The value of an English degree during a pandemic, plus a rabbit

I was on a Zoom call recently with some college friends. One mentioned that his college degree, earned many years ago, did not provide much. Another agreed, saying “my degree did absolutely nothing for me!” Now, there may have been some hyperbole there, and this exchange may have involved some ribbing/noodling/general sh*t-slinging, but it did raise my eyebrows a bit.

Now, there is no disagreement that the college experience was worthwhile. I mean, here we were, oldsters who met in our salad days at college, connecting again a couple decades later. There is much to be said about the shared experience of residential college, especially for traditional students. Personal growth, coming of age, maturity, life lessons learned–call it what you will, it is a big deal. But what the heck does a degree in English or Government get you once you head out into the “real world?” Apparently, my fellow former students believe that “nothing” is the answer.

I find myself disagreeing, so here are five things that my undergraduate liberal arts degree in English has given me to help face this pandemic. Call it a metaphor for life in general, but let’s use this quarantine situation for what it gives us, shall we?

It gave me some solid writing skills. I work in an office, so I use email a lot anyway, but these days, working at home every day, I use it more than I ever have. When you can’t just pop by someone’s desk, you have to use other means to communicate. Sure I use the phone or make video calls, but I write emails too, lots of them. And I think about those emails. I write and delete and edit and craft and when I don’t do that I worry that my tone was off or that my message might be misinterpreted. I think about my audience and how formal I need to sound and I try to use the right words. And that is stuff I learned writing papers for English classes. And email is just one example. I will be working on writing a big grant soon, and it will be better because I know how to write–I will be able to focus more on details other than sentence structure, and it will be a better proposal.

It helps me to be a better parent. The past couple of days I spent time helping my daughter, who is home now rather than at school, to fine tune her thesis for her English class. It is fourteen pages, by the way, a solid accomplishment for a high school junior. I can help her with her thesis because I have lots of practice. High school students have to write papers, and if I can help mine to navigate that challenge, then we will have a better relationship. Also, reading literature for a class means you have to pay attention so that you can understand and analyze it. If you are or have been a parent you know the importance of paying attention to your kid. That kid is not you, and they are sometimes going to think in ways that don’t make sense to you. If you do not pay attention you will understand less now and have a harder time coming to understanding later.

It taught me patience. Have you ever read Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Or Moby Dick? Or Great Expectations? That crap ain’t easy. First, you have to get through it. It takes time just to read those kinds of books. Then you have to try to understand what the heck is going on. I read Shakespeare in college. You might not know this, but that dude did not talk like we do now. If Shakespeare showed up today he would be all “What gives with the Tik Tok and the acai bowls and spelling shop with only one p and without the e at the end?” Just like I was all “Beggarly account? Jackdaw? Take arms against a sea of troubles? What the…” I had to work through those works of literature to first understand them and then to collect my own thoughts into writing. Sure, one could rush through that and slap together a paper. I guess that wasn’t for me. Right now, whatever your situation, patience is critical. If you can manage to collect your thoughts and be deliberate, you will be better off then just trying to slap things together. We all will be.

It helps me to understand the power of story. Politicians get elected because they tell stories. Leaders are followed because they tell stories. You want to be a good presenter or to make a successful pitch or to teach anything well? You need to harness the power of story. Sure those authors I read in college were trying to make a living by telling stories. People enjoy a good story and will pay to hear it/read it/watch it, but stories are integrated into our lives. When we meet someone for the first time we ask each other questions, and we share stories. If you can tell a good story you will make friends, you will be more respected, you can be a better boss. Of course, the ability to tell a good story can mean abusing that power at the expense of others. People want to listen. Whether it is for good or ill, however, stories have power. I learned that by doing all that reading and writing, and I relearn it just about every day during this pandemic. I mean, how can you have a successful Zoom call without a good story or two? (Also, my wife handed me a book, literally as I write this, that she got forever ago, telling me I need to read something from it because it is relevant right now–power of story in action!)

I am better able to make connections between all kinds of things. When I read some of those old books it was important to understand the context of the story. Dickens makes a lot more sense when you understand the issues of the day in 19th Century London, and it makes even more sense when you understand what was happening all over the world at that time. Things Fall Apart or Night–those books are stories within the larger stories of their time and place. Reading those books, and then analyzing them in order to write a paper about them, meant trying to understand how things are related. I found that I better understood those stories because I was studying other things as well. I found myself making connections or having insights in French class or Geology class because of some of those stories. And the reverse was true as well. Coal plays a big role in 19th Century England, and it is featured in Dickens novels, and I learned about it in my lab. All of that learning fed into each other. Making connections is important to understanding our world, whether our own community or international politics. This coronavirus thing is not easy to understand. Where did it come from? Why did it spread so fast? Why can’t we treat it? Will things ever get back to normal? The ability to make connections between all of these things helps me to understand what it all means. I often don’t get definitive answers, but I at least can grasp why I don’t.

As for the rabbit, well, I haven’t been seeing all that many of them lately. Some years they are underfoot but this year they are scarce. I saw several of them this morning. I took a photo. What does that mean? I don’t think it means anything. Rabbits are just cool critters. Seeing them this morning does not have to have any more significance than that. Sometimes things don’t. Studying English in college taught me that, too.

Why Pay Attention

I remember reading once that the best newspapers are ones that feature people.  They name names.  They contain photographs of those in the community.  The stories are about readers’ neighbors and friends and family.  People buy the paper because it has direct relevance to them.  Recently we have been receiving in the mail, unsolicited, a section of the Burlington Free Press that is about people in the community.  It contains stories about everyday people and it contains lots of photos.  Normally, I pitch those free papers, but I flip through this one every time.

I check it out because I may see someone I know in those photos.  I have seen people I know in its pages.  I was in it once, as were my children.  USA Today won’t contain pictures of anyone I know personally.  This little paper likely will.  So I open it up each time and peruse it before adding it to the pile of fire-starting material.

I thought of this little newspaper today.  This past weekend I spent some time with David Grant, who is president of the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  He just announced he is leaving his position.  He wrote about this on the foundation’s blog.  I subscribe to the blog through a reader.  The foundation hosts a huge poetry festival every couple of years.  It is of interest to me.  I had not made the connection, however, between David’s association with the foundation, and my own interest in it.

I find that I sometimes do this somewhat dramatically, at least in my own head–I connect two things together in one arena and then connect one of those things with something else in another arena;  and then one day a light bulb goes off that all those things are related.  I have a Eureka moment–“Hey that is related to that, and that is related that and whoa, everything is connected!”  The reason this seems so dramatic to me is that I spend a lot of my mental energy on looking for and finding connections.  Discovering how things intertwine brings me real joy. So when I find that I have missed something that, in hindsight, seems so obvious, I stumble a bit.

I had one of those moments this weekend.  “Oh, David directs that Dodge Foundation–Duh!” I thought to myself.  Today I went back and looked at the foundation’s blog and found the articles that David had written that I had previously just skimmed over.  I hadn’t noticed who had written them and so had not made a personal connection to them.  This time I read them more thoroughly.  They were interesting to me the first time, but they were more interesting to me with another read.  I had some context the second time around.  I could picture who was doing the writing and I had at least some idea of how he thinks, of what he has experienced in the world.  It made the articles more relevant.  I had a picture.

The point is, I paid more attention because I knew the author of the article.  I suppose, while the writing is of a very different type, I might compare it to a favorite poet or author.  If I have enjoyed a poet or author I am likely to pay attention if he or she comes out with a new book.  I have some context, some personal history, so I have a link to the new book.  That is what happened with David’s blog posts.  That is what happens with the local newspaper that comes in the mail.  Once I feel that I have a connection, or that I might have a connection, I pay more attention.

I think most of us do this.  The captain of the U.S. ship that was recently hijacked by pirates and then released, was from Vermont.  Vermonters paid attention.  My guess is they paid a lot more attention than Oregonians or Floridians.  They had a connection, even if it was not directly personal.  It was still personal.  We pay more attention when a neighbor is in trouble than when a stranger is.

This is why it is important for me to look closely.  When I look closely I notice more, and the more I notice the more I am likely to see connections.  Then I pay more attention.  Attention feeds attention in a positive feedback loop.  The more I pay attention, the more connections I see, and so the more I pay attention.  If all of us could stop to look closely, to ask questions, to challenge our assumptions, to simply wonder, we would see that many things are not so strange after all.  We would see that we are connected to our world.  And we would notice what we do.  And we would see how we affect those around us.  And we would better understand that all we do has consequences, good and bad.  And we would, perhaps, make more conscious and better choices.

Maybe not, but I’ve been doing my best to pay attention to what I see in the people I encounter everywhere I happen to be.  I believe if we could slow down and refect a little more, we might just take care of ourselves and our neighbors and our world better.  And that would certainly be something to which we all could pay attention.