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This year, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Honors Convocation was cancelled for the first time in its history due to the campus-wide power outage on May 2nd.  We regret extremely that we were prevented from giving our students their due honor and celebration for their academic achievements.  However, we are proud to present Rebecca Brittenham's Faculty Address, entitled "The Art of List-Making and the Value of a Liberal Arts Education," which she was looking forward to giving at the Honors Convocation.  We hope you enjoy reading it. 

The Art of List-Making and the Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Dear Liberal Arts Graduates,

Congratulations to you all and to the friends and family who have helped to get you to this point! Instead of preparing to give a graduation speech for Honors Night, as I was supposed to, I found myself, as usual, making lists. I love making lists because it helps me organize my thoughts and plan ahead, and it calms me down when I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed—not to mention the procrastination value of listing things to be done rather than doing them! Most of my lists start out with a grand plan for the week or the day like:

  • Finish grading W131 papers
  • Send letters of recommendation
  • File assessment report
  • Conference proposal due
  • Get book orders in!

but at some point during the day they generally devolve into some basic necessities:

  • Toothpaste
  • Paper Towels
  • Shrimp
  • Cocktail Sauce
  • Garbanzo beans

Over the years, the act of making lists and keeping notebooks full of lists has taken on a kind of Zen-like meaning of its own that transcends the actual items on any one list. In fact I believe almost every list has a kind of fantastic internal logic and progression of its own, a history to tell, an argument to make, a storyline. And of course, since one of the amazing things about teaching in the Liberal Arts is that you can take any quirky interest you might have and spin it into an actual course offering, in my Advanced Expository Writing class we did a whole segment on lists. We read literary lists and pieces from an Arts Exhibition on lists, and the students wrote list essays of their own. We read a great little list included in Phyllis Rose’s, The Norton Book of Women’s Lives, where Rose is in the process of collecting women’s letters, diaries, and autobiographies through the centuries when her “eightysomething mother” suddenly “announce[s] to [Rose’s] wild excitement that she had written her memoirs” (35).  But when Rose asks to see them, her mother hands her a scrap of paper with the following list:

  • milk 2
  • ice
  • trolley—El
  • radio
  • meter
  • A&P
  • laundry
  • Staten Island
  • movies                                                                                     (Rose 35).

And her mother explains that this was a list of all the things she wanted to tell her daughter about her life growing up in New York City in the 1920s—how milk was delivered in horse-drawn carts and “each family sent a child with a bucket into which the milkman ladled” the family’s milk for the day, and the ice man delivered blocks of ice that families put in the “ice box” to keep their food cold, and the city was “crisscrossed” with elevated trains, and beer was delivered in barrels, and not everyone had bathtubs, so her cousin had to travel from the Bronx to Staten Island to take a bath, and so on (Rose 36).

And the point of the story is that a seemingly random list can actually contain a life or at least the puzzle pieces that add up to a coherent and meaningful glimpse of the past (and it also goes to show you that mom is never too old to yank your chain).

In my class, we also read a list essay by Joe Wenderoth called “Things To Do Today,” where each item in the list seems like a little nugget of mystery that you have to try to wrap your brain around, and some items seem completely meaningless, and occasionally some seem to kind of explode in your head:

Things To Do Today

  • thaw the wounded
  • carry the portraits out into the sea and rest them upon the breaking wave
  • destroy the capital with picturesque caress
  • mention the inexplicably famous
  • dredge the lightest bunches (ASAP!)
  • burn the symbols as soon as bone starts to become apparent in them
  • decrease the drama to the point of gesture, phrase, a weathered and weathering yard
  • descend upon the living sound of propriety…           (Wenderoth 467).

There are 93 more items like that in Wenderoth’s essay, and cumulatively they start to pile up meaning and yet they wash away meaning all at the same time (something we English Majors call “deconstruction”). The point of this story is really that the list is not always just a stand-in for the slice of life it represents, as in the Phyllis Rose story. Sometimes by making lists, you end up finding a meaning in something you thought was meaningless.

So, to prepare for my Honors Night speech, I thought it might be useful to make a list of some of the jobs I did before, during, and after my Liberal Arts education. You know how they tell you that in the 21st century your education is not preparing you for a given job or career so much as helping you develop different skill sets and methods that you can adapt to dramatically changing fields, various career paths you might have, and shifting job expectations you might encounter—sound familiar? So for each job, I tried to make a note of the take-away—what I learned from the job—and the skill sets I gained in each case.

1. Nursing Home Attendant, which basically involved feeding and washing elderly bedridden patients

Takeaway: I am probably not suited for any kind of nursing profession

Skill set: Approach each patient as a new and uniquely complex individual and with caution—this is after I got in trouble for spending too much time with one patient, rubbing her shins with Bengay while she told me stories about her grandchildren, and then had another patient throw his dinner tray at me when I tried to get him to him to eat the soup.

2. Photomat Salesperson in a small glass booth in the middle of a large mall parking lot trying to talk people into buying large glossy versions of the photos they wanted developed—this was in the old days when you actually developed film.

Takeaway: Probably not cut out to sell anything to anyone ever—stay in college.

Skill set:  Retaining fluids—because there’s no bathroom in that glass booth.

And after I got my English BA, my first job was:

3. Dance Studio Receptionist:

Take-away:  Receptionists don’t get to dance

Skill set: Tremendous filing and organizational skills

And at the same time, I was trying to be a (4.) Poet:

Take-away: Writing poetry is not a lucrative profession—should probably go to graduate school.

Skill set: Cooking red beans and rice on a hotplate—my signature dish at the time.

But if I add into that list the academic job skills I was gaining in my college courses—where you recall I was an English Major—they would include things like:

  • scanning a sonnet for rhyme and meter—excellent scanning skills
  • reading into stuff and realizing that by writing you can make something out of practically anything
  • realizing that by writing you can create something out of nothing—like magic!

But I realize looking back that those weird, random skills were actually cumulative and did set me on a career path with gradual gains in ability, confidence, and sense of self. It’s not that my post-BA dance studio employers particularly valued the fact that I could list off every level of hell from Dante’s Inferno and describe the inhabitants, but they did value a kind of breadth of perspective that all that reading brought with it, the way I could think through a problem and eventually even handle arthritic ballet teachers and payment-shirking clients without crying.

It turns out that the skills involved in scanning a sonnet, which are all about knowing the rules and having a historical sense of how the rules function in a genre but also being aware of complex possibilities for variations on the rules and paying attention to individual nuances of sound and form and discovering ways to imagine what those might mean—all those skills involving specialized attention to detail within a broader, contextualized sense of the project, are extremely useful in organizing the paperwork involved in running a dance studio or, later, in organizing a classroom full of students. What’s more, knowing how to write a college essay that makes an effective argument, knowing how to collaborate, communicate, being able to “close-read” a text translates pretty well into a whole range of settings, from the patients in a nursing home to students in a classroom, or working with a group of colleagues on a project. In fact, even my pre-21st century career trajectory as a college professor, staid and traditional as it may have been, has never been just one thing, one skill set, and every variation and move in that career has come out of a whole complex of skills and life lessons I learned at every single random job and in every college course I’ve completely forgotten.

My current research involves studying the jobs students do while they are working on their undergraduate degrees. I’m fascinated by the intersections between those job skills and the work of student-ing, the academic labor of reading, studying, writing, discussing, practicing that you’ve all been doing. There seems to be a perception that there should be a job out there when you finish the degree, waiting out there like the holy grail to be snatched up, and the perception suggests that all the crappy jobs you do during your college years are just about surviving and not letting work interfere too much with your studies so you can get that degree and leave all that behind and grab that holy grail. But in fact, listening to students talk about their work and write about their jobs in relation to readings on work, I’ve started to see the whole process as more of a continuum, where all those ordinary and extraordinary jobs and the academic labor of being a student overlap and fit together in some ways, and they all add up to the person who graduates and heads out there looking for the next job opportunity. And that’s all I really wanted to say to you: All the jobs you’ve ever done in your life including the academic labor of all the college classes you’ve taken, even the ones you didn’t like, they are the puzzle pieces that add up to the meaning of your past and the promise of your future. They are all parts of a continuum, and you are the amazing sum of those parts.

Rebecca Brittenham

Indiana University South Bend

May 2, 2013

Visit Professor Brittenham's Faculty profile here.