Friday, November 23, 2012

Statement of Intent

You might think this post is about deciding where to apply. Nope, I've already got that figured out. (yes, there are some snowy schools on the list.) But with that problem solved, I've encountered a new one. The Statement of Intent.

I'm stuck. I'm not really sure I get the genre of the graduate school statement of intent. Yet here I am, sitting in my bed wasting my holiday trying to figure out how to write it. I've stopped and started the blasted thing numerous times today, but I can't decide what's the best way to go about this in order to justify myself as a viable PhD candidate. Anyway, here are my thoughts on the subject.

I get the feeling that I ought to do something in the way of personalizing the statement so that those who read it get a sense of who I am, my personality and so on. So maybe I should include a related anecdote about my past that gives them some sense of where I started and why I've come to the conclusion that I want to dedicate my life to the study of rhetoric and composition. You know something like this:

When I was a little kid I had a lot of concerns and worries about the future and growing up that were largely born of my fear of the unknown. Sometimes as a school-aged child I would lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling and thinking about what my life would be like 15, 20 and 30 years down the road. The fact that I had no clear picture of what it would be was at times cripplingly terrifying. Among all those worries, there was one aspect of the future about which I had no doubts and that comforted me when I got to thinking about the horror before me, I knew what I would be when I grew up. An astronomer. And so I set about getting myself ready for my life with astronomy by…reading works of literature and writing stories. Yep. While consciously I had it in mind to study the stars, I was unknowingly preparing myself for a life with words. I should’ve seen the writing on the wall in high school when I got a 5 on the AP English test and a 1 on the AP Calculus BC test, but it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I finally realized that English was the path for me.

But that feels too corny and lame. Maybe instead of telling a related anecdote, I could tell an unrelated anecdote that illustrates a character trait that uniquely suits me for the study of rhetoric and composition. Maybe something like this:

I was nervous causing my body to tremble slightly in my new Cub Scout uniform. Keith and Craig and I stood there outside of the gym wherein our parents were waiting for us to march in and start pack meeting with the flag ceremony. We’d been in the hall a long time. Too long, frankly. Unfortunately, before we could march in and get started, we had to decide who would carry the flag, Keith or Craig. Frankly I didn’t care, I was just excited that I got to be the one to tell everyone what to do and lead the audience in the Pledge of Allegiance, but Keith and Craig were angry and all red-in-the-face from arguing, each unwilling to give in and let the other carry the flag. I peeked into the gym and saw our leader standing at the front of the room nervously looking back at the doors hiding us. When he saw my forehead and glasses poke out from behind the door he gestured in such a way as to ask, “What’s the holdup?” I raised my eyebrows and shrugged, and turned back to the argument behind me. Something would have to be done. I told the two of them to shut up, and said, "We've got to get in there. Everyone's waiting for us." Keith responded, "Then tell Craig to give me the flag because I'm carrying it." I looked at Craig who just gripped the flag's pole tighter. I realized this wasn't going anywhere, so I proposed that Craig carry the flag into the gym, at which time he would hand it to Keith to hold during the Pledge of Allegiance. After the pledge, Keith would take the flag over to the flag stand and post it. That way they both got to carry it. They looked at each other with a hint of suspicion and agreed. They were both happy and the ceremony went off without a hitch. As I sat down with my parents, I was pleased with myself for coming up with a solution. I had no idea that I'd just enacted "transcendence" per Kenneth Burke.

That seems a little too touchy feely too, and it takes way too long to get to the point. I don't know. Maybe I'm trying to hard to make it personable and unique and I should just jump right in and say what I want to study, what I've done to prepare myself for success in this field and why the acceptance committee in question should accept me. In other words I should give them "just the facts" without any personal narrative flavor to dress it up. It might look something like this:

I’m fascinated by people. The way we interact, the way we work together and against each other and the way we somehow manage to make life work even though we never really understand one another. Really, what I’m saying is I’m fascinated by rhetoric. A professor of mine, Grant Boswell, summed up this fascination pretty well when he said, “Fish swim in water; people swim in rhetoric.” It’s all around us, everywhere. What I want, and the reason I’m applying to your program, is to better understand this process. How do we make ourselves known to one another? How do we really influence one another through words and other symbolic gestures? How can we know whether or not such influence is inherently ethical? These are the kinds of things I’m keen on understanding. Specifically, I want to know how these things are done through the medium of the written word, and how we as scholars can best help students in writing and composition courses really grasp and embrace these ideas.

I don't know. I know the kind of stuff I need to include, but what form should it all take? This is my question.

Maybe, instead of doing anything I've suggested up above, I could just flesh out this blog post with some particulars and submit it as a kind of alternative discourse to the grad school letter of intent.

I dunno. We'll see.


  1. I'm seeing some promising creative non-fiction here, too! =) ...But to the point, I like your last sample/experiment best. I couldn't put my finger on exactly why, but it might have something to do with a conversation I had with Lance Larsen when I asked him how much of a "personal touch" he feels should be present in a letter of intent. (And this is SO simple that it may be no help at all--but I remembered it, and I hereby share.) He said that after he reads an applicant's letter, he wants to be thinking, "THIS is someone I want to meet." Your third sample, to me, does that the best.

  2. Can't you just edit this one?
    That would be my favorite.

    But in all seriousness, I agree, the third one is the most best version of rhetoricalSammy.

  3. I like the third also. Dan says you should mix in the personal and the practical. Trent says you should never say the word "fascinated" because it's super overused.