Alumni Spotlight: Adrienne Munich (Class of ’76)

adriennemunichphotoAdrienne Munich, Professor of English at Stony Brook University, graduated from the Graduate Center in 1976. Her publications include Selected Poems of Amy Lowell (2002), Queen Victoria’s Secrets (1996), and Andromeda’s Chains: Gender and Interpretation in Victorian Literature and Art (1989). Professor Munich sat down with PhD candidate Livia Woods on Monday, March 11, 2013 to discuss her memories of her time at The Graduate Center. What follows are selections taken from that conversation.

LW: Why did you choose to attend The Graduate Center?

AM: Well, times have changed a great deal since I was in the program. It was at a time when very few programs took women who had children (that is: allowed us to go part time, welcomed us, made us a part of the program). So, that was really a major consideration of mine because I had one child and another one very shortly thereafter.

My first experience at the Graduate Center was with a professor who taught the introduction to   the profession course. She was standing in front of us expecting a baby and that was just such a powerful message. I don’t think that is the same now. It wouldn’t necessarily make someone come to the Graduate Center rather than some other place because it’s not an issue.

Then as now there were many professors in the 19th century. And Ellen Moers was there and she was extremely influential because she was one of the earliest people to use feminist theory in literature and it was Victorian literature.

LW: What memories do you have about the process of preparing for the comprehensive and oral exams? Did that preparation stay with you in any particularly meaningful ways?

AM: The written exam was so much fun, I just loved that.

The oral exam was open-ended. There was nothing like a list and I walked into my orals and someone said “you know, since you’re interested in poetry, we’re not going to ask you about the Victorian novel.” Can you imagine? All the time I had spent reading those vast tomes, you know. But I have seen the documents now, preparing students to think about orals and to think about jobs. There’s a much more hands on concern now. It may be a function of the competitiveness of the market, both in attracting students and finding them employment that has made faculties, including The Graduate Center, more concerned with preparing students. But I had no preparation and I was so naïve, I didn’t know to ask. So there I come, ready to talk about Dickens, and nobody was interested. I think that’s a major difference: something called lists…we had no lists! You said, “My field is Victorian Literature and Modern Literature and Chaucer” (I think those were my three) and you came in expected to know all the criticism, all the literature. I mean, in some ways, it was an advantage. I read all of Chaucer, all the Chaucer criticism, everything. I read Browning from beginning to end. And there wasn’t interdisciplinary work. So now, it’s not that you know more or less, it’s just a different idea of comprehensive work.

LW: Could you speak to the ways in which your work at the Graduate Center contributed to the start of your career in academia?

AM: There’s no doubt that the feminist part [of my work at the Graduate Center] helped me get a job because I had written some articles already about Queen Victorian and Victorian poetry, but I’d like to say (and this may not be the case) they thought “Oh well, here’s a feminist who has a family; she’s not going to upset the apple-cart.” You know, they thought, “a tame feminist.” Which wasn’t the case!

LW: In terms of the dissertation, did that project become your first book?

AM: No, it didn’t. I didn’t understand what kind of contribution it was making at the time. And my advisor only understood in retrospect. So, I tended not to value it as I might have or know how    to revise it into a book, although I published a few articles and some of it became part of my first book when I started becoming interested in art. I wrote my dissertation on Browning who was kind of obsessed with the image of Andromeda in the Perseus and Andromeda myth and my first book was about the Perseus and Andromeda myth, but not just Browning.

I remember when I was hired, one of my Victorianist colleagues was writing on Elizabeth Barrett Browning and someone said to me, “she has sacrificed the privilege of being taken seriously.” Now, I think you could more easily write about Elizabeth Barrett Browning and hope to be published than write about Robert Browning. But what happened was that feminism enabled me to make an argument and write essays about how women, feminists, literary critics need not confine themselves to women writers. So that you could write about anything you   wanted to because that was more or less a standpoint in looking at the world, in looking at gender, in looking at value and ethics and all kinds of things. And ultimately, I think I saved my dissertation from my own rejection of it by saying: “even as a feminist I can write about Robert Browning.”

LW: In what ways have you stayed connected to the Graduate Center?

AM: I felt very indebted to the Graduate Center for, as I’ve said, allowing me to go and finish my degree [despite having to take a family leave and complete coursework part-time] The executive director of the English Department was a woman and she was very, very supportive and so I felt obligated to give back.

[Among other things] I was an outside reviewer for the Women’s Studies Certificate Program. And that was one reason I think the move to the [current single-building] Graduate Center was really wonderful: to have everyone in the same building where you could just go from one floor to another and gather all these people [for the certificate programs]. Because it’s so centrally located, too. People actually come on Fridays to talks.