What is it you English Majors do, precisely?

Becoming an English major requires a certain patience with having one’s life choices questioned. Fielding interrogations from friends, family, and random strangers is just part of the literary life, creating the kind of quick wit and evasive verbal maneuvering skills useful for navigating the world. Yet the questions are valuable in and of themselves too, as answering unanswerable questions is the fundamental project of the humanities. So when confronted with an uncle (and everyone has that uncle) wanting to know, “What is it you English majors do, precisely?” it pays to think deeply about the answer. Finding my own explanation for the what and why of literary study has structured my journey as an English major and a scholar, a journey I hope to continue for the rest of my life. And while there is no definitive answer to the question of purpose, working to find one has developed me as a reader, writer, and person in ways impossible to achieve otherwise.

Entering college, at least for me, was less a triumphant progress than an unceremonious reminder of just how much I had to learn in the next four years. I came to Berry College already passionate about writing and reading but too steeped in the high school five-paragraph essay to be an impressive scholar. I had to relearn writing by breaking out of my old patterns and finding something new. Surprisingly, the classes outside my major started this process. My status as an Honors student brought me into contact with two excellent thinkers, Dr. Brian Carroll and Dean Thomas Kennedy, within my first semester at Berry. While it was a trial by fire to survive their rigorous classes, these two professors forced me to think deeply about the structure and content of my writing. In weekly assignments for Dr. Carroll, I learned to avoid vague language while also producing work on a consistent basis. Meanwhile, Dean Kennedy’s essays required attention to detail, argumentative clarity, and the effective synthesis of important issues. In rising to the expectations of these two professors, my once formulaic and vague essays became sharper and freer at the same time as my mind did. Though both these courses were outside my academic specialty, they paved the way for growth within my major by shattering mental barriers left over from high school.

Releasing my old writing habits was only the beginning, however. My next lessons, learned in my first English and Rhetoric classes, involved the definitive English major skills: research and interpretation. Judging literature based upon surface-level characteristics or personal opinion was no longer considered sufficient basis for an argument, as it had been in high school. Thus, in writing my first essays within my major, I had to wend my way through the jungle of literary criticism, theoretical frameworks, and research databases and make my own judgements about what I found there. My preliminary attempts seem somewhat juvenile now; expecting to find a definitive “truth” in the library, as I then hoped, was an exercise in futility. However, my forays into research did transform my understandings of reading, writing, and learning. Rather than passively receiving knowledge, I had search for it, wrestle with it, and condense it into intelligible form. Perhaps my best production from this time period is the included literature review of critical responses to William Faulkner’s short story “A Rose for Emily”. I was confused by the story’s hints of necrophilia and social subversion and so I hoped to find its “true” meaning with the help of the critics I analyzed. But the critics had no definitive interpretation of “A Rose,” forcing me to reconcile various perspectives with my own understanding of the story. I had to trust my own judgement in the end, which was both terrifying and liberating. More to the point, this project provided an experience of fundamental aspects of literary study, an experience which enthralled me infinitely more than I expected.

After discovering the infinite possibilities of literary interpretation, my confidence and interest in literary studies developed by leaps and bounds. I realized I enjoyed scholarship for its own sake; writing about writing in this way helped clarify the world I lived in and connected me to others miles and centuries away. My discovery of feminist critical perspectives in my early years at Berry fueled this attitude. Some of my best work in my first two years of college drew heavily upon feminist thought, as feminist explanations of the world seemed close to the definitive “truth” I had always longed for. However, as my close reading skills improved and I read outside the canon of “classic” novels in my various English courses, I found my narrow focus on a universal experience of gender was far from accurate. In particular, the modernist and postmodernist works I encountered in junior year seemed too multivocal to analyze with simple binaries of male power versus female oppression. Reality, even fictional reality, could not be contained within the simplistic personal theory I’d built for myself. Again, I had to find something new, a way to embrace the variety of identities and possibilities both within and outside of literature. So I paid more attention to other elements: class, race, sexuality, and the infinite other permutations which shaped depictions of gender. I also began acknowledging the importance of genre, structure, and historical context in interpreting literary works, an understanding which enriched my analysis by taking me deeper into the works I read. I still accessed the world through literature, but that world had expanded.

Close contact with professors inside and outside class particularly encouraged this expansion. Once I expressed interest in scholarship for its own sake, I found faculty willing to serve as mentors and support my evolving academic work. The most notable of these were Dr. Zeynep Tenger, who first exposed me to feminist theory; Dr. Thomas Dasher, who encouraged my reading outside the canon and advised me through numerous crises; Dr. Mark Taylor, who introduced to me to the beauties of structure and genre; and Dr. Christina Bucher, whose incisive editing and nuanced reading perspectives were inspirational. Yet the entire English department contributed to my academic evolution, supporting me as I cobbled together new critical perspectives from the ashes of my simplistic understanding of feminism.

The first product of this growth spurt was the included analysis of Frank Norris’s naturalist novel, Mcteague. Though the novel’s scientific racism and complicated attitude toward human agency first caught my eye, I found connections between the structure of the work and the science supporting it which deepened my understanding without distracting from the novel. Rather than diminishing the role either historical context or the work itself, I could think of the two as intertwined. For once, I had assembled a holistic theory of my own which actually worked. From then on, I became a more careful reader of both literature and literary criticism. Instead of reading only the surface matter of plot or social context, I searched for the connections between structure and society to find deeper layers of meaning. My growth as a scholar accelerated after this point; I produced work I’m still proud of by following my new trajectory. the most recent example of this is the attached paper on Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s Purple Hibiscus. Reading the book’s structure as an essential reflection of the themes helped me go beyond the plot and understand how the lessons of Purple Hibiscus revealed complex truths about the colonized world. I had a similar experience with the included essay on Henry James’ The Bostonians. While the literary value of the novel an important part of this paper, the connections I found between The Bostonians and gender ideology in the society which produced it added exponentially to my understanding. These papers not only encouraged increasingly nuanced theoretical perspectives; they also furthered my original project of connecting with others through literature. By addressing both the social and structural details of the works I read, I found I could forge deeper links between life and art than possible otherwise.

Looking back on these experiences leads me to consider my next steps. All the transitions and discoveries which marked my undergraduate years have taken me in a new direction career-wise. Though I originally intended to become a librarian, living the life of the mind for four years was a revelation to me. The joys and frustrations of literary scholarship gave me such fulfillment that I can’t bear the thought of leaving them behind. Thus, I’ve come to the conclusion academia is the niche for me. The way I see it, reading and writing can make a real difference by showing students the world is more complex and beautiful than everyday life would indicate. I feel teaching literature on the collegiate level will provide both a fulfilling career and way to spread my personal delight in learning to others. To that end, I have applied to eight English literature Ph.D programs and hope to start the next phase of my education in the fall. The writing, reading, and thinking skills I learned at Berry will be crucial here, as academics will literally become my life in the years to come. However, I feel much more prepared for life in general than I did four years ago. Not only have I gained new perspectives on literature and writing, I have also learned an enormous amount about myself and my capabilities. Perhaps most important of all, I have learned truth is too complex to hold within a single theory or even a single book. And in this, I suppose I have an answer to that starting question: “What is it English majors do?” We look for truth, and it is in the search itself that we find it.