This entry comes on the heels of a FB post…here, slightly edited and expanded.
I earned my PhD in English Literature, with emphasis areas in autobiography, feminist lit, Native American prose, and Zora Neale Hurston. My dissertation was on women’s culinary writing/autobiography.
However, for many years, I have taught technical communication and engineering communication. People ask me this all the time: Why did I cross over?
Because NOBODY tells you that teaching your very favorite literature to students is soul crushing. Most students don’t like literature class; they take it because they have to. And then, when you are trying to bring them the joy of Hamlet or the horror of the “Yellow Wallpaper” or anything of wonder by Erdrich, the students will ask a stupid question (and I mean that in the best way) that will forever alter the way that you encounter that beautiful writing for the rest of your life. Nobody tells you that. (Word of advice: if you teach literature, only teach your second or third tier favorites. That way, your personal favorites aren’t ruined in the classroom.)
I found a haven in technical and engineering communication. As such, I chose to teach something that is not emotionally draining, and I enjoy all of my lovely literature on my own terms. As well, working in the technical fields appeases my need to do something more in the world than theorize (which works better for me). I get to help people who do things in the world with solid/tangible outcomes: my stock is from a pilot, a nurse, lumber store owners, dress sellers, painters, veterans, immigrants, and other hard workers. For me (and I can only speak for my own experience), having some influence in how technical work gets done is satisfying in a way that reading and writing alone did not. My most recent journey is trying to infuse engineering communication + social justice work. The students are smart beyond smart, and they are out to change the world.
I have found that all of my hard work studying rhetorical patterns in literature plays out in fascinating ways in the technical fields, as does storytelling structures, language translation, visualizing words, deep description, etc. Another benefit is this: working with tech/engineering communication, I never read the same thing twice, because the topics are always new! And the days when you can explain that writing at technical report is much like writing a murder mystery…all the better!
Don’t get me wrong; I loved my PhD. And my Masters. And my undergrad work…all in English lit and ancient languages. LOVED it all. But that love didn’t work out well for me in the classroom as a career, so I had to find a way to keep my mind engaged and my heart healthy. Other people were built to do theory and lit teaching; it just wasn’t for me.
End note: As of late, I have also found that I have little patience with fiction (unless it’s Erdrich). My tastes have moved decidedly towards non-fiction naturalists, a nice counterpoint to technical prose.