The second attitude is one that is quite pervasive among English majors and one I explore with many students, even as they think about whether to become an English major, let alone pursue an academic career. This attitude is the assumption that being an English major will lead to one of only a few professions: teaching, editing, publishing, writing, journalism, or law. While these careers may once have been the most likely for many, if not most, majors it is certainly not the case now. I recently perused the English major listings in the alumni directory and found an astonishing array of occupations, including the expected ones but also including, with some frequency, physicians, nurses, mental health workers, social workers, software designers and marketers, systems analysts, film producers, library and museum workers, workers in non-profit organizations (especially environmental), actors, typesetters and graphic designers, chefs, restaurateurs, veterinarians, and landscapers.|
In looking at this list of professions, one might justifiably wonder whether being an English major is actually useful in leading students down these various garden paths or whether students have ended up in them rather arbitrarily. Perhaps only the students can properly answer this question. But I would argue that beyond their coursework, the rigors of the junior qual, and the discipline of the senior thesis, being an English major (or literature major of most any stripe) offers students a number of skills and attitudes of mind that benefit them directly in a wide array of professions. While these benefits may always have been available to English majors in the past, today students can and must, given the complexities of our era, mine the resources of their field more fully than in previous times.
What, then, does it mean to study literature, and how is it relevant to life beyond Reed? In addition to various arguments one might make for the inherent value of literature, I want to emphasize here the characteristics singled out by Wallace Stevens in the passage I chose for the epigraph for this article. Cutting right to the heart of the age-old distinctions between representation and reality, language and object, poetry and life, Stevens undoes these binary oppositions by reminding us that poetry constructs rather than reflects reality and that to live in the real world is to reside in a world of language. Thus, the study of language in general and poetry in particular, in Stevens's view, is neither esoteric nor impractical but necessary for seeing "things as they are."
Having just finished teaching my introduction to poetry class, "Poetry and Poetics," I am fresh from observing and enjoying how students come to see how poetry composes a life. Many students begin this class with a love for poetry but a reluctance to discuss it, fearing that the intense experiences and feelings they have from reading poetry privately will somehow be dislodged or violated by academic dissection and public discussion. I asked students to keep a set of journals with specific assignments all semester. In the last entry, they were to reflect on issues of voice. One student wrote: "I was never convinced that looking at other's writing could help my own; I believed that good writing ultimately came down to practice and experience alone. I now believe that writing/ self-expression and learning about writing is predicated upon analyzing the work of one's predecessors (and contemporaries). . . . Poems are puzzles that challenge the reader to uncover their explicit and hidden meanings. They are comprised of words dancing and playing on the page. They take a scene or an idea and order it so beautifully that we, as readers, must take note. Despite the fact that many poems are written for the poet alone, somehow their universality is conveyed and the words become lyrical jewels for us to hold."3