“What will you do with a degree in English?”
Inwardly, I’d crouch in defense, ready to spring, returning with something about good foundational skills and a “besides, I’m passionate about it,” all delivered with a practiced airiness and a quick change of subject because I was nothing if not polite and diverting in my early 20s. I always thought less of the enquirer after such exchanges, both on counts of indelicacy and what I perceived to be obtuseness. A combative part of me also understood that in fact very few of my classmates knew what they were going to “do” with a degree, period, and I therefore found the question snarky and unnecessarily pointed.
I understand things differently now. I perceive in those conversations a blaring misalignment in expectations of higher education, an awareness borne of age and seasoned by my years in the non-profit world, attempting in small and, sadly, ineffectual ways to improve educational access and attainment for underserved communities. What is the purpose, after all, of a degree in higher education? What should it be? Job training? The cultivation of good — or if not good, informed — citizens? Free intellectual inquiry? Knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Specialized skills? Generalized literacy with the status quo of one’s times? Etc. My answer to this question has evolved over time. There are too many inputs to land in one place, and many such perches are unfair to those unable to afford college. And so my view remains permanently unfixed, somewhere between the joy of reading F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time (“greenswards“!) and the transactionality of a stamp on a piece of paper that might permit me to, for example, operate heavy and specialized machinery. All I know is that I would probably dissuade my children from pursuing an advanced degree in the humanities. “Business, a minor in business,” my Dad used to urge — not so loudly that I’d listen, but enough that I remember and regret. I recognize the irony in my rue, because every suspect decision I have made has, improbably, enabled this spacewalk I call a career, but I find myself hoping for a more straightforward path for my own children. A friend of mine, commenting on struggling through a particularly circuitous time in her professional life, noted: “I just woke up one day and asked, ‘Does it have to be this hard?’ And the answer was no.” Something pinged inside me. Not that I have endured a hard or troubled professional life by a long shot (in fact, I consider my own both garishly lucky and deeply meaningful), but just this: there could have been more linear paths to a livelihood, fraught with less humiliation and self-doubt. Paved roads instead of winding dirt ones. Besides, my brother — a tenured professor — informs me that higher education will never be what it was when we were in our late teens. And so there are different matters for my children to consider that never dawned on me.
All to say: I have gone back through those college exchanges and grimaced at my reaction — in all cases save for one. A friend of mine, a smart one — one with whom I enjoyed sparring and found companionable intelligence and open-mindedness — had stared, blinkingly, at me, after I had stated: “You can’t just read whatever you want into a book. There are always many plausible interpretations, but there are also incorrect ones.” If an English major had taken me to task on this point, I would have respected the upbraiding. There are valid theoretical tacks that would handily unseat such claims. But his reaction lacked such theoreticizations.
“Isn’t…that…what you do in English? Read whatever you want into the books you’re reading?” He said this slowly, in befuddlement, as if I were an idiot.
I saw, then, how flimsy my chosen discipline appeared to him — how spineless, immaterial. He might respect my intelligence, but he would never respect my field. Where I saw tools, procedures, the unyielding scaffolding of Marxist or feminist or close reading criticism, the fact that the majority of success in a degree in English rests upon good persuasive writing and a lawyerly attentiveness to detail (how can you string together metrical feet, narrative design, choice of setting and de-code such minutiae such that they support a thesis suggested by the text?), he saw a bunch of dreamers braiding hair and reading a lot of something into nothing.
I gaped back at him, perceiving all at once the lack of prestige and meaning my degree carried in his eyes. I wanted to invite him into one of my seminars, to watch him flounder in confusion at the intensity of thought and meaningful conversation my classmates brought to bear. I wanted to prove myself, to prove English to him. But instead I half-heartedly groped to explain that he was wrong, changed the subject, and then laid in bed that night and decided that humility was the best course of action. From that day on, I’d laugh along with the inquiries about where my degree would take me: “I know, I know. I have no idea what I’m going to do.” I’d disparage my degree when given the chance: “I mean, I’m just an English major. You’re doing actual stuff.” I eagerly turned conversations about career choice back toward those around me.
I have long since dispensed of squeamishness when talking about my chosen career. I am admittedly shy about it, but I do not stumble over the facts: “I am a writer,” I say. I used to twitch with apology, stammer with explanation. But I write for a living. That is the bald truth of it. In moments of unflattering self-absorption, I wonder whether my friend’s opinion of English as a discipline has changed over time, whether because of me or not. Does he still dismiss the field as wool-gathering? In truth, sometimes I have a general appreciation as to where he was coming from. I approach the world with a sponge and chalk, absorbing, drawing, erasing, re-drawing, leaving a permeable white cloud around my lines. And he, and others like him — my many friends who are doctors, lawyers, finance people — bear a chisel, or surgical scalpel, or any number of implements that make material, physical contact with the world.
But is it fair to say I “practice English” anyway? Or did I cultivate good roots there, and then stumble into stretches of meaningful work elsewhere, and all of it — every non-linear diversion along the way — brought me to this moment, perhaps itself a pit-stop on the road to something else? Or maybe I was born a writer and would have landed here without the degrees? Or maybe my stint in the start-up world enabled me to pursue this second career in a way that would not have been previously possible, and so what I do for a living has little to do with the English degrees I earned at UVA and Georgetown? Or maybe, or maybe, or maybe —
I can say this, though: the or maybes is the great gift of a degree in English, the vindication I might offer my friend, should we ever revisit the topic: the accommodation of a multitude of narrative possibilities. English trained me to look at a single word and ask: “but why this one?” and to recognize a certain rhyme scheme and ask “what if it were another?” I am forever shaped by the way those questions both exact and forgive. They taught me to respect what is there on the page while wandering down the side path, investigating the alley behind, poking around in the shrubs — a sleuth-like procedure inherently blessed with both pragmatism and possibility.
Or maybe, or maybe, or maybe.
+These channeled liner coats are great for transitions between seasons. I have been wearing mine a lot the last few weeks.
+These clear and inexpensive makeup cases would be great for travel — whether for your own cosmetics or baby gear or even your traveling medicine cabinet (I always set aside a pouch filled with everything from sunscreen and bug spray to bandaids and benadryl.). I can’t overstate the convenience of clear pouches while traveling — makes everything so easy to find!
+And these travel toiletry canisters would be amazing for decanting your shampoos, etc. Love that they come in different colors — again, makes things very easy to locate!
+Why is this the only thing I want to wear?
+My daughter would love this bug notepad.
+In love with this simple and chic striped button-down.
+Another great basic that I know would be an absolute workhorse in my wardrobe. I’m always drawn to color and print but there’s something to be said for well-cut black.
+Speaking of “well-cut black,” this under-$40 tee dress would be amazing for the first half of a pregnancy. Loose-fit, easy to pair with sandals or sneaks, etc. Would also be great for those of us trailing little children! Easy to wear and launder, moves nicely, non-precious.
+A total splurge, but I adore every detail of this striped dress.
+Dream bag. Would look so good and unexpected paired with this season’s trendy acid wash denim. (ICYMI: I love this $40 dress, which nails the look without breaking the bank. I’ve worn it several times already. Target also has a similar style in a top format.)
+Some great sale finds on Beyond Yoga fitness gear here. These racerback cropped bras are seriously the most comfortable sports bra I’ve ever worn. I also bought these $20 cropped tanks and they are amazingly comfortable, too. I have been generally underwhelmed by Amazon fitness finds, but these are good (just remove the cups!).