Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What is a graduate degree in English good for anyway?

My doctor friends get asked all kinds of random health questions. At church someone might come up and say, "You know, I've got this pain in my side," or "Would you look at this boil on my thigh." Accountants get asked for free tax advice. I've asked lawyers I know for their opinion on everything from traffic violations to the broken fence that separates the neighbor's yard from mine. My craftsman friends--mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, bakers--regularly take questions about their areas of expertise.

I love a good professional because I know I'm going to get an experience-based answer backed up by education.

Graduate students in English are like semi-professional athletes. We're training to be really good at a few, highly specialized skills that will be helpful in our line of work--mainly showing other people in our line of work how smart we are (conferences and publications), and showing other people how to imitate our line of work (teaching)--but outside of our little bubble, most of what we do is pretty irrelevant to what the rest of the world needs.

For instance, no one has ever called me up and asked for help analyzing a line of advertising copy, or applying Marxist theory to their rose garden.

No one has ever casually asked my opinion about the role of film in literary studies or the value of the graphic novel in a discussion of narrative.

Most of what I do in graduate school, and will do in the academy, is completely useless to my philistine friends . . . er. ..gentile friends...er....er...non-academic friends...shoot!

The one exception is grammar and usage. In fact, grammar and usage are THE subjects people expect me to know everything about.

Not that people usually want help. I've never had someone stop me on the bus and say, "Hey, you're an English Major, right? What's the difference between effect and Affect, or "Hey, is it really okay to split an infinitive?" (it is, by the way, especially if you're Captain Kirk).

Far from wanting help, people tend to want a guarantee that I won't call them on their grammatical mistakes.

Still, an advanced knowledge of grammar is the one tangible, semi-practical skill that English majors can and should wear on their sleeves. It's one of the few concrete measures of our education, the closest thing to a right answer most of us ever had to produce in four, six, maybe ten years of post-secondary education.

That's why I'm glad I'm taking an editing course this semester. It's helping me put a name to all the "rules" and grammar principles that I've learned organically over the years, and now when I talk about why a student's writing is so bad, I can sound like a professional when I'm doing it.

Can't get enough grammar? Check out Grammar Girl! Her podcast is bodacious.


Marel and Tom Stock! said...

With a Masters in Theatre, I get asked what my favorite musical is. And that's all I'm good for...

Marel and Tom Stock! said...

and I apologize about my sentence structure in the previous comment. Just driving your point home.