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A young woman reading a book.

George Milton from Pexels

When I began college at a small liberal arts college, I chose to double-major: I studied biology because I liked it (and thought it would get me a job) and English because I loved it (and thought it wouldn’t). It turns out that I was wrong on both counts. I tried to lean into the thing I was supposed to do: after graduating, I worked in pharmaceuticals and then in material sciences. But my heart wasn’t in it, and after a few years I decided to go to graduate school to study literature. My middle-class parents were dismayed that I would give up job security and a healthy income for novels or … baseball and monster trucks (my father actually asked if these were the topics I would research when I told him of my interest in American Studies). I assuaged their worry by telling them that if after a couple years it didn’t make sense to me, I could come back to the sciences. But I never looked back. It was amazing, the motivation and sheer joy I felt getting to spend time with the things I loved instead of trying to fake it.

I followed my bliss out of the lab and into the library. My own path has convinced me that we do a serious disservice when we deny or discourage students from finding and following their bliss. But I think English departments increasingly—albeit obliquely and perhaps unintentionally—are doing just that. In the wake of high-profile elegies for the English major and the attacks on the departments of literature and world languages at West Virginia University (most forcefully argued against in an open letter by Rose Casey, Jessica Wilkerson and Johanna Winant), having an answer to the question of “why literature?” has come to feel newly urgent. There are many answers already out there, but the most common one I hear on the job, the answer that departments offer most often in their efforts to get “butts in seats” and recruit or convert students to the major, is about the English major being effective training for a successful career. A quick tour of English department websites across the U.S. shows consistent messaging about a “plethora of marketable skills highly prized by employers” and the “diverse range of professional fields” for which English majors are uniquely suited. The major is touted as the perfect choice for students who “intend to work in technology, marketing, or sales or are interested in journalism, science writing, publishing, editing, or teaching.”

It’s not that I disagree with these claims; on the contrary, I do think that English majors are curious and creative—they think well, write well, communicate well—and are thus well-suited for a whole range of interesting careers. But something has always bothered me about this line of argument, which has always struck me as a bit of marketing more for corporate overlords and for parents of students than for the students themselves who are considering an English major. That it prepares students for professional success may well be true, but this fact sits uneasily alongside my own motivations for studying and teaching literature.

Stating those motivations plainly feels embarrassing. But here goes: I study and teach literature because I love it. We’re not really supposed to admit that—it’s too naïve, too indulgent, too elitist, or it’s not practical, not cool, not real-world enough. We tell our students who still dare to apply to graduate school in English not to say that they want to get an M.A. or a Ph.D. because they love reading; we roll our eyes at the application essays that open with an admission of “having always loved reading.” We minimize, or even disparage a love of books, even if that’s the honest reason most of us got into this profession. But what if downplaying our love—sweeping it under the rug of innovation, professionalization, optimization—is doing our field and our students a disservice? What if the love of literature and the pleasure of reading are the very things we should be selling?

My impression is that when teaching literature, academics teach methods of interpretation, critical thinking, historical context and various other things while always leaving room for love. We want our students to love reading and give them the tools we think will best help them develop that appreciation. But when it comes to our criticism, and what we say about the English major in print, we shy away from such naked affirmation. Love just isn’t cool—it’s warm and fuzzy and risks seeming like a “guilty pleasure,” what Arielle Zibrak has explained is something that we see as unproductive, and usually feminine. Although Roland Barthes’ classic The Pleasure of the Text and, more recently, Rita Felski’s work on attachment, argue that we should attend to the love readers feel for texts, for the most part we confine love to the classroom.

When did we stop believing that we should tell young people to study what invigorates and inspires them? There are several answers to this question: historical answers rooted in market crashes and vampiric student loan practices; cultural answers that point toward STEM-heavy notions of success and prestige; societal answers that relate to a general devaluation of the humanities. But they all converge around the notion that certain majors lead to certain jobs and so we scramble to prove that an English major does well on this front. Even if I agree—and I do, not least because my communication and writing skills helped me get those STEM jobs—there’s something rotten at the core of this logic. My sense is that the number of people whose undergraduate major directly informs what they do is in fact very small; it’s hard to draw a straight line from an undergraduate transcript to the work that someone in human relations or marketing or even law or medicine performs on a daily basis.

But even more important is the fact that I don’t think this messaging really works on the students it’s intended to convince. Although students (and more to the point, their parents) may want some assurance on the kinds of returns they can expect from the astronomical investment that is a college education today, they are smart enough to recognize all this hand-waving about job prospects for what it is: marketing meant to create majors, meet metrics, appease administrators. It’s a tactic that serves departments more than students, and our undergraduates—especially ones drawn to the humanities—see right through it. And when you talk to students who choose to study literature, almost all of them will tell you that they made that decision out of love. I think if we foreground and grow that love, we would do a better and more honest job selling the English major.

“Study something you love” is a surprisingly radical invitation in the neoliberal university. In its more cynical formulation, it might be followed up by the admission “… because there’s no guarantee of any job in today’s market.” But there are many more positive sides to a love of literature. First of all, and in direct contrast to all the language of jobs and salaries, reading is a private pleasure, one that resists the capitalistic logics of useability and deliverables. Christopher Newfield has argued that “a non-neoliberal self [is] clearly registered and highly articulated in literature,” but I’d go further to say that a “non-neoliberal self” is cultivated and given breathing room in the very process of reading. It is important that higher education is a place where students not only engage with subjects they think they should, but that they feel free to explore things they want to. Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado rightfully argues that the ability to pursue such pleasures should be open to all students, not only privileged ones: “Universities, particularly public institutions, make the humanities and the arts accessible to first-generation and working-class students, as well as to students of minoritized identity backgrounds. In doing so, they embody a utopian ideal: the right of these students to have an intellectual life, and to enrich themselves through creative endeavors.”

But why literature? My short answer is that reading for pleasure, paradoxically, is also hard work. Reading cannot really be done passively: it requires imagination and engagement. Readers must summon the images and worlds described on the page. But most all, reading requires time. In a wonderful essay about “the power of patience,” art historian Jennifer L. Roberts explains that she focuses “on creating opportunities for students to engage in deceleration, patience, and immersive attention.” Reading fiction demands this patience and rewards immersive attention. To read a novel, whether long or short, requires a commitment of time far greater than the familiar scroll-click-swipe internet ecologies where students spend much of their time. Anyone who has ever been delighted by the way a novel’s ending brings different threads together, shocked by a plot twist, or let out a sigh of satisfaction as they reach a book’s last page or a poem’s final line knows this to be true. For me, this isn’t only a matter of expanding attention spans, but of braiding together pleasure and effort. To love something that we work at, to work at something that we love: this is not only a slogan that can be co-opted by the workplace, but a deeply personal experience that I have found crucial to my own survival. Most growth and many rewards come only with time and hard work: learning that patience and effort can be pleasurable is a lesson worth sharing with our students. This kind of payoff, whether we call it patience, self-motivation or resilience, doesn’t translate easily into a bullet point for a resume. But in my experience, it does contribute to a rich inner life, and more skills at coping with the challenges of outer life.

This is what we might call the social value of joy in learning, and I’m convinced that if we don’t believe in it, and don’t tell our students that we believe in it, we cede power to the vocational model of the corporate university. Market pressures have done a great job extinguishing this value, but we’ve also contributed to its endangerment. In the realm of literary criticism and scholarship, love is seen as uncritical, unsophisticated. Condemnation, denigration and claim-staking: these are viewed as higher-order operations and the surer path to professional success. I happen to believe this is a white, masculinist approach to knowledge, but that’s a topic for another essay. For now I’ll just say that canon wars, theory wars, method wars, the death of majors: these things make headlines. While some battles are important, not least because they represent a very real conflict between white supremacist ideologies and those seeking to oust them, more often it feels as though critics are fighting over the scraps we’ve left to ourselves. These internal, individualized fights sap our energy and divert our attention from what we do so well in the classroom—instilling in students the social value of joy in learning.

There are real enemies threatening English departments that we need to fight: adjunctification, corporatization, predatory student loan practices, tuition inflation, and the decimation of whole departments. I just want to be sure that we are not confusing fighting out of love with fighting love itself.

Sarah Wasserman is associate professor of English and director of the Center for Material Culture Studies at the University of Delaware.

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