Thursday, November 5, 2009

What Do You Do With a BA in English?

My Advanced Writing teacher punched me in the gut this morning. Not literally, of course. But, as is his wont, he likes to question and in class he likes to question the structures of literary education and literary criticism and what we as students are used to.

Today, he decided it would be a great idea to show us a list of undergraduate students who received research grants at our university. We made the observation he intended, that is, in at least the past three years, no English majors have received grants. The majority of recipients were engineering and health sciences majors. Of course, in perspective, there are many more engineering and health sciences students at this school than there are English majors. He didn't even have data on how many English majors had applied versus been rejected for grants.

It's just that then, the conversation devolved, as I'm also sure he intended, into a discussion of how English majors are marginalized at this school, the English department doesn't encourage undergraduate research, and in literary criticism, there's a general turgidity and a perception from the world at large that literary criticism is irrelevant and literature is too accessible or irrelevant to require a profession surrounding it.

I fell right into the trap. The discussion dredged up all my feelings and insecurities about not being considered relevant, being jobless and hopeless and voiceless, all because I'm bad at math, and while I love and respect science, I could never be very successful in it as a career. I just don't work that way. So what's left for me? Is my life meaningless?

I'm pretty sure my teacher didn't intend THAT to happen, but it's the natural progression of questioning English as a field. It's questioning my choice to be an English major and my ability to contribute to the world.

I thought about it and came up with an existential answer. If the world blew up tomorrow, who was more important, the engineer or the poet? Neither, they're both dead and everything they worked for is gone.

I just read an entry on Reading Dangerously from Tales from the Reading Room. It was just what I needed to hear. She's talking about how some books force you to think and evaluate yourself, and how literary training helps to understand difficult literature. She reminded me how books can shock you, hurt you, make an impression, and open your mind. That's why I'm an English major, that's why I love literature. Reading (and writing) is how I work through, process, and deal with life, and how I learn to relate to others.

I want to use this blog to connect with other readers and writers. Thus far, I have been content to keep a record of book reviews, mostly for my own amusement and posterity. From now on, I plan to read and comment more on other literary blogs and hope they will return the compliment. Because we share something precious and we need to contribute to the preservation not only of literature, but discussion and understanding of literature.


litlove said...

Returning the compliment! I am so sorry that the discussion in class (which I would bet was a way to get the same discussion out of your teacher's head and into a space where at least someone would be sympathetic) brought you down. Those types of conversation (and I've been sucked into enough) just do. I started blogging because I believed there must be people out there who read and wrote because they loved it, and stories were important to them in all kinds of ways. Good news - this community flourishes online and you need never feel alone again.

SympatheticReader said...

I'll admit having thrown a similar question at students I have taught. Here's the point: you have to have an answer for why studying literature is important. You have chosen it, so you should be able to defend your choice, even advocate for it!

Reflecting on your choice is a good thing. It helps you understand yourself better, and it helps you see your possibilities and your limitations. The more you know about why you do what you do, the better.

Many times in your life, you will encounter people who don't see the value in reading literature. They will say that it is a waste of time or a distraction from important things. What will you say? Again, there are many answers to the question, but the important thing is to know what your answer is. You're an English major for a reason. So what's the reason?

I think once you've formulated your own answer, you'll feel a bit better, too.

Marie said...

:-) It's always a good idea to check in with yourself from time time and make sure you still believe in what you're doing and why, and make sure you have a plan for yourself. Liberal arts is a noble calling but not always a remunerative one!

Najva Sol said...

I love it. If everything is blown up, I'm glad I didn't work 9-5.

Hey, being snazzy in the literary dept also makes for great conversation and the ability to go on fantastic adventures with the cheap tool of your MIND.

Woah there, brain cells.