Alum Interview with Dominique Zino, Class of ‘14

Why did you choose to attend the Graduate Center?

I’m from NY originally – and my family is from NY for something like three generations.  My grandparents grew up on the LES.  I was coming right out of undergrad and deciding between Ph.D. programs.  I was accepted at other schools, such as Buffalo and Maryland.  But I knew that Mary Ann Caws was at the Graduate Center – and it was studying art and literature that drew me to the program initially.  Also, my undergrad senior thesis advisor, Thomas Glave, was affiliated with the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS). So, I talked through the options with various people.  A family member who is an English professor at Julliard said, “If you got into the Graduate Center, you have to go.”  Personally, what solidified the decision had to do with my grandfather.  He couldn’t live on his own anymore and had to leave his apartment in the city around the same time that I was accepted to graduate school.  I just got very lucky all at once.  I made the right decision, and it has been a way to rediscover my family background as well as to explore all parts of the city.

What memories stand out to you about your time in coursework?  

A couple things – for one, Matthew Burgess, a poet and teacher who I just graduated with in June, recently asked me about Eve Sedgwick: “What do you remember about Eve’s course?”  And I remembered how fabulous that course was – even though she was ill. We met weekly in her studio on W. 16th St. – using her stamp collection and magazine collection – and just making books and everything – all kinds of diagrams, collaborative work.  It was an amazing, crafty experience.

And during my first year at the GC – one of my my first classes was with Sondra Perl on memoir. A lot of the people from that class ended up being lasting friends, and Sondra ended up being on my orals committee. Sondra also brought in Nancy Miller and N. John Hall (two GC faculty members), and we were able to ask them questions about their memoirs.  The quality of the discussion in that course was unbelievable.  I had never had been as committed to Blackboard as I was in that class.  People put so much into their responses – although there weren’t strict requirements. The things people poured into the responses were amazing – they raised the bar.

I had three classes with Joan Richardson, and her classes were a joy.  She has this rhythm when she starts speaking – the first go round, I was anxious to speak – but her style of moving between texts felt very comfortable to me. She was a natural choice for an advisor.

What memories stand out to you about your exam/defense experiences (the comprehensive exam, oral exam, language exams, defense)?   

Well, I will say, if I’m thinking about first year students, the comps can be heavy.  They may feel especially intimidating, but I remember forming student groups for them and that helped.  I’m still friends with people with whom I was in study groups, and I still have a binder of handouts I’ve shared with incoming students.  You have to start relying on your peers early in the program – because the comps asks you to cover areas that you don’t have expertise in – which creates a really good bond between incoming classes.  Then there’s the relief of passing.  You realize, this is actually the only time when nobody knows my name. In 2007, we were still handwriting, and the exam was divided into two hour sessions – so at least six hours of hand writing – but, still, no one knew which exam was mine.  So to pass made me feel like I belonged here – no favors were being done.  I was just good enough to be in the program.  I think you just need that in your first year…

The language exams … I’d tried to strategize with that … I had taken a couple years of Spanish, so I took the exam right away.  Then I ended up taking the French reading course, the summer after my first year.  I would say go get the exams out of the way really fast because it’s frustrating to have that hanging over you when you’re done with course work.  Doing that early was an advantage.

The orals … I have a lot of conflicting feelings about the orals.  That’s the only part I wish I could do again.  My lists were Autobiography Theory and Memoir with Sondra Perl, Nineteenth-Century American Aesthetics with Joan Richardson, and Artist/Writer Relationships with Mary Ann Caws.  Two out of three ended up being on my dissertation committee.  Duncan Faherty ended up replacing Sondra Perl.  I knew orals was a really important time – the only time to devote all my energy to reading and processing what I read – and people told me this … because after the orals you’ll always be pulled in five different directions.

The process of devising reading lists is a central skill of our field.  I’ll probably put myself through my own “orals” again.  It was a really important process.  My sense after the dissertation defense was, now I could really make book lists that are relevant.

What memories stand out to you about your time working on the dissertation? 

In the moments when the writing was flowing it was amazing.  I just had to get used to the fact that there is ebb and flow.  I remember the Emerson chapter took me a really long time – two semesters to do the first chapter, and there was a push at the end when I rewrote a lot of it.  There were those times with every chapter, and there was reading and the gradual formation of the argument, – and then the realization that it wasn’t new … and then getting to the revisions.  And then you get to the product, and you realize how long it was, from 2011 to January of 2014 – basically, when I gave my readers the full draft.  It was about accepting that this process was always there.  Maybe a fuller sense of direction and sense of satisfaction with the product will come with the book, but I’m not there yet.  My committee made me feel that was okay and that was good.  If your dissertation isn’t substantially different than what you thought it was in the prospectus – then you haven’t thought about it enough.  You can’t feel tied to what you started.

What skills/interests/relationships/et cetera have you taken away from your time at the Graduate Center?  

I could ramble on about that for hours …. .  It was the relationships that I forged which have been so incredibly valuable … and to see the way the GC has positioned itself as a research institution and cultural institution.  Two main groups I was involved with were the American Studies student group and Certificate Program and the Comp Rhet group. In comp rhet, we didn’t really have an established program when I came in, and we had to build a Comp Rhet group from the ground up; now, collaborating with the CUNY-wide comp rhet speaker series, we’d bring in people from all over the country to speak in dialogue with CUNY faculty members.  I’m just really happy to see the support students have given it as well as how much support the institution has given the students.

On one hand I would say – the relationships I gained from Comp Rhet are the relationships that made me sure I didn’t want to leave CUNY– being a Writing Fellow at Queensborough, after starting my teaching career there, felt really comfortable.  There are so many committed teachers and scholars in this system who are really enthusiastic about what they’re doing.  I felt it was not in my best interest to leave CUNY because I could not replace the set of relationships I’ve built here, and it was not desirable to start over where I didn’t know anyone.  The ties already ran too deep – working – knowing the writing programs.  I don’t want to take myself out of that network.

On the other hand, the network keeps growing outward, too—the American Studies Program helped me to make contact with research institutions all over the country. I attended the Futures of American Studies workshop for my first chapter at Dartmouth and received an outside fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society to do archival work.  There are so many ways in which having those experiences enriched my scholarship … like when you live with people in a scholar’s residence.  The Grad Center has been excellent in giving students the chance to have that opportunity.  We really train people well to take advantage of these opportunities– it’s exceptional the professional training we have here.

What unique opportunities did the Graduate Center/being in New York City for graduate school offer you?  

The obvious answer is you’re in the middle of one of the richest cities in the country culturally – close enough to Columbia, NYU, Fordham, New School to hop over and attend a talk – the access we have is unrivaled.  People have asked me, how do you get any work done?  How do you sit at home and do your work?!

Can you explain the trajectory of your career path since leaving the GC? What is your current position and how did you come to it? 

I’m currently an Asst. Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College.  No magical story.  I applied.  I interviewed.  I’m thrilled to be there.  I was hired along with eleven other women – and I think it’s worth saying, a few are CUNY grads.  I feel like the GC prepared me very, very well for this job.  I walked in and hit the ground running.  I not only know how to teach but also how to secure funding, write grants, and work on committees.  Getting exposure to this as graduate students makes us incredibly marketable.   I learned how to be a colleague in the GC English Department.

You need to rely on your colleagues and collaborate, and you know they are smart and talented and motivated and so you work together.  You ask, what can we do together?  How are we going to do this monumental task together?  People from the GC are flexible and ready for anything.  We don’t complain unnecessarily, and we make situations work.

Additional comments/memories/thoughts?

I feel really lucky.  I don’t feel like I’ve left entirely.  I’m talking to you form the GC right now – so that’s sort of telling – no one is chasing me out.  If you stay at CUNY, you’re still part of the network – and for the most part, at this stage of my career, it’s been for the better.