"Why Graduate School?" Sample Essay

Writing on paper with pencil.

My freshman year at Harvard, I was sitting in a Postcolonial African  Literature class when Professor Ngugi wa Thiong'o (the influential  Kenyan author) succeeded in attracting me to the study of African  literature through nothing more than a single sentence. He argued that,  when a civilization adopts reading and writing as the chief form of  social communication, it frees itself to forget its own values, because  those values no longer have to be part of a lived reality in order to  have significance. I was immediately fascinated by the idea that the  written word can alter individual lives, affect one's identity, and  perhaps even shape national identity.

Professor Ngugi's proposal forced me to think in a radically new  way: I was finally confronted with the notion of literature not as an  agent of vital change, but as a potential instrument of stasis and  social stagnancy. I began to question the basic assumptions with which  I had, until then, approached the field. How does "literature" function  away from the written page, in the lives of individuals and societies?  What is the significance of the written word in a society where the  construction of history is not necessarily recorded or even linear?

I soon discovered that the general scope of comparative literature  fell short of my expectations because it didn't allow students to  question the inherent integrity or subjectivity of their discourse. We  were being told to approach Asian, African, European, and American  texts with the same analytical tools, ignoring the fact that, within  each culture, literature may function in a different capacity, and with  a completely different sense of urgency. Seeking out ways in which  literature tangibly impacted societies, I began to explore other  fields, including history, philosophy, anthropology, language, and  performance studies.

The interdisciplinary nature of my work is best illustrated by my  senior thesis ("Time Out of Joint: Issues of Temporality in the Songs  of Okot p'Bitek"). In addition to my literary interpretations, the  thesis drew heavily on both the Ugandan author's own cultural treatises  and other anthropological, psychological, and philosophical texts. By  using tools from other disciplines, I was able to interpret the  literary works while developing insight into the Ugandan society and  popular psychology that gave birth to the horrific Idi Amin regime. In  addition, I was able to further understand how people interacted with  the works and incorporated (or failed to incorporate) them into their  individual, social, and political realities.

On a more practical level, writing the thesis also confirmed my  suspicion that I would like to pursue an academic career. When I  finished my undergraduate career, I felt that a couple of years of  professional work would give me a better perspective of graduate  school. I decided to secure a position which would grant me experiences  far removed from the academic world, yet which would also permit me to  continue developing the research and writing skills I needed to tackle  the challenges of graduate school. I have fulfilled this goal by  working as a content developer at a Silicon Alley web start-up for two  years. The experience has been both enjoyable and invaluable -- to the  point where colleagues glance at me with a puzzled look when I tell  them I am leaving the job to return to school. In fact, my willingness  to leave such a dynamic, high-paying job to pursue my passion for  literature only reflects my keen determination to continue along the  academic path.

Through a Masters program, I plan to further explore the issues I  confronted during my undergraduate years by integrating the study of  social, cultural, and linguistic anthropology into the realm of  literature. I believe that, by adopting tools used in such disciplines,  methods of inquiry can be formulated that allow for the interpretation  of works that are both technically sound and sociologically insightful.  Thus far, my studies have concentrated largely on African and Caribbean  literatures, and I am particularly interested in studying these  geographic areas in more specific historical and cultural contexts. I  also seek to increase my knowledge of African languages, which will  allow me to study the lingering cultural impact of colonialism in  modern-day African literature. Eventually, I would like to secure an  academic post in a Comparative Literature department, devoting myself  to both research and teaching at the college level.

I believe the Modern Thought and Literature program at NAME is  uniquely equipped to guide me toward these objectives. While searching  for a graduate school that would accommodate my interdisciplinary  approach, I was thrilled to find a program that approaches world  literature with a cross-disciplinary focus, recognizing that the  written word has the potential to be an entry point for social and  cultural inquiry.

The level of scholarly research produced by the department also  attracts me. Akhil Gupta's "Culture, Power, Place", for instance, was  one of my first and most influential experiences with the field of  cultural anthropology. Professor Gupta's analysis of the local,  national, and foreign realms, achieved through a discussion of  post-colonial displacement and mixed identifications, has led me to  believe that -- given the complexity of modern societies -- comparative  literature's focus on borders (national and linguistic) has been  excessively arbitrary. Even more significant is the accurate rendering  of individually-lived realities that may then be synthesized with other  experiences. I believe that I could greatly benefit from Professor  Gupta's teaching and guidance in applying these ideas to the literary  arena, and I believe that his work is representative of the rigorous  yet creative approach I would pursue upon joining the department.

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