Monday, July 21, 2008

Career Day

Every year, there is a day when various members of faculty and others gather together to discuss things with prospective and present English majors. I'm not sure why we talk to the present English majors, except as reassurance, but we have some version of the classic "What can you do with an English degree" talk.
What can you do with an English major? Aw, heck, who knows? That's not really an appropriate question to ask professors, after all. They have a number of answers, perhaps, but they all revolve around one quality: "something boring, and then you can teach, and that's not boring."

". . . it is not rhyming and versing that maketh a poet -- no more than a long gown maketh an advocate, who though he pleaded in armor should be an advocate and no soldier." -- Philip Sidney, An Apology for Poetry.

There are a lot of ways of looking at the subject of "career." We use that word for "progress" and "path" alike -- the career of the Fool and the career of the rowing team -- and it's the idea of progress that makes us all miserable. I'm a Christian, as my long time readers have puzzled out for themselves, and I'm from the South, and so I've grown up with a particular trope that was so often repeated that its clutch on the mind was tighter than a tick's: The Call. Have you heard The Call? Are you following God's Plan for your life?

This concept is now fat with my blood, and I have tried my best to shake it off. I read aKempis and his argument that God's will for your life simply is done without your intervention, if you do not disobey. That conditional, though, has left me just as terrified as before.

The other day, as I was driving my car, I had an ill vision, one that scared me like the She-Wolf of Incontinence (yes, she's really called that; an English major wouldn't giggle), but instead of writing the Divine Comedy, I'm writing this. I imagined my afterlife. There I was, being accepted into the limbo of suicides (an English major would already know Paradise Lost, of course) or the outer fringes (obfuscatory link, there) of heaven, and I saw that I had missed the point. Divine omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence and free will had intersected such that God had intended a good path for me, and I had taken another (not evil, just not blessed). There had been a point, you see, when I could have chosen Law School, Divinity School, or aimless stumbling like a moon with too little mass through various graduate studies in English, and I chose the option that didn't require knowing what I was doing (the last).

I saw, in my vision, a lovely, if not stunning, young woman with a wry sense of humor, a quick wit, and great devotion who was sitting in the library of the Theology school. She sat at a table by herself, having not been perfectly pleased with her company. I was to be there. Had I been, we would have met, married, and gone to have a combined life of eventfulness and purpose. However, I wasn't there. I was working at an insurance company out of fear of making a bad decision, and I was about to go to graduate school, trying to steer my life and only crashing on the rocks.

It was shocking, this vision, but, after I guided my car back off the side walk, I tried to compose myself in the present. My career.... Careering? Careening?

These questions all impose what I call "naive teleology." "Naive teleology" is the historical impulse. It is the attempt to answer "How did I get to this place?" My father works diligently at genealogy. I have never understood why. I suppose that it is important, if you want to know why these people over here are coming to visit, and those people over there, with the same name, aren't. Then again, genealogy is a popular sport. Is it that the past is a component of the present, and not merely an explanation of it? At any rate, I have been more American than that. I have insisted more that the past is past, that history is not "bunk," but quaint and other. For me, the past has been an object to be dissolved, precipitated, weighed, recombined, and otherwise analyzed, and when I have realized that I was trying to explain the present, I have turned the telescope around and tried to use the traces of the present to explain the past.

As an English major, you can work at... Well, you can work at nearly anything, but nothing will be a use specifically of your skills or desires. At best, you can forget yourself. At most common, what you will do is serve two masters: the poem and the post, the novel and the job, the romance and the love. You will work as an actuarial, as I did, and read heavy stuff on your lunch, or you will read memos with the searing attention of literature. If you do the latter, you will go far. If you do the former, you will find your studies growing numb with time and the days of reading Sidney taking on increasingly peppermint and naphtha aromas, increasingly golden and pink hues, and a magical time in your memory -- one you mean to get back to soon.

The truth is that English majors are the Bondo of the employment world. We are not designed for any existing job, but we fit in as well as a custom made part and soon become so much a part of the body that no one can tell what we are. English majors can work nearly any job, from landscaping (as my friend on TV does) to art design to book keeping to wharehouse supply management. The other workers will note the analytical skills, fear the withering articulateness, and never think to ask, "Did you get a business degree?"

English majors can do whatever.

Think about that joyfully, in your hearts, you liberal artists, and celebrate, and then stop a moment and let the darkness of that statement sink in. An English major is an existential major. Because you are ill suited to everything and well suited to everything in the same measure, whatever it is that you do will be your repsonsibility and your fault.

You, friend, will sit in this chair, soon. You, my reader, will have to answer to the tick in your mind. You will have to ask about your purpose and admit that, whatever it is is whatever you've done, and you'll have to find a way to live with yourself after that.

Please let me know how.


Anonymous said...

Thank You.

The Geogre said...

You're welcome. I hope we're all employed and worked to the point that we cannot think about how.

The Disorganization said...

A copywriter. True, you don't have to have studied Eng lit (and true, the benefits to the world of this profession aren't immediately obvious), but I do think that Eng lit and copywriting fit rather more frequently than one might guess.

Incidentally, I'm not a copywriter (though I have done it, feebly, at times) and I have never seriously studied Eng lit.

Anonymous said...

At least General Studies majors go in already being acquainted with this dilemma...

The Geogre said...

Ah, General Studies.... I know that well, and there is a further advantage to it: it's impossible to take the wrong class. If you're General Studies, you can't waste a credit to the same degree that you cannot get a good credit. I think it may be much more of a major of indifference than angst.

The Geogre said...

As for copywriting...

One needn't be a literature major, but the serious copy writing needs obsessive attention to connotation as well as sound and rhythm, and so a poetry expert would help. I think a lot of the really dreadful copy we've seen lately has been due to the dearth of poetic copy editors around. "Just do it?" It has rhythm, and it has connotation, but it has no sense. "Think different" has rhythm alone. Most seem to be copies of copies of simple rhythms and Psychology-derived senses of association (and association is not the same thing). They have neither music nor control of shadings.

One doesn't need to be a poet to write, "Side effects may include dry mouth, sleep walking, gambling, and unprotected sex," but it would help when it comes to people trying to make phrases memorable little word bombs. This is why, I think, AdBusters often does better counter-advertising than the corporations do for their advertising: they have the advantage of liberal arts people.