Editor’s Note: Geneseo English major alum Patrick Morgan (2010), currently a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature at Duke University, recently posted a profile of himself on the Geneseo English department’s alumni profile page. But he had a few more things to say than the space there would allow. In particular, he wanted to share seven points of advice for our undergraduate English majors. He asked for some space here to provide them, and we were more than happy to provide it. Below are his complete profile and his advice for undergrads.
The hardest thing about connecting the skills I learned as a Geneseo English major with my life after graduation is knowing where to stop. I could write a book on the subject. Geneseo English gave me the synthesizing tools I needed when, immediately after graduating in 2010, I wrote for the National Park Service in Acadia National Park, distilling fifty-page science reports into two-page public-friendly versions. Geneseo English gave me the expertise in clear, concise writing and proofreading that I used as a contributing writer and editorial intern for The American Gardener magazine, shouldering the responsibility for organizing several sections of the publication, such as Gardener’s Notebook and Regional Happenings. Geneseo English gave me the multi-modal writing experiences that prepared me to work for DISCOVER magazine, writing four articles daily for the in-house blogs, 80beats and Discoblog. Geneseo English gave me the public speaking skills necessary to interview geochemists, geophysicists, and geologists for my freelance science journalism articles for EARTH magazine. And Geneseo English gave me the research experience, writing feedback, and encouragement I needed to apply to—and get accepted into—a slew of highly competitive English graduate programs, such as Duke, Northwestern, Oxford, and Cambridge. I am now working toward a PhD in English at Duke University, where I have used the scholarly skills I learned from Geneseo English to co-author with Priscilla Wald a preface for American Literature’s Thoreau Symposium and to construct a collaborative book with Cathy Davidson about digital literacies in the classroom. When I say that “Geneseo English” taught me these skills, I am of course referring to the many Geneseo English professors I had the privilege of taking classes with, as well as those I interacted with beyond the classroom—the professors who are so generous with their time, who challenge you to excel in school and in life, and who stay connected with you years after graduation.
Knowledge, Skills, and Tools
With regard to reading and writing skills, it’s easy to talk about generalities, like how the high expectations of Geneseo English professors forced me to learn proofreading and fact checking methods that I still use to this day; how researching and writing on a deadline was good practice for science journalism; and how the many blog posts I wrote for Beth McCoy, Maria Lima, and Alice Rutkowski prepared me for my journalistic blog posts for DISCOVER magazine. But there are reading and writing skills I learned at Geneseo that are simultaneously more specific and more difficult to articulate. Geneseo English, for example, gave me a sensitivity to different writing genres and to what I like to call “writing climates.” Every Geneseo English professor has high writing expectations. But to say that each professor has high expectations isn’t the same as saying that each professor has the same expectations. Part of the tacit knowledge one gains as a successful English major is the ability to quickly assess the subtly different expectations each English professor has for what exactly an essay should accomplish. The kind of essay I wrote for Rob Doggett wasn’t precisely the kind of essay I would write for Gillian Paku, or Ken Cooper, or Ron Herzman—through pre-essay meetings and discussions, each professor brings out and allows you to discover a different part of your writing voice, based on distinct conceptions regarding the kind of work an essay should accomplish. These subtly different expectations are what I mean by “writing climates,” and it’s this sense of different writing climates that’s so useful after graduation because different publications—even within the narrow field of science journalism—constitute different writing climates. Indeed, each section of each magazine is like a different writing climate: a DISCOVER blog has different expectations than a DISCOVER front-of-the-book print article; EARTH magazine’s News Notes section is different from its Benchmarks section; and there’s a difference between research, resource, and program briefs for the National Park Service—each part of a publication is looking for a different kind of voice, just as each Geneseo English professor brings out a different dimension to your voice.
There are three other specific-yet-hard-to-articulate reading and writing tools that I would like to briefly cover. One tool is the organizational abilities one needs to juggle the medley of high-stakes (conference papers, seminar papers, etc.) and low-stakes (blog posts, presentations. etc.) writing one undertakes as an English major. You’re keeping track of different genres, different writing climates, different due-dates, instructions, and expectations. It’s this type of intensive interpretive task-juggling—characteristic of being a Geneseo English major—that prepared me for the multiple roles I fulfilled, for example, at DISCOVER magazine: in addition to writing four blogs each day, I created photogalleries for the website, helped proofread certain sections of the print magazine, prepared magazine content for online publication, contributed stories to the print magazine, responded to subscribers’ emails regarding the website, and managed DISCOVER’s Facebook page. Another closely-related tool, or experience, includes the presentations and alternative writing projects Geneseo English professors expect from students. For example, I remember the challenging project Caroline Woidat assigned in her Native American Literature survey course, in which we had to integrate the standard academic essay with a creative nonfiction account of a personal family story. The science writing world is likewise full of the kinds of writing projects that force you to meet new expectations—that is, in which you dive into a project that’s unfamiliar to you, and yet you use the skills you’ve built up to tackle the unfamiliar with the familiar. Thus I knew that I could write the text for and design a poster for the National Park Service informing visitors about the vital characteristics of specific invasive insects because I’d successfully accomplished similarly unfamiliar writing projects for Geneseo’s English professors. The last specific-yet-hard-to-articulate reading and writing tool is the practice Geneseo English professors have of providing choices for term papers: you can respond to a specific prompt or you can meet with the professor to propose your own essay idea. Taking advantage of the latter option prepared me for the daily article pitches I gave to DISCOVER magazine editors—going from the idea stage to the I-need-to-convince-this-person-that-my-idea-is-viable stage.
Geneseo’s English professors allowed me to discover my writing voice, and yet there’s so much more than writing skills that I learned from these professors. In each class, they modeled the mind of a literary scholar—a discerning, critical reader, and interpreter of signs who is likewise mindful of social concerns. They generously gave up their valuable time to mentor me, whether it was in working as a teaching assistant for Rob Doggett, or participating in the slew of directed study opportunities I had with Ken Cooper, Gillian Paku, and Richard Finkelstein. The collegiality between the professors gave me a microcosm of the wider academic community—a microcosm that only expanded when Rob Doggett brought me and a bunch of other students to Sligo, Ireland, to participate in the Yeats International Summer School. The introduction to feminist criticism that Beth McCoy, Caroline Woidat, Rob Doggett, Alice Rutkowski, and Maria Lima gave me serves me well now as I complete Duke’s graduate certificate in Women’s Studies. I was introduced to Henry David Thoreau in Alice Rutkowski’s American Romanticism class, Ed Gillin’s Humanities II, and Ken Cooper’s guidance during my honors thesis—an introduction that has directly facilitated my own Thoreau scholarship, such as my 2010 article in The Concord Saunterer, “Aesthetic Inflections: Thoreau, Gender, and Geology.” And extending my interpretive skills beyond the written word—to film—through Jun Okada’s Film Classics has given me the confidence to do the same in my own classroom practices.
Advice for Geneseo English Students
There are indeed many ways to succeed as a Geneseo English student, and as a graduate of the Geneseo English program. Here are seven points of advice I learned in the process of moving and growing through the program and navigated my way in the world after Geneseo English:
- Find ways to connect your learning in the English classroom to the wider Geneseo academic community and beyond, and find ways to connect your extra-curricular activities back to the English department as a form of service. An example of the former, for me, was when I participated in a book discussion with the Trappist monks at the nearby Abbey of the Genesee in Piffard, New York. This participation allowed me to enter into dialogue with a different interpretive community, and to learn the ancient art of transcendental reading called shared lectio divina. An example of the latter (i.e. connecting your activities back to the English department), for me, was through my leadership role in MiNT magazine, which tended at the time to publish well-researched op-ed articles. When the English Annual essay contest ceased publishing the winning scholarly essays, I decided that for as long as I was in charge of MiNT, I was going to make sure that we published these winning essays, disseminating the best student writing from Geneseo’s English department. Use whatever means of service you have to mobilize the skills you learned from Geneseo English to then give back to the department.
- Consider taking on an academic minor that complements your career goals and intellectual interests. My academic time at Geneseo was divided between three domains: my primary major in English, my secondary major in geological sciences, and my minor in the honors program. Although I didn’t know that I would go into science journalism, I knew early on that I wanted to write about science in some capacity: Geneseo English gave me the writing background; Geneseo geology gave me the science background. I learned later that I had a significant advantage when applying to science journalism internships because of my major in English and my complimentary knowledge in geological sciences. Internship hiring committees know that you’re in English because you have a passion for beautiful and precise language, and critical reading—an editor once told me that magazines prize these characteristics much more than, say, the characteristics of someone from another school who majors in “science journalism,” which has the reputation for being passionlessly professionalizing.
- Nurture your specific interests in literary studies, whether that’s a particular author, a literary movement, a type of critical theory, or a genre. You should do this for the sake of doing it, but I’ve also learned that it can help you after graduation. The reason I was asked to write a preface for the top journal in my field—American Literature, published by Duke University Press—about a spontaneous symposium of Thoreau scholarship was because I built up, with the help of Geneseo English professors, an expertise in Thoreau studies.
- Make good use of the Geneseo library resources for as long as you have access to them. The moment I grew up as a scholar was the moment I realized that I had the same resources at my disposal as all of my professors, who were actively publishing articles, books, and presenting at national and international conferences. I realized that I had more resources at my disposal than that most devout of Thoreau scholars, Geneseo’s very own Walter Harding. Follow your intellectual bliss, dig into the books, and do something with your research.
- If you’re interested in journalism in general or science journalism in particular, actively search for internships starting in the summer before your senior year. There are many methods for finding internships: go to Career Services, find the many internships advertised online, and actively contact any magazine you could see yourself working for and ask them if they need an intern. If you want to make life easier on yourself, do a “study abroad” internship—I didn’t realize this was an option until after I graduated, but many magazines will allow college students to intern for a semester, and colleges sometimes give course credit for these career-related experiences. The key characteristic when applying to internships is persistence—don’t get discouraged if a publication tells you that they’re looking for someone with more experience; get the experience and reapply. When I first applied to work for DISCOVER, they told me just that: “we’re looking for someone with more experience.” So I started freelancing with EARTH magazine, and then interned for the National Park Service, and wrote for The American Gardener magazine, and then, reapplying to DISCOVER, they accepted my application.
- And don’t get discouraged if a publication has you write for their website at first. There’s still, unfortunately, a science journalism status difference between writing online and writing in print, with the in-print writers having the cultural capital of high status. EARTH magazine started me out writing online, and I wrote one online article before they realized that my writing abilities were so good—thanks to Geneseo English—that I needed to start writing for their print publication. These freelanced articles then allowed me to build up the writing samples I needed to successfully apply to work for DISCOVER.
- The best advice I can give you—and which you can implement this very moment—is to keep a freewriting journal. Go out right now, buy a journal, and write at least three pages each day: the front of one page, the back of another, and another front page. Find the time to sit down (or stand up) and reflect on your day. This isn’t a time to be critical of your writing (that’s how novels don’t get written)—it’s a time to write whatever comes to mind, and spend at least ten minutes each day with your pen on paper. This freewriting exercise might not seem like much at the time, but it will improve your writing—it’ll make you a better English major, and after graduation, it will keep your writing skills honed. I started a freewriting journal when I was eighteen, at the recommendation of a professor, and I can say that this writing exercise has helped me in more ways than I can articulate. I draft essays in my journal, I make sense of life in my journal, and I make decisions about the future using my journal. Currently nearing on my 9,000th journal page, I can say with confidence that undertaking a daily freewriting exercise is the single best habit I created at Geneseo.
Some of these points of advice might be useful for you, some might be obvious, and some you might want to forget. These are just the seven points I would tell my freshman self if I went back in time.
Looking back on my time at Geneseo, I realize that I made the right choice by majoring in English. The skills I learned from Geneseo’s English professors are the skills that have brought me around the U.S. writing, from the National Park Service in Maine to The American Gardener in D.C. to DISCOVER magazine in New York City. Although Geneseo English gave me the tools I needed to accomplish my career goals, I didn’t become an English major to become a science journalist because, at the time I declared my major, I didn’t even know that I was interested in science journalism. But it was an English professor who first sparked the idea in my head that I could be a science journalist—who believed in me and my writing, and gave me the encouragement I needed to succeed after graduation. Somewhere in that mentoring experience lies the ineffable quality of being a Geneseo English major because, in the end, the only limit is your imagination.
- DISCOVER online journalism
- EARTH online article
- Collaborative book with Cathy Davidson and the 21st Century Collective: Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies: A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Teaching and Learning
- Have a Conversation Around the Text Using Annotations
- American Literature Thoreau Symposium