I would tell you that all the hours you’re spending researching requirements for Columbia’s English doctoral program is a waste of time, but as it marks your first real practice in collecting and evaluating information, a process that will become all too familiar to you, I’ll let you be.
You won’t transition to a Ph.D. immediately after undergrad but will abandon the idea altogether, entertaining thoughts of law school and volunteer work before you finally settle on corporate America. Thirty-seven days after your cap-and-gown-clad exit from the Big House, you’ll don a blazer and skirt for your first day as a management trainee on Long Island. You will work for Slomin’s, the nation’s largest privately-owned home security and residential heating oil company, and your hands-on exposure to the company’s operations will include shadowing alarm mechanics, HVAC technicians, oil drivers and sales representatives in between table sessions with department heads and executives.
By May 4, you’ll be ready for a world without coursework and academic politics. A month into the real world, part of you will be starved for Ann Arbor’s intellectual life, but the other part will be relieved that you’re no longer volleying jargon around a classroom in theoretical discussions about intersectionality. Instead, you’ll be watching it.
Over the next four years, you will minimize “access to education” to juveniles in Highland Park detention facilities and will blink when you see its evidence in the oil drivers and mechanics that speak and interact so differently than your classmates and friends.
When you shadow a sales representative, more substantial discussions will replace small talk as you drive from one sales call to the next. You’ll talk religion and theories of political advocacy and family and work-life balance, everything the professional workplace deems taboo because it fears the abrasion with which the parties might speak. But you’ll talk delicately, no longer the freshman who huffs out sentences to make her case. You are not so naïve to believe that an employee’s worldview won’t affect his work experiences.
How can you manage if you don’t know what’s going on in your employees’ lives? How can you communicate if you don’t know your audience?
And through these discussions you’ll learn that this audience doesn’t listen harder when you throw around words like ‘dichotomy’ and ‘disseminate.’ It takes humility to release everything you learned, the vocabulary so carefully honed, the value of a degree reduced to your ability to converse with people without one. Within the first two weeks on the job, when you help Mechanic 292 snake wires through walls, handing him crimps and screwdrivers and the stepladder, you’ll find that field workers won’t open up when they think you’re a snobby college grad.
You’ll see it in the way they talk about education. One technician will tell you, “You don’t need to be in the office. You’ll make more money as an oil mechanic.” Conversations with department heads about raises and bonuses will show you the complications of that statement, but English 325 has taught you that perception is everything. Field workers might shy away from giving you information, afraid that you’ll report them or that you might be their boss someday.
And you might.
So you cultivate relationships to benefit your future self who in one, five, ten years from now can reflect with satisfaction on the beginning of your career.
“Do you think people are inherently good or bad?” you ask Mechanic 292 during a lunch break overlooking the Atlantic. You talk about crime and anarchy, bouncing between his thoughts on a recent movie and your analysis of Native Son. He finds your crime and justice minor fascinating and asks about your classes, turning the discussion to the topic of autonomy. At the end of your rotation with him, he’ll thank you for the conversations, and you’ll carry the experience to department heads in a debriefing about employee treatment and company culture. You note that the field workers value managements’ interest in the day-to-day grind mechanics and drivers undergo: this is Marx’s ironic but comfortable niche in the capitalist world.
What you love about English you will find in the real world. It will begin in classroom discussions that grow heated as you befriend characters and evaluate their choices. It will continue outside of the classroom, when you will compare literary theory to managing a student organization. And it will culminate in your senior year, when you find that your thesis on transactional relationships in Dickens is not terribly dissimilar to the corporate America for which you are preparing. The value of an English degree is more than honors on a thesis, more than a B.A. on a resume. It’s preparing you for a career in management because it’s teaching you how relationships work.
Contrary to popular belief, contrary to your own thoughts at this point, a liberal arts degree will not prepare you solely for a lifetime in academia but for success in the real world as well. You’ll notice it in your colleagues’ comments on how well you articulate and in your ability to facilitate communication between the president and department heads. You’ll see it in the ease with which you can identify the larger picture. You’ll identify it in the ways your language classes are contributing to your thoughts on improving cross-company communication.
This is how you will come to see it: You can’t have an oil delivery without a sale. And you can’t have a sale without marketing. And you can’t have effective marketing if you don’t understand how aesthetics appeal to people. And you can’t understand the effect of aesthetics if you don’t know how people work. And when the vice president says, “We’re proud to view customers as people, not account numbers,” you know that the liberal arts taught him that. Because the customer is first a purchaser, who is first a homeowner, who is first a part of humanity – and it is his human desires you are satisfying when you talk about good customer service, an attempt to make the face of a company a human-to-human interaction. How do you have a relationship with a service?
You’ll discover that defamiliarization makes a good marketing technique. When discussing Photoshop effects with one of the programmers, you’ll know this is what literary theorist Shklovsky said, in more words, perhaps, about what makes the stone stony, now applied to the visual. The programmer wants to zoom and crop, showing only a section of the product equipment you’ll showcase online. You understand this as nothing less than metonymy — a part of an object representing the whole — a concept you will explore in depth during “Literature of the Holocaust” but wouldn’t have expected to find here.
In a discussion with the president of the company about a banner photo on the new website, you defend your choice of a couple snuggled against each other, dessert in hand, a wintry window behind them. You’ll claim, “We’re not selling a product, we’re selling an experience. Home heating means intimacy.” You’ll situate yourself as the liaison between the marketing team’s vision and the programmers’ fixation on coding the mobile site. Throw in a cynical image management guru and you’ll realize you walked into a character-driven plot that will define your corporate experience. So you navigate the personality minefield to talk about language in a website copy discussion. What is home security, anyway?
The longer you are in corporate America, the more you will realize how dependent it is on the liberal arts. Your business classes will teach you what a transaction is. Your friends’ engineering classes will teach them how to make it more efficient. But the humanities will tell you why it happens.
As for you, you’ll question everything in debriefing sessions with department heads and executives. Your colleagues laugh at your inquisition and might let a snarky comment slide when you press deeper into an answer, all stemming from your acute observations in the field.
But when the vice president of sales and marketing approaches you and says, “I hear you’re doing a good job,” you’ll smile.
You have four years of participation points to thank for that.