Graduate Student Sylvie Thode on “Why do we do what we do in criticism, and how do we do it?”

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February 22, 2024

Sylvie Thode is a graduate student for the English department, whose work focuses on gender and sexuality studies, textual criticism, and drama. After having Sylvie as my graduate student instructor for a course on Shakespeare and talking with her about her research, I realized she would be an amazing addition to our column, as her work centers literary studies, but is highly informed by other disciplines within the Arts and Humanities. 

Firstly, I would love to hear more about how you chose to pursue a graduate degree in English, and what your research currently focuses on. 

I first started thinking about grad school in my junior and senior years of college. Where I went to undergrad, students do long research papers as upperclassmen: we had a thirty-page research paper as juniors and then a hundred-plus-page senior thesis. It was a big part of our undergraduate education. I found that, as I was working on those, I really loved digging into long-term research. By the time I finished my thesis, I didn’t want to stop—I still had so many questions open in my mind that I felt I hadn’t had the time to answer yet, and I felt like grad school would be a good place to start thinking about those things more. 

I also have always liked teaching. I taught middle-school after school throughout college, and I felt like I would really enjoy the teaching aspect of grad school. Grad school is really composed of two main things: one is your own research, and one is teaching. I felt like I wanted to do more of both, so that was that. I was also really lucky in undergrad that I had a couple of mentors who really encouraged me to apply to grad school, and they convinced me that I would be a good fit for it. 

As for my research, I work on poetry and poetics, with particular focus on poetry from the HIV/AIDS crisis. In addition to the poetry, I think about the state of literary criticism and literary theory in that time as well. Beginning in the late ’80s, and following the work of people like the queer theorist Eve Sedgwick, literary criticism started to take a very self-reflexive look at itself, and ask, “Why do we do what we do in criticism, and how do we do it?” Many of those questions came out of queer theory, and, I would argue, out of the world historical crisis of HIV/AIDS. Part of my project going forward is going to be to trace the interrelation of those three things–literary criticism, HIV, and poetry–at that particular point in history, and think about some of its lingering effects now in criticism. 

You once told me a big part of what you study is the method wars. Can you tell me a little more about what the method wars were? 

So, the method wars is a term that I would problematize a bit actually, but I’ll come to that in a second. The term refers to a period in criticism from roughly 1997–2017, in which critics were thinking really explicitly about something I mentioned earlier: What is it that we do when we do criticism, and what are the methods we use? Some people were arguing that the methods of criticism that were dominant at the time were too aggressive in how they sought to expose, or see beneath, or break open a text. Those people sought to offer a new kind of criticism: one that was more reparative, to use Sedgwick’s word, and focused on description and attention, rather than deconstructing and exposing a text. That’s a broad summary of what’s at stake in the method conversations. 

In my view, and in the view of a couple of other people, like the scholars David Kurnick and John Guillory, a lot of the discussion around method isn’t really about scholarly ‘method’ per say, but about affect. It’s about how we feel about ourselves as critics, and how we feel about the texts that we study. How do we understand our attachments to literary objects—to the things we teach? How do we communicate those attachments to others? Are we defensive about that work? Do we champion that work? Those are some of the questions at stake in some of the recent method conversations. 

Can you speak more on the role of multi- and inter-disciplinary study in your scholarship? I really couldn’t think through the questions of my research without the conceptual frameworks offered by queer theory, sexuality studies, et cetera. That said, I’m kind of only half-answering your question, because a lot of the queer theory I look at, which is the early stuff in the history of that field, actually comes out of literary study: it is written by literary critics. To say that it’s a different discipline is pushing it a little bit. At the same time, a lot of where queer theory is at now comes out of the social sciences, so maybe it’s a little bit more interdisciplinary there. 

On the other hand, and elsewhere in my work, I think and write about artwork that is slightly outside of the discipline of literary studies strictly configured as “literary studies.” I just recorded a podcast, for instance, where I was talking about a poem, but in talking about the poem, ended up talking about a song called “Go West,” that was recorded by The Village People and then later on by the Pet Shop Boys, and its various cover versions. All of which to say, you can be talking about literature, but I think the best conversations about literature will quickly take you outside of literature to other forms of media. The disciplines are pretty blurry in my mind: the best work is already going to be pretty interdisciplinary anyway. 

Why did you choose Berkeley in particular for your graduate degree? What would your advice be to upperclassmen, who are currently looking for graduate schools that would be suited to them? 

Some of those undergrad mentors I had in college advised me to look at Berkeley. I grew up on the East Coast, and went to college on the East Coast, and so although Berkeley was on my radar, it wasn’t in a very serious way until a bunch of my mentors told me, “You should really think about Berkeley. It’s an incredible program, and would be a good fit for you.” It’s a program that cares a lot about poetry, so it’s a place I wanted to be. But in the end, why I chose Berkeley was really about the people. I loved everyone I met with during my virtual visit weekend—I applied during COVID so it was all on Zoom. It seemed like a very wonderful and welcoming place to live and work for at least 6 years. 

As for advice to upperclassmen about grad school, I’ll give some practical advice. Make sure that where you want to go to school is somewhere you’ll want to live for 6 years. Grad school is a big commitment – 6 years or longer. Pick a place for the faculty who work there, but also where you’d want to live. And on the note of faculty, I do think that is the most important thing behind the grad school decision. Pick a place with faculty you’d want to work with. But I wouldn’t bank on working entirely with one faculty member, either: people retire, people switch schools. You want to make sure that you’ll have as many people in your corner as possible. 

I know that UC Berkeley has a language requirement for graduate students. What other languages do you study? Why do you think it’s so important for English graduate students to have knowledge of multiple languages? 

Yeah, it’s a great question. So, I read Latin and French, and I took a year of Old English in college, and did a bit of Ancient and Modern Greek in college, but I wouldn’t really say that I studied either of them particularly thoroughly [laughs]. Latin, French, and Old English are the ones I do know. 

As for why it’s important, I think many people will tell you that having multiple languages helps with your reading, and that’s absolutely true. It’s always helpful to be able to read multiple languages. Linguistic traditions are deeply intertwined: the English tradition, or at least speaking of English poetry, is closely related to the Italian sonnet tradition, the French poetic tradition – so it’s helpful to have those languages to really understand it. 

What I would add, and what I’ve found personally, is that I think having other languages really helps with my own writing. When I’m constructing a sentence for an essay, being able to hear what’s a Latinate construction, being able to hear the nuances between words that come from Romantic languages, like French, or that are more Germanic, being able to vary those, and vary when they come up–it’s often nice to start a sentence with an Anglo-Saxon word because it grabs your attention more, for instance–all of that knowledge of other languages has made me a better writer. It’s given me a better ear for language, which in turn improves my writing. 

Are there any specific skills or ways of thinking that you think non-English majors can gain from taking courses in literature? 

Many! [laughs] How to make an argument, how to read closely, how various elements of our culture today came into existence: these are all things that we teach and learn in literature classes, in addition to the more metaphysical questions of communing with people across time and space, and the kinds of empathy and understanding you can gain from reading the experiences of others. I think these are all things that happen in the literature classroom that are useful to people across all the different places on this campus. 

What book would you recommend to everyone reading this interview? 

It’s a tough call; I hemmed and hawed. I’m going to give you two books. The first: I don’t think anyone should graduate college as an Arts and Humanities major without reading King Lear. It’s just an inimitable expression of the human experience. You can’t really do without it. For a more contemporary option—maybe a more specific option—I would recommend D.A. Miller’s book, Bringing Out Roland Barthes, which is just a gorgeous essay. It’s a short book, only 50 pages, and it’s a real model to me of all that criticism can be, and all that it can do.