If you saw the most recent issue of Stanford Magazine, you noticed the phalanx of professors from Stanford’s humanities programs occupying the cover. Their postures—stiff, resolute, intensely gazing—suggest something about the embattled nature of the humanities. At the very least, it suggests something about how people affiliated with the humanities themselves think about their work. In a world quickly filling up with “Start-up universities,” the humanities still have a place, even if it might not seem so obvious any more.
I’ve written about these kinds of misperceptions for the Cellar Door in the past. Indeed, the argument in defense of the humanities seems tired now, even if it is still true. The proof is in the pudding: humanities enrollment is down, English department enrollment is down, and morale threatens to follow it. English majors and alumni instantly recognize what’s implied about the English Major. An English degree isn’t useful—doesn’t “pay” off in any obvious way, won’t help you get a job, won’t lead to “stability” or “security.”
At the risk of redundancy: There are new and unique problems in the world, problems that require the kind of careful and creative thinking that comes with a course of study of the world’s most profound texts and ideas, and English majors—whatever they hear from their peers—accept the challenge. The world’s newest problems call for elegant solutions—solutions that, perhaps not coincidentally, offer themselves up amidst the world’s oldest and most profound texts, in a living network of accreted human knowledge.
But enough abstractions! You ask for proof? Here it is: Too anecdotal? Too qualitative? Too subjective? Perhaps. Useful nonetheless? Certainly. Cellar Door asked several recent alumni about a range of topics related to what being an English major has meant for them, both while they were at Stanford and after they left. Here’s what they had to say about their experiences and what advice they would give to current undergraduates:
Class of 2010 – Miles Osgood, Assistant Editor at Oxford University Press
“There are a few things that are as true for English majors as for any other job hunters (that I didn’t realize until I went through the process last year)…You have three between-term summers to use at Stanford, and with the wealth of funding and support for academic projects, it’s tempting to use all of them for research and coursework, as I did. I couldn’t imagine passing up opportunities to do Overseas Seminars, creative arts grants, and sponsored fieldwork, so those projects (and their associated travel) filled my summers. But this was somewhat shortsighted: at least one summer (and not necessarily any more than one) should be devoted to an internship/job in a field of future interest.”
Class of 2011 – Emily Rials, 2nd-year PhD student in English Literature at Cornell University
“I knew all along that people majoring in English were writing for all kinds of companies and causes, that people majoring in English were going on to pursue teaching, but for me, for my own sense of where I wanted to go with my English major, what happened was that it became clear that I didn’t just want to be pursuing creative writing but that I also wanted to enter the conversations that were happening in literary studies, in the critical field. I had no idea, when I declared my major, that I would end up where I am, studying what I’m studying—my conviction that I wanted to do this kind of work came from the classes I took, the conversations I had, the questions I found myself scribbling in the margins of my notes.”
Class of 2012 – Caroline Chen, master’s student at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism
“There’s no point in switching to a ‘more lucrative’ major or one that would have ‘better’ job prospects, because if you’re not actually interested or excited about that field, you won’t be happy in the long run. But I think we should also be very realistic about what sorts of jobs are out there—no, we can’t all be novelists and no publishing company is going to give a first time author enough of an advance to write a book without having at least a part time job on the side…For now, focus on doing the best job you can in everything you do at school, and making the most of your time at Stanford and in the English department—get the skills you will need later on in life. Take classes that will teach you things you can’t pick up later by yourself.”