An English major's secrets for success

"This does not fit into my life plan," commented a member of my staff when faced with another one of those tasks that fill adult life without seeming to give it meaning. I suddenly realized that what I do day to day does not fit my life plan, either, and I started to think about how I had become a university administrator when the life I had planned was so far removed.

My academic and life journey may offer food for thought for those who are making their life plans or who are guiding those trying to decide what to become as a grownup. I offer you myself as a model for the phrase that "English majors can do anything."

Playing the party game of "first jobs" with a group of academics recently, I found that my first job, part-time and summers, of selling supplies for fallout shelters and camping trips (they were seen as analogous) did not take the prize for "weird."

But, I did realize that "weird" characterizes many of the career paths taken by English majors of my acquaintance - from the banker specializing in small commercial loans, to the cybercafe owner, to the vice president for government relations at a large university - English majors all.

What is it about studying English that made us what we are today? The ability to recite the "Prologue" to "The Canterbury Tales" did not win us our first grownup jobs, and the skill does not come in handy today.

Yet studying literature taught us about human nature, society, and the possibility of happiness, so that we have been able to function well in many arenas. We have gone into many battles and emerged victorious, without the specific training so beloved by career planners.

At one point in my career, I began teaching English and business composition to aspiring secretaries at Katharine Gibbs School in Boston. I eventually became academic dean. There I was - with no shorthand and little typing - dean of what was then the premier secretarial school.

After Gibbs, I joined the business-programs office at Northeastern University's adult-education program. University College at Northeastern University offers undergraduate degrees to working adults, and I - having had no formal business education and with no experience of adult students - was in the position of helping to administer a business program.

Today, I am assistant dean and director of liberal arts and criminal justice programs at University College, and have become a presenter at international conferences on distance learning without any formal education for these activities.

I was not a hiring mistake, and I am not an impostor. The education I received as an English major prepared me for all of these jobs. I became an English major at 17 because it was the only thing I thought worth studying. As an English major, I learn-ed to read, write, and think, and those skills have served me well in 30 years as a teacher and administrator in higher education.

I have been able to teach students to read the great writing of human civilization, and have watched as students discovered their strength as learners. I have dealt with students, parents, and faculty at the extremes of emotional distress and legal redress. I have hired new faculty and watched them blossom.

I have also helped to devise new curricula to meet the needs of today's students. And I have taught at the college level in many variations: all-male classes at Boston College, all-female classes at Gibbs, and mixed classes of musicians, dancers, and music-theater majors at the Boston Conservatory of Music.

One prepares best for any management position by learning to read, write, and think clearly and quickly. The English major is perfect for this task.

The English major, with its attendant history, philosophy, and esthetics, prepares one to think critically, write clearly, and understand day-to-day operations in adult life. The English major teaches what must be done seriously (everything) and what must be taken seriously (almost nothing except people).

My work day may include a publication deadline, student problems, faculty and staff issues, a multitude of e-mail and voicemail messages, too many meetings, and decisions that have to be made quickly, often without all of the information available. How does reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and Margaret Atwood help? Do I think about Dante or Dostoevsky on a daily basis?

No, but I have learned about human nature from literature, and I learned about Iago before I had to make a personnel decision about him.

Reading has enabled me to reflect on the depth and heights of humanity without having experienced all of the evils and graces. In my reading, I have met more situations than I have met in reality, and I have learned from my reading. Having read difficult literature and philosophy and finally understood it, means I now find that I can read almost anything quickly and present a synopsis and evaluation.

Much has been written about studying subjects that will provide one with a living. When thinking about a possible major, young people often think in terms of the current "hot" field.

Perhaps a better idea would be to eschew a "growth area" or "plastics" and do what Mortimer Adler suggested: "Follow your bliss."

I do not attend parties with the likes of John Updike or spend my days advancing human knowledge. I do not spend my time creating works that will live beyond my brief span or even until the next academic year.

However, by "following my bliss" and studying literature, I prepared myself to make a living and live a full life. My study of literature has provided me with continuous joy and the ability to do just about anything.

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