November 2012 English Major of the Month
Eli RumpfHometown: Seattle, WA
Year in school: Senior
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers is an amazing book. The characters are all so grotesque and dirty and lovable. They all seem to come out of dive bars, and are thrilling despite living in a down-on-its-luck Southern town. I could name many others, but there’s really no pattern to the list. I love Edith Wharton, Zora Neale Hurston, Hawthorne, Dumas. It’s hard to name a period or author in particular. I’ll just say I like BIG books. Also, my taste in books is the same as my taste in music: I’m not interested unless the artist is dead already.
Tell me about acting in Prof. Robson's course.
In order to transition from the 18th century to the Romantic Period in our British Literature II survey course, Professor Robson chose a scene from David Hare’s play South Downs. In the scene, a crotchety English professor from a British boarding school argues that the wit and craft of 18th century poetry (Alexander Pope) put the lyricism of the Romantic Period to shame. One rebellious student stands up to challenge him. Stacy Shirk, Amelia Summar and I acted it out, and I got the fun role of being the mean, conservative professor. Neither side comes out the clear victor in the argument, but the audience gets a real sense of the vast differences between the literary ideologies. Not only did I get to wear professor glasses, but I got to say snarky, sarcastic British insults.
How have you used your English degree to further your professional goals?
It is directly helping me in my public relations job. I currently work as the press aide for the New York Transit Museum, writing press releases and responding to requests from journalists. Clarity in emails and program information is super important, and the writing fluency I’ve acquired through endless English essays has come in handy. I also need to be sociable and articulate when speaking to journalists, and everyone knows that English majors are the most charming of all the majors. Also, as an unforeseen bonus from my job at the Transit Museum, now I am steeped in subway history, and know my Lo-V’s from my R1-9’s.
What is the subject of your Honors Thesis?
My thesis is about the African American literary community in Atlanta, Georgia during the early 20th century. I am investigating the role of literary culture in the racial uplift movement. I am also interested in the echoes of the “New Negro Renaissance,” a movement linked to Harlem, in the South. H.L. Mencken in his 1920 essay The Sahara of the Bozart called the southern states “a vast plain of mediocrity, stupidity, lethargy, almost of dead silence.” Focusing especially on poetry, I want to discover what Atlanta citizens read, what they wrote, and what impact the “literary” had on the bitter racial politics of the time. Rather than choosing one primary text, I am using newspapers and archives to reconstruct the literary landscape.
How did you become interested in archival research?
As a freshman, I took a seminar called Facing Fascism: New York and the Spanish Civil War. Oddly enough, the NYU Tamiment Library holds the national archives for Americans who volunteered to fight in the 1936-1939 war against Franco in Spain. The course was structured around that archive, located on the 10th floor of Bobst Library. Each week’s homework was to simply spend four hours researching whatever struck your fancy in the archive. It was like a candy store, but instead of M&Ms, you got boxes upon boxes of letters from soldiers. I ended up writing a report about a volunteer whose biography had never been recorded based on hundreds of letters between him and his mother and sister back home.
After that special opportunity, many different classes in the English department have brought me back to the archives. Professor Augst’s course on American Literature focused on popular reading practices, and utilized the Evans Early American Imprints database. Professor Crain’s American Short Story course took me again and again to the wonderful Fales Library on the 3rd floor of Bobst. Numerous other English classes have taken me back to Fales or to the New York Public Library.
What led you to become an English major?
As a freshman, I took a Texts and Ideas course called Antiquity and the 19th Century. Getting to read so many classic works really hit on what I imagined college would be like – i.e. discussing philosophy and reading the Greeks. While in hindsight those texts probably fit more directly into the Classics department, I linked them in my head with literature and in extension the English Department. At the most basic level, I knew that I wanted to read great books throughout college.
Later, in Literary Interpretation, I thrived in the small, discussion-based classes. I’m a big poetry fan, so I enjoyed the close analyses of all different kinds of verse. I got to read one of my favorite new novels, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs. It was just a fun, supportive atmosphere, so I decided I wanted to take more classes like that.
What kinds of courses would you like see offered more in the future?
I would love to take a Russian novel class. I think that in general there should be more novel-based courses available. Short stories, poetry and essays are easier to assign as homework since they are shorter, but novels are awesome! If there was proper warning in the course descriptions that the readings would be longer than normal, students would be able to choose whether or not they wanted to take on the extra reading.
I also think that eventually (in a magical, ideal world) the English and American Literature major would be extended to include literature in other languages. Courses which analyze classic works in other languages and practice the same close-reading and essay writing skills should contribute to the Literature degree.
What advice would you give to students considering majoring in English at NYU?
Introduce yourself to Shanna Williams, and don’t hesitate to go to her with questions. Also, set yourself up with an advisor as early as possible. Once you declare your major, you automatically get the right to an advisor in the department, so declare early – you can always change. For me, it has worked well to have an advisor who I already knew through a course I had previously taken.
If you are worried about job prospects for English majors, just make sure to find several internships in the course of your time at NYU, whether during the summers or during the semester. No matter what major you have, courses will not directly translate into skills in the workplace (sorry to be the bearer of bad news), so you need to already have your feet wet before you graduate. I consider my work as separate from my English degree, but think of both as vitally important.
If your photo had a caption, what would it be?
This is my rustic literary pajamas look.