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Once we were mighty. Once we were legion. Once we reigned over colleges and universities like demigods. Well, OK, we English majors were never that important, except maybe in our own eyes. According to a report in the New York Times, degrees awarded in English at American universities fell from seven point six percent of the total in 1971 to three point one percent of the total in 2011 — which goes to show, I suppose, that the golden age was never quite so golden. Still, better the periphery than where we are now — the periphery of the periphery.

One of the less-happy consequences of my decision to major in English 40 years ago is that I haven’t met many (or any) people who share my enthusiasm for the writings of John Dryden. Another is that I make about as much money as a janitor and live in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I knew what I signed up for. My life sentence as an English major has taught me not to care overly much about what are laughingly called “the good things in life.” For better or worse, I can’t look at the glossy advertisements in The New Yorker without a feeling of cognitive dissonance. How could anyone who reads the poems and short stories and criticism in that magazine really want all that crap? If that’s a prejudice, the fault lies in me, not in my discipline, which includes plenty of practitioners with a somewhat more realistic financial outlook than my own. Anyway, for me, it’s less a discipline than a passion. I expect that that beleaguered three point one percent on campuses today feel much the same way. Against the advice of their parents, the social pressure of their peers, and the severely utilitarian direction of American society, they obdurately go on piling up their useless, unremunerative literary courses. See the trouble you get into when you listen to your soul? More… “English Majors’ Twilight”

Stephen Akey is the author of the memoirs College and Library. A collection of his essays, Culture Fever, was published in January.

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I wanted to buy a bilaawe, a traditional Somali knife. The shopkeeper wanted me to buy a bowl with two figures carved into ebony. The woman leaned over the edge of the bowl, her back arched, her breasts high and pointed and firm. The man also leaned back and his penis arced up and over, into the woman.

“Buy this, my sister,” the vendor insisted. He cupped the bowl in his hands and shoved it into my face so I could no longer see the man with whom I’d been bargaining for the bilaawe. I blinked, uncertain at first of what was in front of me. Slowly it came into focus. The breasts, the penis, the Djiboutian man holding it. His cheek bulged with khat, green leaves lodged between his teeth.

Rachel Pieh Jones is a writer raised in the… More…

Exactly one day after the Fall 2010 semester ended, a student in my technical writing class appeared at my office door to explain why he had not submitted a major assignment. He had tried to start writing it, he told me, but, for some inexplicable reason, he found he “couldn’t be in the moment.”

 

Be in the moment! Now, I could have lectured him on the myth of writerly inspiration, that “one fell swoop” ideology created by the 18th-century romantics whereby the entire work descends, like a tongue of fire, upon an especially sensitive soul, a mystification of the writing process designed to elevate themselves to the level of the wealthy patrons upon whom they depended and to efface the self-abjection they felt because of that dependence.

But I did not lecture him, for I found that I… More…

Alime Sadikova was one of the smartest, most ambitious young women in Jizzakh, and one of the smartest, most ambitious women I had ever met. She was the first to learn English in her family — encouraging and helping her younger brother who was studying on a grant at a high school in Colorado at the time — and establishing her own successful language school in Jizzakh called En Course, where I taught. She would later receive a Fulbright scholarship to study at Texas Tech in Lubbock, but on the day after the En Course disaster, she had a quirky and tactless way of explaining my failure. She told me that I had been dumped. Again.

“Are you serious?” I said, shivering as I spoke on the public telephone in my host family’s… More…