Sunday, September 27, 2009

Two Of Several Folks Who Don't Want Us to Miss the Full Message of "The Decline of the English Department." Which of Course Would Be, "So What?"

The latest respondent to the Decline of the English Department debate says "I used to be a grad student in English and am now a lawyer. When I hear about the money that you folks are making, even the ones with the dream TT jobs, I shake my head in disbelief. And I'm not a well-paid lawyer at all. How many years of school are we talking about for you folks? They teach about opportunity cost in the business department." I want to provide a different picture. Like the respondent, I majored in English as an undergraduate. And I'll admit that it was taking the path of least resistance for me. Hot damn, but I was good at it! I barely even had to try.

Then I graduated with no idea how to market my skills. I thought I might want to go to grad school, but I knew I didn't want to do it right away. For a few months I worked for a temp agency that quickly slotted me into every open position they had at law firms. Why? Because I could read and write. I worked for several large law firms and scores of different attorneys. I was damn good at being a legal secretary too, and although I knew I didn't want to stay there, I thought maybe law school would be the way to go.

Often, I found myself with nothing to do at these jobs, so I used to read the Norton Anthology of English Literature. I can't tell you how many junior attorneys used to stop by my desk to see what I was reading that day and talk wistfully about how they had been English majors but decided against grad school because it was the more "rational" choice. They told me they didn't have time to even read for pleasure anymore. (The senior attorneys didn't even have time to notice what I was doing at my desk.) The regret in the voices of these lawyers was almost palpable. They made my decision for me.

I couldn't bear the thought of living the rest of my life regretting a choice to go into into debt to get a degree in law just because it seemed like a stable paycheck. There are enough lawyers in the world already (and more than enough business majors, I'll wager) - many of whom actually have a passion for what they do. But me, I wasn't going to become one of the junior attorneys casting wistful glances at the books their $10 an hour temp secretary was reading at her desk because my job overworked and underpaid me for ten years until I could maybe one day make partner.


Had you taken the time to read the thing (gee, you sound a lot like our beloved snowflakes, don't you?) you might have noticed that Chace mentioned a little more than merely "championing literature" as a solution to the woes of the modern English department. I can understand you overlooking his advocacy of a more uniform course of study based around a canon, but his commentary on writing is worthy of serious attention. Maybe you missed it because you were busy helping some slick businessman avoid jail time for scamming little old ladies out of their pensions, or perhaps it's because you, like "most students... have poor reading and writing skills." (Your words, not mine, Matlock.)

Do you mean to tell me that, in a world where professionals of all kinds are frequently unable to express themselves intelligently or coherently, people who possess those very skills are not valuable? Do you mean to say that, in the age of 24 hour news and endless bloviation and analysis of sound bytes, that someone with a crisp wit and strong analytical skills can't find work? Are you trying to tell me, in other words, that a scarce good/service becomes less valuable as its scarcity increases? I guess it's a good thing you're a lawyer and not an economist.

Chace has it right: English scholars fail because English departments have slapdash programs based upon the whims and eccentricities of professors who would rather overspecialize in esoteric and inaccessible material than craft a meaningful program based upon teaching a shared literary heritage and practical composition. Law's hard too, but at least it has a coherent program of study; if every law school was designed like most English departments, you'd have a bunch of JDs who are really fascinated about legal decisions related to the Fugitive Slave Act- fascinating, I'm sure, but wholly useless to the aspiring lawyers in the program.