I use words goodly

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Find a degree in English, Philosophy, and Theater in every box! Plus a temporary tattoo!

I have a Bachelor of Arts in English. I swear, they give those things out in Cracker Jack boxes.

I kid! I kid! Put your spatulas at ease, fellow English majors, those burgers don’t flip themselves!

Seriously, I loved, and still love, everything English, it’s my native tongue after all. What I mean is, I love literature and grammar and writing and being pretentious. Apparently, I also love not knowing what to do with my life, why else choose such an ambiguous degree to pursue?

Even with that certificate authenticating that I made it through four years at a reputable institution, charming my professors through long-winded essays that never came to any conclusion on anything conclusive, I must confess, I am a sham.

Yes, a sham. You may even see it in the way I write my blog sometimes. Not only do I make up my own grammar rules, sometimes I use a word so grossly incorrectly that the only thing that can be deduced is that I took an existing word and made it into a new word, devoid of it’s prior association. I’m that good.

It doesn’t stop there. You should hear me talk. I don’t even pronounce words correctly. For 28.5 years, I pronounced the word placate as “play-sate.” My husband first pointed it out to me, and I told him he was an idiot (I have a BA in English after all, from Penn State!). Well, he was, and is, correct, but I still can’t kick the habit. It’s far too entrenched in my brain. This mispronunciation is inoperable.

I have no idea what I would do at work without Grammar Girl. She is my savior whenever I forget the rules of capitalization in a title, which is everyday. How am I even employed?

I know I have faults as a writer (I’m talking about you, passive voice! ) and I’ve come to terms with it. Mostly because I don’t even notice my bad habits at this point—they are far too habitual. I don’t even want to change.

Perhaps I justify this with the compliment I received from the best professor I ever had, in the best class I ever took, and the only class I never skipped (creative writing, of course). All the students had to write a piece of fiction and critique every individual’s short story—mine was naturally the longest by a good 15 pages (remember, lover of passive voice here). The teacher said, “after reading Gingermermaid’s, did it really seem like 25 pages?” And the class was like, “no! How magical!” And he was like, “style…blah blah blah…genius…blah blah blah…A+++++” or something along those lines, I’m sure of it.

Look, I’m no Thomas Hardy (my personal favorite) or Shakespeare (thank goodness) or Suzanne Collins (nom nom nom games), I’m just me. A girl with a degree in English who works in the unrelated topics of the Middle East and Africa, who disregards the grammar rules that I don’t agree with (or remember), and a girl who should never ever teach English to anybody—ever. A girl with a blog I can abuse with words.

 

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What a PhD really means

Let me preface this by saying, I do not have a PhD. I don’t particularly have an ambition to earn a PhD. I mean, I guess Dr. Gingermermaid sounds pretty cool and everything, but I think I’ll manage just fine without the title as I do currently without the title Princess Gingermermaid. Both hold about the same stock of meaning to me anyway.

I’ve mentioned before that I work chiefly with academics. Some are fabulous leaders in their field, know their information, and have an open mind to boot! But the key word in that last sentence is “some.” See, most are not any of those things.

A PhD doesn’t equal intelligence, it equals hard work. I give lots of credit to those who earn their PhD because they do have a fabulous work ethic, or enough of one to get through the arduous process, and lots of tenacity. It’s not easy to get a PhD, but not for lack of smarts, for lack of heart.

Perhaps this is unfair of me. Since I have never gone forward to attempt a PhD, maybe I am out of touch. But just going through the motions and doing the work doesn’t guarantee a quality outcome, and this is what I am writing about.

Aside from my own collegiate experiences, in which I blindly trusted my professors and felt they were gods of intellect or some sort, I realize now, some were but most were not. They were human and made/make mistakes much like I do (well, at the pre-bachelor’s level, let’s be honest, most of my mistakes were drunken, youthful, and way beyond stupid—for another post). I also didn’t realize that most professors are less inclined to be teachers than they are to be researchers and publishers of their own works. That idea seems backwards to me since I’m paying many a dollar for an education to be taught by someone who would rather forward their own career than assist in developing my future one.

Part of the fault lies within the university system. In order for professors to get jobs, earn tenure, survive in academia, they have to do a lot of BS (and I don’t mean Bachelor’s of Science). If they don’t publish enough, they aren’t marketable. If they don’t get grants for their research, they have nothing to show but their PhD certificate. If they don’t conform to the political correctness and ideals of the university, they are cast out. It doesn’t matter if the school is Ivy League or in the middle-of-nowhere Wyoming (no offense, Wyoming).

Still, regardless of what the standards of conformity are in the academic world, I get a taste of the kind of people who decorate its many institutions on a daily basis.

What shocks me most about interacting with professors and independent scholars (what is that even?) is the lack of attention to detail, the ignorance of common courtesy, the forsaking of all things grammatical in correspondence, and the inability to follow directions. To top it all off, an ego that is difficult to maneuver around.

At times I’m shocked, that me, a lowly college graduate with just a BA must conduct a paint-by-numbers outline of instructions of a fairly intuitive process that practically conducts itself. Is it the use of technology? Is it the fact that these folks are so “important” and “busy” they have no time to go through trivial steps to complete a mundane task? Or do they expect anyone less than them to deal with these sorts of matters, thus are not troubled to read and follow instructions?

Each year I assist in a fellowship with 30 to 35 professors. I have to say, a lot of these folks are quite down-to-earth and even, dare I say it—fun? However, put them all together in a room to be instructed (the role reversal is not well-received) or to discuss intellectual but challenging matters, and the egos, commentary, ignorance, and spouts of achievements projectile vomits itself into fragile ears (chiefly, mine—the others are used to this kind of rhetoric).

It’s as if you can’t teach a teacher because they feel they have acquired all knowledge. That PhD, if anything, should give you the access of knowledge to go farther, ask more questions, and continue to learn more. We never stop learning because we can never know everything—expert or no expert. If you ask me, if there is a god, I doubt he’s all that omniscient and perfect (have you seen the craziness this world is in?) which means that a lowly professor is even less so.

So, dear PhDs, professors, academics, kindlers of knowledge, please remember a few things:

  • Be respectful of your colleagues and those who have only so high an education, it doesn’t mean they are dumb, it means their life goes a different way than yours.
  • Be humble because it is impossible to know everything and closing your mind only exacerbates the ignorance in education and society.
  • Take your position as educator seriously. You may want to write a book, you may want to research 23 of the 24 hours, but remember, you are also a teacher and your responsibility is to arm students with knowledge to go out in the world and assist in its development, not its demise.
  • Follow goddamn instructions. You are not above reading and performing them.
  • If you expect your students and colleagues to write emails with proper grammar, you should do the same. Capitalize the first letter of every sentence, use exclamation points responsibly, and don’t forget your punctuation!
  • You earned a PhD and this is nothing to sneeze at, but it isn’t your identity and people are only mildly impressed.

Reconnecting with literature: reading the books I was supposed to read in college but didn’t

I have my BA in English. What they should call it is a BS. Bedumchhhhh! Just kidding.

Getting a degree in English entails lots of reading, lots of reading, and a bit more reading. Followed by lots of essays, lots of essays, and a few more essays. This work is done  in the hopes that us English majors can earn a position as the manager of a McDonald’s one day. Seriously, what were we thinking?

I wasn’t the archetypal English major. Firstly, because I was sure I already knew everything about everything (which probably made me a typical English major, but not ideal). Secondly, I hated, and still hate, nearly all poetry. Thirdly, I didn’t have my head oriented in studying—it was always chasing after some foreign world with some foreign guy in it which made me grumpy and borderline ready to skip college and frolic in the Mediterranean with my idealized Adonis.

I wasn’t happy at school and I didn’t have the epic collegiate experience that everyone around me was having. What everyone had told me the best part of my life would be was a crushing disappointment. This attitude, experience, whatever, had an impact on my study habits, test taking skills, and general view of literature and writing.

Between hours spent in the library and the hours curled in a hot-ball mess in my bedroom, my manic study habits varied through the semester and even the hour in the day. It is nothing short of a miracle that I not only passed my classes decently but that I managed to do so with a severe nonchalance toward the reading part of my degree—the most essential part of being an English major.

My senior year of college, I had multiple 400-level literature courses to take to fulfil those remaining graduation requirements. Good scheduling on my part (not). This meant many big, thick books to read on a weekly basis.

Rather than read the novels themselves, I took shortcuts. I listened in class, talked to my peers, checked out summaries and analyses online, and then puzzled it all together. It worked for me. I got the gist and manipulated the info into an essay, with a few quintessential shout-out quotes. This gave me steady B’s. Thank goodness my teachers preferred essays to exams. My saving grace is my knack for BS.

It wasn’t until after I graduated that I realized by half-assing it, I didn’t maximize my education and I missed a great opportunity to delve into some seriously great pieces of work. Such is the wisdom that comes with age and failed romances.

The books I was supposed to read during my collegiate career sat patiently on the shelves in my room, waiting to fulfill their destiny to be read. A few years after graduating, I began to open their musty pages and read of my own volition and in my own time.

I feel like a tool for not reading these books when I had the opportunity—to really delve into them with my peers and professors. But in a way, I appreciate them more now than I ever could as a pompous, despondent 21-year-old. Now, I look online for interpretations, discussions, so that I enhance my reading experience—only after I have finished the book. No spoilers!

Here are my most recent reading renaissances:

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100 Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez

If you like incest and feeling a bit down, this is the book for you. It’s beautifully written, dense, and a bit perturbing. Amuck with magical realism; it’s tough to understand if the magic is real or a metaphor (in my opinion). Politcal theming modeled after Columbian and other Latin American history. The character names are reused often, so it gets confusing.

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The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Who doesn’t like some Hemingway? Probably lots of people, but what do they know? With an attention to detail, each word setting the scene, mastering an unmatched style of narrative, get involved in the lives of the impotent Jake, and the siren, Lady Brett Ashley, and meet the group of friends that Hemingway modeled his own life after as part of the post-WWI ex-patriots who took to Europe to write, live, and consume a lot of alcohol.

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Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut

I read this, but to be honest, not my favorite. Not because it wasn’t well-written and interesting, but because it wasn’t my taste. The story mainly takes place in WWII, written and narrated to speak about survival at the bombing of Dresden, in a very winding road kind of way. Loaded with weird time travelly, flash-backy, flash-forwardy things, it can seem like too much science fiction for the non-lover of the sci-fi genre. Not a happy book; lots of death in this one. So it goes.

Currently Reading…

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East of Eden, John Steinbeck

I just finished chapter 1, so, get back to me…

Over the years I’ve read other pieces of forsaken literature; these reflect the ones I picked up the past months and that I actually physically have in hand. I can’t remember all the required reading I completed since graduating, but I know through this process I discovered new favorite authors in the old, and a new appreciation of a subject I claim to have a degree in. In some ways, I’m more the pretentious English major than I ever was.

I learned in college that books cannot be read via osmosis under your pillow, but they also can’t be read by an unwilling subject. It may be too late to turn my B’s (sometimes C’s) into A’s, but there’s no reason I can’t give my brain some entertainment and mental exercise.

Let’s do this, Steinbeck.