I have been at Penn State now for six semesters—some of which were more useful than others—and for five of those semesters, I have been a registered English major. It has taken me just about that long to figure this out. . . .
There is one exchange that every English major, regardless of specialization, must endure hundreds of times each day:
WELL-MEANING YET ULTIMATELY CLUELESS KINES MAJOR: So what are you studying?
ENGLISH MAJOR: I’m an English major!
WMYUCKM: (bemused) English major? What’re you gonna do with that, be a librarian or something?
EM: (sighs) Yes. A librarian.
WMYUCKM: Have you ever read The Da Vinci Code?!
It becomes immediately and indisputably clear that, for the most part, the rest of the University has no idea what the English majors do, or what our purpose is in doing it. Frankly, I doubt they lose sleep over it either. More to the point, perhaps, is that a majority of the English majors, if they know what they’re doing, don’t know what their purpose is in doing it. During this past fall semester, I took a required class in post-Civil War American literature with one of the all-stars of the department. I don’t remember the specific context behind the discussion, but I do remember it having something to do, vaguely, with Pynchon.
The professor says this with terrifying nonchalance: “I’m just going to throw this out there, all right? Approximately six offices down from here,”—the class took place in a Soviet-looking engineering building with HazMat signs on all of the walls—“a friend of mine named Jim is currently doing research, using very expensive equipment, on concrete alloys. He is trying to make concrete better, so our buildings and bridges and sidewalks can be stronger. Now that is useful work. That is what justifies the presence of universities in our country. Six offices up from Jim, here we are, about to begin discussing a novel that, for all intents and purposes, makes no sense, and whose main character is named Oepida Maas. And to what end? For better or worse, we aren’t going to change the book, nor, most likely, change how it’s read, nor do anything with our time that will effect anybody else in any significant way. Now given that, explain to yourselves why you are here when you could be literally building bridges? Something important? Something that will gain you recognition?”
He let that hang in the air for a few moments. There were a lot of furrowed brows. And then class started, and that was that. We never went back to that whopper of a question, at least not while I was present. And yet, it remains wholly central to the whole reason why we were—why I was—in that classroom, in that building, at this University. It bothered me at the time, and still does, to a certain extent. People study actuarial science because they want to become actuaries. People study physics to become physicists. Study law to become a lawyer; biology to become a nurse or a doctor; alchemy to become an alchemist. There is no such finite end for we young scholars of the written word. In fact, in my admittedly limited experience, the English major has been a repository for all those who don’t necessarily know what they want that end to be. Maybe we spent too much time in the library during recess, or some one told us once that we were good at writing, or maybe University policy dictated that we had to finally declare a major, or risk losing student status and, consequently, the benefits of our parents’s health insurance. Aside from the one kid that might become a novelist of some modest success, and the four or five that aspire to write Harlequin romances, very few of us know what we’re going to do with our degrees once we get them. The world is our oyster. Or something. We just don’t want to limit our options.
And then I found publishing. And not in New York, either, where, from what my mother the author tells me, the publishing world is governed by no-nonsense women with efficient hairstyles and endless wardrobes of black. No, publishing was here, in my adoptive hometown, just a two-mile bike ride away. I’ve been an intern in some capacity with the Press for just about as long as I’ve been an English major, but it was only after the professor’s existential attack on my academic psyche that I began to understand my role within the Press, or more importantly, the potential that academic publishing held. It wasn’t simply about the extensive filing, or the rejecting of yet another emeritus Harvard professor, or enduring the abuse levied by some of our more unforgiving editorial assistants; I was a part, albeit a small one, of a much larger entity, one comprised of reasonably like-minded people that are doing useful work, work that contributes to the general well-being. While some people might manage to go their entire lives without coming into contact with The Grammar of the Unconscious or Politics of English Jacobinism, they are out there to find, if one should so desire, and that justifies to me the hundreds of hours spent in the classroom, and the hundreds more that I will spend before I’m through. With them, I’m able to fulfill my tiny role in publishing the books that line our shelves. That is comforting.
It will keep me going, at least, until I publish my first Harlequin. You just wait.