In what follows, recent graduate Tyler Shores gives a brief account of all the different paths down which his English major has taken him.
Have you ever heard that great Avenue Q song, “What Do You Do with a BA in English?” Though there’s no small dose of self-deprecating humor involved, the question can be a quite motivating one – since that English degree can in fact lead us to new and unexpected places. I studied English and Rhetoric at Berkeley from 2001-2005, and I have found that my study of literature led to previously unforeseen opportunities and experiences.
I am currently a postgraduate student in English at the University of Oxford, but previously worked at Google as part of Authors@Google, one of the world’s most successful online lecture series. It was, in many ways, a dream job for an English major. Publishers sent me new (free!) book releases to read and evaluate for inclusion in the Google online video series. The opportunity to meet people such as Salman Rushie, Barack Obama, and Christopher Hitchens was a once in a lifetime opportunity, but I found that listening to so many authors and speakers eventually spurred me on to pursue my own ideas and writing, a path that led me to my current studies at Oxford. Google was and is a fantastically exciting place to work (the free food, free laundry, electric scooters, and other perks might have something to do with this), but, in the end, it wasn’t the same thrill of having learning as my full time occupation.
And now I find myself at Oxford, pursing a D.Phil. (Oxford’s unique name for the PhD) in literature. Oxford, with its rich history, culture and traditions is a wonderful place; although it has been quite a different experience from my studies at Berkeley. Not only is the Oxford department (or, to call it by its proper name, the Oxford English Faculty) noticeably less concentrated on literary theory than Berkeley’s department is, but the structure of teaching works on a decidedly different model. Oxford undergraduates, for example, have one-on-one “tutorials” with professors at their college, as opposed to the larger lectures or discussion sections to which Cal students are accustomed. Of course, at the end of the day, the task is the same at any department: to study literature and to absorb a large quantity of texts.
My particular focus is on the implications of digital technology on literature and printed books: how it will shape the ways in which we relate to the book as an object and in what ways it alters the experience of reading. I’m also very interested in literature and the act of reading in relation to philosophy, psychology, cultural studies, and sociology. To that end, I recently emailed Steve Jobs asking for an iPad for “research purposes,” but for some reason, he’s been too busy to get back to me yet.
The cultural wealth of Oxford has also enriched my extra-curricular interests and activities. Before being admitted as a graduate student at Oxford, I had been contributing on the book Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy. My placement at Christ Church, of all of the thirty-eight Oxford colleges, thus turned out to be a perfect fit for me, since Christ Church was the birthplace of Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice stories. I’ve been able to gain a richer appreciation for the history and real-life inspirations behind the stories. The special connection and affection that an entire city can feel for a story and its characters has been a remarkable experience. Indeed, as part of Oxford’s citywide celebration of Alice Day, I will be giving a talk at Oxford’s famous Blackwell’s Bookshop and speaking with the BBC.
My work for Alice in Wonderland and Philosophy was one of a number of projects with the Blackwell Popular Culture and Philosophy book series. I have immensely enjoyed contributing to a number of volumes, including Heroes and Philosophy, Arrested Development and Philosophy, and 30 Rock and Philosophy. I find the Blackwell series to be an excellent way to promote a love of philosophical thinking in ways that are accessible to people who might not otherwise encounter it. Writing about philosophy in clear prose without academic jargon can be an extremely difficult — but rewarding — challenge. My interest in this popular culture approach to larger theoretical questions stems directly from my time at Berkeley, in fact. The DeCal system allowed me to create and teach a course that I entitled “The Simpsons and Philosophy.” The course was designed to creatively introduce western philosophy to Cal students by mixing readings from such canonical philosophers as Plato, Kant, and Nietzsche with a list of carefully selected all-time favorite Simpsons episodes, such as “Last Exit to Springfield” and “Homer the Heretic.” (I describe the course in more detail here.)
When I look back at how I ended up in England and at Oxford, studying the intersection of literature and culture, I’m well aware of the role that Berkeley’s English department played. It was the perfect place to draw together my seemingly disparate interests, and I’m grateful for the opportunities and support that department offers for its students. You never really know what kinds of paths those opportunities will lead you to, if you’re willing to look for them. Looking back now, it seems to me that the experiences Berkeley provided me in teaching and research have allowed me to do some interesting things with a BA in English. So, while my own answer to that Avenue Q question has been “Get a PhD in English, of course,” the answer needn’t always be so straightforward, or immediate.