Monday, July 17, 2006

For love or money

A wonderful essay. "Benton" (a pseudonym) talks about what drove his desire to work with language and the humanities, coming up with a lot of details and thoughts that are awfully familar:
There was a strong material component to English; it wasn't just about words or ideas. I associated literature with the feelings of fall — the vague sadness of the end of summer, the crisp air, sweaters and wood smoke, stained glass and Gothic architecture, and the optimism that comes with new books and stationery. All of those associations took place in an institutional setting apart from teachers, though teachers were necessary because they made demands and offered their experience.

...In a course I taught last spring, after three months of tracing the development of literary theory from humanism to structuralism to poststructuralism to the dilemmas of the present, I finally asked my students the question: "So, why do you want to study literature, knowing what you now know?" I wondered if studying a century of cynicism had altered their motives in the slightest.

They were all considering graduate school, but their answers had little to do with what I knew they would need to write in their application essays. Sitting in a circle in the grass, backed by purple hydrangeas, they offered the following motives:
  • Formative experiences with reading as a child: being read to by beloved parents and siblings, discovering the world of books and solitude at a young age.
  • Feelings of alienation from one's peers in adolescence, turning to books as a form of escapism and as a search for a sympathetic connection to other people in other places and times.
  • A love for books themselves, and libraries, as sites of memory and comfort.
  • A "geeky" attraction to intricate alternate worlds such as those created by Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and George Lucas.
  • Contact with inspirational teachers who recognized and affirmed one's special gifts in reading and writing, often combined with negative experiences in other subjects like math and chemistry.
  • A transference of spiritual longings — perhaps cultivated in a strict religious upbringing — toward more secular literary forms that inspired "transcendence."
  • A fascination with history or science that is not grounded in a desire for rigorous data collection or strict interpretive methodologies.
  • A desire for freedom and independence from authority figures; a love for the free play of ideas. English includes everything, and all approaches are welcome, they believe.
  • A recognition of mortality combined with a desire to live fully, to have multiple lives through the mediation of literary works.
  • A desire to express oneself through language and, in so doing, to make a bid for immortality.
  • A love for the beauty of words and ideas, often expressed in a desire to read out loud and perform the text.
  • An attraction to the cultural aura of being a creative artist, sometimes linked to aristocratic and bohemian notions of the good life.
  • A desire for wisdom, an understanding of the big picture rather than the details that obsess specialists.
To all this, check, check, check. Couldn't have said it better myself. I've been tempted to pursue a career in academia, to go off to grad school and take this idea all the way, but something has always held me back, perhaps because, like the professor says, I fear that I would lose my love of it all, and forget why I'd tried to pursue it in the first place.


Captain Mike said...

Dude, you and I both know that you should have gone to a real college. You might as well get paid for it.

Jason Comerford said...

Sigh... I know, I know... I just don't think I can stomach grad school now (let alone pay for it). I don't have to go back to school to write; I can do that on my own time for free.