This year also saw something new in our lifetimes, a global pandemic that still rages across America, confines us to our homes (if we’re lucky enough to have one), separates us from friends and family, robs us of our usual pastimes, keeps us glued to our screens. If we think about it, rather than merely react, we can interpret our situation as an opportunity, as a time to reflect: we remind ourselves, by reading novels, of the social relations missing from our real lives; we read poetry to consider the various forms experience can take as we attempt to bring order to a disordered world; we honor human experience by reading memoirs; we inform ourselves by reading thoughtful, well-written nonfiction. Given the opportunity, we read. We read print books and magazines and literary reviews to rest our screen-burned eyes. We read for pleasure, at play in the green fields of imagination as if our lives depended on it, because they do. Imagination is more than mere escape; at the moment, we’re escaping to survive. We’re escaping boredom and routine, yes, but also narrowness and constraint. Literature helps us do that in perilous times. It helps us during good times, too. It helps us resist what is by invigorating what is possible.
Many of us do more than read, given the opportunity. We’re makers. We make stories and novels and poems and plays and memoirs and graphic novels and criticism; we publish them in books and magazines and literary reviews and book reviews and blogs. We don’t want just to sit there; we want to do something. We make things in the best of times; we make things in the worst of times. We make things to make even the worst times better. That’s what we do in English.
Of course, you want to find a job after you take your degree. Some people say that a degree in the humanities — in English, for instance — won’t get you far, but that’s not true. A lot of research — actually, all the research — proves that English graduates succeed in life after graduation. They work in a broad spectrum of professional roles throughout the private and public sectors, not just in teaching and writing and other worthy but stereotyping jobs, but in finance, and marketing, and management, and software development, and — you name it, English graduates work there. And it’s no surprise. English majors have imaginations and imagination drives innovation. That’s why humanities graduates often end up business and organizational leaders. People who imagine and know the limits of imagination, who think clearly, talk and write persuasively, with rhetorical sophistication, and listen to others with rhetorical attention, who make things of interest to themselves and others — English majors — are powerful actors in the world.
If you are wondering when to be a rhetorician, a reader, a critic, a writer, a powerful actor in the world of ideas, business, politics, education, art, or anything else you have in mind, the time is now.
Michael Adams, Chair of the Department of English