For Whom Do English Departments Exist?

In an account of ghostwriting for students (i.e., term-paper factory) the following story stood out:

Although my university experience did not live up to its vaunted reputation, it did lead me to where I am today. . . . I was determined to write for a living, and, moreover, to spend these extremely expensive years learning how to do so. When I completed my first novel, in the summer between sophomore and junior years, I contacted the English department about creating an independent study around editing and publishing it. I was received like a mental patient. I was told, “There’s nothing like that here.” I was told that I could go back to my classes, sit in my lectures, and fill out Scantron tests until I graduated.

Inconvenient human nature. He wanted to learn something the school didn’t formally teach. The school controlled something precious that he needed — time. The rest of his life was at stake, but it wouldn’t give it to him.

His college was like a diet without necessary nutrients. It stunted growth.

For whom do colleges exist?

7 Replies to “For Whom Do English Departments Exist?”

  1. Seth, there are lots of questions here–not all English departments are alike, not all professors would have treated him “like a mental patient,” and some institutions are more flexible in response to students’ requests. At my alma mater, a small liberal arts college, I had student directed tutorials with professors from the first year, including both theoretical and practical projects (designing and implementing a social survey, ethnography, communication theory). Most universities now offer various kinds of classes–one of my former students is now screenwriting and wants to incorporate ideas he developed in my class into his screenplays and filmmaking (this at the University of Michigan).

  2. at the school i went to (huge midwest state school) i’m sure he would have got either answer depending on who he asked, how he asked, and what mood (or how busy) the person he asked was in. i asked a lot of profs for independent study (including in the english dept, and i wasn’t a major) and and got both kinds of answers depending on differing factors. and unsurprisingly, it’s been the same story after university — sometimes people say yes, sometimes people say no.

  3. “I contacted the English department about creating an independent study…” Well there’s your mistake, right there. You need to contact a professor (preferably someone who already knows & likes you) to get tentative approval. Only then do you approach the bureaucrats.

  4. Yep, as Edward Thorndike said, the problem with anecdotes is that you don’t know the back story leading up to the observation. I concur with q and Alex on this one. It’s very bad form to draw general statements from an anecdote. Anecdotes can be incredibly helpful in suggesting what to look for but not for confirming what you found.

  5. Alex, I don’t know who the writer contacted. The article is unclear. Perhaps by “the English department” he or she meant a professor in the English department. Perhaps he or she contacted the chairman of the department. Who knows? Sure, it would be better to contact a professor than a bureaucrat. But to complain the writer didn’t know the best possible procedures is like Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers blaming the guy who got kicked out of Reed because his mom didn’t return a form. Someone else would have known what to do, said Gladwell.

  6. I graduated from PSU in June of 1976, so maybe my anecdote is way out of date. But I remember being repeatedly laughed at by my English professors when I said I wanted to write for a living. They said it was simply impossible and I should give up the idea. (I got the idea from my father who was a professional writer).

    They told me I would have to be a teacher because that was the only profession open to young women who were literate + college grads. The pressure was so great that even when I went to the CA State employment office, they said they would only send me to teacher interviews even though I had experience as an executive secretary to a TV star and had worked on a newspaper. Under pressure to support my elderly parents, I caved in and became a teacher, hated it, then became an adult education instructor which I like better, but not much.

    Now I am planning to retire. I have written a book for college students telling about all of the things that neither parents nor colleges like to tell them about college. I am saving my money to self-publish it. It is called: College Crazy And How Not To Be. It includes a chapter on how to drop out. And another chapter called, “They’ll Call It Credit; You’ll Call It Debt.”

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