“You Want Fries with That?” One Professor’s Insight into why English is still One of Academia’s Most Valuable Degrees

As one of my final assignments for my college career, I was asked (okay, commanded) to interview one of the newest literary professors at my university.  Thankfully, I had already taken one of her classes, so I was more enthusiastic than usual about having to find time for another fun “real world writing experience” (a.k.a., an unpaid brochure-filler for incoming freshmen).  But after sitting down to write up the profile on my old professor, I was struck with how inspiring the interview had actually been.  As one of the countless college students who chose to major in the stereotypical English degree (let’s not even get started on my other major, which few Americans actually understand), I’m constantly braced for the barrage of employers and well-meaning parents who ask that oh-so-uncomfortable question: “how is this degree going to get you a job?”

because we all love hearing about how unmarketable we are after going into our own private recessions.

because we all love hearing about how unmarketable we are after going into our own private recessions.

Assuming that we actually HAVE given a thought to our futures and aren’t just killing time or draining Daddy’s wallet majoring in theater or underwater basket weaving, questions like this are still disconcerting to the almost-college grad.  In an economy still suffering from major borrowing backlash, it’s tough to know what we’ll end up doing in the next five years.  It doesn’t really help that most of our teachers seem to reside in a fantasy-land of perpetual academia, where you can actually make a living off of memorizing Renaissance poetry.

So when Dr. Furaha Norton, newly-hired professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Cincinnati, actually gave me some real-life wisdom, I felt it was my duty as a writer to share it with all my fellow English majors who dare to follow their dreams.  After all, Norton’s no stranger to these types of questions.  After spending the majority of her professional life advocating for the continued embracement of literature, she’s quite enthusiastic about the matter.

“You are constantly asked to justify the existence of the humanities,” Norton explains, surrounded by books in her campus office.  “I don’t ever feel like studying literature is not relevant.  As the world gets more complex, it is important to recognize how language can expand our understanding of the world, even change our perception of reality.”

When she joined UC’s staff in the spring of 2010, Norton was new to teaching, but not the academic lifestyle.  Her own mother being a professor of psychology, Norton grew up on a college campus.  Constantly exposed to the culture of dedicated learning and “the infectious energy of young people,” it comes as little surprise that by the age of thirteen, she had decided to become a professor herself.

After attending the University of Chicago for her undergraduate degree, Norton received her Masters and PhD at Cornell University.  While some consider Ivy League schools unattainable to all but the cream of the crop, Norton stresses that the “caliber of education you get is a combination of the focus and determination of curiosity you bring as a student.  Looking back, I was lucky to have some of the best professors in literature studies and literary criticism.  They set a standard of excellence in terms of writing, teaching, and research, and it’s a privilege for me to try to get halfway to where they were.”

It is this academic curiosity and ambition to rise above that set Norton apart when she made the transition from student to working professional.  After her time at Cornell, she was employed as an editor at the Oxford University Press, the largest and perhaps most prestigious university press in the world.  When interviewing for the position, she made it clear that no part of the job was beneath her.  “Even when I was copying a manuscript after I had earned a graduate degree I still learned something.  Seeing every part of the job you are applying for as an opportunity to learn and absorb is advantageous.  You can be the best at what you do, but there is a fine line between selling yourself and projecting arrogance.”

As a professor of American Ethnic Literature, Norton is all too aware of this fine line.  Hailing from an upper middle class family of teachers, it would be easy for her to take education for granted.  However, because her family is African American, she is aware just how important the opportunity for academic prestige is to her community.

“Since it was a crime for slaves to read, African Americans have always hungered for knowledge, and my family was no exception.  Being African American has influenced my professional development, because there is this idea that when you are black, you have to be twice as good as everyone else.  This was always the message conveyed to me by my ethnic identity.”

Unfortunately, many young people today don’t see the true value of an education.  Norton stresses the importance of having the discipline to finish school, especially those students choosing to pursue the subjects of literature, simply because it is empowering.  “If you can convey your ideas in writing, that is something that will make you stand out from the vast majority of people in the workforce, and will determine whether you spend your working life executing other people’s ideas because yours aren’t persuasive, or becoming someone whose ideas are heard.  Learning how to write is essential to expressing your ideas.”

But students can learn how to write through studying business models or scientific papers- so why study literature?

“The ultimate reason why we read literature is to create empathy.” Norton continues. “Our own experiences are reflected back to us, and we enjoy when we can understand someone else’s experience.  A lot of things follow from empathy: honesty, integrity, and perhaps most importantly in our changing world, seeing other people as friends and collaborators rather than being afraid of them because you don’t understand.  This is why I love teaching ethnic literature.”

Regardless of the many students she influences, Norton continues to advocate for literacy in her wider community.  Recently, she was elected to the board of the Mercantile Library, Cincinnati’s beautiful cultural and literary center.  As the predecessor to modern public libraries, mercantile libraries hold a collection of historic and eclectic volumes that are available exclusively to members and UC students, as well as holds events like book discussions and author readings which are open to the public.  As a director on the Mercantile Library board, she advises the executive director on finances, events, and most importantly, how they can grow their membership base to include more young people.

Norton is unapologetically passionate about drawing more students to literature-based careers.  “Don’t let people tell you that having an english degree is impractical, because it gives you a broader context of the world you live in, no matter what job you ultimately choose,” she advises.  “Stick to your guns because the basic preparation you receive from studying literature makes you a better writer.”

Words to live by the next time some smirking, communications-challenged engineer questions your “useless” major.

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