Two English Department alumni — Justin Longacre and Ty Roth — returned as guest speakers at the Shapiro Writing Festival Gala Celebration and Award Ceremony, Friday April 13, 2012.
Both speakers emphasized the value and utility of a degree in English.
Justin Longacre graduated cum laude from UT with a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Education in 2006, and earned Departmental Honors in English. He teaches 10th and 11th grade English at the Toledo School for the Arts, as well as a creative writing class. He is the founder of and advisor to the Toledo School for the Arts creative writing club, which stages spoken word performances at local establishments and produces Volume, TSA’s journal of student writing. Longacre lives in Toledo with his wife Stephanie and their two sons, Elijah and Isaac.
Ty Roth teaches literature and composition in high school and at the college level. He holds a sociology degree from Xavier University and a Master’s Degree from the University of Toledo. He is the author of So Shelley (Dellacorte Books), which was named one of the top ten romance novels for youth in 2011. Ty has also been named a “Top New Voice in Young Adult Fiction” for 2011. He lives with his family in Sandusky, Ohio, along the shores of his much loved Lake Erie. He is at work on a new novel.
Here is an excerpt from Longacre’s talk:
“What are you going to do with an English degree?”
If you have been an English major for any length of time, you have been confronted with that question. Perhaps you heard it from concerned parents, or a business major friend rendered honest by a few drinks. It’s no secret: English majors are something of a punch line. The implication is always that our chosen field is superfluous. A luxury. A pastime that conned its way into a profession. You’ll never be rich, if you get a job at all. Success is a reward reserved for the fields that actually matter: science, math, law, medicine, business. English is more of a hobby than a career, especially when it concerns itself with the reading and self-important discussion of storybooks and the flowery indulgence of poetry. At its most useful, the thinking goes, English instruction simply facilitates the reading and writing required by more important pursuits.
This sentiment is occasionally reflected on a legislative level. I recently had a conversation with a science teacher who had just returned from a conference regarding the future of the Ohio Graduation Test. He mentioned a state mandate under consideration that would require Language Arts curricula to be comprised of 70 percent nonfiction informational/technical texts and only 30 percent literary. 70/30, it is called. I had to clarify with him several times to make sure the percentages weren’t switched. My student teacher at the time confirmed this is what they are currently being taught to expect in her Language Arts program.
The idea is, I suppose, to immediately improve scores on standardized tests, which are primarily composed of technical and informational texts. More broadly, the goal is to prepare students for jobs in technical fields. Why waste time creating critics, poets, and novelists when what you really want is a society of workers, engineers, and research scientists? Who cares if they have read The Great Gatsby? How is that going to increase GDP? We are constantly reminded of the ways in which the United States lags behind in math and science. We must, after all, be competitive in the global economy. The best way to do that, they contend, is to increase contact and experience with technical and informational writing and cut back on superfluous things like the arts and literature.
I had a conversation with another science teacher around that same time. His incoming freshmen were displaying increased difficulty with the critical thinking skills so crucial to their success in the sciences. Students were unable to synthesize information, form their own opinions, reach their own conclusions and be able to defend them. Their papers were rife with plagiarism. Students strip-mined Wikipedia entries wholesale. Research was startlingly monochrome, utilizing the same sources to reach the same results. Perhaps most troubling, students were having difficulty understanding that there was even a problem.
That particular class was the first to be completely immersed from kindergarten in the policies of No Child Left Behind, with its emphasis on the standardized test. This made sense. The students wanted to find the answer rather than create an answer. They wanted to know there was an answer “out there” already, and all they had to do was go get it. They wanted to avoid critical thinking for the easier trick of information retrieval. The danger is easy to imagine: a society of passive conduits, where everyone is a conductor of information from an increasingly narrow set of producers; a society of diodes on a circuit board.
English education can, and should, fight this trend. The study of literature, at its best, resists facile answer pillaging. Literature forces the student to interpret. It invites synthesis. It may bring the student into conflict with other opinions. It confronts the student with ambiguities. To engage literature is to be an active participant in a conversation, rather than a passive receiver. Likewise, writing, at its best, is a refusal to be a mere receptacle. Writing forces students to clarify their thoughts, or at least examine their confusion. Anyone who has engaged in the process of creating, sharing, and editing knows writing engenders humility. By exercising the impulse to reach out to others with words, writing threatens the solipsism to which we are all prone. It invites the student to seek and embrace mystery. Nothing gives oblivion the finger like a blank page deftly filled. If left alone to do its job properly, English education can make students better, more human thinkers.
Students deserve the opportunity to encounter the beauty of communication elevated to an art every day. That opportunity is important for its own sake, but it is also crucial for meeting the challenges of a new economy. Language Arts are important in an economy where creativity is the commodity, where communication is critical, and where compassion is more necessary than ever.
As English majors, we should probably accept that not everyone will understand why what we do is important, but we know it is. We know it because we have experienced it firsthand. We know what it is like to recognize something beautiful or true or absorbing in someone else’s words. We know what it is like to feel that we have put some modicum of ourselves onto the page. We know what it is like to desire, however modestly, to be a part of that human conversation that transcends time, place, and circumstance. As English majors, we are custodians of the collective struggle to communicate, of the uniquely human desire to understand and be understood. I believe anyone may learn to exercise that ability with greater sensitivity and grace, and that the world would be a better place if everyone did. That is the purpose of an English education. Whatever you do after your English degree, that is what you should do with your English degree.
And here is a shorter excerpt from Roth’s talk:
“Not so long ago, I was you – attending classes here at UT, and since this is a celebration of writers, it’s to them that I wish to address the remainder of my talk. Know this, if I can do it, trust me, so can you. I have no preternatural gift for writing. As a writer, I compare myself to the type of hockey player known as a “grinder” – not a particularly graceful skater or stick handler but one willing to muck it up in the corners, throw a few elbows, and, in general, do whatever needs to be done to put the puck in the net. When I started, I didn’t have a single contact in the publishing industry. I was a nobody from nowhere, but I possessed a stubborn determination to succeed, and I resolved that I would never stop trying until someone told me I was good enough. And after four years and three failed novels, someone finally did. If any of you intend to advance farther into the world of mainstream publication, I heartily encourage you to do so and, as I earlier noted, I’m living proof that anyone from anywhere can make it; however, proceed with full knowledge that the devil of rejection lurks. If he is unable to simply tempt you away from your goal with the Internet and television and fancy Smartphones, he will test your resolve with the constant reminder that the odds of publishing are too great and your talent too lacking. So, thicken your skin, steel your nerve, trust in your talents, think of my example, and stubbornly resolve to disarm rejection by embracing it.”