Friday, March 18, 2011


A friend of mine was in town yesterday and we met up for drinks. He's currently in the process of deciding what school to attend for his PhD, so we spent some time talking about the visits he's made so far. This quickly became a topic about our respective projects and what we hope to do with our degrees. We're both very interested in the future of English Studies as a discipline and how to move our work outside of the academy. We're both also very excited about collaboration and about doing collaborative work in the future. Increasingly, I find the idea of working by myself on a project very depressing. I like talking with other people. I like sharing ideas and using conversation to make my ideas stronger. Why not take advantage of those facts to make stronger work with other people? It was all very exciting and refreshing to spend a few hours being unabashedly idealistic about what we (the people working towards PhDs and entering the field right now) can do.

One thing we both found very interesting is that despite self-identifying as students of English, many of the topics we were excited to talk about had only tangential relationships to literature. This is obviously not a new phenonmenon, but it is interesting to think about in the context of public perception of English Studies as a discipline both inside and outside of the academy (my own research interest; my friend explores similar questions in his work). What cultural products were these two English majors excited to talk about? Girl Talk (particularly his pairing of Aphex Twin and Soulja Boy), Kanye West, Arcade Fire, and Radiohead. Theory after 9/11 and the Freshman Writing classroom. Social media as a curatorial space for cultural artifacts. The term "American" and its many (contradictory) definitions. Restaurant menus and the legacy of Deconstruction.

Again, nothing there is really groundbreaking or revolutionary. That's sort of the point, though. That our conversation topics are standard (some might even suggest passe) to those within the discipline seems to work against the perception of those outside the discipline as to what English Studies does. When my sister asked me what I do, she was disappointed to find out it had little to do with grammar. For her, being an English major could only mean learning about the technical aspects of the language. At a New Year's Eve party, a friend in chemistry asked me what I do, but he couldn't reconcile my work with the English classes he took in high school and the one literature he took in university. Maybe we need to start demonstrating to people what it is that English Studies does today (and explaining why we do it), rather than letting people talk about our discipline by restricting its activities to what we used to do.

Anyway, those are just some idle musings. For now, I'm just glad I had the opportunity to talk with my friend and get fired up about being a PhD student. Coupled with the warm weather and sunshine of the past few days and a few stimulating class sessions recently, I feel refreshed and energized after our talk.

On a more prosaic note: I tried Five Guys for the first time ever last night. They make good burgers. Why didn't anyone ever mention this to me before?


  1. They also have good fries. School sucks though. But I'm glad at least one of us is enthusiastic. It's definitely - definitely - you.

    Enjoy the "conference" tomorrow. Haha. I know, I mean.

  2. I'm really pleased to hear that there's at least the two of you concerned with spreading contemporary english studies beyond the academy. I feel like some of the Humanities are unfortunately cloistered within the ivory tower, in particular English and Philosophy. And while it might be a difficult endeavor to move them outside, there's so much good to be done when they are.

    Don't get me wrong, I think it's great that the universities can serve as a bastion and incubator for such disciplines and types of thought. But unfortunately it can also lead to inbred, overly specialized thought.

    Five guys is delicious!

  3. Beer and burgers aside, there is lots of sustenance to be had from 1) talking with someone who is doing work like yours, and 2) feeling that the work you both do is going somewhere, useful for something. It certainly seems that those of us in the discipline can talk about how English studies can/is so much more than grammar and textual analysis, the question is: how do we move that knowledge and conversation beyond the academy in ways that continue to benefit the academy but also society and culture more pragmatic ways. Thanks, Ian.