Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Student of Literature: Profiles and Perceptions

Yes, we really read like this sometimes.

The other day I heard a radio commercial for a phone or cell carrier (can't remember which) where the "main character" was a young lady literature student. The phone people poked a bit of fun at our kind, and I wondered why they would use that tactic. Perhaps mostly young students are interested in phone gadgetry, and the kind of students who would buy a phone that does everything for them short of wiping their asses would most likely be the kind who would get a kick out of making fun of literature students. So they know their audience. But the literature student had that fancy phone, and she used it to do literature student sorts of things, like email a presentation on "17th century literature" and download music from her new favorite fictitious indie band "Windy Horse." She had a little voice, not a hint of a popular girl accent, didn't mention anything about "friends" or "my social life," and sounded shy even though she had the social balls to go alone to a ticket-line camp out. Yep, that's us. Maybe we were the target after all.

The preceding representation of a literature student was pretty accurate in my opinion, even if it makes certain assumptions about us -- in the case of this commercial, about undergraduate English types. Through searches on grad student profiles (it's good to know what company you'll keep if you get into a school) I have seen a lot of the shy-seeming, artsy, Windy Horse fan types (which is probably close to my type), but I have also seen Barbie-esque all-American lit students who surely have more than a hint of that old valley girl accent lurking in their diction, as well as youthful Lilith types with sleek hair and prim clothing and the most proper diction, who look like they would skin you alive with their pearly teeth if you bungled a line from Shakespeare. The Barbies (no disrespect intended, they're just strangely beautiful and blond for lit students) usually mention in their bios something about pop culture and women's lit, nothing too deep, but very culturally relevant. The Liliths usually throw in some Latin along with references to literary obscurities, expertly written with an air of "you should really know what this all means or you have no business coming anywhere near me or this program," and even though I usually know what they're talking about it still pisses me off. These girls probably snicker audibly in seminar when the Windy Horse girls stumble over a pronunciation during their French lit presentations. Finally, there is usually a manish cultural critic chick of some kind, who will at some point go hardcore postcolonial and/or feminist on every WASP male student (and every woman who doesn't "represent").

"I can't believe how she butchered La peau de chagrin. What an ass."

I have to include the boys here too. Besides the average Joe looking fellows who you wouldn't know were bookworms unless you rifled through their messenger bags, there are of course the guys who have looked like nerds since high school, will always look like nerds, and will probably don elbow patches to celebrate their first tenured term. Boys don't give away as much with their looks as girls do, and I doubt their competition takes the same ugly form. I bet they are fierce with their words, but unlike the girls have probably removed ad hominem from their rhetorical arnsenals. But there is one sort of "type" that pops up on some university "people" lists -- the hipster. Hipsters are everywhere, but seem especially rife among the lit student population, and you can spot them a mile away. Half-beards, messy hair, plaid shirts, moody photos and interests always in film or inimitably moody authors who they will try their best to imitate. I hate to use such a well-known stereotype to classify them, but there they are, plain as day, just serious-ing away! There are curiously no jocks to complement the Barbies. Ken is probably over in the engineering department.

"Why doesn't Barbie swoon at my Tolstoy interpretations?"

Of course, my silly characterization of grad student populations is based on looking at the equivalent of literature student Magic cards or Pokemon cards. "My Victorian poetry absorbs and destroys your Marxist interpretations!" "My level three theory skills trump your level one fiction writing powers!" I have to snoop around somehow, or I have no idea who I'll find when I get there. Even if I have misconceptions about who's there, I like to nurture my own reliance on appearances.

So this is how the grad students of lit look from the near-outside. Not so different from how they look in pop culture. But how much of what we think literature students are is just made up? Perhaps some of the biggest differences between lit students and everyone else do not actually lie in our personalities -- because smart people and unsmart people, lit students and science students, probably all share some basic types and traits. Maybe the biggest difference, the difference that causes some people the most anxiety, is just the difference between someone who lives a typical lifestyle (with which we are all familiar through acquaintances and through popular media), and someone who lives the life of a scholar. This is why we are so different. Not because we dress in old clothes or don't cut our hair right or listen to weird music, but because we don't plan on ever working regular jobs again, we spend all our time reading and writing, and we like to be at school! And finally because when we are finished with our own schooling, we will probably stay at school. These few things are strangest things about us to most people.

There are so many jokes in popular culture (and even going around universities) about how useless the English degree is. The truth in this is that if you want to do anything having to do with literature and get paid for it, you will need more degrees. Or you will have to teach high school, which everyone thinks of as a normal job (and they will be so proud of you, and will stop calling you just to ask "When the hell are you gonna be done with school!?"). As some kind of sick but funny icebreaker exercise, an old feller philsophy professor of mine went around the class on the first day and asked us all our majors, so he could tell us what terrible things would become of us. I was told I would be able to ask "Would you like fries with that?" in four languages. If I "take the MA" (as Woolf calls stopping at that degree) with no intention of entering the corporate world or of slaving away at a non-profit, that could happen I suppose.

Another commercial airing around here last year called into question what anyone does with any kind of traditional degree. "Only career degrees can get you a career!" they screamed. They threw some examples up on the screen like "BIOLOGY...what will you do with that? Be a BIOLOGIST?" (Um, yeah probably!) They suggested some similarly obvious but somehow unbelievable outcomes of traditional degrees, and ended with "ENGLISH...what will you do with that? Become an ENGLISHMAN!?" Okay, that was kind of funny. But no, I don't plan on becoming an Englishman. That might hurt, and the paperwork would be mountainous.

So I'm pretty sure the general non-academic, non-humanities-interested population has absolutely no idea what the hell we do. They might be able to characterize us based on appearances, like I've done with my potential future classmates (my characterizations are slightly tongue-in cheek of course...I think some people fully believe in the stereotypes they've made for us), but as for what we A) actually give back to society and B) what we actually do to earn money, they will probably continue to think of as A) completely pointless and B) nothing at all. We're all going to starve.

Literature, painting... it's all the same shit.

AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL DIGRESSION (you know I can't resist): My family is proud of me, and they are luckily so removed from academic life that they believe without question that I have everything under control (and I mostly believe that too). My parents did not attend college and, like me, have worked since they were fifteen years old. I think if they had had some higher education or had entered the corporate world they would be far more concerned about what Englishing can or can't "do" for me. I have friends studying in the humanities whose parents are better off than mine, if not highly educated, and these students are contstantly asked to show some kind of measurable humanities-related "results." They have been discouraged from grad school -- their parents (or spouses) think it's time for them to work, overlooking the possibility that these students' particular types of degrees could serve them far better if supplemented with more degrees. As for me, my dad (a lifelong truck driver) does give me the "What the hell are you still doing in school!?" line once in a while, but at this point he knows that I will be there much longer before I have a job as an "Englishman," and that I'm doing okay getting by in the meantime. It has been a hell of a road (with hairpins turns and even a couple of jack-knifes) to become a first generation college student, and even a graduate student. I skipped a generation with that one. In some ways I feel like some of my fellow students who haven't had to travel quite so far have had a much harder time with familial intervention because their parents are more focused on financial success than mine ever were. (Plus I get to offer up the comeback "I'm paying for it so it's none of your business!" But I haven't had to use it much.) END DIGRESSION.

Popular perceptions of literature students, like many stereotypes about careers and personality types, are probably mostly harmless. The only people who really care about what we are really like are similar people with similar interests, or people in other fields who have some understanding of what we do and perhaps admire us just a little for it (to think!). The only people who really need to know what we actually do and how we will make our little bit of money (for that's still a touchy topic in America anyway) are ourselves and our future families. Most of us know the risks, know the kinds of jobs we can or can't get, and know we will not be paid as much as other people who have been in school for ten or so years. Call us crazy, but we like our literature, and we were prepared to make all these sacrifices going in, even if society sees us as silly, impractical, and kinda far out man.


  1. Sounds like you are doing pretty well to me. You are keeping it together as a student, a more than competent writer and a very good mom on top of all that.

  2. 1000 point bonus for Lilith reference.

  3. Hi-5, miss. This was good work. Its nice to see someone diligently shattering the picturesque image of English students.


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