Graduates: Frances Tran

Studying English at Queens College changed my life because of the people I met along the way- the teachers and mentors who not only taught me how to read and write critically, but who modeled the generosity, engagement, and care I try to bring to my own teaching and research today. I have learned so much from them that this response must also take the form of a (somewhat gushy) thank you letter.

I should begin by admitting that I did not enter QC intending to be an English major. Even though I always enjoyed reading and writing as a kid, I never thought that I could make a real career out of it. So in my first year it was almost by chance that I wound up in Jesse Schwartz’s “Introduction to Literary Theory” course, hoping to fulfill some prerequisite. This was the first of many English classes at QC that, as corny as it sounds, changed my outlook on what I wanted to do with my life and how I saw the world. It was in this class that I was first introduced to that elusive, mind-blowing thing called theory. Between reading works on psychoanalysis, Marxism and feminist critique, I learned from Jesse the joy that comes from being completely unsettled and disoriented, to rethink the things I thought I knew. I learned from him that engaging theory isn’t just about applying various theoretical lenses to different texts, but rather using the insights I gained from them to construct an alternative way of seeing and knowing- to create something, an argument, that is uniquely my own. Although we discussed primarily literature in his class, I went through a period of seeing theory in all of the things I encountered, from movies and TV shows to random strangers’ conversations in the subway.

As I write this, I am learning all over again how small encounters can change your life. It was at Jesse’s encouragement that I entered an essay I wrote for his class into the English department’s writing awards. At the prize ceremony, I met Duncan Faherty, who has influenced my life in more ways than I can say. He was the first person to float the idea of applying to graduate school for a doctorate in English. And I should add that he helped turn it into more than just an idea- Duncan worked tirelessly to help me prepare my grad school applications. I still remember with no small amount of horror those red marks on my writing sample that seemed to make the paper bleed. Still, those red marks were a sign of Duncan’s sincere support and care, the effort he put into making sure that I submitted the strongest essay possible. His mentorship has helped sustain me throughout my time at QC and through the difficult years of grad school. (I did get into the CUNY Graduate Center with that writing sample, but more on that later).

It was also through Duncan’s recommendation that I met so many other amazing professors at QC, including: Roger Sedarat, whose 1-page essay assignments taught me the skill of writing succinctly and still compellingly; Karen Weingarten who sharpened my theoretical chops with readings on Giorgio Agamben and Judith Butler; Jason Tougaw whose use of blogs and digital media in the classroom showed me what an engaged virtual community looks like; Gordon Whatley, who instilled in me the importance of reading (poetry) aloud, to learn from listening to literature; Caroline Hong, whose infectious enthusiasm and brilliant powerpoint presentations taught me that class could be both fun and rigorous, Richard McCoy, whose honors seminar on “Love,” in my last year, was where I not only grasped the purpose of the annotated bibliography, but also finally felt like I could write; and so many others that I can’t name here who impacted my life in both big and small ways.

Writing this has made me realize that it wasn’t just studying English, but studying it alongside these teachers and mentors that made all the difference. After QC, I entered the CUNY Graduate Center in the English PhD program. My undergraduate coursework didn’t make the transition into grad school any easier- it was hard work and more reading than I ever dreamed I could do- but my time at QC did lay the foundation for the skills that I would continue to develop and strengthen over time. I entered the program having been exposed to challenging theoretical concepts, having had my writing critiqued (and, yes, torn apart in some cases), having already gone through endless revision cycles, having already presented my writing in public forums… And yet, there were things in grad school that I wasn’t prepared for- dealing with rejection when I submitted articles for publication, fielding difficult (sometimes antagonistic) questions at seminars and conferences, struggling to articulate exactly what I “do” to people both in and outside of academia, grappling with failure when I was on the job market this past fall and it seemed like I was only ever getting polite rejection letters. Through all of this, what has kept me going has been the structures of support that I found at the Graduate Center, which I can now trace back to my studies at QC.

The mentors I found there, many of whom are still in my life, gave me models for the kind of scholar and teacher I want to be. This was especially vital when I began crafting the syllabi for my own courses. Since then, I have had the pleasure of returning to and teaching at Queens College, encountering students who made the work of lesson planning and grading worth it. I have had the rewarding experience of encouraging my own students to enter the English department writing contest, composing letters of recommendation for internships and graduate school, and working with students on personal statements and writing samples, in hopes that I could touch their lives in the same way that my mentors have influenced and inspired me.

After six long years of research and teaching, I finally defended my dissertation this past March and will be graduating in June. In the fall, I will be working as a lecturer at Fordham University, teaching courses on composition and introduction to literary studies, where I hope to continue building the networks of mentorship and support that I first found at Queens College.

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