Op-Ed: A different kind of quest for prestige

Sunday, September 25, 2016 - 7:19pm

We’re all familiar with the perceived dichotomy between humanities majors and majors that are a little more “career-oriented.” Humanities majors are either criticized or lauded for being heady, wandering souls unworried about what kind of internship they’re offered over the summer or how much they will earn five years after undergrad. They're never criticized or lauded for being career-oriented or seeking prestige like their supposed counterparts in the engineering and business schools. But, especially depending on what kind of humanities major one chooses, classes may be just as difficult and the pressure just as crushing to make that certain connection, to get that certain job — and priorities become just as warped in the process.

As someone who, for their entire time in college, has been declared in some kind of humanities major (excluding my brief but enthusiastic anthropology stint), I've been asked by relatives and family friends — in a tone doubtful to the point of admonishment — the question: “What do you plan to do with that?”

So we have the classic scene of the angsty college kid at some family cookout, paper plate and slimy plastic fork in hand, rolling their eyes at adults who "just don't understand" the value of my humanities major. Uncle John probably doesn't even get art.

My answer to that question had, for a while, been that I would become a college professor or work at some imaginary literary magazine as a fallback. By the start of last winter, the second semester of my sophomore year, I had settled into a comparative literature major, which lots of people describe (somewhat inaccurately) as a "more intense version" of an English major. It requires students to work in at least one language other than their first language, and to write a thesis during their senior year using comparative analysis (potentially across languages and cultures) to draw broader conclusions about some more general topic. I had chosen English and French as my two languages, even though, to be frank, I wasn't that amazing at learning foreign languages — nor did I enjoy the process.

On the outside, I think I seemed sophisticated, even headier than my friends who were English majors. I got to read more aesthetic, literary and cultural theory — Foucault, Derrida, Butler — and liked to think this surrounded me with a cloud of mystery. I felt elusive, serious and sparkling listing off the classes I'd taken, the books I'd read and the professors I knew. I rode with it for a while, convincing myself I'd write a thesis about humans and machines in the digital age. I'd tie gender in there somewhere and become the Michel Foucault of my generation.

This was a different kind of career-orientedness, a different kind of quest for prestige. For me it looked like doing all the supplementary readings, going to office hours and convincing myself I enjoyed the readings because the ideas they addressed were so cool — that post-structuralism kind of felt pertinent, albeit in that distant and spacey way theory often does. It looked like going to Berkeley for my Ph.D., securing tenure at some other Ivy or almost-Ivy before I really stopped looking 19. The muscles in my face and shoulders growing ever-tenser, increasing in density directly proportional to the readings I did, it wasn't until that spring I realized how serious I'd gotten.  

Enter the New England Literature Program (NELP), a program through the English Department in which 40 students and 13 instructors meander into the woods of New Hampshire, spending six weeks immersed in literature, introspecting and writing, pseudo-transcendentalist style. It was with the sway of tall New England trees in the wind on Lake Winnipesaukee, with Thoreau, Emerson, the poems of Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens that I finally relaxed my trapezius muscles and rediscovered how to just be.

Needless to say, coming back to campus was weird. Now in my junior year, I was taking more French than ever, expected to read and write at a higher level than I ever had before. I found myself stumbling through texts written in French whose messages I knew mattered so much to me, if only I was smart enough to understand them. I wanted to be able to read and to write with just as much nuance as I could in English, my first language. When I step back and think about it, it's no wonder the French was so difficult: Um, it's a foreign language.

Feeling defeated and, combined with my job as Opinion editor here at the Daily, I was intellectually and emotionally overloaded with difficult topics to digest. I walked out of my French class one day and realized the playful self I had rediscovered at NELP felt so far away, waving at me to come find her again.

I tell this whole story to say the myth that humanities students are never career-oriented is just that: a myth. You can exhaust yourself in any path you choose in life — faking it, hoping that at some undeterminable point in the future you'll finally make it. The stereotype of the humanities student allows people to assume we're nurturing our souls above all else — forget the career; forget the salary; forget the reputation. This was probably what people assumed I was doing for most of college, even though my mentality might not have been all that different from a finance concentration at Ross.

OK, maybe that's an exaggeration, but you get my point. It's all about priorities — priorities, priorities, priorities. I set mine in line this past week, changing to an English major and spending some time taking care of a few plants I'd been neglecting around my house. I'm doing what I like, and so far it feels good. Now I'm riding with this plan for a while.

Regan Detwiler is a co-editorial page editor of The Michigan Daily.