Joey Schuman: Big intellectual
Over Thanksgiving break I watched “Sorry to Bother You,” Boots Riley’s absurdist, amazing directorial debut. After the movie was over, I scoured the internet for takes — my jaw still dropped — and landed on A.O. Scott’s New York Times write-up. In the review the film critic claims “If Mike Judge’s ‘Office Space’ and Robert Downey Sr.’s ‘Putney Swope’ hooked up after a night of bingeing on hallucinogens, Marxist theory and the novels of Paul Beatty and Colson Whitehead, the offspring might look something like this.”
That’s a loaded critique, but upon reading it I had a gratifying realization: I’ve read Paul Beatty and Colson Whitehead. That’s right; I, Mr. Scott, understand your reference, for I am an English major, which instills in me the ability to find thematic threads between Beatty’s “The Sellout” and Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and, most crucially, formulate an intertextual framework to then contextualize “Sorry to Bother You.”
As we enter the holiday season, I should recognize that grappling with everything I’ve read in the course of my studies as an English Language & Literature major at the University — analyzing, discussing, writing about it — is the gift that keeps on giving, a yearly routine of Big Intellectual Shit.
There comes a time in your academic career — for me it took two full years — when you need to narrow your educational concentration and make a decision on your major. This is a choice that definitely won’t pigeonhole you into an industry for at least the first three to five years of your professional life, structurally limiting your personal growth for a formative portion of your young adult experience.
In any case, opting to study English signals a distinct turn at an otherwise universal fork in the road, and its consequences are one millionfold. For one, you never need to lug a calculator around, a major relief because the emotional baggage of lugging around one of those beautiful, burdensome TI-Nspires can surpass the real breakdown you experience when you see actual numbers on a Scantron exam. Instead your precious cargo comes in the form of Norton Anthologies, which make you look sophisticated enough and also justify a formidable amount of physical working space at library tables. Perhaps most importantly, majoring in English gives you more credence to make sweeping, sappy claims that studying English makes you a better person, which is exactly what I’m doing right now.
You see, I operate at a wavelength far more complex than that which is given meaning by programming languages like Python, C++, Java, because software engineers can’t possibly comprehend what it’s like to establish characters that flip binaries, or use language that subverts image, or splice narratives with split temporalities existing on the same timeline. I think.
Elevated thought, I’m aware. Thanks to such a critically-thinking background, I can defuse the grandparents at Thanksgiving who ask about postgrad plans for the fourth time in one conversation despite insistence that no, Grandma, I don’t think I’d have much common discussion material with your book club friend who specializes in private equity, because I don’t know what private equity means, but I can tell you about how Peter Barry’s notions of the post-structuralist inform my takeaway on your own standards of post-professional life.
I’ll have you know, Grandma, that over the years I’ve listened to a handful of professors say things that very much changed the way I think about learning itself. When you reinvent your own foundations, you work from the ground up to create a new outlook altogether, and the results are (initially uncomfortable) rewarding gravy. We don’t know much about anything at this stage of existence, so taking unfamiliar risks only makes sense.
Besides, I get to walk out of class feeling smarter, better equipped for a range of dialogues and eager to, um, do my homework most of the time. Not to mention, of course, the social upside: When all else fails conversationally, you always have the patented English major, “yeah, it’s really cool, don’t know what I’m going to do with it once I graduate though (haha).” A real laughing matter.