not, research "ethnic" readers? On this note, perhaps saying more about "passing," as you ask at the end of the first para, would help to clarify and expand on how your project approaches race and ethnicity.

That's all for me in writing. I look forward to talking about this proposal in person tomorrow. Again, I think you've done a fantastic job of articulating your project. The above questions and comments are simply meant to help add specificity and "newness of you-ness" to this proposal-- which I struggle a great deal with in my own.

Lauren