It’s a pleasure to have been handed the keys to this blog from Jeffrey Cohen, our Department’s Chair Emeritus (a title I have just now invented and summarily bestowed). To be honest, it’s also a bit daunting. I am a writer and a talker, but not–until now–a blogger.
So I’m going to fall back on a skill I have honed in nearly 15 years of office hours: giving advice to English majors. I can’t tell you whether you should go to law school (this question comes up rather frequently), and I can’t tell you whether Course X or Course Y will be life-changing (although I’ll have my hunches). But I can offer the following nuggets. Some of them are things I wish I knew when I was an English major.
* Get to know your professors. You’re probably too young to remember this advertisement for Maytag appliances, featuring the repairman who is “the loneliest guy in town,” but if you ask your professors, they’ll agree that students usually don’t stop by if something isn’t broken. Where your ongoing education is concerned, your professors are your most important resources outside of the texts you are reading. Stop by to introduce yourself. Tell them what interests you and what you like about the class. Tell them what you do when you’re not in class. Keep in touch after the class has ended.
* Get to know your classmates. I’m always surprised that my students don’t know each other, or don’t know each other at all outside of a few desultory conversations in the classroom. Your classmates are, for the most part, fabulous. They are also keenly interested in many of the things that interest you.
* Take classes with professors who interest you. Don’t worry that the topic doesn’t immediately grab you; in most instances, a professor who engages you can make any material come alive. Like-minded friends can also direct you to the professors they find challenging and interesting in the classroom.
* Go outside your comfort zone. Our former chair is a medievalist. I am not. That said, in college I opted to take a course in Old English, in which we translated (into modern English) the poem “The Dream of the Rood.” This task terrified me, in large part because most of the students in the class were Ph.D. candidates specializing in medieval literature. At one point, I stopped by the professor’s office hours and confessed that I didn’t think I could keep up with people who already knew so much more than I. He encouraged me to stay. It ended up being one of the most memorable courses I ever took.
* Pursue at least one opportunity unique to GWU English. Here is a sampling of things we’re doing this semester. We have Professor Faye Moskowitz’s amazing Jewish Literature Live. You can take a one-credit course with our British Council Writer in Residence, who this spring is Howard Jacobson. Check out our class in the History of the Book at the Folger Library. Consider English Honors.
* Visit the new Chair. My office is open to everyone, including undergraduates. I’d love to hear your ideas for how we can enhance your experience as an English major. Please make sure I’m not the “loneliest gal in town.”