Spurred by a “Why are you in college?” discussion I held with my Penn State composition students one day late last semester when rumors swirled of potential state education funding cuts and tuition hikes, an enthusiastic freshman journalism/English major from outside of Pittsburgh came to my office to “talk about her future.” She’s a good writer, works hard, talks a few times per class. She got right to the point: “Can I get a job with an English degree?”
I wanted to tell her not to worry about the college-to-job equation, that she’s in college to broaden her mind, to question, to grow intellectually -- all the learning clichés that hold true. And anyway, what gets a person a job? Solely a degree typed on a resume? The direct skills learned within the major? The subtle, everyday-acquired social and organizational and problem-solving skills? But it is pompous and insular for me to expect my students -- most 18 or 19 years old -- to consider scoffing at this simplified college-to-job equation and just learn for learning’s sake -- meaning, maybe, that hard learning now should lead to a solid, dare I say, happy, future. Be it as it may.
After all, I can relate. I began college in 1999 as a business major because that was the box I checked off on my college application. I slogged through a year of accounting and management classes that I couldn’t get interested in. My sophomore year, on a whim, I took Literature of the Jazz Age and Introduction to Creative Nonfiction Writing, and I found myself thinking about these classes outside of the classroom: I imagined Langston Hughes’s character Simple rambling down a busy Harlem street; I felt driven to write at length about my experience as a counselor at a fledgling summer camp for children from low-income families. In short, literature and writing just clicked for me. So I filled out a change-of-major form, following what I guess I could have defined as my…fervor. (Let’s not use the “passion” word yet.) I was, then, an English major.
But while I was getting into the major, it seemed like everyone else was getting out. William M. Chace, former president of Emory and Wesleyan, writes in The American Scholar  that from 1971 to 2004 humanities majors at universities dropped from 30 percent of students to 16 percent, while English majors dropped from 7.6 percent to 3.9. Coincidentally, business majors increased from 13.7 percent to 21.9. It was not easy for me making the jump in major. Business, while tedious to me, did feel practical, safe. I perceived some sort of direct path to a company, but I also never seemed to care to read The Wall Street Journal or think about business ideas or controversies that interested some of my classmates. The English degree was exactly not safe, some might say even impractical, but in my new classes I felt more secure than I had in years. Did I think about a job? No. Was it a difficult time? Yes. Does it matter? I don’t know.
Many of my Penn State students hail from blue-collar households, while some are the first in their families to attend college. It’s clear that many of them view college as purely an investment or a transaction: pay large amounts of money (often from loans) to learn defined skills to land a job. The 2009 “Educational Planning Survey,” conducted by the Division of Undergraduate Studies at Penn State, asked students to select one reason out of a list of nine for attending college. Out of 16,693 Penn State first-year students, almost 50 percent selected “To prepare for a vocation, learn what I have to know in order to enter a particular career,” with “To pursue scholarly activities for intellectual development” a distant second. Third, “To discover and develop my own talents,” and fourth, “To become more mature, learn how to take on responsibility and become an adult.”
I can assume that at least half of my students are in college primarily to get a job. Do they actually worry about procuring a job (even in their freshman year) or is that just their parents speaking through them? Is their future a looming monster, an opportunity, or something foggier? Could the pressure they’re feeling be a result of the depressed economy, the general uncertainty this new generation faces, or some gloppy mix? Whatever reason, that pressure is real and feels heavier than when I was in school. According to the 2010 Survey of America’s College Students conducted by the Panetta Institute For Public Policy, “Fully 68 percent of college students worry very (37 percent) or fairly often (31 percent) about finding a good-paying quality job.” This is up from 60 percent from 2009.
As my composition student posed her “Can I get a job with an English degree?” question, I imagined myself in a similar position nearly a dozen years before, wide-eyed, talking similarly with the very understanding philosophy professor who taught my freshman seminar. I could have told my student that, like her, I had eventually declared as an English major, that teaching here was my fifth job, not all of which were academic. I’ve done fine, not great, if we’re basing career success on earnings. (This could be you! I wanted to joke, looking down at my scuffed dress shoes.)
But there’s a fundamental difference between me and my students: I graduated college with zero debt in a much stronger economy. Being debt-free has significantly altered my post-college path. My first year out of college, I interned for a professional football team in Florida and made about $1.50 an hour. But I didn’t have loans to pay back, my rent was cheap, and even though I didn’t stay in the sports management field, the internship helped me land other jobs. (It’s a good interview conversation-starter. Working this internship also showed me what I didn’t want.) Most of my students won’t be this lucky. According to the annual report  from the Project on Student Debt, 2009 graduating seniors had an average student loan debt of $24,000, up from $22,750 in 2008. Unemployment for recent college graduates also increased from 5.8 percent in 2008 to 8.7 percent in 2009. The numbers are even higher in Pennsylvania: 72 percent of graduating students have debt, with the average student debt falling just over $27,000.
Will this debt keep my students from pursuing graduate school? Will it force them to take a job they don’t want? To forgo a low-paying or unpaid internship? Is it a stretch to call this unenviable situation the students’ Academic Purgatory?
“You could go to law school?” I advised my student. I mentally chastised myself: if she likes her literature and writing courses, she should work hard at them and not worry about a job in three years. But then I found us discussing the ways in which the field of journalism is changing at warp speed and how one needs to adjust to these changes; I mentioned the words “internship” and “experience” and “writing samples.” I just couldn’t find it in me to say what I truly believed: just write, and read a lot, and have complicated conversations with your peers, and don’t be afraid to try to be smart and nerdy. Follow what feels right; that’s why you’re here. That’s what I did, and… look at me. At the time I was an adjunct instructor making under $3,000 per course. No health insurance. I taught at two Penn State campuses to try to stay afloat.
Okay, bad example.
But instead the two English majors — one entrenched and one unsure she belongs — talked on of this real-world, job-related stuff. And I don’t feel bad about that.
Nine years out of college my English degree is beginning to “pay off” in the traditional college-to-job equation, if that’s how we want to look at it. At the end of the semester I was promoted to a full-time lecturer at Penn State. While I’m not tenure-track, my salary jumped, and more importantly the job comes with good health coverage and benefits. But finding this sort of stability took longer than it did for most of my high school and college friends, and most of them out-earn me. Sure, maybe I could have taken my degree to a PR firm or law school or, well, Target or stayed at any of my past jobs, but at the end of the day, I’m following what years later I’m realizing is my passion. I’ve felt plain happier, far more intellectually challenged and emotionally fulfilled teaching at the college level than I have as that football intern or working in alumni relations at a college or tutoring in a writing center, or teaching tenth graders. I’m energized working with college students — I believe truly that every one of them has important ideas, or can develop these, and express them at various levels on paper. As long as they show genuine effort, I will work hard to help them become better writers in whatever their futures hold.
Sure, I get frustrated; last semester (my final as an adjunct) my fourth composition class in a 14-hour day was an evening class composed of 25 students, 22 of them male, and most of whom worked jobs during the day. At 8 p.m. these students weren’t exactly eager to discuss variety in sentence structure or in-text citations. (No, the period goes outside the parenthesis!) So when I’d catch some of these students chirping at each other or texting, I admit it was easy for me to loathe them. (Do they think I don’t notice them gazing at their crotches? Or do they just not care?)
It would be just as easy to say: Screw it. I’m tired, I’m not paid well enough for this crap, and some (many? all?) of you don’t want to be here anyway.
To hang it up and find a cubicle.
But then, as if arriving on tiptoe, things like this happen: late that semester I gave this fourth class of the day a copy of David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College. In the speech, Wallace discusses breaking from our “natural, hardwired default setting, which is to be deeply and literally self-centered,” and “being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day.”
That advice, I think, has little to do with the “practical” learning many of the students are expecting. I stress grammar and clear thesis statements and structure in essays and steps to writing and rewriting. We do all that repeatedly – building defined skills – but I would be remiss if I didn’t often slide in these nuanced pieces, and just listen to and challenge what the students had to say.
My students read the piece quietly, and as they finished they didn’t joke with one another or snicker as they are sometimes wont to do. Not a one whipped out a cell phone to text. This sounds hugely airy, but they were simply, I believe, thinking in the moment. Not two or three or whatever years ahead, as many of us fall prey to. And as is typical, I asked them to write. A few minutes later they spoke reverently, and I admit, surprisingly, about owning their thoughts in traffic or the coffee line, or about being more aware of what other people might be thinking in a particular situation. They listened to each other. They pondered a different reading of Wallace’s words after we discussed his suicide. A few students appeared visibly angry, said his premature death should wipe out his words. Others defended him and cited the complications of depression.
This discussion, and similar others, would qualify as “pursu[ing] scholarly activities for intellectual development,” what one could call the “little brother reason” for attending college on Penn State’s “Education Planning Survey.” How many of my students checked off this box? For many, I’m sure it’s not their primary reason for attending college.
Without the college classroom there is little refuge for these discussions. I can understand that many of my students are focused on jobs, and of course universities should teach the skills necessary for obtaining them, but I ask my students to also try to remain open to those learning clichés of a diverse core curriculum: to broaden one’s mind, to question and to grow intellectually. To find what the heck one enjoys doing, and then doing it well. Those skills, along with the skills attained in their major, will prepare students for beyond a job, for the myriad things that they will encounter in their future.
Eventually we ran out of time. The students filed out of the classroom, and feeling for a few minutes so fully satisfied, a floating man liberated of money and job title and slapdash insurance and general worry, I decided to linger. Despite my flimsy position at the university, this little brother reason — pursuing scholarly activities for intellectual development, being stimulated, challenged, and bumping minds with other people around me — is the reason I’m here. And I realize I’ve been making this decision since I signed that change-of-major form way back in my college days. I’ve been choosing this little brother reason for years. I heard voices coming from the hall, the students absconding to their cars or dorms and whatever lay ahead of them. The voices were loud and soft. I stood in the empty classroom a beat or two longer.
Casey Wiley teaches writing at Pennsylvania State University.