As a sophomore at UC San Diego, I went home for the summer to get a cavity filled in at the dentist’s. I lay there, saliva ejector hanging out the side of my mouth like a fishhook as Dr. Nguyen worked her way around my tooth.
“What’s your major again?” she asked.
“It-tra-cha,” I replied.
“Oh, literature?” She asked through her face mask. Then she posed a question that was rather patronizing now that I think about it.
“What would you rather be,” she said, holding her tools upright for a moment, “a doctor who made lots of money or an author whose name would be remembered?”
It sounded a bit cruel. The subtext, of course, was that I’d be poor and should not be under any illusion that I could expect a standard of living above pauper grade.
Literature is many things: memories recollected in tranquility, the hum and riot of the heart recorded on codices, vellum, paper, pixel. It’s a global positioning system for the soul. It’s the study of broken things and broken people, with the glimmer of hope for redemption and repair and reconciliation.
Literature does for us what religion often does. It allows us to transcend the subjective smallness of our experiences and place them in a larger framework. It nurtures empathy and builds an ethical profile. It makes us emotionally sentient.
Literature is invaluable.
But a literature major? Come on. Barista jokes aside, what does a person think of when he thinks of a lit major? Probably something between monastic and hedonistic. We imagine someone devoting years to an obscure reference in a poem. Or a person whose field of study involves an activity everyone does after the kids are put to bed or a flight is delayed. “The best reason to read literature is for pleasure,” Matthew J. Bruccoli wrote in the preface to The Great Gatsby in 1992. We know what he meant, but the theme doesn’t make it easier for literature majors to be taken seriously.
And in the age of doers and makers, of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) obsession in K–12 education, of everyone trying to be TED-Talk exceptional, who in their right minds would take on the bondage of student-loan debt to study a few words by dead people? After all, a bunch of very smart people have announced the deaths of expertise, book-y books, and the Canon. Why study literature when Sparknotes has done all the work for us?
I shadowed two literature majors to see how their lives led to their discipline, to see how their learning has shaped their lives, and to see how their institution can benefit those in their charge.
Memory and chaos
Makenzie Read is a 28-year-old former Navy petty officer second class, the fifth rate for an enlisted sailor. She works as a solar-panel maintenance supervisor for Solare Energy during the day, and in the evenings she takes writing classes at UC San Diego. People in her field are accustomed to spreadsheets and networking, to tangible problems and solutions. But for Read, the decision to be a literature writing major is about exploration as much as it is about expression: she wants to use her writing to unpack and develop the intangible parts of her life, and to live in a more purposeful way.
“It’s what I’m passionate about,” Read said. “It may not make sense, or it may not be of value to the world economy, but you have to have balance in your life. You have to do what you love, and if you don’t nurture that, you die a little inside.”
Career-wise, her writing degree may end up with her teaching someday. “Maybe someday when I’m in my 40s when I have something to offer other people in my life experiences and my education, I would go into academia and talk about literature and my life,” she said.
Read grew up in Auburn, Washington, half an hour from Seattle. Her mother died of colon cancer when she was five years old, and her father — an ordained minister who had found God in prison after being sentenced for cocaine trafficking — homeschooled her until ninth grade.
For a time, her father ran a program that helped ex-cons transition from prison into the outside world, and Read and her sister (she also has two half-siblings from her father’s former marriage) had houseguests who came through the program.
She wanted to study literature for college but knew she would have limited job opportunities. So Read opened up her journal and pulled up a bucket list. The top item was military service. Her father, who had served in Vietnam for two years, helped sign her paperwork for the Navy, because she was still 17.
Read performed well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test that new recruits are given and transferred to San Diego for Tomahawk weapons system training. She eventually moved to Maine, becoming a “plankowner” (a member of the original crew) of the USS Stockdale when it was commissioned in 2008. Her last ship was the Princeton, aboard which she was a Tomahawk supervisor before leaving the Navy in 2013.
When it was time for Petty Officer Second Class Read to consider her reenlistment options after four years, a retentions official approached her to discuss her future in the Navy. Her response: “F--k no, I don’t even want to talk to you.”
“It’s like controlled chaos,” Read said of her time in the Navy. “You’re in port one week and out of port another. You move around and change orders every four years. I think there’s a lot of pain in the military. People are lonely, they’re missing their families, they’re trying to find that stability that we’re all trying to find.”
Military life taught Read how to deal with chaos and gave her a technical education, but there were parts of the culture that disillusioned her.
“I was a patriotic young kid, and I thought the military is about discipline and honor and these things,” she said, “but I was a little frustrated with the Navy culture that had to do with alcoholism and adultery. It opened up my eyes to the real world, where not everybody is doing the right thing or has got their life together.”
Memory and chaos are recurring motifs in Read’s conversations and writings. She had joined the Navy after spending years taking care of her father and sister; after her mother’s death, the family never gained any sense of normalcy. She was looking for order and identity, but found chaos instead. The ideas and themes come together in Read’s poems.
In a poem called “Fado,” she writes:
- Your memory is fado
- Singing circles,
- Cracking in desperation
- In the theatre where
- My little heart
- Sits swaying
- Rigid and trembling with vibrato
- its hands are clenched tight
- and cheeks wet with tears.
Fado is Portuguese for “fate.” It’s also a musical genre that dates back to the 19th Century, popularized by sailors to express the loneliness and deprivation of a life at sea. Musically, it is unironically sentimental; the vocal styling is warbly and tremulous. To sing it right, you have to embrace its treacliness. Fado’s embrace of the past and a sense of longing is pre-industrial and certainly pre-modern. For some, it’s a bit tacky. But the perceived quaintness of fado has to do more with our inability to engage with suffering in an authentic way than with its inability to be relevant. We put an ironic face onto suffering to deaden the blow.
The poem’s approach to memory is Read’s approach to the memory of her mother, and there are often faceless or hidden female figures in her writing. The death of a parent
often registers as a rite of passage. It’s a reminder that we’re next, and it creates a reckoning within ourselves about what we’ve accomplished. But Read lost her mother long before she had the emotional or intellectual capacity to appreciate the enormity of the loss.
“I didn’t really cry about my mother until I was 23,” Read said. “Growing up, I never noticed the absence since I took on her role. I did the laundry, the dishes, made sure my sister and my dad were taken care of.”
Read felt the distinct loss of her mother twice in her life. Once, right before she joined the military, she wondered what this carefree hippie mother would have thought of her joining the Navy. The other time was when she had gotten pregnant at 20 and felt like her life was over, racked with shame and uncertainty. The pregnancy ended in a miscarriage.
“That pregnancy came into my life like a storm brewed sky, full of dark and vibrant energy; it glowed orange and midnight blue, exciting and domineering,” Read wrote in one of her essays for class. She had used her art writing class’s final project as a vehicle to discuss her pregnancy. The subject was Frida Kahlo’s Still Life, Round, a vibrant capturing of native Mexican fruits onto a copper plate. But look closer and the fruits resemble open-eyed pudenda, mushrooms with fingers outstretched like ovaries, a portrait of unabashed female fertility. Read’s own close brush with motherhood, more than any other experience, made her long for her own mother.
Her relationship with her father has always been characterized by vulnerability. He lives in San Diego, and she still comes by to take care of him regularly. She recalled reading letters in boot camp from her dad expressing concern for her sister as if Read were a co-parent.
Still, there were some pleasant memories growing up. Read revisits them in her poem, “Noise”:
- It’s six am and he’s fixing oatmeal
- cooked in coconut rum
- slathered in whipped butter and brown sugar
- the silver spoon scrapes against the pot
- clanking the breakfast
- into flower-painted bowls.
- the noise tears through the silent hall into
- silent rooms
- Pang! Clink! Cvush!”
The “cvush” is the sound of the suction created by the refrigerator seal as it closes and opens.
It’s a cool afternoon, and I’m sitting in Seth Lerer’s Shakespeare class in University of California San Diego’s Cognitive Science building next to Geisel Library. The play being discussed is Henry IV, Part 1. Lerer is reviewing the play’s concepts: it’s about control, self-regulation. Hotspur lives in dream and nightmare, and may be suffering from post-traumatic stress. Prince Hal’s corpulent drinking companion Falstaff embodies the theme that this is a play of rhetorical amplifications.
Lerer has taught at Princeton and Stanford and carries a reputation as an electric teacher. He paces around the room while discussing the nature of insults as a form of power.
“You,” he told a student, “insult me.”
“Uh, I don’t like your tie,” the student said. “It looks like a sock.” Lerer was wearing a knit tie with a square tip.
“That’s all you got? Try again. ‘Your tie, sir...’”
“Your tie, sir,” the student intoned, “looks like you tried to hang yourself, failed, and went to work anyway.”
Lerer fell into a heap on the floor guffawing and the room erupted in laughter. “He roasted you,” a student said. “Like bacon,” said another.
“There’s a lot of bacon in the play,” Lerer said, still on the floor. “This is a Christian world. We build it out of bacon. If you’re not in pig world, you don’t belong.”
For Lerer, the wall of porcine descriptions in the play is built up against an imagined non-Christian threat. It also alluded to the expulsion of Jews from England that lasted through the Elizabethan period. He asked students who are not able to partake in pork to raise their hands. A young woman in a hijab and several others did so.
Sitting in the middle of the room was 19-year-old Alex Vollhardt, an English-literature major with an interest in German literature. Today, she was alert to young prince Hal’s admission that when it came time, he would renounce Falstaff to become king: “I do; I will.” There was something matrimonial in it. It would be a pivotal rite-of-passage scene in Hal’s life as he casts aside Falstaff later on with the line, “I know thee not, old man” as he became Henry V.
Every few months or so, some cranky Boomer pens a missive in an op-ed section about today’s youth: they are soft; they are entitled. They want to wear elf costumes and live in their parents’ basements. Vollhardt and others like her put all these tired arguments to rest. She’s sharply ambitious, knows her field. UC San Diego could do more to attract and accommodate students like her.
I first met Vollhardt on a drizzly day in Warren Lecture Hall 2112. It was week two of a course called “Literary Responses to Collective Trauma,” taught by Lisa Lampert-Weissig, who holds the Jerome and Miriam Katzin term chair in Jewish Civilization. I was a student in some of her classes during my time there. The class’s reading list ranged from novels and plays to graphic novels. What they all had in common was in the way their characters memorialized and managed (or failed to manage) some collective trauma such as the Holocaust, slavery, or displacement.
Vollhardt introduced herself and rattled off the classes she’s currently taking in addition to Lerer’s and Lampert-Weissig’s: German poetry, literary theory, French. Her ultimate goal is a doctorate in literature and to work in universities.
Vollhardt, an only child of a businessman and a Montessori teacher, grew up around Lake Tahoe. The area was pretty isolated and she spent most of her time alone reading. She fell in love with the Nancy Drew series in the third grade and has read every book, even the four unpublished ones.
Her parents moved to Southern California when she was in the fourth grade to start a business, but they struggled financially. The family lived in a motorhome park for three years. Still, she is currently taking out as many loans as she can for her degree.
“I understand the burdens of debt,” Vollhardt said. “I like to say that one of my life goals is to have medical insurance. Things like that weigh heavily on my mind.”
In high school she wanted to be an engineer, because everyone in her advanced-placement peer group wanted to do so. While taking a math class, Vollhardt sat at her desk trying to figure out vectors and realized it wasn’t meant to be. “I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life, secure job or not,” she said. “Being sure of going home at the end of the day doing work that I hated wasn’t worth it.”
Vollhardt believes that the humanities can create better citizens and leaders. “Our society has lost the ability to imagine people complexly,” she said. “We’re talking about complex personhood in [Lampert-Wessig’s] class. If you can’t imagine people complexly, you can’t work as a politician, a businessman, as an educator, as anything that involves interacting with other people. You’re significantly less effective.”
She’s able to discuss fluently and without affect the contents of her classes, from Judith Butler’s queer theory applied to Titania to the musical alliterations of the German poet Rilke in one conversation. Whether by design or by interpretation, Vollhardt’s classes tend to speak to one another. “No matter what classes I’m taking every quarter, they all find a way to mix together,” she said.
For example, the topic of names as being self-referential came up in her Shakespeare class. Her literature theory class studied New Criticism, which argued for close reading of literature as self-referential products. Her German literature professor in the same week pooh-poohed New Criticism as a way to approach a text.
Speaking of names, one thing I noticed was that in our emails Vollhardt’s sign-off read, “Previously Lauren Alexis Noftsier.” She said that was her name until the end of high school. Last October, she legally changed it to Alexandria Vollhardt. There’s both a Dickensian sensibility to her name choice and a sense of professional preparation. Alexandria was for the library in the city of the same name, a repository of knowledge. “I wanted the shortened version of my first name to be gender-ambiguous,” she said, “so that when people see my name written people would think it’s a man, which would lend some credibility for people who would still be a bit sexist.” It’s not an uncommon practice, either. Think of writers such as J.K. Rowling or George Eliot, both women writers.
She chose Vollhardt (“full strength”) for its reflection of her German ancestry. Noftsier was a region in France that was constantly under dispute with Germany, and choosing a German name settled the dispute for her. Vollhardt finds agency in reading herself textually. This textual self is a recurring motif in literature, and it’s a feature that she shares with Makenzie Read.
The heroine’s journey
For Read, despite the fact that we live in chaos, we are still responsible for our actions. She majored in computer science at University of Colorado Denver after her time in the Navy. Her days were spent working out scorpion-tailed equations and compiling lines of code. Then she read Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who was famous for his ideas about the “mono-myth” and the Hero’s Journey. Campbell’s ideas can be popularly seen in the Star Wars series, which follows his Hero’s Journey down to the final step.
“There’s no ‘should’ in life,” Read said about what she got from Campbell. “We have to kill the dragon that says, ‘You should do this or do that’ in your life. After I read him, I dropped out of college, traveled for two years. Threw everything away, living out of my car.”
Read had saved up a good amount of money while in the Navy, mostly because she knew she didn’t want to be tempted by a re-enlistment bonus when it came time. With that money she went to Puerto Rico, Iceland, Greece, Spain, Italy, and Mexico. She reconnected with her siblings and old friends, whom she had missed while on deployment. Her longest stay was in Mexico; first in Puerto Vallarta for seven months and then Mexico City. She spent a couple months in Greece to reconnect with relatives on her mother’s side but found the people exhausting.
She remembered reading Campbell in a café in Mexico when two people stopped to talk to her about it. The first one, an older man, asked her if she was in school and she said no. “He said, ‘My son started reading Campbell and he dropped out of school. You better go back to school!’” Read recalled. Another woman on vacation stopped by to tell her that after reading Campbell she moved to the Arctic and started an art gallery. She discovered that Campbell was a global catalyst for young people killing that first “should” in their lives.
“I liked that it’s not all put together,” Read said of Mexico. “It’s kind of a mess, and it’s nice to cut off from everything and be away. Humans are still pretty human down there. It’s almost like going out to sea, where it’s beautiful and you’re disconnecting from the world.”
It made me think about Vollhardt’s discussion of her Shakespeare class, where, during Romeo and Juliet, Lerer discussed the importance of minor characters. “Minor characters control the narrative,” Vollhardt said. “Romeo and Juliet are fated but the minor characters are making the decisions, or at least are changing the course.”
And in both women’s lives, it’s the minor characters who nudged and pulled them toward their destinations, be it language teachers who saw them as human beings or some stranger in a coffee shop admonishing them to get back to school.
“A lot of literature, a lot of poetry is concerned with teaching the ways of reading the world,” Lerer said. “Literacy is not just a skill, it’s a metaphor. Children’s literature teaches children to have a literate view of life. The world is an alphabet, the world is a primer. And consequently, the book itself is a world.”
A former dean of arts and humanities, Lerer knows the institutional challenges faced by his discipline, especially in a STEM-heavy university. His successor Cristina Della Coletta has been seeking ways to move the division forward while balancing its disciplinary integrity.
Senator Marco Rubio said during the 2016 election that “We need more welders and less philosophers.” But the fact is enrollment in humanities majors in fields such as language, literature, history, philosophy has been on the decline. According to Humanity Indicators, a study by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the humanities comprised 6 percent of the total bachelor’s degrees conferred in 2014. By contrast, the year with the highest humanities degrees conferred was 1967 at around 17 percent.
At UC San Diego, the number of undergraduates enrolled in the humanities saw a 51 percent decrease from 2006 to 2016, according to the school’s student data page. Last year, only two percent of the school’s students were humanities majors, a paltry 454 out of over 28,000.
Della Coletta received her Ph.D. in Italian at UCLA and has done research in historical fiction, Italian cinema, and the use of tech in the humanities. She was also the dean for the humanities and the arts at University of Virginia, where her son is a student. She speaks with a native Italian lilt in promotion of her division’s focus on interdisciplinary work.
Last October, UC San Diego’s division of Arts and Humanities received a $2.59 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation. Part of the money will be spent on helping community-college transfer students transition into the humanities at UC San Diego. According to Della Coletta, it is the largest donation the division has received. “A student that has a degree in the arts and humanities regardless of institution has gained skills that are foundational, that are fundamental, and are transferrable” for any career, Della Coletta said. Critical thinking, cogent writing, are all important for lawyers, journalists, or engineers.
At UC San Diego, students who graduate with a degree in the arts and humanities “have an extra advantage, and that advantage is flexibility,” she said. “We teach our students to have the courage to experiment in other areas. We teach our students to speak many professional languages.”
Della Coletta acknowledges that the humanities need a stronger presence on campus. One idea she had was to create programs that better connect what the division does with specific professions. But her biggest initiative is the Institute of Arts and Humanities, co-directed by two faculty members with the goal of connecting research across disciplines such as environmental justice, which juggles law and environmental science.
Another idea was to increase outreach to prospective applicants in high school with the Triton Arts and Humanities Academy for the summer. Other initiatives involve technology. One is the Envision Maker Studio, which melds art and engineering; another merges emerging arts and technology to encourage experimental music and dance projects.
Stephen Potts has been teaching literature at UC San Diego since 1984. He was brought on campus specifically for his work on science fiction. He was also my Adolescent Literature professor in 2005, a class in which I finally got to write about my favorite videogame series Final Fantasy in an academic setting.
“One of the things that the humanities should be doing is to encourage people to really think things through,” Potts said. “The sciences and humanities have a lot to teach each other.”
He has a point. The HBO series Silicon Valley lampoons the empty tech-evangelism of the 21st Century. The show’s premise is that the tech industry sometimes has a brain but no soul. As a result, its language is riddled with self-serious piffle like “synergy” and “disruption.”
In one scene, Gavin Belson, chief of the fictitious company Hooli announces a technology he believes will save the world: “In the coming months Hooli will deliver Nucleus, the most sophisticated compression software the world has ever seen. Because if we can make your audio and video files smaller, we can make cancer smaller. And hunger. And AIDS.”
It’s a work of satire, but Silicon Valley’s showrunner Alec Berg takes many of his plot points from actual tech companies. In an interview with Fresh Air, he noted that in visiting the Google campus, their philosophy of design was meant “to hard-code serendipitous moments.” For Berg, it was about the most un-serendipitous way of promoting cooperation possible.
In Potts’s view, the university’s administrative policies do not always encourage students to take more humanities courses. “There has been a concerted push from the administration to get students through their majors more quickly, and one of the things that happened is a reduction in requirements for general education,” Potts said. “The literature department at UCSD is more of a service department for general education.”
Perhaps this was the thing that Della Coletta was considering as she pushed for more interdisciplinary work, to make the sciences and the humanities less cloistered. But the path forward may still be uncertain. She will have to balance the needs of students like Vollhardt, who prefer a more traditional education in literature to prepare for a deep delve into graduate work.
“I can see where she would be coming from as far as an administrative perspective, because the people that are in the humanities program would get to participate in departments that are better funded,” Vollhardt said. “At the same time, I lean more towards a traditionalist in terms of how I want to study literature.”
Read saw the move toward an interdisciplinary approach more as a capitulation than a reassertion of presence. “To me, the idea of making it interdisciplinary means stripping it of some of the heftier components of what makes it humanities and making it palatable and watered down enough for a STEM school to be able to say, ‘We have STEM students who also have lit and humanities background.’”
“We’re going to make these students a mile wide and an inch deep,” Read continued. “They’re taking a chunk away from what the course should be and not really making that student someone with a well-rounded education. They want to dip their toe into the water, but you’re not forcing them to dive into the course.”
Read would prefer the university devote more time to improving the student learning experience by giving instructors more resources (e.g., more compensation and job security) and to make class schedules friendlier to non-traditional students like herself who work full-time during the day.
Both the students and Della Coletta have valid points. The reality is that UC San Diego is a mostly STEM-oriented campus, but without a robust arts and humanities division it may not attract more future Vollhardts and Reads. And even Vollhardt recognizes that literature departments have been moving in the direction of interdisciplinary overlap. The big question going forward, though, may not just be how the humanities are taught: it may be about how the humanities teach our society to be literate again.
Pausing, taking stock, being circumspect: these are all habits needed to be a good reader. And as we read less, the civic skills that require us to be responsible citizens fade. We become battered by and with information. Our ability to be alert to the world, to ourselves, to one another, fades.
And for as long as literacy has existed, a culture’s relationship with reading has had political implications. “King Alfred,” Lerer said, “genuinely believed that if he could translate a small but important group of works of literature from Latin into the vernacular, into the English of the people, and get them taught and read, that he would have a better and more cohesive English people.” But the fact is, “We’re moving into a world of many different Englishes.” Linguistically, there are more and more modes of speaking, of writing, of reading than before. With the way information flows today it is impossible to create a singular narrative.
“We now have access to more information than we’ve ever had,” Potts said. “We also have access to more misinformation. Although, as long as people have been able to tell stories, people have been able to make things up and pass them off as true. That’s why people got burned as witches in the 17th Century.”
Lisa Lampert-Weissig’s courses are an example of how literature can be used as a proxy to engage with historical and contemporary themes. Her course offerings stem from more traditional literature classes (Chaucer, Jews and Gender in English Literature) to more eclectic ones (Zombies: An Unnatural History; Vampires in Literature and Film).
“It’s important to understand the context,” she said. “And I want my students to know that’s a way of reading and understanding things: carefully, methodically.” Students are encouraged to extend this to the non-literary world: What is the source? What is the agenda? The courses are about skills as much as they are about content. She cited Chaucer’s ideal for a good story as a template: “Tales of best sentence and most solas.” A story should be edifying and instructive (sentence) but at the same time be pleasurable (solas).
“The scars in the country are so deep, and everyone is trying to figure out how to negotiate around them,” she said. “The segment on race in my vampire class was huge, and vampires are all about race. One Latino student said this is a safe space to talk about race. It’s like we were there and we were not there, and because all of us were humans and everyone else was a vampire, it was the most productive discussions about race that I’ve had.”
For Lampert-Weissig, the stories students read remind them that societies are composed of human beings with complex views and memories. It’s the work of literature to remind its readers that history is acted upon and created by human beings.
Public education is a space onto which our society projects its biggest anxieties about its children, and by extension, its future. Are we overteaching them or are we underteaching them? Are we coddling them or are we tiger-momming them to death? But if Vollhardt and Read are any indication, the kids will probably be all right.
Looking through a shared folder Read sent to me, I found a neat, nameless one-thought poem:
Under the illusion
is our favorite place to be.
It’s not really all that bad to be under the illusion. It’s only bad if we’re unaware of it. And that’s what the humanities offer us today: an opportunity to know, to differentiate, to embrace, to reject what is illusory and what is concrete. It allows us to see that being under an illusion can be a thrilling, magical experience, and sometimes the most thrilling experience of all is getting over the illusion that we are alone, that we haven’t been here before.
So if you’re in the humanities, next time someone asks what you do, tell them the truth: “I read. And I know things.”