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What do English Majors do? (my speech at the Sigma Tau Delta induction)

Posted by on March 21, 2013

Newaukum bridger

I love bridges. I grew up in rural Washington State, with a creek running behind my backyard, and a river running between my house and everything I needed to get to. When I waited for the bus each morning on the country bridge spanning the small Newaukum River, I always tried to find the exactly center between my side—the private, twenty acre farm with thousands of acres of commercial wilderness surrounding it—and the public side that represented the rest of the world.

The floating bridge


To get to my grandparents’ house on Mercer Island, we had to cross the famed floating bridge over Lake Washington, and if my mom did not wake me in time for this momentous event, there would be hell to pay.

My other grandparents lived in Port Orchard, accessible across the Tacoma Narrows straight by a magnificent suspension bridge. Each time we crossed to the “Davidson side,” as I liked to call it, I made my dad tell me the story of the original bridge, “Galloping Gertie,” named because of its tendency to bounce and pitch during wind storms, a tendency that eventually led to its collapse in 1940.

Galloping Gertie


I think what fascinates me most about bridges is their simultaneously functional and symbolic nature.

The bridge’s most basic function is to connect two sides, to facilitate the crossing of a gap or barrier. This can be as simple as a log across a stream, or as complex as the Si-o-se Pol, the Bridge of thirty-three arches in Isfahan, Iran.

Si-o-se Pol

They can ease the burden of travel; where once one had to travel miles for a crossing, now, as in the thirty-eight moveable bridges spanning the Chicago River, natural obstacles are no longer a problem. 

Bridges bring what was once far, near.They can connect rural to urban, creating access to the goods and services that were previously inaccessible.

This access is both a functional and symbolic action.

Take the suspension bridges being constructed in sub-Saharan Africa. Before, flash flooding and dangerous predators made the crossing of rivers, gullies, and ravines nearly impossible for marginalized communities.

Suspension bridge by “Bridging the Gap Africa” – Kenya

The new bridges functionally enable access to schools, healthcare, and market centers, eliminating the real consequences—and the fear that came with those consequences—of drowning or attack by hippo and crocodile at river fords. Symbolically, the bridges create access to hope, peace, and a better quality of life.

So bridges, while constructed for functional purposes, subsequently occupy symbolic realities in our minds.

The Golden Gate Bridge, one of our most iconic bridges, was built to link San Francisco to Marin County.

Golden Gate Bridge

Before the bridge, San Francisco was served primarily by ferries, and as a result saw a stagnation in growth far below the national average. Experts said that the 6,700 foot gap across the straight could not be spanned, that the depth of the channel, the strong currents and tides, and the gusting winds would make construction of a bridge impossible.

Constructing the Golden Gate Bridge

Of course, the moment you say something is impossible, someone—in this case Joseph Strauss—immediately sets out to prove you wrong.  Declared one of the “Wonders of the Modern World” by the American Society of Civil Engineers, the Golden Gate Bridge symbolizes innovation, determination, and creativity, all values we like to attribute to the symbolic reality of the American dream.

This concept of symbolic reality is important. If we accept that reality, no matter how objective it might be out there, must be interpreted and described through a set of symbols—language, art, architecture—then we must concede that this symbolically constructed reality is inherently subjective. The set of symbols we use to describe any object and any concept have a direct effect on how we then view and understand that object or concept.

Symbolic Reality graphic

Others might take these symbolically constructed realities for granted, but as scholars and producers of writing—a set of symbols—we as English majors are very much aware of the subjective realities that influence the way people act in the world.

We understand that words matter, that language matters. We understand that, like bridges, words are functional. They describe, they explain, they clarify, they muddle, they invoke and evoke, they persuade

word cloud america.

But they are also symbolic, as they help us determine the reality that we live in: who we are, why we are here, what we do, why we do it. Telling someone that I “teach writing” is different than saying that I am a “professor of rhetoric and composition.”

It’s not hard to find proclamations that the Humanities in general, and the English major specifically, are in decline. On the golf course a while back, I had the “pleasure” of defending my job to a group of smirking businessmen. “You’re a professor of English?” they asked. “So you, what, teach people how to write good English?”

“I teach people how to write English well,” I replied with my own smirk.

“What good is a degree in English?” another guy asked, chomping and slobbering all over his massive cigar. “Business majors study business and then do business. Physics majors do physics. What exactly do English majors do?”

“Just about anything,” I responded immediately.

Last year, there were a slew of articles about how much businesses desire students who can think and write about complex issues and problems—the humanities student, the English major.

In an interview last October, Silicon Valley high-tech entrepreneur Santosh Jayaram said, “English majors are exactly the people I’m looking for.” Why? Because in today’s era of digital products and digital marketing, companies need people who can tell the story of their products. They need writers who can make those necessary connections—bridges—between what the product offers and the potential consumer’s values, needs, and experiences.

I experienced this first-hand the summer before my junior year in college. I’d taken a temp job from Apple One in the IT department at Experian, the large corporation responsible for whether you get a 3.5% or 10% interest rate on your new car. I was in charge of manually inputting security data for an online system while the programmers made the transition to automation. However, within three months, by the time I was ready to begin the Fall semester, I’d been hired on full-time to the Internet Security department. Why? Not because I had mastered the 10-key pad. It was because I was the only one who could communicate in writing the processes, procedures, and policies of our department and our new program.

My rapid climb up the corporate compensation chart happened because I knew how to efficiently and effectively make our bizarre, complex system understandable for a variety of different audiences. I wrote emails, memos, technical documents, and project plans that appealed to the specific needs and experiences of internal and external clients alike. I connected our values and goals to their values and goals.

Just like when I was a kid waiting on the bridge for that school bus, I found myself positioned between two sides, only now the bridge connecting those two sides was the document I had created.

This is why I said that the English major can do just about anything. Your expertise is not in specific formulas or processes, but in writing and reading, in making sense of the various symbolic realities that have been created in the past and are being created now, and building bridges between those realities to foster understanding.

When you write about the works of Shakespeare or Conrad or Austen or Tolstoy, you are building bridges.

When you write a blog about your travels to the Balkans, you are building bridges.

When you write a criticism of the metaphors of war in sports writing, you are building bridges.

As writers and scholars of writing, you build bridges between minds and between realities, connecting your readers to new ideas, new perspectives, new worlds, bringing the far, near.

That is a powerful thing to “do.”

You, today’s English major, are also going to be bridge builders in your own field. In a relatively short time we have seen a broad move from the dominance of writing to the dominance of the image, and at the same time, a move from the dominance of the book to the dominance of the screen (Kress).

Newspapers, magazines, academic journals, books—the old modes of print have now become digital, and in that process of remediation, many people are being left behind. How do we negotiate this sudden change in publication and distribution, where by using a personal three and half inch display, I can access nearly any discourse, broadening my world view? Or, I can access only those discourses which validate my world view.

The world told by symbols—writing—is still governed by time and a mostly linear progression. I still read my digital copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles from left to right, bottom to top, page 1 to page 419. But what if I could annotate it, or others could annotate it, placing hyperlinks that take me to blogs, to literary criticism scanned from 1950’s journals, to YouTube clips of the Roman Polanski film, to fan fiction sites?

When I read Tess on my digital device, the “world told” through Hardy’s use of symbols also becomes the “world seen,” governed by space, the arrangement of image, and the hypertextual links made to the discourse spawned by the novel.

We can bemoan the shift from page to screen, we can loudly proclaim that the discourse found in blogs, tweets, wikis, TED talks, video reviews or any other new media platform is unworthy of the discourse found in books and academic journals, but we cannot deny that the discourse of the former is reaching far more people than the discourse of the latter.

Your job, English majors, is to build bridges between the two.

Many of you are doing this now, when you post book reviews on Goodreads, or comment about current social, cultural and political issues on a blog, on Facebook, on Twitter. I have seen student tweets about an exciting new text or concept discussed in class, expanding that discourse beyond the classroom walls into the digital spaces of our virtual communities.

You are building bridges between the current digital experiences of writing and reading, and the past print experiences. Those bridges are creating that functional and symbolic access to discourse, access to hope, to education, to understanding.

You will become professionals in an incredibly exciting era. Teachers, critics, reviewers, technical writers, novelists, poets, screenwriters, editors, journalists, managers, copy writers, bloggers, activists, humanitarians—whatever you become, however you apply your expertise in composing and analyzing texts—however you define “texts”—you will be working in new rhetorical spaces using new rhetorical tools…and you will be connecting minds and realities, people, through your writing.

So the next time someone asks you what you do with an English major, you tell them, “I build bridges.”

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