Wednesday, April 29, 2015

LU MFA Foundations: You? A Professional Scholar? -- Julia Gordon-Bramer

It was never originally my intent to become a Scholar—I capitalize the S because this has become a title and one of my principal occupations. This new role of mine sort of happened on its own when I made my discovery around Sylvia Plath’s mysticism in 2007, and then I had to set about proving my findings to the world. And so, here I am, having learned most of what I know from the best school of all: Trial and Error. Here are summaries of the best lessons from that university:

Don’t Discount Your Own Observations
You’re in an MFA Writing program, which means that you share a love for reading and writing with me. Sometimes you can’t help it, you get excited about the work. And you are bound to come up with your own discoveries and observations, drawn from your own unique perspective. We all do this nearly every day and half the time we don’t realize that no scholar has yet to publish on this angle or that one, or to make such-and-such a comparison, or whatever it is. Whether it is the Ancient Greeks, the Renaissance Classics, or Pop Culture, there is the potential for scholarship in every field imaginable. I want to encourage you, when you find something that seems out of the norm or new, stop a moment and see if anyone has published on this before.  If not, here is your opportunity to make your mark on Academia. If the idea has been documented somewhere vaguely or a mention has fallen into obscurity, maybe you will be the one to expand upon it or say it better.

Use Your Libraries
I had no idea until my scholarship began just how willing librarians are to help. They will teach you how to take notes and record findings in the most efficient manner. They’ll find materials and items for you from other libraries. They’ll even let you into their locked archives to handle rare and irreplaceable documents, provided you contact them ahead of time, prove your need to be there (often just a strong interest, a published paper or two on the subject, and/or college or university affiliation), and respect the rules of the institution. Archive rules vary greatly from no photographs and copies, to pencils only, and more; most rules are posted on the library’s website, often under “Special Collections” or “Rare Manuscripts,” where archival resources are held. As librarians are not always writers themselves, their careers are made by your acknowledgement of their work in your publications. When you find yourself returning to the same archives again and again, you can’t help but make friends. They’re dying to help you, because you treasure and respect this nerdy knowledge in a way the world, by and large, does not.

Publish and Prosper
When you publish a number of papers in a particular subject (your passion), voila! You’ve become an expert. You are now someone who journals will turn to to ask for submissions; students, reporters, and other academics will seek your advice; you’ll be cited as a source in others’ academic work; you’ll look great to your college or university for any future teaching gig you have your eyes on; and you may just collect enough material to pull it all together into a book (or more) later on.  When you’ve made sure your idea/observation has traction, write a bullet-proof paper, cite your sources, and send it to some credible publications in your field. Don’t hesitate also to submit your papers as presentations for conferences (just be prepared to have the money to attend—university department budgets tend not to be too helpful to adjunct professors and teaching assistants, although grants are sometimes available to students and others). When you’ve published or presented your paper, get extra mileage from it by making it available to the world on and other websites. You can see what I do with my own work here:

Remember: There is no better recipe for scholarship success than being uniquely yourself and passionate about your subject. To your discoveries!
Julia Gordon-Bramer

Lindenwood University MFA in Writing Program
On-Campus or Fully Online (No Residency Requirement)

In the LU MFA Foundations series, our faculty members 
discuss or clarify foundational elements of the craft of creative writing.
Other entries in the series are linked here.

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