Patrick Morgan | Graduated in 2010
Posted on Sun, 22 Dec, 2013
[Chair's note: Pat had a bit more to report than we had room for here. In particular, he wanted to offer some advice to our undergrads. You can read his full text on the department blog at http://go.geneseo.edu/pm10.] The hardest thing about connecting the skills I learned as a Geneseo English major with my life after graduation is knowing where to stop. I could write a book on the subject. Geneseo English gave me the synthesizing tools I needed when, immediately after graduating in 2010, I wrote for the National Park Service in Acadia National Park, distilling fifty-page science reports into two-page public-friendly versions. Geneseo English gave me the expertise in clear, concise writing and proofreading that I used as a contributing writer and editorial intern for The American Gardener magazine, shouldering the responsibility for organizing several sections of the publication, such as Gardener’s Notebook and Regional Happenings. Geneseo English gave me the multi-modal writing experiences that prepared me to work for DISCOVER magazine, writing four articles daily for the in-house blogs, 80beats and Discoblog. Geneseo English gave me the public speaking skills necessary to interview geochemists, geophysicists, and geologists for my freelance science journalism articles for EARTH magazine. And Geneseo English gave me the research experience, writing feedback, and encouragement I needed to apply to—and get accepted into—a slew of highly competitive English graduate programs, such as Duke, Northwestern, Oxford, and Cambridge. I am now working toward a PhD in English at Duke University, where I have used the scholarly skills I learned from Geneseo English to co-author with Priscilla Wald a preface for American Literature’s Thoreau Symposium and to construct a collaborative book with Cathy Davidson about digital literacies in the classroom. When I say that “Geneseo English” taught me these skills, I am of course referring to the many Geneseo English professors I had the privilege of taking classes with, as well as those I interacted with beyond the classroom—the professors who are so generous with their time, who challenge you to excel in school and in life, and who stay connected with you years after graduation.
Knowledge, Skills, and Tools
With regard to reading and writing skills, it’s easy to talk about generalities, like how the high expectations of Geneseo English professors forced me to learn proofreading and fact checking methods that I still use to this day; how researching and writing on a deadline was good practice for science journalism; and how the many blog posts I wrote for Beth McCoy, Maria Lima, and Alice Rutkowski prepared me for my journalistic blog posts for DISCOVER magazine. But there are reading and writing skills I learned at Geneseo that are simultaneously more specific and more difficult to articulate. Geneseo English, for example, gave me a sensitivity to different writing genres and to what I like to call “writing climates.” Every Geneseo English professor has high writing expectations. But to say that each professor has high expectations isn’t the same as saying that each professor has the same expectations. Part of the tacit knowledge one gains as a successful English major is the ability to quickly assess the subtly different expectations each English professor has for what exactly an essay should accomplish. The kind of essay I wrote for Rob Doggett wasn’t precisely the kind of essay I would write for Gillian Paku, or Ken Cooper, or Ron Herzman—through pre-essay meetings and discussions, each professor brings out and allows you to discover a different part of your writing voice, based on distinct conceptions regarding the kind of work an essay should accomplish. These subtly different expectations are what I mean by “writing climates,” and it’s this sense of different writing climates that’s so useful after graduation because different publications—even within the narrow field of science journalism—constitute different writing climates. Indeed, each section of each magazine is like a different writing climate: a DISCOVER blog has different expectations than a DISCOVER front-of-the-book print article; EARTH magazine’s News Notes section is different from its Benchmarks section; and there’s a difference between research, resource, and program briefs for the National Park Service—each part of a publication is looking for a different kind of voice, just as each Geneseo English professor brings out a different dimension to your voice.
There are three other specific-yet-hard-to-articulate reading and writing tools that I would like to briefly cover. One tool is the organizational abilities one needs to juggle the medley of high-stakes (conference papers, seminar papers, etc.) and low-stakes (blog posts, presentations. etc.) writing one undertakes as an English major. You’re keeping track of different genres, different writing climates, different due-dates, instructions, and expectations. It’s this type of intensive interpretive task-juggling—characteristic of being a Geneseo English major—that prepared me for the multiple roles I fulfilled, for example, at DISCOVER magazine: in addition to writing four blogs each day, I created photogalleries for the website, helped proofread certain sections of the print magazine, prepared magazine content for online publication, contributed stories to the print magazine, responded to subscribers’ emails regarding the website, and managed DISCOVER’s Facebook page. Another closely-related tool, or experience, includes the presentations and alternative writing projects Geneseo English professors expect from students. For example, I remember the challenging project Caroline Woidat assigned in her Native American Literature survey course, in which we had to integrate the standard academic essay with a creative nonfiction account of a personal family story. The science writing world is likewise full of the kinds of writing projects that force you to meet new expectations—that is, in which you dive into a project that’s unfamiliar to you, and yet you use the skills you’ve built up to tackle the unfamiliar with the familiar. Thus I knew that I could write the text for and design a poster for the National Park Service informing visitors about the vital characteristics of specific invasive insects because I’d successfully accomplished similarly unfamiliar writing projects for Geneseo’s English professors. The last specific-yet-hard-to-articulate reading and writing tool is the practice Geneseo English professors have of providing choices for term papers: you can respond to a specific prompt or you can meet with the professor to propose your own essay idea. Taking advantage of the latter option prepared me for the daily article pitches I gave to DISCOVER magazine editors—going from the idea stage to the I-need-to-convince-this-person-that-my-idea-is-viable stage.
Geneseo’s English professors allowed me to discover my writing voice, and yet there’s so much more than writing skills that I learned from these professors. In each class, they modeled the mind of a literary scholar—a discerning, critical reader, and interpreter of signs who is likewise mindful of social concerns. They generously gave up their valuable time to mentor me, whether it was in working as a teaching assistant for Rob Doggett, or participating in the slew of directed study opportunities I had with Ken Cooper, Gillian Paku, and Richard Finkelstein. The collegiality between the professors gave me a microcosm of the wider academic community—a microcosm that only expanded when Rob Doggett brought me and a bunch of other students to Sligo, Ireland, to participate in the Yeats International Summer School. The introduction to feminist criticism that Beth McCoy, Caroline Woidat, Rob Doggett, Alice Rutkowski, and Maria Lima gave me serves me well now as I complete Duke’s graduate certificate in Women’s Studies. I was introduced to Henry David Thoreau in Alice Rutkowski’s American Romanticism class, Ed Gillin’s Humanities II, and Ken Cooper’s guidance during my honors thesis—an introduction that has directly facilitated my own Thoreau scholarship, such as my 2010 article in The Concord Saunterer, “Aesthetic Inflections: Thoreau, Gender, and Geology.” And extending my interpretive skills beyond the written word—to film—through Jun Okada’s Film Classics has given me the confidence to do the same in my own classroom practices.
Looking back on my time at Geneseo, I realize that I made the right choice by majoring in English. The skills I learned from Geneseo’s English professors are the skills that have brought me around the U.S. writing, from the National Park Service in Maine to The American Gardener in D.C. to DISCOVER magazine in New York City. Although Geneseo English gave me the tools I needed to accomplish my career goals, I didn’t become an English major to become a science journalist because, at the time I declared my major, I didn’t even know that I was interested in science journalism. But it was an English professor who first sparked the idea in my head that I could be a science journalist—who believed in me and my writing, and gave me the encouragement I needed to succeed after graduation. Somewhere in that mentoring experience lies the ineffable quality of being a Geneseo English major.