Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What English Majors Don't Want

I keep getting emails from a couple of graduate programs who seem to think an old gal like me is just itching to go get professionalized.  I don't know if they're wooing me because of my absolutely spectacular GRE scores (uh-huh...) or if they just send this crud to every schmo who has their name plastered on a uni website's TA listings.  Either way, they've got me (and many English majors) all wrong,

Does it seem to you that I would want to wear a grey suit? Straighten my hair and part it in the middle?  Pair this new style with some non-descript silver earrings and black pumps?  Drink water from tall, clear glasses?  Shake hands with similarly grey-suited, dark-haired man-children? Do you think I have a business card? (If I did it would be a haiku.)  And WTF is my "business"? 

Maybe this is what the school looks like? No. Wait.  No one wears a fucking suit vest to class. And they don't give you free water.

This must be the life I'll live as a junior executive after getting my master's degree in professional writing or some shit.  Right?

Seems like false advertising.  The grad school advert depicts career life, not grad school life.  I don't think anyone who is this "career oriented" (as the douches and douchettes in the picture) should even think about going to grad school.  These things don't happen there.  And you have to go through a whole lot of there once you sign up.  If your goal is the corner office, you'd do better to just climb the side of the building and wait for an opening.

I was a speaker at a roundtable discussion this evening.  It was six English graduates telling a circle of soon-to-be-graduates about avenues they might take after college.  A couple speakers suggested trying out as many things as you can, like temping, and seeing what you like.  A humanities education has made us into jacks of all trades, so why not?  I think that's good advice for someone who knows they don't want to keep going to school.  But one speaker, who had a very weird specialized job that no one else will ever be able to get, told the group not to go to grad school.  She told them that her friends didn't graduate, and that you can have a "meaningful career" without more degrees.  Well, what if some of those English majors are not looking for a "career"?  In fact, our major's tagline could probably be: "Career? No. Meaningful? Yes."

I think the very reason some of us study English is because "career" isn't even a thing for us.  As long as we can eat, and we can see a day on the horizon where we might even be slightly comfortable, doing English is the thing. So we're not looking for a way to make money.  We're looking for something to do.  Or even, a way of being.  What's the line they always give about diets nowadays?  It's a lifestyle decision

I know I have probably written about this ad nauseum on this blog, but the roundtable session tonight just reinforced my confidence in my decision about what to do with myself in this life.

It might sound silly to refuse to call what professors (instructors, TAs, etc) do a "career."  I use the word, yes, and even in my head I use it.  I was just thinking how I'll be over forty before I'm "mid-career,"*  and wondering if that's normal.  Maybe I can have a mid-life crisis and a mid-career crisis simultaneously.  (That sounds like an occasion for a party.) So, what we do can be called a career, but it is not to be conceived of as a career.  That is to say, it does not have a career teleology. 

*(Mid-career is from 7-10 years in, till 7-10 years from retirement.  Just in case you want to start throwing that term around at luncheon parties.)

Anyhow, to go back to the picture of executive youth, we don't even need to get all self-righteous about the English major to see what's wrong with this marketing strategy.  It's as simple as the grey suits.  You show me ironed hair and suits and and fancy water glasses and business cards, and I respond with profound discomfort.  You see, I have messy hair, I wear scarves, I drink tea from a second-hand mug, and I'm in the staff directory.  And I am quite comfortable.


  1. Maybe I'm an outlier, Robyn, but for me those professionalization gigs are less about grey suits and more about getting as much experience (of different work environments/jobs/"career paths") as possible. Although I can remember a couple of duds (Project Management for Grad Students, anyone?) I also keep that stuff organized on a separate resume for, once I am done my dissertation, I need to have my ducks all in a row if there just don't happen to be any desirable jobs in my particular field available. If this is a question of lifestyle rather than career I will definitely not be moving to Manitoba to pursue academia in the traditional way.

    "Professionalization," no matter how douchy it looks/sounds/is does provide some support for those who want the option to move laterally (into publishing/marketing/whatever) once they finish their PhD.

  2. Hi Carmen,

    There were some students at the roundtable last night who could definitely benefit from a more businessy background in English. I know there are many who could! I just focused on this ad, I think, because the imagery is just so over-the-top "professional." I'm sure they just send these things to every English graduate, and this trend in grad school marketing probably just reflects the dismal academia employment numbers. But I think humanities folks can be professional without so much glad-handing and exchanging of business cards.

    Personally I did enough copywriting and marketing work as an undergrad I could just go back to it, but I'm hoping to avoid all that. While I hope I don't turn out to be a unemployable slob or a recluse with only my booklearnins to keep me company, I also want to make sure I never have to wear a suit. (Thoreau tells us to beware any enterprise that requires new clothing.) There are English folks who totally don't mind walking the professional walk, and might even enjoy it! And that's cool. But I think a significant subset of Englishies (me and my cohort included) are comfortable with these lean years, and even with the uncertainty of our employment prospects. We do have our own brand of traditional academic professionalization (writing C.V.'s, doing conferences, getting published, identifying areas for research, etc.), but it usually looks nothing like that picture.

  3. Robyn!

    That's a great point that often gets neglected by those looking to professionalize us (I don't know what MITACS stands for, but my inbox is full of their offerings): that we have our own professionalization system, and it's a particular kind of beast involving conferences etc.

    And, yes, at those conferences one tends to cross paths with many academics whose general demeanour could benefit enormously from some business experience (or, dare I say it, the addition of a slick, grey suit).

    As for Thoreau: I have to say I completely disagree ; )

  4. Hmmm, I can see what you mean about professors. While I can say being a librarian is a "career" to some in my mind it is much more a state of being than my career. I mean as a former "Student of English", myself (with a concentration in "Film Theory") I can say I chose a "career" where literature, film and I could still be close and personal friends... but I can't say I feel like I conceded anything I love about studying English by becoming a librarian. However, maybe the problem is that I wonder if people associate adopting a "career" as a concession of who they are and what they love and some people are lucky enough to find those that are one in the same? Happy Thanksgiving!


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