The benefits of an English degree (or, the many merits of being an avid reader)
The following speech was delivered by Avid Bookshop owner/founder Janet Geddis at the May 3, 2018 UGA English Department’s Graduation 2018: English Honors Day. We think anyone who loves reading and writing will appreciate this.
During my senior year as an English major, I accompanied a friend who needed to pick something up at our college’s career center. While we were there, we spied a collection of books on a low shelf—the books listed job opportunities according to majors. Neither of us had the first clue about what sorts of careers we’d embark on—back then, imagining a couple of weeks into the future was impossible enough, let alone months or years down the road.
We cracked open the A-E volume, and I ran my fingertip down the pages until we reached “English major.” When we saw the options, my friend and I went completely silent before erupting in giddy giggles. There were exactly two career paths listed under “English major”: 1, professor/teacher, or, 2, greeting card writer.
I hope you know that there are many other options out there for you; unfortunately, I didn’t know that for myself back in May 2002. I knew that I loved to read and write, and I knew that at least half the people in my circle were pushing me to go into teaching. I followed their collective advice for years despite having a persistent, vaguely nauseating feeling that I was on the wrong path entirely.
Thankfully, I have very supportive parents who never rushed me and who never belittled my love of literature because it wasn’t obviously linked to a lucrative job. My fellow English grads joked often about the uselessness of our Bachelor’s degrees; I would nod along with a half-smirk, but something felt off about their claims. I felt like the odd woman out, because I hadn’t chosen my major in order to secure a career. I had chosen it simply because I was utterly in love with reading. I wasn’t sure how my undergrad years would tie into the rest of my life, but I knew the time spent on reading and writing was anything but useless.
I wasn’t yet able to verbalize what my major had done for me, nor did I know then that it would tie in beautifully with every aspect of the business I would eventually run.
Looking back, it is clear from my job-dabbling that I was conducting a sort of trial-by-error experiment, sampling different professions and discovering that each of my part-time jobs would never be a fulfilling, full-time career for me.
After starting a reading program at a Florida high school during my service year with Literacy*AmeriCorps, I was proud of my accomplishments and 100% sure I did not want to be a high school teacher. While learning Spanish in Costa Rica in my mid-20s, I fell more deeply in love with the rhythms of language, even if my Spanish was less than polished. Living with a family that knew zero English challenged me immensely: as someone who’s good at communicating, it’s eye-opening and ultimately rewarding to have to figure out ways to converse when your vocabulary is limited.
While working as a barista in Pittsburgh, I struck up conversations with people whose paths I never would have crossed outside of the coffee shop—these conversations fueled my desire to write creatively and develop characters. During my Master’s program in gifted and creative education here at UGA, I worked to develop even better programming and research methodology for the Georgia Governor’s Honors Program—I was pretty sure that’s where I’d end up, at least for awhile. When circumstances beyond my control stopped me in my tracks, I tried to pivot to teaching at the elementary level, but I knew in my gut I couldn’t hack it.
In between earning my Master’s and creating what is—for now, at least—my dream job, I did so many seemingly disparate tasks to pay the bills and explore my options. I worked as a medical and scientific document editor; I did freelance copy editing; I visited local homeless shelters as a tutor and story teller; I nannied. Once I was fully involved with my daily tasks in any of these positions, I was relatively content. But none of them felt like the thing I was meant to do.
For over a decade now, I’ve published health essays about living with migraine disease, but I learn again and again that I don’t yet have the discipline to write with any regularity—plus I go a little stir-crazy when I’m working at home alone too long.
It took me several years to get there, but I finally discovered a career option that I found invigorating, a job so perfectly suited to me, an extroverted English major, I still can’t quite believe my luck: I founded my own business. I now own two bookshops here in Athens, and, while I’ve had innumerable moments of stress and frustration, I have not been bored at work in seven years.
All this back story is not an excuse for me to talk about myself, I promise. In fact, only recently did I fully acknowledge the significance of those many restless years of being in the in-between, years when I felt more than a little down on myself. Here I was, a smart person with tremendous opportunities who could likely go into any number of fields, but I was holding out for the thing that really felt right.
When people ask me what led me to my current gigs, I list a few of my past jobs with a dismissive wave of the hand, choosing instead to focus on the now, to talk about how happy I am with my life in 2018.
But here’s why I shouldn’t be shy about those years of exploration: the stuck periods are profoundly important for us all. The times when we feel lost and wayward, not sure which way is up and what we’re supposed to be doing, are the times we’re growing in ways that are not yet detectable. If I hadn’t ruled out other possibilities, if I hadn’t pursued the more obvious job opportunities, I would never have known what it feels like when something is the perfect fit. It’s likely that I’ll be stuck in the in-between a few more times in my life, and, if that happens, I’ll try to remember to reread this speech before I get too anxious.
These days, I frequently encounter people who are on a precipice like you are, people of all ages who are about to graduate or are looking to make a major life change. You may be getting the message—from our society, from your family, from your mentors, from your friends—that you need to have already planned ou your life by now. That the decisions you make in the next few months will dictate the rest of your days. I’m here to tell you what someone told me as a senior, something I didn’t really believe then and you’ll probably not believe now: you have plenty of time to explore, plenty of time to try on different hats and cities and professions and friendships. Time flies, sure, but most of us are fortunate to have a lot of it left.
My fellow English nerds, I have even more good news for you. Unlike that discouraging, dusty book in my college’s career center, I can rattle off tons of jobs for readers at the drop of a hat: you see, any sector will benefit from your wisdom.
In the last many years, you’ve read for hours on end; you’ve sharpened your composition skills and learned to workshop your writing. You’ve engaged in lively debates about the phrasing in a poem or an author’s decision to use first versus third person. You’ve learned to communicate in ways that make you strong job candidates, exceptional students, and remarkable friends.
In an era marked by rapidly evolving technology and advances in artificial intelligence, the world will need you more than ever. You have the ability to assess a situation and boil it down to its core.
By reading closely, you’ve honed a talent many people have lost or have never had the opportunity to develop: you can detect the most subtle shifts in tone, and you can understand nuance.
You have a therapist’s understanding of humans and what motivates them, and you have the verbal prowess to make meaningful connections with those around you. No matter what jobs you have throughout your journey, these abilities will serve you forevermore.
It is no secret that our country is in turmoil. In a time when many powers that be are closing their ears and hearts, trying to block out thoughtful conversation, scientific research, human rights, and so much more, we need empathetic, compassionate people. We need communicators. We need readers. We need you.
Reading does so much for us, but its greatest gift to me may be how it has nourished my own empathy and made me curious about other walks of life that couldn’t be more different than my own. Novels, memoirs, critical studies, investigative reporting, poetry, essays, travelogues, and more can give readers access to situations we’ve never seen before—or, perhaps just as importantly—situations we’ve been in but previously saw only from our own perspectives. Reading is a form of listening, a way to safely explore ideas from the confines of our own armchairs. Literary fiction is my go-to genre, and I will never be able to adequately thank novelists who have triggered my interest and curiosity in subjects I might’ve dismissed had I not been introduced to them via the written word.
Celebrating ourselves doesn’t usually come too easily, but rites of passage like this one give us the chance to truly consider all we’ve been through that got us to this point. I’m glad you are all here today. I chose not to participate in any ceremonies when I graduated from UGA with my Master’s degree, and I’ve always regretted not having done so.
I want to encourage you to practice a skill I struggle with; my hunch is you may be in the same boat. I work incredibly hard to accomplish my goals, but as soon as I’ve met a goal, I set a new one, rarely if ever taking time to rest and reflect. I don’t take the time to tell myself how proud I am, how accomplished I feel.
With that in mind, I’m going to ask you to do something that might make you a little uncomfortable.
Just roll with me here.
Take a moment to look around you. Look ahead, behind, and beside you. Look above, and look below.
Now, take a deep breath. Close your eyes.
This is what it feels like to be you, right here, right now.
This is what it feels like to be in a room of friends, classmates, professors, instructors, scholars, mentors, and family members.
This is you the afternoon of May 3, 2018, graduating from an incredible university in what is, without a doubt, the coolest college town in the U.S.
One more breath in, and one more breath out. Now open your eyes.
You’ve worked incredibly hard for this moment. Your time at UGA was likely marked by late nights studying, early mornings making final changes on your essays, and countless hours researching in the library. I couldn’t begin to guess how many thousands of pages you’ve read.
Just as you can learn from others’ writing, I invite you to create—or continue creating—your own work so that we readers can get to know you better. Your chapter at UGA may be coming to an end, but we’re excited to turn the page, to hear about what’s next for you, to read about the adventures you embark on, the failures you face, and the flourishing successes that will follow.
Congratulations, class of 2018.
Text copyright 2018 by Janet Geddis.