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Reading, Writing and More Reading: Getting a Ph.D. in English

October  07, 2016

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In top English Ph.D. programs, Chris and Kim Hedlin ’11 follow their dreams and their role models

At the weekly meetings of the “Unabridged” club led by Dr. Meg Gillette, English majors and like minds talk books and writing, plan field trips, make slogan buttons (“Canonical,” “Non-canonical,” “I like big books and I cannot lie”), discuss careers for English majors, play literary games, drink cocoa and host guests.

Kim, left, and Chris Hedlin, twin sisters who graduated from Augustana in 2011.

Chris and Kim Hedlin, twin sisters and English majors from the Class of 2011, were guests at this year’s first meeting. They spoke on getting into their graduate programs, and how Augustana helped them get there.

The Hedlins are in top grad programs for English, a competitive field for Ph.D. seekers. Chris is studying 19th-century American literature at the University of Illinois; Kim is at UCLA, focusing on the early modern period in literature, around 1500-1660. Both are deep into the intensive work of writing dissertations.

Where and how did it all begin?

They recalled their Foundations honors class with history professor Dr. Lendol Calder during their first term on campus. Here they learned to view class discussion as “building a conversation.”

“In high school you get credit for a paper that’s correct and clean,” Chris said. “Dr. Calder taught us that writing can actually do something interesting.”

“In our Foundations classes we were challenged to think about questions that didn’t have easy answers,” Kim told the roomful of students. “That’s what lured us into being English majors.”

What’s the use of an English major?

Chris and Kim acknowledged the complexity of this question, which many in the room had heard on the news, if not from their friends and family members. The Hedlins had ready responses.

“You don’t ask a biologist what’s biology for,” Kim noted, “or ask an engineer what’s engineering for. We just assume biology is related to pre-med, and that makes your life longer. An engineer makes your life easier. But the use of majoring in English is harder for the public to measure. It makes you think differently, in a way that can make you more skeptical, more empathetic, and more just.”  

Kim and Chris identified cultural awareness and effective communication skills as primary benefits of majoring in English or the humanities. Kim pointed to this year’s presidential campaigns as examples of arguments that English majors have the skills to analyze critically.

Chris added that English majors also gain expertise in forming their own arguments. “Once you know how to put together arguments, you increase your power of expression and persuasion ,” she said.

Skills in communication and persuasion are especially necessary for addressing large-scale issues such as food security or global climate change, Kim pointed out. “These are not just scientific or technological problems. They are cultural problems. Addressing them requires the work of the humanities.”

Chris stressed the need to envision such issues differently. “Fiction is all about imagination. And that’s what we need right now,” she stated. “We need means to imagine things differently.”

What about graduate school?

The Hedlins acknowledged both the rewards and strains of life in graduate school.  At Augustana, each completed one 20-page Senior Inquiry paper across two terms; in graduate school they were each expected to write three 20- or 25-page papers in just one term.

Whereas college provided external forms of validation, Chris and Kim are motivated now by their “research questions,” the central topics or focuses of their dissertations. Both would recommend that undergraduates applying to graduate schools focus on specific research questions or interests in their personal statements.

“Your specialization can and probably will change in graduate school,” Chris said. “Regardless, the personal statement should show that you are capable of undertaking serious, interesting research.”

The Hedlins are a great success story for English majors. They were accepted into prestigious graduate programs. And once they got there, they found Augustana had given them a leg up: the discussion format of their graduate seminars was very similar to their undergraduate classes.

“We had class-wide discussions all the time here,” Chris said. “We also had great role models in our Augustana professors.”

Both Chris and Kim now teach undergraduates at their universities, and they call it “amazing” work. “The students give you so much energy,” Kim said. “They keep you going when you feel like you can’t write anymore.”

She plans to hit the job market this year, and Chris the year after. What career path do they seek? To be professors—maybe at a place like Augustana.