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The Value of English

Graduate English, Student Careers, The Value of English

Early Graduate Lessons for a Digital Writer

Graduate Student Jordan Osterman is the Newsroom Editor at the University of St. Thomas. Jordan graduated from St. Thomas in 2011 with a B.A. in Communication Journalism and a minor in English.

Studio Portrait of Graduate English student Jordan Osterman and writer for the Newsroom and magazines at the University of St. Thomas.

As a Tommie English-minor-turned-St. Thomas-employee, returning to class for my master’s was a fascinating opportunity. When I was hired in late 2014 my thoughts on heading back to school fell into the category of, “Why not?” Two courses in it has quickly shifted to, “How did I not realize how much I would get out of this?”

I knew as an undergraduate how much value I took in getting together with people to hear their thoughts, interpretations and ideas about something we had both read, and in the master’s program so far that value has only increased. First in Martin Warren’s class getting a crash course on criticism, and last semester in Alexis Easley’s course exploring Victorian literary journalism, I’ve had my eyes opened up to many new ways of looking things. Especially in today’s world where it is easier than ever to find voices to confirm your own beliefs and shut out those that don’t, hearing and interacting with different ideas that have stretched the boundaries of my own thinking has meant a lot to me. (Case in point: I was the only man in Alexis’ class, which was a fantastic opportunity to learn from being around so many different female viewpoints.)

Alongside that constantly culminating value, I’ve been extremely excited to see how actively my continuing education has informed my work as the editor of and writer for an online publication, St. Thomas’ Newsroom. In our Victorian class we explored the 19th century explosion of periodicals and other print media in England and the United States, and it was impossible not to draw parallels to our own era’s communication explosion with the advent and growth of the Internet. It was fascinating to get a sense for the excitement, anxiety and evolving understanding of what it meant to have so many different voices thrown together into and onto society’s conscious, and how that informed and reflected the ideas, values and laws that guided their people. As someone who writes nonfiction for a living, it has been fantastic to gain a greater sense of the role media plays in shaping the identity of people and their community, in the past and today.

Also, beyond simply the comfort of seeing a past society grapple and deal with (and survive) such a similar explosion in media to our own, my courses have reinforced the importance of having an informed sense of my own media consumption. I, and all of us, are constant consumers of media, and the kinds of educational exercises in critical thinking our courses offer help move us from passive to active participants in that consumption. That is not a small distinction, and, again, in a time where there is so much media to choose from, I appreciate immensely being forced to think more deeply about the choices I make and the effects they have on me.

My wife, Gina, a fellow English St. Thomas alum, is also working on her master’s degree in nursing, and after stringing together several summers and semesters was ready for a break this spring. I decided to join her, and it’s been awesome to spend time together and with our freshly-turned-1-year-old daughter. That said, I’m already looking forward to fall semester and getting back to class to build on these awesome experiences.

Study Abroad, The Value of English, Undergraduate English

The Spirit of Competition


Often, travel is seen as an escape. People take their allotted vacation time and run off to some place, near or far, where they can forget their troubles and responsibilities for a few days. While I can personally attest that a sun-filled week of spring break in a beautiful location like St. Pete’s Beach, Florida makes for a nice getaway, this is not my preferred style of travel. Not anymore, at least. I was lucky enough to be able to spend the last three weeks exploring Greece, and my experiences there completely changed my outlook on travel.

Walking a trail in Greece

My trip to Greece was not a vacation. A vacation generally consists of free, unscheduled time spent relaxing in a nice location. Relaxation was rare in Greece, with more sights to see than I had time or energy for. I took a class on sports literature, and spent most of my time taking part in activities that were organized by my professors, Liz Wilkinson and Amy Muse. This would have made for a terrible vacation, but it wasn’t a vacation. I wasn’t taking a trip to escape the stress of life at home. I wasn’t trying to lose myself in a faraway place. In fact, as clichéd an idea as this may be, I found a new part of myself through my hurried exploration of Greece.

As we studied the Olympic Games, both ancient and modern, I started to focus my journal entries on examining the competitive drive that is a core part of human nature. This drive to achieve and to prove ourselves better than our peers is prevalent throughout nearly every facet of life. I have always felt the spark of competition within myself, but the more I examined my competitive drive, the more the spark grew. When our class had the opportunity of listening to a speaker who was a marathon runner, I listened closely to her motivations for running, and found that she shared the same drive I did. The main difference between us was that she had acted on her drive, and I had let mine begin to fade. As she spoke of her desire to prove to herself that she could run a marathon, I felt that little spark of drive in me flare up wildly.

Nafplio, Greece

In a moment of pure inspiration, I declared to my friends next to me –and more importantly, to myself– that I would run a marathon by the end of 2017. Now, it’s important to note that, before this decision, I did not run consistently. I was (and still am) not in prime shape. This didn’t seem like a reasonable goal. It still doesn’t. Yet, I know I can do it. In making my decision, I drew inspiration not only from the speaker, but from the Olympic athletes, both ancient and modern, and from the very land of Greece. I’m convinced there’s some sort of magic at work in Greece, magic that erased my doubts and fears, and magic that fueled the growing drive within me.

The Temple of Poseidon, Sounion, Greece

Three weeks was not enough time for me to get tired of Greece. Not even close. I still think of it every day, wishing that I could wake up to see the sun rise in Nafplio each morning, and longing to watch it set over the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion. As Dr. Muse had warned me would happen, I left a piece of my heart in Greece. But the experience was worth it. And you can bet I’ll be going back in search of it.

 


Henry Koller is sophomore majoring in English with a Writing Emphasis, with minors in Philosophy and the Renaissance Program. Aside from writing, he likes to spend his time reading, swing dancing, and baking bread, and he hopes to study abroad again before he graduates.

Faculty Teaching, Study Abroad, The Value of English, Undergraduate English

The Grand Tour: Cultural Disparities

The famous Shakespeare and Company store in Paris.

Inside the clock tower at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris.

I walked down the cobblestone streets of Paris and stopped. To my left was a row of antique buildings. Every building held its own share of history and was now filled with chic boutiques blooming with French fashion and bookstores containing the works of authors that used to find their muse in the exact surroundings I was currently experiencing. To my right was the Musée d’Orsay with only the Seine river separating me from its’ hundreds of years of art and sculptures held inside. A quick stroll down the street would land me at the famous Notre Dame and deliciously unmatched gelato. For the month of January, twenty-four other students, two professors, and I experienced sights like these in each of the cities we visited.

The Coliseum in Rome, Italy

Led by Professors Kelli Larson and Cecilia Farr, we were lucky enough to experience various more-than-just-picturesque cities in order to learn about the Grand Tour. The course, titled “Americans Abroad: The Grand Tour,” took us on a detailed exploration of 5 cities: Paris, Nice, Venice, Rome, Siena, and Florence. Each day, in every city visited, we were able to see and experience first-hand some of the exact same places as various nineteenth-century Americans did. Typically, they did so to polish themselves artistically or socially, but they also did so to complete their education or to find inspiration. Our texts for the course consisted of works by Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, and included various excerpts from other exceptionally talented authors who completed the Grand Tour.

Group picture in Nice, France.

The texts were all unique with their own plot and purpose, but comparatively they all revolved around a common theme: the cultural differences between the Old World and New World. In some way, the protagonists in each of the texts encountered foreign customs and cultures and had a difficult time adjusting.

Florence, Italy

A lack of typical American customs—like hasty meals or differences in social expectations—is unsettling to them at first. Eventually, though, after experiencing various trials and tribulations mixed with benevolent encounters, their cultural ignorance begins to fade and they soon attach a sense of value and appreciation to this differing culture. In a different scenario, like in Henry James’ Daisy Miller, the exposure to European culture only reinforces the protagonists’ sense of superiority in their familiar American customs.

Venice, Italy

After retracing some of the same steps these nineteenth-century Americans did, I can say that experiencing a culture different to my own only broadened my perspective and understanding for other cultures and their customs. It is easy to find one’s own ways of life or customs to be superior to others when you have never experienced or attempted to understand the logic or history behind them. As a Minnesota native, I definitely missed the constant smiles and “hello’s” from a random passersby, but I also came to prefer their slower, relaxed pace of life. There is no correct right way to live. Traveling, though, allows for reflection; to appreciate your own culture but also to take a step back and realize where other cultures might be getting at something deeper than you ever fathomed.


Shayla Curtis is a sophomore Accounting & Finance major with a minor in English Literature. After college, she hopes to work as a financial analyst or in another position related to her major. With a passion for animals and kids, she hopes to volunteer on the side and perhaps start her own nonprofit. 

Graduate English, Student Careers, Student Research, The Value of English

Vatnajökull

Katelyn Brunner is finishing her first semester as a graduate student. This fall she traveled to Iceland to pursue an interest that might cause you  pause when you think about English students: Geology. Because of the interest shown by her fellow classmates, Katelyn welcomed the opportunity to write about this “sweetheart infatuation” for our blog. When not in school or hiking atop glaciers, Katelyn is a copy editor for an ad agency that does work for veterinary/production animal companies.


unknownGeology is a complex, fundamental science that most people take for granted, which is a shame. The deep ocean’s thermal vents, the kaleidoscope in a granite countertop, stratification-stripes on the inside of mountains sliced to make room for highways– all of that beauty is proof that our Earth is not a given, it’s a gift.

My stupid, sweetheart infatuation with the planet is the reason I went to Iceland. It is one of the most extreme places in the world for the Earth sciences– glaciers rest on top of volcanoes and islands rise up out of the sea. Lava fields are covered with moss and the sand is charcoal-black. Everything is big and elemental and a girl in clunky hiking boots feels very small in comparison. It’s not that so many things happened during my trip there– it’s just that Iceland happened to me. But I don’t want to talk about all that.

I want to talk about a glacier.

picture1

I planned my trip around a three-day excursion that included hiking, staying in void-dark villages overnight, and clamping spikes onto our boots so we didn’t fall into an ice cave– literally. Some of the hiking and not-falling was done on top of a glacier called Vatnajökull. The day of the hike, our group of five was driven a few hours to a small, steel cabin to meet our “glacier guides,” all of whom look exactly like you’d expect. After signing my life away and being grilled about my epilepsy, I was allowed near the cramp-ons, pickaxes, and fun little harnesses whose lime-green nylon clashed horribly with my borrowed, hunter’s-orange pants.

The intimate experience that was my harness-fitting rivaled the TSA screening that I once received for committing the cardinal sin of airplane travel: forgetting my ID. Just like that uncomfortable Thanksgiving day, I was subjected to what amounted to little more than a pleasureless groping. Luckily, my fit, blonde “glacier guide” was the nicest woman in the world, if a bit intimidating. Just one of her defined muscles would probably be assigned a better high school superlative than I had.

picture3I was soon released to one of those huge, shiny buses that have impossibly large windows. The bus driver, a kind of lumberjack Santa who smelled like roast beef, pulled away from the cabin with his charges, and switched on the radio to what can only be described as the most offensive elevator music on Earth. The entire, hour-long trek across a landscape clearly not meant for buses, was filled with the sound of “improvised” jazz and clinking hiking equipment. We passed the outwash plain they filmed parts of the last Star Wars movie on and marveled at how like an earlobe the glacier looked, seeping out into its little lagoon. We saw the highest peak in Iceland and it didn’t look very tall until we were right up against it, jumping every so often at each creak and crash courtesy of the ice fall at its base.

We were briefed on how to behave ourselves on Vatnajökull. What I got from the talk was this: when stepping down, don’t point your toes straight forward, stomp so hard you’re sore tomorrow, and don’t feed the ravens; they will chase you. With those wise words, we began to climb.

It’s not enough just to describe the glacier, though it’s tempting. I could mention deep, blue crevasses that seemed very sinister, scalloped edges of melting ice, and the two ravens with gasoline-sheen feathers. But the most interesting thing about the experience was less the beauty of the place– after all, this was day six of a beautiful picture2trip– but the swelling-heart feeling I got when I stepped foot on the ice. I was finally there, finally with the thing I’d studied, presented on, and wrote about during my years in undergrad. Glaciers move and speak and, over time, slice through the landscape like wire through soft cheese. They, like minerals and the ocean’s currents, prove our Earth is alive. And my love for it proves I am, too.

Student Research, Study Abroad, The Value of English, Undergraduate English

It’s An Adventure: Walking and Writing Ireland

Dun Aengus Group-680Trading in Minnesota’s snow flurries and below freezing temperatures for soft rains and lush greenery, I joined a group of twenty-one other students and two professors on a quest to walk and write our way through the streets and countryside of Ireland. During the month of January, we covered much of the small country, gallivanting through medieval castles in quaint little towns, weaving between busses on bicycles, and perfecting our collective ability to take group photos.

That, however, was not the sole purposeFisherman's Village-340 of our journey to the Emerald Isle. Led by Professors Emily James and James Garlick, the students enrolled in “Walking and Writing Ireland” spent the month of January poring over the words of Ireland’s literary greats, such as W. B. Yeats and James Joyce.  We had the opportunity to interact with texts in a way that could not be afforded by sitting in a classroom back home.  Tucking away in the upstairs quarters of bookstores and coffee shops, we spent hours picking apart the imagery and themes of Joyce’s poignant short stories.  Each afternoon, we took to the streets to trace the steps of those very stories.

JoyceJames-160One of the key themes we identified and contemplated in Joyce’s work was the overwhelming sense of paralysis. In some way, each of his characters yearned for something beyond the monotony of their everyday lives—something remarkable.  Despite their best efforts, however, these characters could never break free from the confines of their physical, financial, or social limitations.  They were simply stuck.

Wicklow Mountains-340Intrigued by their reach for the extraordinary world just beyond their grasp, I was inspired to explore the counterpart to Joyce’s paralysis: adventure. Although seemingly simple at first glance, “adventure” is rich with historical and cultural significance.  The word’s popularity spiked in the seventeenth century, which speaks to the period’s fascination with exploration.  However, as time progressed, “adventure” widened to encompass the agency of the individual.  No longer did an individual need to be an esteemed explorer who braves the treacherous high seas and unpredictable climates.  As Joyce and his contemporaries understood, an adventurer may now take the face of any individual, provided that he or she has an open heart, open mind, and daring spirit.  In the words of essayist Rebecca Solnit, “When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back.”

Dun Aengus Cliffs-680I stood atop the cliffs of Dun Aengus with the Atlantic Ocean stretching out before me. The salty sea breeze filled my lungs as my feet dangled over the ledge, three hundred feet above the crashing waves below. Despite my paralyzing fear of heights, I was not afraid.  Some crave the pulse of adrenaline through their veins.  But for me, an adventure is about contentment.  It’s about sitting at the edge of the earth and not feeling afraid.

And adventurers we became.

Limper-300

Elise Limper is a junior English with a Secondary Education (5-12) major. After graduation, she hopes to teach high school English to share her love of the written word. With a passion for photography and a severe case of the travel bug, she also aspires to travel the world with her camera in tow.

 

The Value of English

Still Writing in the Margins

Welcome to the new home of Writing in the Margins, the University of St. Thomas English Department newsletter blog!

Look for us under the sign of the stained glass window.

Look for us under the sign of the stained glass window.

This new format allows us to share more stories more often. Instead of waiting for Writing in the Margins to show up in your mailbox twice a year, you can check in weekly to see what the English folks are up to.

What excites me even more is that we now have room to feature more writers. You, for instance. Current students: what drew you to English? Alums of the undergraduate or graduate English programs: tell us what you’re doing now. Have an idea for a story? Contact us! You + 400-600 words + 3-4 photos = Writing in the Margins.

That’s not the only thing that’s new in the St. Thomas English Department. While you’re online check out our revamped website. The Beyond the Arches page has career-guidance information for undergrads: internships and conferences and, soon, profiles of alumni and their advice about career paths for English types. If you would like to offer advice or mentor an undergraduate, let us know!

I’m always heartened to see stories touting the value of an education in writing and literature, inevitably under flashy, stop-the-presses headlines such as That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket or Want Innovative Thinking? Hire from the Humanities. Liberal arts graduates are the “social alchemists” who know how to add “surprise and delight” to the technological world; their well-honed empathy helps them “read the room,” figure out what people want, and communicate beyond superficial levels. Look to the English major, who has “learned to play with big concepts, and to apply new ways of thinking to difficult problems that can’t be analyzed in conventional ways.”

At the same time I wonder, is this really such a shocker that we have to “discover” it over and over again?

17 Things English Majors are Tired of Hearing

kevin spacey

Students gravitate into our sphere to study what nourishes their souls,  fortifies them with powerful language with which to confront injustice, dismantle racism, and envision new worlds, and equips them for living meaningful, connected, committed lives.

What’s been most valuable about your English education? Do you still find yourself writing in the margins?

Me when I’m off campus. Researching in Greece.

Me when I’m off campus. Researching in Greece.

Amy Muse is an associate professor and chair of the English department. She is currently writing about the West’s complicated love affair with Greece, which you can read about at The Vale of Soul-Making.