Gopnik enters the English major fray

The New Yorker‘s columnist Adam Gopnik contributes his views about why the English major does or doesn’t matter in the blog accompanying a recent issue. He says, in response to apologists (like me) who contend that English, literature, and the humanities generally contribute to a person’s life experience in subtle, long-term ways:

Well, a humanities major may make an obvious contribution to everyone’s welfare. But the truth is that for every broadly humane, technological-minded guy who contributed one new gadget to our prosperity there are six narrow, on-the-spectrum techno-obsessives who contributed twenty.

Then he points out:

Nor do humanities specialists, let alone English majors, seem to be particularly humane or thoughtful or open-minded people, as the alternative better-people defense insists. No one was better read than the English upper classes who, a hundred years ago, blundered into the catastrophe of the Great War. (They wrote good poetry about it, the ones who survived anyway.) Victorian factory owners read Dickens, but it didn’t make Victorian factories nicer. (What made them nicer was people who read Dickens and Mill and then petitioned Parliament.)

Okay, he’s a bit broad and snarky there–but that’s his style. And nonetheless, Gopnik argues for space in society–if not necessarily in the academy–for the study and discussion and obsession with books and literature. He claims that “the best answer I have ever heard from a literature professor for studying literature came from a wise post-structuralist critic” who said the reason he was a literature professor was because he had “an obsessive relationship with texts.”

I would agree with that reasoning, though I am not a post-structuralist, so far as I know.

I believe that education ought to allow us to follow our passions to whatever logical or surprising ends appear. In light of the huge expense of a university education in the USA, however, perhaps the best question to ask is how to motivate citizens to pursue education individually (see my post on autodidacts). Gopnik calls the estimable Dr. Johnson “the greatest English professor who ever lived,” though he never taught in a university and though his title of “doctor” was honorary, and reminds us that other antecedent writers-on-literature, such as Hazlitt and Sydney Smith, “had to make their living doing something else narrowly related.” Colleges at least offer some employment and a modicum of respect to the humanist interpreters and researchers among us, but we need not be employed by the academy to exercise our obsession with books. That can be done on our own.

Dr. Johnson

Gopnik adds this lovely, wise sentence near the close of his column, and I wish I could convey the value of his idea to every college student I advise: “You choose a major, or a life, not because you see its purpose, which tends to shimmer out of sight like an oasis, but because you like its objects.”

Poems, stories, paintings, sculpture, dance, philosophy, books, books, books…I don’t know my life’s purpose, but I know the “objects” that entrance me.


English major argument redux

Yet more weighing-in on why one might wish to choose to major in English as an undergrad, this time from Mark Edmundson:

Edmundson writes:

Real reading is reincarnation. There is no other way to put it. It is being born again into a higher form of consciousness than we ourselves possess. When we walk the streets of Manhattan with Walt Whitman or contemplate our hopes for eternity with Emily Dickinson, we are reborn into more ample and generous minds.

(He even quotes Heidegger!)

This does not mean all English/literature/humanities folks think alike. In fact, the beauty of it is, we all think differently.

More on the English major

The New York Times commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg recently wrote about the “decline of the English major” in an opinion piece titled “Why the Humanities Still Matter.” I am offering a link to the letters to the editor concerning that essay [which includes a link to the opinion piece as well]:

Another article, this time in the Chronicle of Higher Education, makes the point that employers often want qualities in their employees that the English major supplies…but that employers may not realize that! (One commenter suggests students major in business or biology or whatever and minor in English).

Those of you new to my blog may wish to look at the archives here on this topic, which include:

“Reasonable, Calming”


“Defending the Poetry major”

“Learning the literary analysis”

“Philosophy & English are friends”

I’m a philosophy and literature major who is also a poet; and I’m not starving to death, and I like my job. Can the cynics please stand down? Learning matters. True education makes us into better thinkers. Society benefits.

End of story. Now, go read a book!

Concerning the apostrophe

I am not the sort of English enthusiast who makes a habit of ranting over bad grammar. I often feel annoyed at egregious errors; occasionally I go as far as to say “it drives me crazy when (insert common grammar mistake here),” but I understand that living languages change. Evolution is not just for finches, and stasis  cannot be maintained in a complex system of human communication when technology and society and culture constantly create and destroy not only our environments but our methods of communication. Communication takes many forms and reflects the influences of many stresses, common usage being foremost among them.

Common usage may be verbally-based or textually-based or may depend upon references to popular culture or recent history, and it alters language whether we want it to or not. This fluid, flexible aspect of language fascinates me. As a poet, I relish it. As a teacher, I have to allow for compromise now and then.

I am willing to predict, for example, that very soon the accepted pronoun for words such as everyone and anybody is likely to be “they.” The reference was acceptable to Jane Austen and her writing peers, then went out of fashion in the Victorian era, when “he” became the norm–the word “he” is singular, as anyone is; thereafter, educated writers and orators used “he” for the nonspecific singular antecedent.

Of course, such use omits half of the population. Non-gender-specific writing employs “he or she” as the correct pronoun for words like someone. That usage leads to many a tortuous sentence, however. I generally advise my students to change the antecedent noun to a plural form whenever possible and to keep “they” as the pronoun; yet almost all newspapers, many news journals, popular magazines, and certainly most of whatever text appears on the web now employs the pronoun “they” for nonspecific antecedents. I don’t really have a problem with that–Jane Austen was able to make it clear enough whom it was she meant by “they.” Clarity’s what matters.

I do have a beef with the misuse of apostrophes, though. The apostrophe I’m talking about is a punctuation mark, not the poetic apostrophe which addresses someone or something absent or metaphorical. I mean the little superscript mark  that is used for two main reasons:

1. To note an elision (the omission of letters)

2. To indicate the possessive case (barring the silly exceptions hers, theirs, ours, yours and its)

I understand the why behind a noticeable uptick in the number of times apostrophes go missing these days: texting, tweeting, and other shortcuts employed in social media communication. My students are vague about the comparatively simple rules of when to use the apostrophe largely because they never bother using it when they text one another. Furthermore, their customary “proofreader,” SpellCheck, doesn’t always alert its users to this type of error. Computer programs can recognize that dont is not a word, but cant means “sanctimonious talk” or, alternately, a tilt or slope (says Merriam Webster). It is a useful word, but it is not the elision for the word cannot. Furthermore, SpellCheck won’t (elision for will not; wont means habit or custom) be able to correct the typist who uses the wrong form of your/you’re or its/it’s.

Irksome, yes. But most mystifying to me has been the ridiculously frequent use of the apostrophe to indicate the plural. Surely no one is teaching our second graders to pluralize by adding ‘s to the end of a word. (Teachers who do so should have their certifications revoked!) Recently, when working with a student, I learned one reason this mistake crops up so often in my students’ papers: AutoCorrect. When the typist gets sloppy and tries to add an s to a word that takes a different ending for the plural form (puppy, puppies), AutoCorrect defaults to possessive case. The computer is too dumb to detect the difference, because this is English, and English is damned difficult.

I suppose another reason may be character limits for tweets and texts, but that seems less likely. If people don’t bother to use the apostrophe for elisions, why bother for plurals? “Susie got 2 puppys” conveys the same information just as incorrectly.

Proper use of the apostrophe in English is actually pretty simple–even though computer programs cannot quite figure out the two rules above–and clears up a host of potential ambiguities and misunderstandings. The world could benefit from communication that isn’t studded with misunderstandings.

The warning below is one I use with my students. Sometimes, it even has the effect of becoming a useful reminder. Many thanks to the anonymous teacher who posted it on

puppy dies•NOTE  [Alas, just to complicate things, some editorial styles use the apostrophe to indicate plurals, but ONLY for letters or numbers, as in: “There are four 6’s in this statistical table.”]


This classic illustration was posted here:

OKAY, cynics, I know this may be a bit of a gloss; but here is another older post which is the keynote speech I gave for DeSales’ Sigma Tau Delta induction (Honors society of English majors), April 2010.


Why the English Major Is So Adaptable: A ‘Just-So’ Story

When I was an undergraduate, Oh Best Beloved, I was not at all certain of my life path. I attended an alternative, seminar-college program that—gasp—did not require me to proclaim an academic major. In my first two years of college, I wandered through classes in studio art, Renaissance history, feminist literature, social anthropology, psych, physics, dance, and philosophy. Then, I began reading in earnest. Previously, reading had been merely an obsessively entertaining hobby; as a junior, I wanted to learn the “how” of writing. I graduated with enough credits in both English and Philosophy to have been a double-major, if my institution had required majors, or to have received an undergraduate creative writing degree, if such a thing had existed in days of yore.

And then, I was out in the world. The world was in a terrible recession. Jobs were scarce. Inflation was in the double digits. Gas prices were skyrocketing. The sky was falling, and I was a newly-minted English major.

All my Wise Elders advised me to specialize. That meant going to graduate school, which I probably should have done a little sooner, or learning a trade. I thought I could survive outside of academia despite the economic woes, the scarce want-ads. My reasoning was that I had four years of humanities training in critical thinking, research, and problem-solving and that at 21 years old it was time to put those theories into application. I thought I had learned to be adaptable.

And what do you think, O My Children?

I was right.

You are likewise English majors, and you are also facing a time of recession and a paucity of careers in your chosen area of interest. This will not hinder your success, though it may make your career journey a little more…circuitous. Or shall we say: intriguing. But you like a challenge, don’t you? That’s the most terrific thing about choosing creative writing, or English, or rhetoric, or literature—the more you study them, the more intricate and complex and revealing these subjects are. I have never met an English major who wasn’t also a dedicated life-long learner. But I have met English majors who are lawyers, and psychologists, and social workers, and business executives, and filmmakers, and visual artists, and physicians, and ecologists, and diplomats, even computer geeks, not to mention those other careers: screenwriters, playwrights, poets, novelists, journalists, bloggers, teachers…

So, Best Beloved, do not sell yourself short. Furthermore, do not expect a “Reader, I married him” moment with your career. Allow yourself room to transform. Carpe diem.

What that meant for me back in 1979 was a temp job for the legal discovery department of a large law firm. From there, I signed on as a member of the International Union of Typographers No. 6 and learned a specialty: typographical proofreading. That field went extinct with the advent of desktop publishing. But by then, I’d jumped to advertising, which I hated, and into magazine work, which wasn’t so bad. There’s a Darwinian term for this: co-adaptation. I was finally getting close to a more specialist use of my English major background as the economy improved; and I married and had children and, in time, went to graduate school for the scholarly pursuits I’d missed so much.

I didn’t starve. Neither will you. You can do research. You can make yourself clear. You know your audiences may require different modes or styles of you, and you’ve learned how to adapt yourself and your arguments to those audiences. You can be persuasive. That’s how I got my first job after the temp work wound down; I was inexperienced but convincing. Even in a tight job market, employers are seeking people like you—adaptable, well-educated people. My husband recently directed me to an article in the New York Times that stated today’s businesspeople want employees who are clear communicators, especially in writing. This is partly because executives do their own writing nowadays. Fewer secretaries to rely on; each person’s expected to make herself clear—on her own written merits. Even if it’s email instead of the paper memos of my day.

English majors can write.

The jobs I’ve briefly mentioned paid my bills and got me medical insurance but did not satisfy my urge to practice the how and why of writing, so I did what writers generally do: I wrote. I cannot emphasize enough the role that constant practice of craft plays in the development of a writer. It doesn’t matter if no one sees your work—though I encourage you to share it with others and get feedback and critique—what matters is that you continually practice what you’ve learned in college and extend your education through application and extension of those principles.

If you find yourself in a day job that has little, apparently, to do with your major, don’t despair. Because writing is portable. I still write most of my drafts with pen or pencil in a small notebook, and laptops are pretty easy to transport—you can, with a little self-discipline, write anywhere. In my day, I have written in small dingy office warrens, in the waiting rooms of doctors and music teachers, in the parking lot while the high school band wrapped up its practice, in the sun beside the dressage ring at the horse farm, while my babies were napping, while the laundry was cycling, in the wee hours of the morning before anyone else wakens. The poems and essays I drafted under these circumstances sometimes reflected the places of their composition—but not always. I have waxed metaphysical in playgrounds. Another example of becoming adaptable out of necessity, Best Beloved, when the Great Magician or the Djinn of All Deserts or the small god Nqa tried me with obstacles to test my persistence.

Make the time to write, because writers can get rusty. Above all, make the time to read, because after you graduate, reading is the best way to continue your literary education.

But you knew that.

Of course, there is graduate school. And there are writing seminars and getaways and retreats and conferences. If you haven’t got the time or money to get to writers’ conferences or workshops, you can adapt by exchanging literary emails with a few like-minded friends or gathering in a library or coffee shop to exchange work or discuss books that excite you. Scholarship may seem like a solitary pursuit, but it benefits from lively interactions with other human beings.

Yes, Oh Best Beloved, do remember other human beings. We do not, after all, write only for ourselves; we write in and of and for a community of people. If our work is obscure, obtuse, or unclear, we are not taking part in this communication. The most fundamental purpose of language is to make clear our intent to another person who is, after all, not inside our brain but functioning under his or her own neurological system. Language—in our case, English—is the most formidable tool for demanding, commanding, sharing, expressing. Those in this room are understandably passionate about it. I am pleased to be among you. The world badly needs your talents, enthusiasm, and the abilities you possess to analyze the facts and transform yourselves and others because, My Children, the English Major somehow became adaptable, and that is all to the good.