When I first declared an English major, my future prospects were a bit dicey.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I had no actual goals. I liked reading, and I liked writing. I had even started embracing literary criticism by that point. Therefore, English major! The logic was sound, if not entirely well thought out.
The humanities adviser I met with asked what I planned on doing with my proposed degree. Before I could answer (as if I could answer), she told me I better not be considering professorship. There simply weren’t any jobs, and grad school, unless attached to some lucrative field, would only be an expensive waste of time.
Well, I believed her. I believed her, and answered her question with a big “I-dunno-maybe-teaching” and a tentative, “Also, I want kids?”
Turns out, I’ve been plagued with a disease known in Provo as “Terminal Lack of Husband.” I’m learning to live with it, surround myself with fellow sufferers, and quite often view it as a convenience, but needless to say, some plans are more immediately accessible than others.
As luck would have it, I’ve also come down with a case of “It’s 2016 and Women Can Work,” so figuring out a real career path has become a major theme in my life this past year.
First, I decided to actually become a teacher, instead of just telling people it was something I might do. As early as elementary school, my teachers were some of my favorite people. They taught me to love books, that writing was cool, that opinions are important. My middle school English teachers taught me to view literature as an art form, and my high school English teachers helped me learn to think critically and understand ~fun~ things like nuance and ambiguity. They helped me realize all I could be, and I found myself wanting to pay it forward and become a middle school English teacher with the best of them.
Then lots of . . . things . . . happened.
First, I realized some flaws in my plan. Namely, I don’t even know if I like children, especially middle-school aged ones. Maybe I do! But I’m nowhere near sure enough of my undying passion for educating 12-year-olds to devote the next several years of my life to it. I also chose middle school because I thought it would be easier to teach than high school. No idea where that thought came from, especially when I remember my own behavior as a seventh grader (in case you need to know, it was monstrous).
But the biggest problem came from another part of my reasoning. I wanted to become a teacher because I knew I could do it. There was no doubt there. I’d graduate, get a masters in teaching, and slide into a job at some underprivileged school, probably for the rest of my life. Not that it would be easy – far from it – but I knew I wouldn’t be facing much resistance. We have a teacher shortage in this nation, after all.
To clarify, there is no shame in choosing a reasonable career path. That’s what my teachers did, and I love them! They’re some of the best people I know! But I don’t think choosing a job simply because it’s an attainable option is enough. I’m sure my especially-influential past teachers know that. It took me a while to know that, but I eventually realized that I can’t tie myself to a job on the basis of convenience, because I don’t think anything about being a middle school teacher is, in fact, convenient.
Other strange things happened, too.
I received my patriarchal blessing over the summer and, among the “normal” bits, I heard a lot about my future career. And I’m a girl! No one ever told me that God wanted me to get a job. I know He wants me to have babies – that’s something I seem to hear every. single. week. – but working? By divine design, not sad spinster necessity? This was news to me. Good, admittedly jarring, news.
Then I took the loveliest Women’s Literature class that ever was (it’s been verified), and drank from the opulent fountain of second-wave feminism. Betty Friedan sometimes had me scratching my head (her views on homosexuality are especially fun), but she encouraged me – in all her posthumous glory – to develop ambition. So I did. Babies or no babies, I would work outside my home! For my own sanity! Because Betty said so.
Literally days later, By Common Consent published a case study on BYU’s woman professor problem. The problem being, of course, that there aren’t any.
I mean, there are some. The English department has better representation than BYU as a whole, and I’ve had the pleasure of taking classes from five women. I’ll also admit that I’m way biased when registering for classes because learning about literature from highly intelligent, strong female role models happens to be a favorite pastime of mine, which is one of the reasons I care so much about this issue of female representation. Based on what I’ve heard from my professors, it’s not simply a matter of gender discrimination in hiring practices; it’s that qualified women rarely enter BYU’s applicant pool. Very few LDS women pursue advanced degrees, and that translates to very few LDS women on faculty at ~the Lord’s university~.
In response to this problem, the English department put together a Q&A panel on women in academia featuring professors with a wide array of specialties and personal lives. We heard from single women, one with young kids, some with older kids. They were honest about their struggles, the impossible quest of finding whatever “balance” is, and told of their usually-unexpected journeys into doctorate programs. They talked about how much they loved their jobs, how every ridiculous moment of grad school was somehow worth it to them now.
I left that panel excited, inspired, and terrified. Was this really happening? Was professorship starting to sound like a real option? TO ME?
I’ve never been that perfectionist, straight-A English student destined for academia. I don’t think I had ever heard of literary criticism before my intro to literary theory class freshman year, which hardly interested me at the time. My research papers are usually in the A- range, far from perfect. My analytical papers are sometimes embarrassingly incorrect in their assumptions. Until recently, I hardly participated in class discussions. My passion for Britain, though real, did little to interest me in early American literature or psychoanalytical theory, and I’ve still never gotten through an Austen novel (I know, shame on me, don’t worry, I’m working on it). I didn’t engage myself with events put on by the English department. I worked in a labor-intensive on-campus job that kept me satisfied and my bank account suitably padded while doing little for my intellect. And I was happy! I was okay with my status as a slightly disinterested English major. Nothing pushed me to be any better, and I couldn’t be bothered to motivate myself, so things stayed comfortably mediocre.
It makes me think of Caedmon, one of my favorite medieval figures. He was a farmhand who hated singing, too occupied with his own clumsiness with words to ever participate in the passing of the harp during community gatherings. He preferred to hang out with the cows, and had little interest in doing much else. But then – of course – an angel of God happened to show up one night and forced him to become a poetic genius. He composed a hymn of the first creation, kind of under duress if we’re being honest, and St. Hild declared it a miracle and decided that Caedmon should join her order of Monks. So he did. And he composed other songs, and inspired everyone around him with words that, just years before, he couldn’t even fathom producing.
I don’t claim to be a poetic genius. I’m far from it. But I have been thinking a lot about Caedmon this semester, and I can begin to understand how he might have felt on his seemingly inevitable journey.
I’ve always craved control and power over my own destiny, but some of these ~weird happenings~ have reminded me that even the deepest of my passions are completely out of my hands.
So here I am. I found my voice in creative writing classes, especially in nonfiction. I added that class on a whim, not knowing it would have life-altering implications (isn’t that how things like that always go?). After a series of unforeseeable online events I reviewed a great book and was sort of accidentally exposed to a world of Thoughtfully Provocative Mormons Who Get Me.
I’ve started participating in class, and it sometimes terrifies me, but I love connecting with my classmates and professors in ways I never could before. Of course I say stupid things sometimes, but I suppose that’s all part of the process. As it turns out, playing the modern-day communal harp is not as bad as I thought it would be.
I’m reading books, writing about them, and loving them more than ever. Though I have never, ever, ever been the “take the initiative to establish social organizations” type, I’ve spent the past several days developing a feminist book club with over twenty members, who I will be inviting into my home on a monthly basis. If you told me even six weeks ago that I would tolerate something like that, let alone be ecstatic about it, I wouldn’t have believed you. THIS IS ALL NEW TO ME.
I started losing patience with my job. While just months ago I considered culinary school, spending years of my life cooking for strangers has recently begun feeling off, if not completely unappealing. I applied to work in the Writing Center and will start my internship there next month. By April, I’ll be saying my final goodbyes to life in a kitchen, and that prospect doesn’t terrify me.
I’m entering essay contests, sometimes with exciting results. I’m attending another study abroad this spring, this time armed with new, cultivated passions for England, literature, and writing.
I’ve also decided what I’ll be doing with my English degree.
I’d made my unofficial decision several weeks before, but it started feeling real when I met with my creative writing mentor, Joey, just before Thanksgiving. He was conducting my exit interview for the creative writing minor capstone, and I knew my writing future would come up.
“What are you planning on doing after graduation, and how will your creative writing experience help you?” he read from a form, casual-serious, because that’s who he is and I love it. None of this, “Don’t even think about grad school,” drivel I’d heard almost two years earlier.
“I’ll be applying to the MFA program in creative nonfiction. I’ll also check out other schools, but I would like to stay at BYU if I can.”
Yep. Staying at BYU. For AT LEAST another two years. Madness. But also, not really. By some miracle – and I do not use that term lightly – BYU no longer feels like an oppressive cage too occupied with hemlines and beards. I mean, it totally still is those things, but somehow fate has carved me a happy, safe, empowering place within its walls, and I guess I’m going to go with it. It doesn’t even feel like a difficult choice at this point.
Joey and I talked about my future. I even uttered the dreaded P-word (not the Donald Trump one, but the one that humanities advisers hate, that thing that sometimes comes after an MFA: PhD), and he was completely encouraging. I told him I wasn’t sure if I wanted to get a doctorate degree, but that I thought a masters would be a good in-between step to help me gauge my interest in academia and improve my writing. He agreed, and gave me resources to research other schools, told me about writers conferences I should consider, and offered me a spot in his graduate nonfiction workshop next semester, which I regretfully had to decline due to scheduling conflicts (even though the prospect was a dream come true – just another reminder that this really is what I should be doing).
I guess sometimes, you need to be told that crazy-unreasonable options reviled by the establishment are still options. It’s particularly surprising when instead of arriving clearly through words or concrete experiences, that telling creeps in from a glowing muddle of slowly progressing self-realization . . . but I’ll take it.
I can’t be certain ANY of this will work out like I hope, and if past experience tells me anything it’s to expect the unexpected, but finally having goals feels amazing. This newfound ability to ignore things that used to be major hurdles – Mormon gender expectations, introversion, crippling dispassion – is empowering, and I choose to see God in it. Amidst all this inspirational life-affirming madness, I’ve learned that during this phase of my spiritual development, faith is all about acknowledging God’s hand where others might see fate, chance, karma, good luck, neurosis, whatever.
Maybe it’s crazy to say that I see God in my sudden aversion to peeling potatoes, or my compulsive urge to gather feminists into small spaces for my own pleasure, but that’s exactly what I’m saying. I assume God wants me to figure out what I’m meant to be, and I have a feeling that grad school, perhaps to that humanities adviser’s horror, will help me get there.
So watch out, world. Some unspecified time in 2018, I’ll be applying to do the very thing I was warned against: going into even more debt to go to even more school. (I was never very good at listening to oppressive authority figures, anyway).