Oh, yes you do. Let me clarify. No matter what subdiscipline you self-identify as – and there are many, most of which sound completely made up – and you are in grad school doing coursework, you sure as hell will do Early Modern drama, Postcolonial poetry, Canadian Fiction Between World Wars, or whatever other courses might be available in your department. You can’t, of course, take every course your department offers since you only have to take a certain number, but you shouldn’t complain about every course that does not happen to be your area of specialization. Suck it up, buttercup, and you just might learn something or find some awesome connections between your thing and a totally unrelated thing. It happens all the time.
The reason the tone of this post is decidedly acerbic is because there is a certain amount of snobbery and elitism displayed in grad schools on a daily basis, a lot of the time by students.* I was never outwardly snobbish (I think) about my area of specialization in my MA or PhD coursework, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t secretly hate the material I was “being forced” to read. I’m also not outwardly or inwardly snobbish now that I’m done; I still have so much left to learn. The thing is, however, I had an embarrassment of riches doing both my MA and PhD coursework in Vancouver with two great universities offering wide-ranging and interesting English graduate courses as well the flexibility to take courses in other departments (Communications and History, for example). Even though I considered myself a Victorianist for most of my coursework career (I toyed with a number of “post” disciplines), I took courses on Middle English, Early Modern Atheism, Performance Theory, Walter Benjamin, Biopolitics, American Gothic, Posthumanism, and one (count ’em, one!) on Victorian literature, among others. I did not enjoy every aspect of every one of these courses, but I always had the option of dropping any if they were really severe. The way I chose courses was as a means of filling in the gaps in my knowledge of English as a discipline and that is what coursework is for. You are supposed to take courses outside whatever field you’ve decided you’re a part of. At worst you will trundle through the readings, contribute little in class, write a passable (though uninspired) paper, and know something more about whatever topic it was the course studied. At best, you will discover that you actually love engaging with this material and, even though you will not build a career on it, it excites you and it arouses your academic libido. Most courses might fall somewhere in the middle. Chances are, however, that you will not regret most courses you take. I don’t regret any courses I took because, if nothing else, it solidified my confidence in what kind of work I want to be doing, even though there were times when I would have rather scratched my cornea with a used needle than attend certain classes.
My advice, then, is to not be a snob about what courses you’re going to take in graduate school and, for good measure, don’t complain about them. Coursework is a fantastic time to challenge yourself and try and expand your menagerie of things that you may have only a passing knowledge in. You will be amazed at the number of connections you can make to your area of interest with seemingly disparate topics, so you should know that it’s always an option to write an essay that incorporates your expertise in more ways than one. One more thing, however, which is just as bad as the thing I have been writing about, and that concerns when you take a class in your specialty. If you’re lucky enough to find one or more classes in your specialty, it’s okay to self identify as an “x” specialist; it is not okay, however, to go into that classroom with the stance of a peacock trying to attract a mate. Nobody, and I mean nobody, will be impressed with your superior knowledge of the subject matter if you use it to show off and/or put others down. The graduate classroom should be a collaborative place where every student should feel free to share risky opinions, half-formed ideas, and other things that are generally considered unacceptable outside the lower, safer confines of the ivory tower’s crèche. Also, hotshot, any prof worth their salt will shoot you down if you’re being a jerk. It’s extreme, but I’ve seen it happen. So, there you go. Don’t be a snob and you’re good.
*I will have a more general post about grad student snobbery soon to be better timed with the onset of a new academic year, but it’s not quite ready yet.