How Many Ways Can The Screw Turn?

Follow one student's modern odyssey through the Master's of Arts in English program

The prospect of returning to college after a 25-year hiatus is nothing short of terrifying. Writing papers for the perusal of college professors and graduate school classmates is a far cry from penning lesson plans for fifth-graders and junior high students, addressing birth announcements, and composing grade-school absence notes. Nevertheless, I found myself doing exactly that in the fall of 1998 when I decided to work toward achieving a master’s degree in English at the University of St. Thomas. Since I was a former reading teacher and books are my avocation, English seemed like a good fit.

In order to test my mettle, I enrolled in an undergraduate class aptly titled "Evil in Literature." My instructor, a visiting professor from Scotland, inundated us with 13 of the most evil and depressing books he could find. I was hooked.

The next step in the process was studying for and taking the Graduate Record Exam. I plowed my way through a computer-based prep course and confidently attacked the verbal and analytical sections. My scores clearly mirrored my strengths and the absence of any math instruction in 25 years. Happily, math scores are not required for admission to the program and even the GRE is no longer in place as a prerequisite. However, a writing sample and recommendations from at least three professors are. I gathered those, submitted my application, and, fortunately, passed muster with the Graduate Committee along with about 30 other students for that year.

Entry to the program is clearly marked through the "Issues in Criticism" portal. This class introduces the concept of theory into the graduate program if you have not already met up with it. I was quite sure theory had not been invented by the early ’70s during my undergraduate years because I knew nothing about it, but Dr. Andrew Scheiber, our instructor, ensured me it had. The premise of this infamous class is: How many different ways can one class scrutinize Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw? We applied Marxist theory, psychoanalytic theory, feminist theory, gay/lesbian theory, and structuralism to the text. We even deconstructed it. We conjured up more demons than I ever thought possible in what I had viewed as a simple ghost story. We formulated discussion questions, we wrote letters to each other about the readings, we presented assigned theories, and we wrote midterm and final papers. We learned.

After a remarkable semester of gaining confidence, I was ready for another required course in the area of multicultural literature. In the early ’70s, reading Black Like Me was construed to be a multicultural event. Dr. Claudia May’s "African American Literature" course allowed me to see how barren my multicultural literary landscape had been. She introduced us to some astonishing works. Texts such as Our Nig, The Street and Their Eyes Were Watching God, and essays such as "In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens" are a few examples of a boundless array of brilliant work presented by an expert in the field.

A seminar class on "the lady in white," Emily Dickinson, taught by Dr. Erika Scheurer was my next endeavor. Time flew by during this class as the 12 of us found numerous things to argue about in regard to this profoundly complex writer and her amazing work. After a class presentation, literature review, poetry review/interpretation, poetry three-dimensional illustration, a seminar length paper and presentation, I was ready for anything.

It seemed like an appropriate point in the program to spend time with "the bard," William Shakespeare — and Dr. Michael Mikolajczak, chair of the English Department. Mikolajczak led our class through no less than 12 Shakespearean plays. After careful reading and analysis, we were sent out to view some community theater offerings of our own choice. I witnessed an experimental production of Troilus and Cressida, while other students ventured off to see Macbeth. We briefly reenacted a few scenes from various plays and quickly discovered why we were not doing our advanced work in theater. However, simply listening to Mikola-jczak read Shakespeare’s prose acquainted us with how one "does" Shakespeare properly.

My next class really empowered me. "Early British Women Writ-ers" taught by Dr. Brenda Powell was eye opening. The Norton Anthology I had been weaned on contained very few women writers. Fortunately, Powell was a marvelous conduit to their rediscovered writings. Margery Kempe, Christine de Pisan, Elizabeth Cary, Aphra Behn, Heloise and numerous others had been virtually unknown to me. I was astonished by their stories and by my ignorance regarding these wonderful women writing in what was often a vacuum hundreds of years ago. I couldn’t wait to call my eldest daughter majoring in history and English in Portland, Ore., and tell her about my newfound knowledge. I finally had something of real interest to impart. Her, "Geez Mom. Where have you been?" put me in my literary place. Happily, these women and their stories now are ensconced in literature programs across the country.

Dr. Tom Connery, dean of the college and graduate studies for arts and sciences, was my next instructor in the program. Frankly, I was dumbfounded that a dean actually made time in his schedule to teach a course. Literary journalism is Connery’s forte. Since this was, once again, a new genre for me, I was beginning to realize I had no forte in my life experience. We met some masterful writers who made the truth read like fiction, only better. Joan Didion’s bitter irony in "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream," Tracy Kidder’s real-life prose in House, and Joe Mitchell’s lyrical descriptions in "The Rivermen," to name a few, all came to life under Connery’s able guidance.

It seemed an appropriate time in my odyssey to try something a little different. So, a classmate and I put together a subject we wanted to pursue and found an instructor to take us on. Dr. Young Ok An agreed to lead us in our efforts to plow through the Brontës. Remarkably, Julie Haid-er, Dr. An and I sat in An’s office and analyzed, criticized and marveled at the Brontës for three-hour stretches every class meeting. The power of the words that came from their tiny parsonage in Haworth was amazing. Analyzing their poetry and seven of their novels led to some of our own amazing discussions and presentations.

Because I soon will be starting my master’s essay process, which is the culminating event in the 30-credit course of study and requires more in-depth research, I thought that I should maintain my residence among the Victorians and perhaps broaden my understanding of the topic. The Rev. Robert Wellisch’s class, "The Victorian Novel" seemed an appropriate venue in which to drown myself in some more supposed "uptight" folk. Instead, I discovered the Garrison Keillor of the Victorian Age, William Makepeace Thackeray (Vanity Fair), the moral and social dilemmas of George Eliot’s fiction (Middlemarch) and the legendary prose of Thomas Hardy (The Mayor of Casterbridge). As I write this, I am in the throes of my third 800-page novel and loving it.

However, if the novel is not your thing, Jim Rogers, director of the Center for Irish Studies, recent graduate of the MA program, and a lover of nonfiction prose, offers hope. He told me that because of the flexibility and nimbleness of the program, he was able to follow his own course and stay (almost) novel free. That feat is holding some allure for me as I currently am contemplating the girth of Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend.

Perhaps one of the most significant elements of the program is the individual students you find in it and their stories. I have met teachers, high-school coaches, publishers and editors, medical doctors, professionals, nonprofessionals, recent graduates and people like myself. I have felt valued and empowered by their friendship and collegiality. I can count as my friends some wonderful people, both younger and older, male and female. I even encountered a young man I was encouraging as a potential blind date for one of my daughters. Obviously, people I admire.

"The MA program in English at St. Thomas is large enough to offer variety, yet small enough to allow for maximum flexibility," said Dr. Michael Bellamy, graduate program director. "There is no student profile that typifies the program, except a pervasive feeling that undergraduate education was not enough. Whether they continue on directly after earning a B.A., or wait for years, our students come back to school because of their undying interest in literacy. The English faculty, for our part, enjoy the opportunity to work with able, energetic, committed students who share our love of language and literature. The qualifications of the faculty and the excellence of our students have provided a highly satisfying experience for all of us who come together to discuss our common interests."

However, the success of the program exists on the bedrock of the professors who teach in it. The literary references they breathe out, the sources of secondary information they conjure up, require no effort. They are a part of who they are. And they are a testament to what a liberal arts education is all about.

My journey in the program is almost at an end. I only need to complete one more class, write my master’s essay and then attend my graduation ceremony. The timing must be precise since one of our daughters will graduate from Cretin-Derham Hall in the spring of 2002 and we do not want any conflicts when it comes to our graduation parties. I’m thinking a December celebration would be lovely. I know the world may not be my oyster when I graduate, but I am hoping a community college or a high school English department will be.

So, if you are contemplating taking that step and pursuing an advanced degree, do it. Put aside the laundry, turn off the television, get off the Internet, buy some prepared meals, and allow me to nudge you in the direction of your dreams or maybe an M.A. in English at St. Thomas. Then, how about joining me for an artful discussion of The Turn of the Screw?

Marla Kauzlarich-Borer received her B.A. degree from Creighton University in 1973. Formerly a grade school and junior high teacher, she works full time in the Communication Department at St. Thomas. She lives in Mendota Heights with her husband, Pat Borer ’70, M.B.A. ’77. They have three daughters, Molly, a senior at the University of Portland, Anne, a freshman at St. Thomas, and Sarah, a junior at Cretin-Derham Hall.