In Defense of English majors

This New York Times article, “Decline and Fall of the English Major,” is right up my alley.

Parents have always worried when their children become English majors. What is an English major good for? In a way, the best answer has always been, wait and see — an answer that satisfies no one. And yet it is a real answer, one that reflects the versatility of thought and language that comes from studying literature. Former English majors turn up almost anywhere, in almost any career, and they nearly always bring with them a rich sense of the possibilities of language, literary and otherwise.

You should go read it.

ImageI want so much to agree, and think fondly of my undergraduate years exploring the liberal arts, and truth, beauty, and goodness.

But the anxious parents’ common question reminds me also of the discouraging questions so many of my kids asked me these past two years: “Why we gotta read this? When am I ever going to use this, Ms. Shea?”

And then they would look at me and expect me to give them a satisfactory answer in 2 minutes or less.

Usually, I would say something like, “That is a good question, but the answer is a long one. I’ll give you a couple of thoughts about it now, but feel free to come discuss it with me later at lunchtime.”

Only 2 students ever did come later at lunchtime.

And it’s a very difficult question to answer not only because a lot of people aren’t really listening, but also because, although I understand the parents who worry about their English major daughters and the high school students who complain about being bombarded with a lot of useless information, I simply don’t agree with their premises.

Part of me wants to grant those premises and say: Yes! Being an English [or insert other liberal arts here] major is useful! You need to know how to write and think critically no matter what you do! Think about job interviews! Think about college! Look at me!

… Well, okay, don’t look at me, I don’t make any money. 

The other part of me resists. It does not want to give in. It wants to say: You know what? You’re right. Being an English [or other liberal arts] major is useless. Completely useless. It won’t help you do better in your football game tonight.  It won’t help you in the 10 jobs you are probably considering for your future right now, nor will it help you in hundreds of other decent jobs. And no, it won’t help you make a lot of money. But that’s not the point. I’m not asking you to learn how to write an essay or read this book because it’s useful. I’m asking you to do it because it is good that you do it. 


What I really said (once, to one of my juniors) was this: “Okay. Let’s take a minute and think about this. Lots of us like to work out, go running, lift, right? Why?”

“Uh, ’cause coach make us.”

“Okay, yeah, but why does he make you?”

“So we’ll be healthier and stronger. Better.”

“Right. But think about it. Realistically, when in your life are you going to HAVE to run 5-6 miles? I mean, you can choose to if you want to, but it’s not immediately useful to everybody. When in your life are you HAVE to going to lift weights, over and over again?” [I began demonstrating with hand motions here] “Like doing this thing? Yeah, you might have to lift some boxes when you move out of your parents’ house, but you don’t need to kill yourself at the gym to do that.”

I paused, wondering if I was getting anywhere.

“English class is like that. But this time the muscle we’re exercising is your brain. It needs to stretch and move and lift. Yeah, maybe you won’t become a professor or researcher or journalist. Maybe you will never have to write an essay again in your life after you graduate high school. But that’s not the point. It exercises your brain, makes it stronger and healthier. And you will need your brain for the rest of your life.”

Okay, that got a few nods of approval.

But of course that answer did not really satisfy them either. And although I think it is helpful, I don’t think any student chose to major in English because he wanted to “exercise his brain.” He majored in English because he loved it.

Stanley Fish offers an incisive critique of Klinkenborg’s article, and really all liberal-arts lovers’ sentiments, here. Be forewarned, it’s rather depressing. And I am still digesting it.

As much as my heart disagrees with him, I think he’s right. So many of us liberal-arts people do “alternate between grand, un-cashable claims and pie-in-the sky proposals that have no traction because there is barely a suggestion of a road map that might lead to their realization.”

But that’s the difficulty, isn’t it? Aren’t we saying that there is not a clear “road map”? Aren’t we saying that when you look for the truth, you might find yourself going down paths you never thought you’d have the courage to take, or fording through treacherous ideas that only few people have really contended with? And all you really have are your critical thinking skills and your faith to guide you?

But maybe all these are more key terms that are just “spectacularly empty”:

 … just where specificity is needed, sonorous abstraction blunts the edge of what is being asserted, rendering it unexceptionable (no one’s against understanding, complexity and meaningfulness) and without bite. (Stanley Fish)

Reader, I’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Oh, by the way, Stanley Fish. A parting shot: as an English major, I think Emily Dickinson would have this to say about using “spectacularly empty” words. Perhaps we do it intentionally:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—


Louisiana Wedding

A bridesmaid’s view from the “Cathedral on the Bayou”

“Where there is great love, there are always miracles…. [They] seem to me to rest not so much upon faces or voices or healing power coming suddenly near to us from afar off, but upon our perceptions being made finer, so that for a moment our eyes can see and our ears can hear what is there about us always.” (Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop)

Meeting and Matching Moments of Hope

Adopted from a paper I wrote last summer for my Adolescent Development Class

Another view of the theory I’m about to describe…

Summary of Theory:

Donald Winnicott says that the role of the educator is “a going to meet and match the moment of hope” (class notes, 2012). That phrase comes to my mind so frequently now when I teach. There are many such moments, but they are easy to miss. Or, even when I see them, it is difficult to know how to “meet and match” them.

Winnicot’s words are a beautiful way to describe the huge challenge of exploring how the human brain develops in order to find the best ways to facilitate student learning.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980). I like his expression.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget presented a genetic epistemology that sought to describe this human “moment” as really a series of moments—an ongoing creation of organized structures of knowledge into which new information is integrated over time (Wadsworth,1989). For Piaget, intelligence is an activity rather than a capacity (class notes, 2012). Think about that for a moment — your intelligence, which popular culture so often envisions in terms of IQ, a static number or given ability — is actually something fluid and changeable. This idea has transformed the way I think about my students. Intelligence is an activity they engage in, not some sort of limitation to their activities.

The implications of Piaget’s theory thereby inform more recent constructivist and cognitive-mediational theories of learning.  These approaches stress the role of learners as active problem-solvers (Anderson, 1989a; Lemov 2010), decision-making builders of their own knowledge (Chi 2009; Albert & Steinberg 2011) and adaptors to their environment (Sternberg 1998).

Thus, educators are called to be “great observers” of their students like Piaget was of his children (class notes 2012)—observers who seek to understand the ways in which students assimilate, accommodate, and construct their own knowledge schemata (Wadsworth 1989, Lapsley lecture 2012). Piaget has helped me to see that how you teach is really only important insofar as it tries to respond to the more important question of how students learn.  This is how you “meet and match” every “moment of hope” (Winnicott 1956).

Analysis of My Own Teaching:

Sternberg (1998) explains how in education there is “often a large gap between theory and practice,” and so learning theories need to be presented in simpler, more accessible formats. That is definitely true. Maybe even my explication above confused you.

So here is one such accessible format, a book that helped me put these ideas into practice this past year:

Teach Like a Champion by Doug Lemov

Doug Lemov’s response is all about practice–never mind our theories and ideologies, what actually works in the classroom? Yet I think his methods are a great example of teaching practices that directly respond to how students learn. He provides teachers with forty-nine specific and carefully described techniques to use, and has given me concrete ways to recognize and respond to moments of hope with my students.

One such frequent moment is when a student gives an answer to a question in front of the whole class. My inclination (and behavior this past year) was to always find a way to praise that student and find something good about his or her answer, even if it was not exactly quite right. There is a lot of good in this. When I taught martial arts as a high schooler, my boss and instructor always taught us to “praise, correct, then praise.” This is the way I was taught to teach, and it is the way I have always taught. I would make the correction, but gently.

Exteriorly, it may have looked like I was encouraging my students’ thinking, but in retrospect I see that I was missing  “the potential underlying cognitive processes” (Chi, 2009, p. 85) that were going on. Lemov’s second and third techniques in his book, “Right is Right” and “Stretch It,” challenged my approach:

[Teachers] will affirm the student’s answer and repeat it, adding some detail of their own to make it more fully correct […] [not realizing that they are ] crowd[ing] out the student’s own thinking, doing cognitive work that students should do themselves. (pp. 35-36)

According to constructivist theory, students learn by constructing their own knowledge—or, in Piagetian terms, assimilating information into schemata and accommodating schemata to receive new information (Wadsworth 1989 and Anderson 1989a). However, when I prioritize affirming students answers over holding them to a high standard of thinking and challenging them to improve their responses, I am inadvertently impeding their own construction of knowledge (Anderson 1989b).

This is really fascinating: in order to promote the development of thought, instruction needs to cause “students to feel some disequilibrium or dissatisfaction with their current ideas” (Anderson 1989a, p. 90).


My easy affirmations of student answers prevent them from feeling this “disequilibrium.” My kids will not be able to identify their mistakes in analysis if I fail to identify them as well.

Therefore, even though I pride myself upon being a very encouraging leader of group discussions, I am going to change my focus on giving much more specific praise and holding my students accountable for complete and thoughtful answers. I will refrain from using phrases like “Right! Exactly!” that might stop their thinking—and instead I will push them with affirming but demanding responses like “that’s a great start, but please provide us evidence for your answer” or “how can we build upon that insight?” These interactions with my students are brief but they are indeed “moments of hope”—occasions in which doors to learning can be closed with easy praise or opened with affirming challenges.

As Lemov insists, “great teachers praise students for their effort but never confuse effort with mastery” (p. 37).

Not only do I want to approach my time with my students as moments of hope—I want them to see that they themselves are able to “meet and match” these moments too.



Albert, D. & Steinberg, L. (2011). Judgment and decision-making in adolescence. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21, (pp. 211-224).

Anderson, L. M. (1989a). Learners and learning. In M. C. Reynolds (Ed.), Knowledge base for the beginning teacher (pp. 85-99). Oxford: Pergamon Press

Anderson, L. M. (1989b). Classroom instruction. In M. C. Reynolds (Ed.) Knowledge base for the beginning teacher (pp. 101-115). Oxford: Pergamon Press

Brandenberger, Jay. (2012) Class Notes for EDU60455: Development and Moral Education in Adolescence.

Chi, M. T. H. (2009). Active-Constructive-Interactive: A Conceptual framework for differentiating learning activities. Topics in Cognitive Science, 73-105.

Lapsley, D. K. (2012) Lecture Notes for EDU60455: Development and Moral Education in Adolescence.

Lemov, D. (2010), Teach Like a Champion: Chapters 1-4 (pp. 1-144). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sternberg, R. J. Raising the achievement of all students: Teaching for successful intelligence. Educational Psychology Review, 14, (pp. 383-393)

Wadsworth, B. J. (1989) Chapters 1 and 2 from Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development, 4th Ed. (pp. 9-32). New York: Longman

Home, and Other Destinations

One of my favorite movies growing up, but one I have not seen in a long, long time, is “The Wizard of Oz.” Our version was taped from a TV special hosted by the wonderful Angela Lansbury (“Mrs. Potts,” for those of you who don’t know her) and was interrupted by long commercials from the ‘90’s for cars, soap, and McDonald’s (thus I’ve somehow always associated those things with the Emerald City, scarecrows, and munchkins).

Anyway – the line I have been thinking of so often lately, as I drove from Louisiana back to Massachusetts, stopping in Athens, Tennessee one night, Washington D.C. the next, and later flying back to Notre Dame, Indiana, and as I now look forward to moving to Colorado next year, is: “There’s no place like home … There’s no place like home.”



Since writing this post on Setting and World Making, I’ve been rather preoccupied with the concept of place and how it shapes us, just as setting affects plot in a story. This week I have been teaching setting to little middle school students (they are SO small!)–a simplified form of what I did with my big kids a few weeks ago. These incoming sixth graders were especially intrigued by how setting establishes what is possible and impossible. After using lots of adjectives to label various parts and objects of our classroom with sticky notes, we then made a chart discussing what COULD happen in our room (“we could have fun,” “we could learn,” “we could write”) and what COULD NOT happen (“we can’t have a circus–the elephants wouldn’t fit” “we can’t cook a pizza–there’s no pizza oven” “we can’t be underwater–we couldn’t breathe/the water would escape through the door and windows”).

You have to see them to believe them.

And I thought about what is possible–and impossible–for me, being back here at Notre Dame for the summer. I can write a lot more. I can spend time with ACE friends. I can pray in the beautiful basilica, and run around the Saint Mary and Saint Joseph lakes. But I cannot be with my high school students. I cannot observe alligators slipping slyly into the Mississippi river. I cannot enjoy drive-through daiquiris (read about these unbelievable establishments here).

Reunited with other ACE teachers here at Notre Dame, I am able listen to new stories about their kids—spread all over the country—and the funny phrases, the accents, the struggles, the absurdities and delights of all the different places that have shaped them. “Do your kids say ‘swaggin’?” “Yes they do!” “I’ve never heard of ‘cuttin’ up’ before.” “Well, neither had I!” And I thought, my goodness, we have become a part of new settings and some of us have even found ourselves at “home” there.

Yet my decision to leave my ACE school and to move to a new place, to a new state–to uproot myself, as it were, for the third time in three years–has me feeling rather homeless lately. I haven’t lived in Massachusetts for more than a few weeks at a time since high school. As much as I would love to, I cannot become an undergraduate in Dallas again. And although I plan on visiting Louisiana next year, I will be doing just that: visiting. I will be a visitor, in someone else’s home.

ImageMy Dad told me about a new book by Rod Dreher called The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, reviewed here by Michael Hannon. It’s very much about home,  one’s sense of place, community, and belonging. And, in our restless and mobile age, it seems also to be an appeal to us to re-evaluate our relationship with our homes, wherever they may be.

Hannon’s description has put this book at the very top of my reading list this summer: “The book tells two distinct stories, beautifully interwoven: an autobiography of Rod himself, and a hagiography of his sister Ruthie.” Rod is the restless one—who wants to leave his native Louisiana behind, to seek home elsewhere. Ruthie is the opposite—content to remain and to grow in her beloved little community:

An involuntary outsider from a young age, Rod never wanted anything more than escape. Philosophical by nature and restless by temperament, he annoyed his sister and the St. Francisville community at large with his constant curiosity, asking probing questions about ultimate realities that they were happier just to take for granted. Despite knowing that they loved him, he never felt understood by his family or accepted by their small-minded local community. Without disparaging the simple lives they led, he always longed for something somehow grander for himself.

Whereas Ruthie was born into the place she knew she belonged, Rod always felt like a stranger in their hometown. So after college, he left Louisiana in search of a place where he too could fit in, pursuing a career in journalism and wandering all over the Atlantic coast. But even there, from Washington to New York to Philadelphia, Rod never found the sense of at-homeness that Ruthie had always known in St. Francisville. (Michael Hannon, “Small-Town Saints for Our Placeless Age”)

As I read Hannon’s review (you should too), I found myself feeling a little sad, and even a little guilty. In a way, I’m like Rod–bouncing around the country, encountering new places, meeting new people–and always wanting in the back of my mind to find home. So many of the people I admire most, like my Grandma, my Mom, my Dad, my sister, Flannery O’Connor, Tolkien, Emily Dickinson, Richard Wilbur, all seem to have a very strong sense of place, of home. My Mom still has a strong attachment for Oklahoma where she grew up. My Dad, my Grandma, and my sister are New Englanders through-and-through. O’Connor, Tolkien, Dickinson, and Wilbur are great because their reverence for place helps all of us understand what home really means.

And yet strangely, in ACE, part of our job is to be displaced and a little homeless. And our foreign-ness is often a gift to our students, many of whom may never leave their home-state and may never experience, first-hand, the adventure of travel as we have. Sometimes over the past two years I found myself tempted to encourage my students to branch out too and to see new parts of the country, to apply to that reach-college out of state, to accept the adventure. And there is good in this. As Bilbo says to Frodo, “You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

Yet of course this is a warning as a well as an invitation.

created by Shaylynn on her blog “Shealynn’s Faerie Shoppe”

There is that distinctly “progressive” tendency to despise insularity, to belittle the prejudices and notions of small-town America, to complain that some people refuse to widen their horizons and see the world in new ways. It is one of the many temptations of the ACE teacher, I think. And I think Bilbo’s warning should be considered. We may encourage our students to leave–but where are we encouraging them to go? Where are we hoping they will be “swept off to”? The journey is important in and of itself, but so is the destination.

I have been swept off to many strange and wonderful places in the past few years, but I am beginning to feel what Rod Dreher describes in his book, a longing for home. And so I recognize there is a wisdom in the people who choose to stay–to go to the local college, return for your high school reunions, live near your family, remain in your home-town. It is not the popular choice nowadays.

Having cut the ties that bind us geographically, we have become in many ways a placeless people. We have lost what St. Benedict called “stability,” man’s permanent attachment to a particular home in this life. “St. Benedict considered the kinds of monks who moved from place to place all the time to be the worst of all,” Dreher recounts. “They refused the discipline of place and community, and because of that, they could never know humility. Without humility, they could never be happy.”

For Rod, the realization of this Benedictine truth required him to go home: “[If] I wanted to know the inner peace and happiness in community that Ruthie had, I needed to practice a rule of stability. Accept the limitations of a place, in humility, and the joys that can also be found there may open themselves.”


“There has to be balance,” Rod reminds us. “Not everyone is meant to stay—or to stay away—forever. There are seasons in the lives of persons and of families. Our responsibility, both to ourselves and to each other, is to seek harmony within the limits of what we are given—and to give each other grace.” (Ibid)

O’Connor also insists upon seeking “harmony within the limits of what we are given.” We are all invited to some courageous act, and for some it is the task of staying, and for others it is the task of leaving and starting somewhere new. I think my fellow ACE teachers can relate. Some of them are staying at their schools. Some are leaving. Some, like me, will continue to be teachers. Others won’t. We all carry the gift and the burden of whatever setting we have been shaped by for the past two years, though.

I guess I am still looking for home. But I am grateful that over the years, different people have opened their homes to me.

“My Way Back Home” by Dawes:

Speaking of Amazing Catholic Schools…

A recent UD graduate just published a beautiful article about my alma mater – capturing not only the love so many of us feel for her, but also a glimpse into what Catholic education should be like. It is on the University News website.

Very much worth the read: Goodbye, Farewell, Amen: An Adieu to UD by Daniel Orazio

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.
– Pied Beauty, Gerard Manley Hopkins