Academics and Research

Majoring in English at Clark

By Kulani Dias ’13

Being an English major at Clark is easy, and cheesy as this sounds, I never wanted to miss a class. Some books I’d read before; some books were brand new to me. What was really incredible though were the new and critical perspectives that were presented in class when my classmates spoke up, in discussion groups or otherwise. I’d never even heard of Michel Foucault before I took “Contemporary Literary Theory,” and yet I found myself during my senior year writing an honors thesis based on his theoretical framework and a paper I wrote for the class during my junior year. Being an English major is not just about reading books, or writing a novel for every class. It’s not just about papers and writing here at Clark. It’s about sharing ideas, exploring things that intrigue you, and being creative and different and innovative with the support of experienced, knowledgeable faculty. It’s finding your passion and learning to express it in an articulate and compelling way to intrigue and inspire others.

Q. How has being an English major helped you? How has the English major prepared you for future endeavors?

You know what basic skill is at the base of every application, job or graduate school interview, and occupation? Communication. This is a skill that is usually taken for granted. Written and oral communication that is articulate, persuasive and compelling will get you almost anywhere you need to go in life.

I started applying for jobs and fellowships months before I graduated. One thing I’ve learned since then is that a good majority of people who apply for the same jobs you do are as qualified for them as you are (perhaps even more so—yes, I said it!). The specialized qualifications on your resume (research experience, for example in my case) will only get you so far. It usually gets you to the interview. But the process of actually writing a research proposal that is compelling and articulate, communicates what you want to accomplish and why you are the candidate for the job, requires writing skills that are honed by the English department. This translates to communicating orally during interviews why you are the candidate for the job. You can throw theories and jargon about all you want, but the usual questions during an interview are not, “What did this theorist say about this?” They are more like, “Why do you want to be here? What are you trying to accomplish with this proposal, this project?” And here you need to be creative, innovative and compelling. Being an English major, in short, helps you talk your way into getting that promotion, that fellowship, that job.

I was just awarded a predoctoral fellowship by the Bremen International Graduate School of Social Sciences in Germany. I had to submit a research proposal, a personal statement and sit through an interview with six panel members. Needless to say, content and research experience mattered, but I also needed to communicate to them how and why I could accomplish what I had proposed in writing. This is a skill I will carry throughout my career, from grad school applications to grant writing. Majoring in English has taught me to be consistent throughout my writing, and has boosted my vocabulary, giving me a leg up over my colleagues.

Q. How did you manage the double major in English and psychology? How did the majors complement one another?

Double-majoring at Clark is so easy—in my opinion practically essential. I only properly started both majors during my sophomore year. So in terms of fulfilling major requirements, it’s not a problem at all, as long as you are purposeful about the classes you take. Logistically, it works as well because most majors, such as psychology and English in my case, need cluster courses outside of your major anyway that are automatically fulfilled if you minor or double-major. Most importantly it helped me not be constricted into one subject area—it was always refreshing to switch to English assignments after a long day of focusing on research and psychology, and vice-versa. I was (and am!) passionate about both my English and psychology coursework and the great thing about Clark was that I didn’t have to choose one over the other. I got to work with interviews that I had collected for my psychology honors research project as “texts” for my English honors project. Faculty are willing to work closely with you to help you pursue your passion—in my case, looking discursively at the Sri Lankan conflict, and how people marginalize and justify systems of oppression and discrimination through an array of symbols and rhetorical strategies.

I’m not going to say that doing two honors projects was a walk in the park (far from it!), but it was fulfilling and really helped me hone both my research and writing skills. What I learned in the process could fill a book (and maybe it will one day!), but most importantly it taught me the importance of looking at issues through an interdisciplinary lens that helps inform and deconstruct both (or all) disciplines involved.

Q. Do you have any advice for prospective students or any further thoughts?

Prospective students: Clark is a place to explore, and the English department is a place to turn those explorations into viable projects. Take classes outside your major that interest you. If you don’t know, ask. If you’re interested in a topic, or are looking at an issue in a way that seems unconventional, don’t be afraid to say it, either in class amidst your peers, or afterwards just to your professor if you’re the shy type. Don’t always believe your friends if they say that a class is hard or that a professor is tough—try it yourself. Don’t think that an issue can only be represented through one perspective, through one discipline. Be critical. Be curious. Don’t be afraid to play devil’s advocate to your own opinions; stay critical, stay curious.

And one last thing. If there’s one thing I’m going to miss at Clark, it’s the English House. Current Clarkies: enjoy it while you can! Prospective Clarkies—go take a look. Fall in love!

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