My Time in the English major at Berry

As I sit down to reflect on my time in the English major at Berry, I’m roughly three months removed from my last English class. At the moment, I’m in the middle of a semester-long student teaching experience at Armuchee High School, finishing out my Secondary Education minor and preparing for the “real world” of teaching that awaits me after May 10th. At this point, I’ve got some well-needed temporal, as well as practical, distance between myself and the English classes that were a staple of my time at Berry. Truth be told, I miss them. On a more relevant note, I’m thankful for them. In combination with my own extensive extracurricular studies of literature – e.g. my annual summer reading and research projects with books like Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, and Infinite Jest – my English studies at Berry have not only given me knowledge that I am using right now in the high school classroom but also made me an overall better, more critical reader and writer. The discussions I’ve had (or rather, given my introverted nature, mostly observed) in class have shown me how to engage with others in good intellectual discussion and how a single text can be approached and analyzed from a variety of angles. The connections I’ve made with professors, both in and out of the classroom, have shown me much the same while giving me intellectual and personal role models to look up to. In short, my experience as an English major at Berry has been an enriching one, one that has prepared me both professionally and personally for the years after graduation.

Coming to Berry in the fall of 2010, I knew from the start that I was going to be an English major and Secondary Education minor. It wasn’t until the spring of 2012, though, that I was able to start taking “real” English classes: classes that were more a part of the major than of the general education curriculum. One such class, Western Literary Tradition (ENG 337), gave me a thorough understanding of the texts that formed the basis of the literary canon, which is essential to understanding the interaction between texts that makes up Western literature as a whole. Taken at the same time, Introduction to Literary Studies (ENG 240) gave me a solid foundation in the varying critical perspectives that make up literary criticism while also exposing me to a great number of varying literary works, which has been especially helpful as I begin to choose the material I teach to my high school students. Both classes in combination with each other allowed me to enter the critical conversation myself and forced me into a deeper understanding of the works themselves by engaging with literary criticism from a variety of theoretical perspectives.

One can see this explicitly in the literature review done for ENG 240 on Joyce Carol Oates’ “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”It is part of the three main essays at the beginning of this portfolio. As with most of the work done for ENG 240, this writing assignment allowed me to thoroughly examine a story that I had never encountered before. By reading numerous critical pieces, I became more aware of the vast critical conversation that can take place around even a single short story. By having to synthesize those pieces into one whole, I engaged more deeply with the story itself, judging the persuasive arguments of the literary criticism I was reading against my own personal thoughts about the story and reconciling the two through my writing.

My final essay for Western Literary Tradition, written as the literature review and included in the portfolio appendix, forced me to look at a conversation separate from criticism: the conversation between fictional texts throughout history. By examining the ever-changing nature of narrative in major texts separated by hundreds of years, I was able to see how a text responds to the others that came before it, whether that response is conscious – e.g. the invocation of the epic journey, as in Don Quixote, Dante’s Inferno, and The Aeneid, going all the way back to The Odyssey – or unconscious, e.g. how the figure of the hero changes from The Aeneid through Mann’s Death in Venice and Kundera’s Immortality. Seeing this “conversation” between texts that makes up the canon was very important for me to encounter at the start of my time in the English major, and it’s an idea that I worked with continually throughout the next few years.

In the fall of 2012, I enrolled in Studies in Southern Literature: Southern Women Writers (ENG 432), which was a major turning point in my studies. While the other classes I was in – either previously or concurrently with ENG 432 – had challenged me and exposed me to literature I was unfamiliar with, ENG 432 was by far the most challenging and most rewarding class that I took as an English major at Berry. The material we read engaged directly with my burgeoning interest in Southern literature: I had read Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying that summer, as well as McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (which sort of counts). Our readings in the class – including novels like The Color Purple, Bastard Out of Carolina, and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty – gave me the chance to thoroughly explore not just the concept of Southern identity but how that identity is intertwined with concepts of Southern femininity, race, and economics. The writing-intensive nature of the course was ultimately what made those “explorations” so thorough and rewarding. Dr. Watkins required daily responses in email form from each of us regarding the day’s reading, as well as longer response papers every few weeks, three of which are included in the portfolio appendix. Such response papers were nothing new for me: I did several each semester for other classes, and they were always helpful in forcing me to engage with the text on a critical level. However, the frequency of the responses required for ENG 432 made me engage with the material on a critical level almost every day, which helped me in my critical reading. It also made me write a lot, formally and informally, which strengthened my writing abilities and reinforced the engagement I was having with the material on a daily basis.

This class was also the reason why I ended up presenting at the Southern Writers Southern Writing (SWSW) graduate conference several months later in July 2013. For my term paper, I wrote on the connection between Flannery O’Connor and James Joyce through their use of epiphany as a key component of their short stories. With this paper, one can see my continued reflection on the conversation between texts and writers that was so important in Western Literary Tradition from the past semester. I believe the paper speaks for itself: it was, I thought at the time, my first “major” piece of writing and, further, my first piece of writing to show some actual insight, small as it may have been. With encouragement from Dr. Watkins and some revision and editing, I submitted it to the SWSW conference. It was accepted. And so I found myself in Oxford, Mississippi – home of William Faulkner – in July. This experience was crucial for me as an actual student of literature and as a general bibliophile. Regarding the former, it was my introduction to a wider world of academia, specifically graduate studies, and showed me that it was a world I could possibly do somewhat well in. Regarding the latter, I found myself emotionally and intellectually moved throughout the time there, as we visited Faulkner’s grave, his home at Rowan Oak, and other noteworthy places like the famous Square

Books. Being in a place where some of my all-time favorite novels were written and actually standing at the literal places mentioned in them was both surreal and exciting. Our explorations and journeys out into places like the Mississippi Delta only further excited me, emotionally and intellectually, by giving me a broader idea of The South as a whole and the people that live there and by causing me to reflect on it all is reflected in the writings that make up Southern literature.

2013 in general was a good year, including my classes in both semesters. In spring, I took Dr. Dasher’s Young Adult Literature class, which exposed me to many new YA books and made me revisit those I had read already. The class also helped me start to think about the practicalities of teaching literature in a high school setting. How will I teach certain books? Will I even be able to teach certain books? How do I deal with students from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of issues? These are basic questions, of course, but Dr. Dasher’s writing prompts and in-class discussion, in combination with the field experience I was doing at Rome High School at the time, made it all seem a lot more real at that point. In addition, my writing at that time had started to get out of hand, stylistically: it started to consist more of long, over-written, and unwieldy sentences than ones that got my point across in an understandable but thorough way. To be honest, I have struggled with that tendency for the past four years and still do. The comments I received from Dr. Dasher in YA Lit. helped me pin down some of the worst characteristics of my writing and prompted me to try to improve my writing in the areas it needed most. The essay I wrote on John Green’s work, included as part of the three main essays in the portfolio, admittedly shows some of those characteristics, although I am still proud of the critical readings done for that piece.

So, with that and the SWSW conference in my mind, I entered my final semester of English classes wanting to put forth my best writing and best analytical work. My time in Dr. Taylor’s Shakespeare class gave me several different assignments that addressed different areas of Shakespeare studies, all of which were quite fun. My personal favorite – an edited edition of a selection from Hamlet, including appendices and editing rationale – is included in the portfolio appendix. My other class, Dr. Bucher’s Gay and Lesbian Literature, reminded me very much of my time in Southern Women Writers. Both classes required daily responses to the material, and my daily writing for Dr. Bucher had the same effect on me as it did in Southern Women Writers, forcing me to engage with the material on a deeper level on a daily basis. As in Southern Women Writers, Gay and Lesbian Literature also challenged me to look at big concepts – such as gender roles, the homosexual experience in a heteronormative society, the historical treatment of homosexuality in America and elsewhere– through a literary lens. Much of the writing done for the class was from a specific theoretical viewpoint, including my final term paper on performativity in Angels in America.

By the fall semester of 2013, I was an experienced critical reader that was consciously trying to better my writing in many ways. During that semester, I felt that my work for Gay and Lesbian Literature was the best writing I had produced up until that point. I still feel that way, and the term paper I wrote, which is included as one of my three main essays in the portfolio, is possibly the essay I am most proud of. It was not only one of my few attempts at writing from a specific theoretical viewpoint but also a close reading that I felt was actually insightful – something I’ve really only felt once before, as mentioned. Again, the process of engaging critically with the readings on a daily basis helped me with both my analytical reading skills and my ability to put those analyses into words in a clear way. All of this, including the discussions in class and Dr. Bucher’s perceptive comments, helped me produce my favorite and best work.

So, that brings me, for the most part, to the present. Have I grown as a reader and writer? Yes, that is for certain. Am I prepared for the professional realities of high school teaching? Yes, that is certain as well. My English classes at Berry have made me a well-rounded student of literature and given me knowledge that I will call upon daily as a high school teacher. My professors and classes, most of which aren’t even mentioned here, have been flexible enough to adapt to my pre-existing interests while also showing me new areas and subjects to explore and become passionate about. I am not sure what the next few years hold: whether I will continue to teach high school or go on to graduate school to study literature. However, the education I have received at Berry and the personal support I have received from my English professors assures me that I will be successful, no matter which I choose. And while the former is certainly important, it’s the latter – the relationships I’ve made with the faculty here, the discussions we’ve had, and the support I’ve received – that will stick with me. My time as an English major at Berry has allowed me to hone my skills and explore my interests in a way that has always been both intellectually challenging and an immense pleasure. Thank you.