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Great Literature Majors

May 23, 2007

I’ve been thinking lately about what makes a great lit(t) major.  Based off of some of the things I’ve done where I’ve received positive feedback from professors and a lot of mistakes I’ve made that I’ve tried to correct,  I’ve come up with a few things:

1. You must be a good journalist.

It’s not just about writing.  It’s also about research.  We’ve all been guilty of putting off writing papers until the last minutes, leaving all our research to be done–guess where?–on the Internet.  It happens.  And you can get a good grade from that.  Buuuut if you really want to impress, you have to get off the computer and go to the library.  Great lit majors are part detective, searching high and low to find the perfect quote to incorporate into their papers.

2. You must be a good debater.

It’s not just about making your point.  You also have to address the other side of the argument.  I see this far too often when I do a peer review: the author makes a point and moves right on, leaving me as the reader wondering “But what about…?”  Instead of padding your B or C paper with needless biographical information or extra block quotes, make it an A paper by saying more than “It’s not just X, it’s also NOT Y.”  I’m sure that the best lit majors, though, are the ones who could also turn around and write an equally fantastic paper on why “It’s not just Y, it’s also NOT X.”  That flexibility means that you’re always looking for a paper topic and you’re likely to find one–if not five.  As I learned specifically in LittMeth, you can take one or two lines from a short story and argue that they are the most important lines ever.  You could definitely write a ten-paged paper on them.  If you can’t develop that skill, literature probably isn’t the major for you.

3. You must be a reader.

I don’t think I can emphasize this enough.  Nothing exists in a vacuum, especially literature.  Few writers ever wrote in a world without books.  It’s like folk art: it can be beautiful, but there isn’t a lot of it out there, where the artist has never seen the Mona Lisa or Starry Night.  The writer you’re working on has read before; it’s almost a guaranteed fact.  If you don’t realize that Author X is referencing Author Y, you’re going to miss the point.  But also, it’s just a pleasure, reading–getting lost in a story.  It changes your perspective.  It allows you to see out of someone else’s eyes.  And, as a bonus, it sharpens your grammar skills, just to see the words in the right order or the right spelling, over and over again.

Literature is not, and should not be, an easy major.  I think it takes a certain kind of person, a person who has these skills I’ve mentioned, to excel in literature courses.  But these do not have to be innate skills.  They can definitely be learned and honed.  I’ve always been a reader, for example, but being a lit major has taught me to be a journalist and a debater.  I love my major and I want to pass on that love.  I’d also like to see all my classmates succeed.  I hope this helps even a little bit.

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