Category Archives: Marjorie Garber

What Is the English Major?

The English major is diverse and difficult to define, but during a semester exploring lots of ideas and conflicts regarding the major, we came up with analogies that say what the English major might be if it were a place, a movement, an animal, a time of day.

What’s the English major to YOU? Leave comments and video responses!

PS If you’re wondering about the finale, it’s because we’ve been reading The Use and Abuse of Literature, so Marjorie Garber has become our unofficial mascot. Oh, yeah.

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Constructive Criticism

by Katie Zwick

When I was in second grade, I went through a deceitful phase of reading only the thinnest books in the school library and lying for the sake of personal pizzas (the coveted Book It! reward). By the time I entered fourth grade, I had magically found my niche. I was introduced to what I needed to motivate my reading habits: literary criticism. Finally being shown, taught, and exposed to the fact that I didn’t have to love what I read for it to be of value to me changed the way I looked at reading. I was only nine years old.

As Marjorie Garber writes in The Use and Abuse of Literature, literary criticism gets a bad rap. She might not use those exact words but you get the idea. She quotes from Harold Brooks’ 1974 lecture, summing up the pros and cons (or uses and abuses) of lit crit. The first point made in each category gives a general idea of why literary criticism is good – “Literary criticism is meant to help us, either in writing literature; or in reading it with more enjoyment and discrimination; or in understanding, through the literature, the civilization it belongs to.” – and how it is bad – it provides a “half-baked interpretation formed by attending to only part of the evidence in a text (43).”

Alright, so there’s good and bad ways to utilize literary criticism. We, as college students (and seniors at that!), have faced and will continue to face daunting or sometimes just downright annoying exercises that force us to look at a piece of literature through various modes of literary criticism – feminist, psych, formalist, etc. These exercises are intended to provide us with several interpretations of a singular work, enable us to delve deeper into the author’s mind, and help us create strong opinions and arguments in reaction or relation to the work. We’ve all been there. We’ve all done that.

I’m not sure, however, that this is using literary criticism the “correct” way. Garber might say that unless we are taking it upon ourselves to apply the various criticisms to what we read, we are simply “abusing” literary criticism. Then again, she might not say this.

She definitely believes that “…every reading produces an equal and opposite rereading (46).”

Garber doesn’t want us to simply use literary criticism to enhance our intellectual interpretation of a literary work. She wants us to seek out our own criticisms and interpretations with existing criticisms acting as catalysts. I get a lot more joy out of reading when I am applying literary criticism to a literary work for fun and without being pushed to do so.

In other words, studying literary criticism is essential but the application should happen in an unstructured way. You don’t have to read everything through from the perspective of feminist criticism or Freudian psychology but if it happens, it happens.

*I no longer lie about how many books I’ve read for the sake of stickers, but I do believe that stickers should be given out in college. It couldn’t hurt.

English Major? Don’t Even Think About It!

By Luis E. Canales

We, English Majors, are not always perceived and appreciated as such.  The world would not be the same without the wonderful work that has been done by the many English scholars who have dedicated their lives to the service of literature.  I find it hard to believe that there could be a world full of English scholars whose only purpose for choosing their major would be money.  English majors are invited by the vast ocean of opportunity that is presented to them when they decide to become English majors, literature scholars.

Those who stereotype us know, as does Marjorie Garber in her book The Use and Abuse of Literature, that being an English major is “So much for pleasure” (36).  The price paid for an English degree far exceeds what one may earn on a job in that field, but the pleasure obtained from this kind of scholarship, also far exceeds what any other kind of scholarship may offer.  Let me be clear here, I do not at all mean that all English majors are underpaid.  There are a great number of English majors who are now making a ton of money, thanks to the kind of knowledge they now possess.  But, the whole point here is that people often misjudge and criticize others without knowing better.

When it comes to misjudging others, think of the example that Garber gives us when she says, “If a scholar insists on marrying, he should choose ‘some little elderly widow” (37).  Like if saying an English scholar won’t be able to provide enough for him, not even to think it possible to provide for a wife and children.  But, if he finds that old lady that has a lot of money, which she inherited from her late husband, then it is not only possible to marry but to actually make a living as an English scholar.

I find all these kinds of stereotypes funny and think of myself in a position like that.  Of course all of that is not true, as the word says, they are just stereotypes, a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment (  Therefore, we, English majors, should not be paying attention to all these kinds of nonsense and instead focus on the goodness found only within the English scholarship.  That is something that I definitely want, and is something that makes me and all English majors different from the rest of the world.

B.A. in English: Useless or Stepping Stone?

by Megan Zappe

When I was a freshman at Mansfield University way back in 2008, I had come to the realization that my declared English major would not take me very far. At the persistence of my parents and peers, I changed my major to psychology, hoping for a career in school counseling or substance abuse counseling. After switching my major a total of five times and transferring schools once, I came to realize that being an English major was not so bad after all. I mean, if I’m going to spend thousands of dollars on my education, it might as well be doing something I love to do, right?

In The Use and Abuse of Literature, Marjorie Garber explores the reason for a decline in students graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in English: “the old truism – that a degree in English made you seem literature and well grounded in general education – was gradually replaced by a new truism, that the English major was useless” (121). As I read this I realized that my parent’s warnings were reverberating off the fleshy membranes of my skull … “You’ll never get a job after college with an English degree” … “What do you even want to do with that?” … With a quick shiver, I continued to read on and found that there was a fine line drawn between loving literature and wasting time analyzing literature.

The reason why I chose my major in English, once and for all defying my parents’ wishes, was for the exact same reason Garber gives for why literature study and love of literature go hand in hand. “[L]oving literature is, after all, what literary study is all about” (123). This holds true on so many levels. I love to read, most English majors would attest to that statement. But there is something much more meaningful about connecting with the reading – finding allusions to something else you’ve read, understanding symbolism, or picking apart a character’s intentions solely from his/her dialogue – it all revolves around a love for reading. Reading was held an aesthetic value for so many people years ago, but it cannot be denied that there was a certain connection, regardless if this can be truly defined as literary criticism. Going beyond the simple “I liked this book,” and “That book was dumb,” judgment, an average reader can pick out simple, yet important motifs and foreshadowing in just about any book.

The argument that the English major has become a useless study, a waste of four years, a money-pit leading to years of unemployment, does not depend on the major alone. The economy and the generally negative attitude toward literary studies is what fuels this. As for me, I will agree with Garber and say that yes, I LOVE reading and writing for pleasure, but I also LOVE analyzing a text and finding different meanings hidden between each word. I’ll take my English degree and happily job search for years knowing that I spent five years and sixty thousand dollars doing what I love.


by Laurie McMillan

 [with my apologies to David Bowie for my remixed title]

The chapter on “The Pleasures of the Canon” in Marjorie Garber’s The Use and Abuse of Literature (2011) celebrates memorization as a form of owning a text, making it one’s own (73). I completely agree in many instances, and I know I’m not alone in collecting quotes, poems, and songs—not systematically, but as I’ve been touched or moved or entertained. Memorizing means I can take the text out when I want to and relive it or share it, bringing it into my life to speak anew.

That last part is important. Texts speak anew. That is, texts change. They mean differently in different contexts.

Garber gets at this point more literally when recounting the way “The Pledge of Allegiance” has changed over time. And the change is both in terms of words—the addition of “under God”—and in terms of context: the Pledge was initially a marketing device used to help sell flags (74). But, of course, often when the Pledge is recited, it is recited by rote, without thought or interpretation or new life. And, often people are uncomfortable with the idea of the Pledge changing in any way over time, to the point of minimizing any mention that it has ever been different.

This worry (or fear?) has something to do with being able to rely on certain things. The idea that many things are not completely reliable is scary. We don’t want to have a good text used for bad purposes. We want control over meaning.

I don’t think that desire is one that will ever disappear, either among individuals or among groups of people.  But I do think that knowing complete control is impossible helps us keep a healthier perspective, and I also believe that we can exert some control.

Finding out that a single perspective is not the only perspective is incredibly empowering. It means being able to consider alternate ways of seeing a single thing, and seeing options means being able to choose among these options. It also means being able to communicate better since knowing that multiple meanings are possible means recognizing that others may be holding assumptions that are different from my own.

It’s like the time my roommates and I went to the grocery store together to prepare for a party. Two of us set off down the fruit and vegetable aisle on the far right while the third roommate went straight up the soup aisle with a plan to circle back to the produce aisle eventually. We laughed, and we each talked about the “right” way to go through the grocery store and our reasoning. I don’t remember which way we went, but it was a neat thing to find that my default method was not the only way to go, and that I may be missing out on a better shopping experiences (and less-smushed bananas) by opening myself up to a new path.

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