It isn’t a particularly impressive title, but I earned it.
Today I officially graduate with a Master’s of Arts in English Literature. I decided not to walk, so my closure comes from writing this blog post and exchanging blurry-eyed embraces with the dear friends I’ve made in this program. Washington State may not have been the perfect fit for me on paper, far from it, but I’ve grown more as an academic, as an educator, and as a person at this university than I believe I could have anywhere else. The people here have been supportive and inspiring and I am ultimately thankful for this experience.
My single regret in coming here is born from the cynicism about the future of the humanities that runs rampant in our department. This has not worn well on me, and has caused me to spend many sleepless nights pondering my own worth. In departmental meetings, in the halls, and over coffee, my colleagues and I have engaged in endless conversations about how disposable our field, and by proxy, we are. I have not spoken with one of my cohort members who is completely certain that they made the right decision by getting this degree. Seeds of self-doubt and self-hatred have been planted not by people in the sciences or the media, but by our own mentors and friends.
I have fallen prey to this worrisome negativity just as much as the next graduate student. However, after much fretful consideration, my liberal arts background makes me certain that there will always be a place for the arts and humanities, although it may not be in the public university. I believe that the university as we know it will be completely restructured in the next 5-15 years and that people will be reintroduced to the joys of literature in new ways. Perhaps this will be through MOOCs or Google Hangout book clubs. Or, more likely, it will be through a new application of technology we have yet to discover. This is not a bad thing and it is far from a death knoll for what we do. It’s just a metamorphosis. Above all, we, the Literature instructors and professors, must advocate for our own field and not become victims to the rhetoric of our own impracticality. Being practically useful is not the only value in our world and we cannot risk forgetting that. After all, valuing beauty is what brought most of us to this field to begin with. Or have we forgotten that too?
Time makes even the brightest believer cynical. I realize that. As an 18 year-old freshman in college I was just as confident in my English major as I was my Political Science minor and my Environmental Studies minor. These three fields held equal weight to me. No one in the Oz that is Truman State would consider telling me that my major was impractical. In fact, I never heard the “You’ll never get a job” talk from any of my professors. They all seemed equally certain that I could become a professor just like them, and live an idyllic life at the Harvard of the Midwest or a comparable liberal arts school where teaching is valued over publications. I believed them. Soon after, I found out that there are no comparable schools. Our Princeton of the Prairie is unparalleled in its selectivity, value, and setting. Rural, publicly funded, secular liberal arts colleges are unfortunately not commonplace. Trumanites are very much in a bubble. A bubble in a wheat field.
WSU is also in a wheat field, but in a bubble we are not. The real world hits hard on this campus. In the short time I have been here, we have experienced a sinister wave of violence and unrest among students who consider college to be not a vital part of career preparation, but a roaring fun life stage.* Activism is not the norm here; apathy is. This attitude our students exude is reflected in us. We cannot help but absorb some of their disinterest in the academy and the literature we try so hard to promote. It is difficult not to lose our lustre. However, what we (hopefully still) have and what we can forever hold onto is our intellectual excitement. The joy we gain from books and from writing is what put us where we are. If we lose that, we have lost the battle. I refuse to give that up. I still read books for pleasure. In fact, the books I read for my classes bring me unmeasurable happiness. Writing my thesis was one of the most wonderfully fulfilling tasks I’ve accomplished yet. And yes, I still love Virginia and plan on rereading some of her work this summer. I refuse to give up on something I hold so very dear. It is too delightful to be profitable. But it is likewise too important to let die.
*For the record, I am not against having fun in college. I’m against the notion that every person should graduate from high school and go to college because it’s what Americans do. Go to college because it’s what you want to do.