Commencement 2011: Our Undergraduates, Part 2

Candace Cunard ’11 did not assign herself an easy task. In her graduation speech, she tried to answer a question that all English departments continuously rethink answers to: What do we do in English departments? And what can be done with English? For Cunard, studying literature is, in part, about keeping finding openings where there seem to be endings. Which, in her telling, is as much an occupational hazard (I love to read = I love to re-read) as an ethics.

“What I do with English”

When I tell people I’m an English major, the most common response is, “What are you going to do with that?” It’s one of my least favorite questions, but I’ve come to realize that it’s an important one. What are we going to do with English? What have we been doing with it, or in the name of it, in the years we’ve spent as part of Berkeley’s English department?

Candace Cunard '11 knows what she's doing with English.

To most people, all that English majors do is read books, talk about books, and write papers about books. As a result, we don’t seem to be doing very much. But I, for one, value English precisely for its focus on the process of literary analysis. We rarely ask questions that have concrete answers, so our field of study is not defined by the results it produces, but by the practices that help us arrive at our conclusions. No matter what you’re going on to “do” with English, I believe there is value in having learned how to read, how to talk, and how to write like an English major.

English majors read differently from almost every other person I know: we re-read, partly out of necessity, but almost equally out of desire. The second reading is when the words that captivated at the level of story-tellingbegin to connect to each other across the lines of a poem, or the pages of a novel. Things begin to stand out: a phrase repeated, or not; a pattern, a symbol, a sign. Slowly, something like meaning begins to emerge, simply because we have taken the time to look for it. The pleasure and the danger of this sort of reading is that there is no limit to the number of times that a text can be read. For an English major, reading is never actually finished, only temporarily abandoned, to be reassumed whenever the book is opened again. I think there’s something deeply admirable about this kind of re-reading. After all, a willingness to re-read is also always a willingness to question—and perhaps even counter—first impressions. If English is about the process of re-reading, then it’salso about being continually open to new information, even if that information forces you to change your mind

The same process of self-questioning is at work when we talk as English majors about the things we read. Looking back on my time spent at Berkeley, it strikes me that so much of my education has been accomplished through informed conversation with professors and with peers, working in tandem to explain, defend, and question our differing perspectives. The purpose of these conversations is not to argue until a single perspective emerges victorious, but rather to strengthen and sharpen all perspectives. In a world increasingly rife with violence that stems from the failure to consider alternate points of view, I believe we need more people who think—and who talk—like English majors. We need more people who are willing to have their opinions swayed by a reasoned discussion, just as we need more communities willing to support this kind of conversation.

As students of English, we’ve learned more than just a specialized vocabulary for talking about the things we read. We’ve learned the importance of continually interrogating our own practices and those of others with the aim of making them better. In the process, we’ve developed the kind of mental flexibility that allows us to think with others, even if we don’t always arrive at an agreement.

So, what are we going to do with that? If you ask me, we’re going to do a lot. Whatever professions we find ourselves pursuing—wherever we live and work, whatever we come to love—we will bring with us a willingness to revise our own assumptions and an openness to the ideas of others. We will model a way of thinking, and ultimately a way of living, that values process over products and individuality over conformity. And we will become integral members of multiple communities, including those that our unique outlook has allowed us to create.

Candace Cunard loved reading and writing and talking about her favorite books long before she discovered that there were people called English professors who got to do all of that for a living. She is originally from southern California, but fell in love with Berkeley—mostly due to its abundance of bookstores, cafes, libraries, and wonderful people—and hopes to call it home again someday.

This fall, she will begin a PhD program in English at Columbia University, where she plans to focus her research on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British novels.