Jesse Goldberg | Graduated in 2012
Ph.D. Student in English at Cornell University
Posted on Sun, 18 Aug, 2013
I came to Geneseo declared as an English major with the intention of earning an Adolescent Education certification through the School of Education so I could be a high school English teacher. While my interest in English as a field of study preceded my arrival at Geneseo, my understanding of just what “English” is as a field of study changed throughout my four years, and as this change was happening, I also decided to slightly shift my career goals.
In my first semester, I took Professor Beth McCoy’s “African American Migration Narratives” class, and I am certain it was the single most influential course I ever took at Geneseo. Among the many other things I learned in the course was that the field of English was more than I thought it was. I came to Geneseo knowing “English” as close reading, as identifying literary techniques at work in texts and working to interpret how those techniques were functioning to advance the themes, characters, arguments, and plots of the text. And it is all those things, and all those things are incredibly important and meaningful. But “Migration Narratives” taught me that English can also be a field in which we get back to the fundamentals in the most important ways: reading, listening, and communicating meaning. English didn’t have to be all about deconstructing symbolism and asserting an interpretation of a written text, but it could be about learning how to more responsibly read the people and world around us, how to honestly read ourselves and our own stories and understand how to place stories in context of one another, how to build knowledge and understanding through narrative, and how to understand narrative as fluid and interactive.
As I continued through the English program at Geneseo I took many more classes that both expanded on and challenged the work I did in “Migration Narratives.” One of my favorite courses was an American Studies course co-taught by English Professor Alice Rutkowski and History Professor Justin Behrend on the American Civil War and Memory. Throughout my time at Geneseo as an English and Philosophy double-major, I had been on the edges of trying to do work that was truly interdisciplinary, and this American Studies course really pushed me further to commit to that goal – to bring the skills and mindsets cultivated in English together with skills, mindsets, and methodologies of other disciplines. I was personally very grateful for the challenge presented by the course because it pushed me to do better interdisciplinary work, and I think this experience is an important one to keep in mind for English majors in general. English as a field has the potential to be wonderfully inclusive of seemingly disparate paths and methodologies of inquiry (though not everyone thinks so: listen seriously to but remain suspicious of “disciplinary police” who want to tell you what does and does not count as real “English” work) on its own, but it is also ripe to for meaningful interdisciplinary work and its skills are infinitely transferable.
In my case, this trajectory has led me to graduate school where I am pursuing a Ph.D. in the hopes of becoming an English professor, concentrating in African American Literature. But I think my experiences in “Migration Narratives” and my development of an interest in interdisciplinary learning can speak to ways we think about the English major not just as a path to academia or teaching, but as a truly rich and rewarding field of study – as a field of study that is immeasurably indispensable for doing the work of “world shaping” that Toni Morrison writes so eloquently of in so many of her novels.
And so I would encourage English majors to pay attention to the ways in which English as a field expands beyond the boundaries of the edges of pages of text (be they paper or digital “pages”) into the sources of the ideas represented by those words in the text. In a word, I’m talking about people. English can be a way of doing the difficult and necessary work of building understanding and investigating disagreement, conflict, and violence. It can be an avenue into enacting actions in any field which are performed in full (or, as full as possible) cognizance of the human contexts in which such actions take place, be they decisions about banking policy, the design of a website, or a vote before the local Board of Education. Resist the demand to quantify this work. Because it is in the unquantifiability that the immense indispensability of your work rests!
Of course, concrete results of all your hard work can and will follow. Thanks to my time in Geneseo’s English department, I was more well-prepared than I even realized for graduate study at Cornell, and I just sent off my first essay to a professional academic journal a few months ago, an essay that began as a series of papers for a Geneseo English class and a presentation at a Sigma Tau Delta Conference.
I’d like to close by saying that while I alluded to banking, web design, and civil responsibilities in describing spaces in which the training we go through as English majors is useful, I am an enthusiastic supporter of pursuing graduate study on the path towards academia. So if you’re thinking about applying to Ph.D. programs, or especially if you’re weighing the options of High School and Higher Education teaching, please feel free to email me. I’d be happy to help a fellow Geneseo English major think through these things.