We asked Ben De Witte, who has recently defended his dissertation, to share his thoughts on his doctoral experience at Comp Lit. Here is his account of the laborious but rewarding path that has led him to the dissertation, with some great suggestions for current (and future) graduate students.
In October 2015, I defended my dissertation “Queer Visibility on the Transatlantic Modernist Stage,” which investigates the transatlantic circulation of themes and techniques used to stage queer plots and persons in a selection of Argentinean, Spanish and U.S. modernist plays. I did not start in the Program of Comparative Literature knowing that I would write on the history of Anglophone and Spanish-language theater and performance. I did know, however, that I wanted to work on multilingual, comparative queer modernism (I had written a master’s thesis on Djuna Barnes’s expatriate novel Nightwood) and on the intertwined histories of literature and sexuality. For these reasons I applied at Rutgers, which boasts an impressive faculty in these areas. Among the various faculty members who have helped me think about my research, I certainly want to mention my dissertation committee members: Elin Diamond, who introduced me to the pleasures of modern drama scholarship, Andy Parker, who stimulated me to think of literature in tandem with philosophy, and Ben. Sifuentes-Jáuregui, who encouraged me to think of comparative literature (and queer figuration) in terms of circulation.
Although it took me all the way into my third year – when I was preparing for my Ph.D. exams – to decide that modern drama would be my main field, I am grateful for everything that I read and studied (my coursework in Comparative Literature, English, Spanish, French and Women’s and Gender Studies, and also my ever expanding multi-genre reading list) leading up to that moment. I am fortunate that our program allowed me a certain amount of time and flexibility to figure out what I really wanted to say and do. And of course, I am equally blessed that my committee helped me apply for grants, allowing me to do archival research in Buenos Aires and Madrid, and for a Mellon Dissertation Fellowship. My main piece of advice to students in the program would be: remain politic about real constraints (such as time and funding) without losing sight of what you really want to investigate; you will need your enthusiasm, wits and a lot more to finally write the dissertation. And although you can (and probably will) read up for the rest of your academic career before you ever fully “get it,” I found that jumping into dissertation chapters much more effectively stimulated my thinking and my creativity. Don’t delay too much, and instead enjoy the practice of writing.