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  • Reclaiming Claims:What English Students Want from English Profs
  • Abram Van Engen (bio)

"So you like therapy, eh?"

I was in the Jellema Room, an intimidating chamber of dusty philosophical tracts, stale coffee, slow e-mail, and a coterie of would-be philosophers. As a philosophy major, I had earned the right to enter; as an English major, my presence had been challenged.

"What do you mean, therapy?"

"Isn't that all you do in English classes?" my friend quipped. The coterie laughed. "You come to class and the teacher says, 'OK, kiddies, what did you think of that? Did you liiiike that? How did it make you feeeel?'" He was on a roll.

I'm sure, in his self-amusement, my friend considered himself rather witty and original; in reality, his view of English fit neatly into a tradition of suspicion that fills the various halls and chambers of the academy as if gassed through the ventilation system: "Everyone knows," as Andrew Delbanco (1999: 32), an English professor himself, writes, "that if you want to locate the laughingstock on your local campus these days, your best bet is to stop by the English department." "After all," my friend wound up his spiel, "that's why so many people take English. It's easy. It isn't real."

But the sentiment, it would seem, is not confined to the academy. Unless your parents happen to be English professors, telling them that you've settled on an English major can be a rather unsettling affair—ranging anywhere from nerve-racking to family-splitting. (One friend I know who decided on a Great Books program at a major university had such a falling out with his father that they haven't spoken in two years.) Nor has it been easy since [End Page 5] graduation to justify the decision I have made. Seeing old faces or being introduced to new ones, now with a degree in hand, I am continually asked the same question: "And what do you do now?"

At first, I began by answering with the truth: that I'm working a few part-time jobs, waiting on grad school, and trying to write. The reactions, I began to notice, could be classified Aristotelian style into two species: horror and romance. The first is by far the more common: Feigning a smile, the entrepreneuring-investment-banking-Lexus-driving-twenty-eight-year-old-lawyer thanks what deities she believes in that English never enticed her, says "Ohhh" rather awkwardly, and excuses herself to use the restroom. The other, the romantic, thinks I'm living in a cardboard box among the poor and outcast, writing words that will outlive our mortal, feeble flesh, changing lives in a future none of us will see. These, apparently, are the only two responses available for non-English majors attempting to understand what exactly I'm doing with my life.

Recently, I went through the same ordeal in meeting the family of a new friend. The father—a banker, of course—was lounging in a plush recliner behind his copy of Forbes magazine as the Asian Market Watch rambled on above a rush of stock quotes skimming across the screen. "And writing," I said. He looked up. "Fake stuff or real?" I blinked, my mouth opened slightly in the universal expression of incomprehension. "I mean, are you writing fiction or non?" Now, I'm not so careful a judge of character as, say, Sherlock Holmes, Columbo, or the lady from Murder She Wrote, but I'm pretty sure that my questioner was not joking. Fiction, apparently, was fake.

Inside and outside the academy, the English professor and the English pupil run into a common problem: the rest of the world thinks what we do and what we study is fake. English ranges anywhere from "entertainment" to "therapy," but it seldom enters the realm of the real—the "real," I suppose, meaning a productive contribution to society yielding tangible, green results.

Thus the "So what?" of English rattles in the back of our minds like an empty can attached to an exhaust pipe. Why read fiction? Why spend one's life teaching it? As another acquaintance once...


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pp. 5-18
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