Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Short Story & the Truth Behind Grad School: Talking to Magali Armillas-Tiseyra


You know that graduate school is getting to you when teaching a summer course is considered a "break." While working on her dissertation on the dictator novel in Latin American and Franco- and Anglophone African literatures, GW alumna and current NYU graduate student Magali Armillas-Tiseyra, decided it would be good to slow down this summer by teaching a course on the short story. The short story has always been significant for Armillas-Tiseyra. She remembers analyzing the mechanics of short stories in creative writing courses at GW. "I thought focusing on the short story would be a great way to allow students to read broadly while also allowing us to work on the mechanics of close reading and textual analysis. When you're trying to get through a whole novel with the class, this kind of focused work can sometimes get put aside, and I wanted to be forced to focus on this with my students," she said. However as easy as it was for Armillas-Tiseyra to choose this topic, it was hard to choose the actual stories. The course will span a broad range of authors from Europe, Latin, and North America.

Teaching is not new to Armillas-Tiseyra. Previously she taught a Spanish language course and has TA-ed for several introductory courses and seminars at NYU. However, she still finds herself learning every time she teaches. She said, "It's your opportunity to put what you care about into action. It's hard, often humbling, work, but it's also a great learning experience and even fun." Armillas-Tiseyra maintains that the adjustment between being a student versus a teacher is a welcome one.

When Armillas-Tiseyra is not teaching, she is pursuing a PhD in Comparative Literature. Originally she intended to apply to English programs, but as a senior at GW working on her thesis about Anglophone Caribbean literature and taking Spanish courses with Sergio Waisman, Armillas-Tiseyra found her focus shifting. "In shopping departments, and in particular at NYU, I began to realize that the classes and work that really interested me were in Comparative Literature rather than English," she said. "I found the prospect of the much broader literary horizons (technically, everything) and the linguistic challenge really exciting."

Armillas-Tiseyra found the GW English Department very encouraging. She cites Tara Wallace, Judith Plotz, and Maxine Clair (her creative writing adviser) as her best guides. "I'd always 'known' that I'd go to grad school, but at GW I was actively encouraged and supported in the process. I realize now, talking to fellow graduate students and looking at undergrads here at NYU, that I was really very lucky," she said. This encouragement was necessary during her busy senior year when she ran the GW Review, wrote two theses, and worked at the Writing Center. She said, "My last year was tough, and in a lot of ways my first year of grad school was even tougher--I got here and realized that most people wait before coming back, which makes them very different students." Although Armillas-Tiseyra does not regret her decision to start graduate school immediately after college, she believes taking one year off could be beneficial.

Armillas-Tiseyra does see an advantage of applying to graduate school right after graduation: the graduate programs seem less intimidating. She realizes she is lucky, but luck has only so much to do with her success at NYU right now. "I feel very lucky to be where I am, but, from this end of things, I also understand that, in some ways, getting in is luck and the difference comes in the sort of career (if that's the word) you build while you're actually in there," she said. Since she started NYU, Armillas-Tiseyra has been working on conferences, organizing lectures, and helped to start a departmental colloquium series and system for student representation. She said, "I am so much prouder of the things I've done--particularly within department life, such as starting a colloquium, in the last few years than I ever was happy or devastated by my response letters."

However, getting into graduate school is a different matter than staying in graduate school, which is what Armillas-Tiseyra sees as the main conflict now. She recognizes the bad job market after graduate school for literature majors and knows many people who did not pursue this field and are happier for it. "But there's no point going through this (long hours, low pay) unless you absolutely love the work; one of the advantages of being relatively young for me is that I feel I have time to change course in the future, without having to sacrifice what I'm passionate about at the moment," she said.

We wish Armillas-Tiseyra the best of luck with her PhD and summer course! For more information on her course on the short story at NYU this summer click here.

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