Seth Lerer: “You,” he told a student, “insult me.”
  • Seth Lerer: “You,” he told a student, “insult me.”
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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.

Underteaching or tiger-momming?

“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.

Makenzie Read wondered what her carefree hippie mother would have thought of her joining the Navy.

“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?”

Alex Vollhardt was alert to young prince Hal’s admission that he would renounce Falstaff to become king.

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.

Cristina Della Coletta, UCSD dean of Arts and Humanities, held same position at the University of Virginia.

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.

Lisa Lampert-Weissig’s courses include Chaucer; Jews and Gender in English Literature; Zombies: An Unnatural History; Vampires in Literature and Film.

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?

Stephen Potts: “The literature department at UCSD is more of a service department for general education.”

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.”

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Comments

dwbat May 6, 2017 @ 7:39 p.m.

It can't be just a coincidence that Makenzie's last name is Read.

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Visduh May 7, 2017 @ 5:25 p.m.

This piece seems to be as much about a person's odyssey in life as it is about study of literature. As to UCSD, it is supposed to be a full-fledged, well-rounded campus with a full slate of offerings. No longer, we are told, is it just a place for pre-med students to attend while majoring in a life science. But old ideas die hard, and it is likely that humanities are getting the short end of the stick. But, if that is true, it is due to lack of interest on the part of students. As long as a university education is seen as vocational training and not as a foundation for life in general, things like literature will take a back seat to STEM. Really, where are the jobs that need a degree in English (or French, Italian, Greek, German, Russian, Japanese or . . .) and how many of them are there?

But what I wonder is why, after four days of this piece on the website, no lit major or other language type has bothered to post a comment. Come on you artsy-fartsy people, share what you think.

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dwbat May 7, 2017 @ 6:23 p.m.

Doesn't that show that lit majors don't read the READER?

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Ponzi May 7, 2017 @ 8:14 p.m.

I guess students would now study language for the art of it. Translation technology is advancing rapidly and human translation of languages will be of little use except to scholars that need to translate language from written text.

Those computers that understand what you're saying in English when you make an airline reservation or talk to a bank, those systems learn and store their learning in cloud databases. They get smarter everyday and they are embarking on every human language that is commonly used. We won't need human translators in a decade.

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dwbat May 7, 2017 @ 9:08 p.m.

A decade? I'll predict it happening in 5 years.

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Ponzi May 7, 2017 @ 9:35 p.m.

I'm conservative. I like to give my predictions a little cushion. But you are probably right the way things are developing at a lightening pace.

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milesjwatson May 9, 2017 @ 12:45 p.m.

Translation is a washing machine process. Most translation is really translation and adaptation, like the Hugo play Hernani I translated when I was a UCSD Lit Major (confession). See http://amzn.to/2qomNLK.

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milesjwatson May 8, 2017 @ 4:24 p.m.

I graduated from Warren in 1979, majoring in French Lit, with a minor in Chemistry and European History. When I started, Warren was still Fourth. To graduate from Warren then, you had to pass a two quarter Writing course and either double-major or get a major with two minors. You had to pick majors and minors from at least two of the three: sciences, social sciences, and humanities. The idea was developing critical thought - the renaissance. There was one frat. There were no teams. Mascot? Please . . . Business or marketing degrees? Disneyland had just opened.

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clockerbob May 9, 2017 @ 4:31 p.m.

“The Times Higher Education placed UC San Diego first in its new ranking of the world’s top “Golden Age” universities, which specifically looks at schools founded in the aftermath of World War II.”

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/education/sd-me-ucsd-ranking-20170406-story.html

Oddly, the picture on top of the UT article linked and quoted above is of the Geisel library. The Geisel library was built in 1970. The structure has been modernized to provide computer stations for a student body of around 10,000 students. However, there are close to 37,000 students enrolled for the 2017 academic year. I believe that this survey was funded or propelled by sources who want to throw shade over this problem.

None

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monaghan May 10, 2017 @ 11:50 p.m.

UCSD is a different place from the one which graduated MilesJWatson. What a great description of that liberal arts campus at that time. But the "business model" has infected every aspect of western life, and most notably education which is rapidly sidelining the arts and humanities and their essential exploration of human values.

Globalization and world trade, production and profit, industry and mechanization, economic bottom lines, metrics and prediction, technology and communication shorthands, wealth and celebrity -- these are what count in 2017. You see it personified in our deeply ignorant President and his "beautiful" family, in members of Congress from both political parties who are mirror images of each others' limitations.

Even Mayor Sunny wants to cut the city's arts budget by 30% -- although the arts here are as important as beaches and climate as economic engines creating a desirable community. Unlike the poet, we live blinkered and unreflective, under the illusion that we will prosper "being" in this new way.

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milesjwatson May 11, 2017 @ 4:25 p.m.

Monaghan, UCSD was never a liberal arts campus. It is very much in many ways the same place now as it was then, founded by UC Manhattan Project scientists like Harold Urey, James Arnold, and Herb York, to name just three, who didn't mind living in La Jolla. It was always about the sciences and so remains. Arguably UCSD's greatest contribution to the humanities, to the very essence of human thought, Beavis and Butthead, came from the mind of a physics major - Mike Judge '86, who, like me, left to trek north to the Santa Clara Valley for work after a couple years working DoD in San Diego. Odds are Judge probably took some writing classes to keep from going insane doing physics. I may have majored in French Lit, but I had a minor in Chemistry.

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monaghan May 13, 2017 @ 12:56 p.m.

It is useful to be reminded of the science-military-industrial foundation of UCSD. But in the 1970's I learned Spanish there in a brilliantly designed immersion-model program with native-speaker grad-student teaching assistants from different Spanish-speaking countries (with distinctive accents) rotating every quarter through small sections of students, with a single separate weekly grammar section led in English and segregated from the heart of the matter, which was speaking, reading (literature) and writing in Spanish.

I also knew UCSD graduates who majored in literature, history, music, theater and fine art and some of the excellent professors who taught them. These days the importance of the humanities in a UCSD education may be drowned out by noise about the lucrative business of science, technology engineering and math.

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