Catching Up With Alumnus Michael Y. Bennett

English majors are everywhere. They work in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. They work in business, law, public relations, government, development, criminal justice, healthcare, IT, and education. Occasionally they even become English professors.

Alum Michael Bennett is one of those GW English majors who decided he hadn’t had enough after earning his BA in 2002. “I loved college so much,” he wrote in a recent email, “that I never wanted to leave.” Directly after GW, he began an MA/PhD program at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, receiving his PhD in English in 2009. (For those of you who know about what academic administrators refer to as time-to-degree,” a gap of 7 years between the BA and a PhD in humanities is rather respectable.)

After grad school, Dr. Bennett taught at the University of Hartford and in March, he was hired as Assistant Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he’ll primarily teach modern drama. He is editing a collection of essays on Oscar Wilde’s play Salome and recently published an essay on Tony Kushner’s play Homebody/Kabul in the journal Rhizomes. According to Michael, three of his published articles resulted directly from work undertaken in undergraduate classes at GW. For example, a piece on Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Library of Babel,” was written, revised, completed, and submitted during his senior year under the supervision of Prof. Robert McRuer.

Michael has advice for English majors considering the PhD. “Times are tough: there is no denying it,” he writes. “If you are thinking about going into academia, know the odds” of landing a tenure-track position in your field. “The same advice goes to those who do not pursue academia, but leave GW with an English major: your degree has provided you with, not (necessarily) a vocation, but an excellent education.” (We say: Amen to that.)

Michael tells this lovely story about a memorable class during tough times:

My first class after 9/11 was Prof. Cohen’s “Chaucer.” He started class, as he commonly does, with a handout. This particular handout was the Old English poem, “The Wanderer.” The poem is about an exiled warrior who remembers his past glories and meditates on his current sorrows. A day after 9/11, everyone felt like wanderers (and many students shed tears while reading this). However, by Prof. Cohen sharing this with us, we were a community of wanderers: enabling us to emotionally and critically investigate why we and so many people who are deprived in this world feel like wanderers, without a tribe or a place where we can love, be loved, strive, and succeed.

And he describes how, during his junior year studying abroad in Seville, Spain, he made the decision to pursue a PhD:

At the time, I wanted to be an elementary school principal. One night, sitting outside at a Flamenco bar with about seven fellow Americans in my study abroad program, someone brought up (very randomly) how much he hated Beowulf. I asked why, since I loved it in a class taught by Prof. Combs my freshman year. He said he hated that his professor made the entire story about the symbolism of the phallus. I proceeded to tell him, and the seven or so other American juniors, everything that Prof. Combs’ taught us about Beowulf. When I finished, this same guy said to me (and the sentiment was echoed by everyone else who was there), “I wish my English professor taught it to me like you just taught it to me. I would have liked Beowulf.” So from that point on, largely thanks to those couple of classes taught by Prof. Combs my freshman year, I decided to become an English professor.

We wish Prof. Michael Bennett all the best as he embarks on this next phase of his academic career.

Thanks to Michael for sharing, and look for more GW English alumni news in the debut issue of our fall newsletter, which should be arriving in inboxes in September.

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