A Bit about the Master’s Process

Here’s something about me that’s probably very relevant: my decision-making process is a rather strange and often roundabout/trunkated affair (yes, both). I spent my third year agonizing over a choice between completing a BJourn degree and doing English Honours until, one day suddenly, I just woke up and changed my degree to BA so that I could do English. Perhaps the most pervasive quality of mine is a strange indecision that is more a coming to terms with my choice than puzzling out the pros and cons.

In other words, I generally know what I want to do for a long time before I actually do it.

With Master’s, and (I’ve noticed) in general with proposals, this was not so. When it came time to think about my Master’s project my mind seemed a very combustible place. At the time I was doing four Honours papers and working on a longer essay on South African Crime Fiction. I was writing fortnightly proposals for essays and trying to stay on top of my reading. Thinking of another project, a bigger and more important one, sent me into a flat spin.

You see, the moment at which I had to start thinking about a Master’s project came out of nowhere. I had just finished my first real proposal for my long essay when it suddenly came time to apply for 2014. Despite assurances that nothing set in Times New Roman 12 pt and handed in to various committees is carved into stone somewhere deep in the vaults of the admin building, I knew that the stakes were high.

Apparently, South African Humanities subjects still have a rather old-fashioned idea of Master’s degrees, in which you’re supposed to become a Master in your chosen field by the end of your two or three years of research. It seems self-evident from the nomenclature, but the thought is daunting and it makes choices seem monumental. What do I want to become a Master in? Will my Mastery be useful at all? Will I be a Masterful Master or a middling Master?

Yoda level Mastery would be satisfactory, if possible.
Yoda level Mastery would be satisfactory, if possible.

Generally, it seems, the process is thus:

  • Choose a field of interest with some specific directions to follow
  • Approach a supervisor
  • Get into Master’s
  • Find primary texts if you don’t have them already
  • Read like a demon
  • Write a proposal that sets out a problem you hope to solve, niche you want to address or general thing that might provide a worthwhile looking-into
  • Read and write like a demon for the next two years

My problem was not a lack of interests – oh no. My problem was settling on one particular interest and pursuing it with the strict discipline required of a proposal. Everything seemed interesting and worthy and oh-so delectable as a topic. Luckily, my supervisor is perhaps the most organised academic on earth, and she set me to work on winnowing my interests.

It is a truth universally acknowledged (in my personal, tiny universe of flat spins and exploding stars) that my mind can only be brought to some kind of order when I write things down. I am very far from one of those people who can verbally spin a yarn and keep track of all its odds and ends. So I started creating a list of everything literary I have liked and loved over my four years as a student.

I loved Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, Shakespeare’s second tetralogy and Coleridge’s ballads. Lord Byron seduced me all too easily with Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and the hilariously touching Don Juan. I found Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent to be marvelous and The Shadow-Line was just plain beautiful in some of its descriptions. Yeats and Emily Dickinson came at me from nowhere, a bunch of practiced thieves in the night. Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry also took me by surprise and obliterated any preconceived notions I harboured before reading it. My favourite, however, was perhaps John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus . It was sumptuous in its lyrical prose, deeply moving and intellectually – if I may be so cheesy – electrifying.

If I had a superpower, it might be to force people to read books I think are good. There is some potential for tyranny, but you would not resent me for using my powers to make you read this book.
If I had a superpower, it might be to force people to read books I think are good. There is some potential for tyranny, but you would not resent me for using my powers to make you read this book.

Beyond Honours I thought back to undergrad. Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Arhundati Roy’s The God of Small Things. T. S. Eliot. In terms of fields, I loved genre fiction – crime fiction and the Gothic primarily. I’m interested in structuralism, narrative theory, monster theory, feminism and the grotesque. I love most things macabre and I have a soft spot for villains and darkness. But what to choose? What to choose?

Out of this long list (oh these are just the highlights) the 19th Century was detected as a possible overarching era, and the Gothic emerged as a plausible direction. I wrote a brief and incredibly vague proposal to get into Master’s, finished Honours and am now twiddling my thumbs trying to decide on primary texts and a narrower focus.

As it stands, my interest is in contemporary historical novels that employ strong Gothic motifs, especially those that contain supernatural elements. I want to examine the books I eventually settle on for their representation of how the past haunts the present, both in supernatural terms within the text and in terms of history’s haunting of the modern writer. For the moment, this would most definitely include an exploration of Sarah Waters’s The Little Stranger. However, I need another, and perhaps a third, to start actually working on my proposal. For the moment, therein lies the rub.

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