The decision to major in Comparative Literature may well involve asking yourself what fruits the concentration might bear for your life after Brown. In the fall of 2010, the Department of Comparative Literature gathered information and ideas from our alumni on this important question. We decided to contact our concentrators from the classes of 2004 through 2008, under the assumption that they have had sufficient time to develop their after-Brown lives significantly yet had graduated recently enough to be launching their careers in the present challenging economic climate. The survey sent them asked:
- Where you are now?
- Where did your degree in Comparative Literature lead?
- How has the study of Comparative Literature informed your life after Brown?
- Do you have any advice for Comparative Literature students now at Brown?
We received many responses, all thoughtful and illuminating. They indicate the array of careers that can ensue from a concentration in Comparative Literature. These include careers in academia, the arts and media, business, consulting, information technology, healthcare, journalism, law, marketing, public relations, publishing, teaching, and more.
To illustrate the diversity of career paths while keeping our forum to a reasonable length, we reproduce below a sample of the responses to our survey, organized by occupations and arranged as a spectrum. (Each response appears in full and anonymously.) The sample below also provides a sense of the varied occupations that certain professions have yielded. Perhaps most of all, the responses to our survey offer texture: vibrant professional trajectories and excellent advice. We therefore encourage you to peruse them in their entirety, and we give sincere thanks to the alumni who generously contributed their thoughts.
Thanks very much for these questions--I was glad to think about them and to look back on my time at Brown, which I enjoyed so much and regularly miss. If I can be helpful in any other way, please let me know.
I live in New York and work in the editorial department at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, a book publishing house in the city that specializes in literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
In one way or another, my love of literature and my study of Comp Lit have informed all of the career choices I have made since graduation and many of the non-career choices as well. Shortly after I graduated in 2007, I took a job working as the sole editor of a community newspaper where I reported and wrote stories of local interest, edited the paper, did the layout and pagination, and basically had the chance to complete all the tasks for a small weekly. I worked there for about two years and then returned to school to earn a Masters degree in English and Comp Lit at Columbia, thinking I might want to follow an academic path and interested in exploring further some of the subjects I began studying in college. I graduated with my M.A. this past spring and, still uncertain about whether to continue for a Ph.D., I did a course in book, magazine and online publishing at Columbia this summer. This led to the job in publishing I have now.
When I was deciding what degree I should undertake in college, I had a moment where I thought I might be a political science and philosophy double concentrator. After I decided to study comparative literature and philosophy (jokes about future joblessness abounded) it seemed strange to me that I had ever doubted going in this direction. I have always loved to read and write and every serious job I have had after Brown has involved these activities in some way or another. I took seriously and still remember what Professor Viswanathan said at our graduation ceremony; she called Comp Lit concentrators “connoisseurs of the human imagination and the human spirit.” I have kept that in mind ever since and tried to pursue diverse activities that would cultivate and enrich that budding connoisseurship. What’s more, I still remember and think about many things my literature professors at Brown said, discussions we had, books we read, ideas they inspired. This wide-ranging degree gave me, as David Foster Wallace once said in a terrific commencement speech at Kenyon, not just the ‘tools for thought,’ as we are so often told, but also things to think about--places to productively and enjoyably direct my mind and, hopefully, areas to make some useful contribution.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Don’t believe that your degree is ‘useless,’ certainly not intellectually or spiritually but not in a practical sense either. The world--working and otherwise--needs deep, rigorous, and skeptical thinkers, critics who can intelligently and inventively engage with ideas new and old, who analyze incisively, and who read well and write expressively--skills you develop as a student of literature. We also need people to thoughtfully bring to bear the vast knowledge and wisdom that can be gathered from books--as well as the attitude of measured reflection that they so often promote--to the broad spectrum of human problems. I would simply say don’t rush to make up your mind about ‘what to do with your life’ or automatically decide to go to law school even if you suspect you don’t really want to solely because it seems like a more sensible career path. If you cherished your time as a student of literature at Brown and the study of books itself, know that you can usefully apply it in more ways than you may imagine right now for the betterment of yourself and others. In answer to the question ‘what can you do with a degree in comp lit’ I would say you can do anything you like; or, more to the point, it is a meaningful preparation for almost anything you might want to do. *Class of ’07.
Publishing: Literary Agent
So many fond memories! It’s a pleasure to complete the survey, and if I can be helpful in the future I’d love to be--let me know what I can do! I would also love to hear what other alumni are up to, if it’s possible to send that information around at some point.
I am an associate literary agent at a small agency called Georges Borchardt, Inc., where we work with French publishers and their books as well as with English-language authors. I sold my first book this year, a beautiful and disturbing novel by a really promising young author (can you tell I’m proud?) and I work with authors I studied and studied under at Brown. I also try to sell translation rights in our books to publishers abroad.
My degree brought me to the job I took here, and passion for it--I use critical reading skills all day long, and I read a tremendous amount. It’s a lot like what I was doing at Brown (but now sometimes authors take my advice! Not that I don’t still take theirs!).
I think mine might not have been the path to millions of dollars, but I’m very happy to use the skills I learned from comparative literature on a daily basis--I feel like I’m a literary person because of the thoughtful and exciting reading (and writing about it) I did at Brown. I also think my understanding of literature and of the importance of intertextual and intercultural exchange that my studies afforded me allows a uniquely wide understanding of the way things work in our world.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Do a thesis, and I recommend the translation option--it was a wonderful project I’m so glad I completed. And also take an economics class! *Class of ’05.
I am in a great place now, but it has taken a lot of effort to be here. I have been living in London for the last 5 years. I graduated in 2004 with degrees in both Economics and Comp. Lit. Upon graduation I found it very difficult to get hired, but I understand it is always difficult to get your first job. My first job was in New York, working in a very big and international advertising agency, but I couldn’t remain in Madison Avenue because I am Colombian and I needed a visa to be able to stay. International graduates that had been hired in the banking industry were luckier getting their visas extended. Nevertheless, I was lucky to have a Dutch passport and so I packed my bags and went to London. When I got to London in the fall of 2005, the City was buzzing with activity and after three months I was hired to work in a small corporate communications agency specialised in helping companies float on the London Stock Exchange and the Alternative Investment Market (AIM). I learned about financial PR and corporate communications and learned about IPO’s, M&A and the financial calendar. The City of London continues to be one of those places dominated by Brits and boys clubs, and I believe it was a huge achievement to be the only foreign Spanish-speaking female employee, who spoke English as a second language. After a year working in this agency, I was hired to work at Brunswick Group, the biggest and most important corporate communications company out there. I left financial PR a year ago, and now I am concentrating in starting my own company in the beverages industry, following my father’s footsteps.
London is a very competitive place, and one of the most important assets you can bring to a firm are your language skills. Studying Comp. Lit in three languages gave me an advantage over all other applicants. This degree, together with a degree in Economics made me a pretty quaint and wholesome hire. It forced me to use different parts of my brain, and to think creatively to solve problems others would find difficult to tackle. Ultimately I wanted a degree in Human Nature, which was exactly what I got at Brown.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: I think students should think hard about what they really want to BE. Graduation took me completely by surprise and I was running around trying to get a job without having really reached inside to determine my core ambitions. Looking back, I know I am exactly where I need to be, and all my steps have taught me very valuable lessons. My advice would be to continue thinking about what you want to be, and work hard at becoming that. My other advice is to enjoy your academic experience as much as you can, because you will never get these years back. Do what you enjoy the most. If you do something because you think the degree looks good on paper, you will be thoroughly disappointed at yourself for wasting time better invested in something you are passionate about. Life is very short, and the real world is extremely humbling. *Class of ’04.
It's great that you are undertaking this project for Brown Comp. Lit. undergrads. I'll try to follow the general question guideline you've given us, but my answers do tend to be a bit freeform as well.
I didn't know this field even existed before starting as an undergrad at Brown. It sounds unfocused, but the truth is that I concentrated in Comparative Literature because I felt that Brown's Comp. Lit. department had the best professors and the most interesting classes at the entire university. Every semester as I thumbed through the course catalog (which even as a relatively recent graduate no doubt dates me) those were always the courses I wanted to take.
After I graduated from Brown, everyone asked me if I wanted to work at a publishing company. I guess most people think that line of work is a natural choice for people who love books, and -- needing a job and with a nascent sense of what I wanted anyway--I indeed ended up with a marketing associate job at a family-owned publisher in New York City. I worked with many, many wonderful people who loved books, but my heart wasn't really in the work.
Two years later I moved to San Francisco, where I actually used the Brown Alumni Network to set up a bunch of informational interviews with local graduates doing work that sounded interesting. Of the six or seven that I emailed, two got back to me, both of whom provided a lot of interesting insight in to their work. Of the two that got back to me, one--who owned a firm that designed products to help enhance our urban forest and offered sustainable landscape design services--was in need of some extra help. I started work there on a trial basis writing all of the materials for their products, website, and more. After about three weeks they brought me on full time. I have a hard time believing this myself, but I'm still there! I love working for a small company, and I have truly extraordinary co-workers--kind, sincere, warm people. I also write for several websites in my spare time, researching and discussing topics related to animal welfare and wildlife.
It sounds trite to say, but Comparative Literature informed my life after Brown mostly through the valuation and exploration of ideas. No doubt the things that I love about Comp. Lit.--reading, ideas, analysis--will always be a part of me, and hopefully they will always inform the work that I do as well.
As for advice for Comparative Literature students now at Brown, I would say simply to work hard and to look for all the things that you value about the Comp. Lit. field in the world outside the university. When I was a student, I thought a lot about it strictly as it related to books. The next step, I think, is bringing that analysis, that interest in cross-pollination, that unpacking and repacking of ideas--to whatever you pursue. *Class of ’04.
Online Market Research
Thank you for your email. It is so nice to hear from you! I think this project is an excellent idea and hope that my answers to your questions (please see below) will be helpful.
I currently live in the Boston area and work for a market research company that hosts online surveys.
Upon graduation I moved to Madrid, Spain, where I worked for a study abroad program for two years. When I returned to the US I worked for a year at a large, Boston-based publisher, providing bilingual marketing and sales support to a team of over twenty sales representatives in Latin America and the Caribbean. At the time, social media was growing in popularity and I decided to follow the trend. I took a position at a company specializing in online focus groups, where I worked for two years. I recently started a position at a market research company that hosts online surveys and recruits survey respondents.
It may sound cliché but the world really is getting smaller. In my current role I work with people from very diverse backgrounds and I must interact with them in a culturally sensitive way. Studying Comparative Literature exposed me to other cultures and value systems and taught me to value and respect them.
On a more personal note, I studied Spanish as my foreign language for Comparative Literature and studied abroad in Spain. I enjoyed my time in Spain so much that I decided to work in Madrid after graduation. While working in Madrid I met the man who eventually became my husband.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: The old adage is true: it’s who you know not what you know. My advice is: network, network, NETWORK! I have found all of my jobs through networking. I conducted informational interviews, went to industry events and talked to as many people as possible. I have also made sure to help others as well, by offering advice to current and former Brown students. I recommend that Brown students and alumni take advantage of BRUnet, the Brown alumni database. A number of Brown students have contacted me through this network and I am always happy to speak with them. *Class of ’05.
Entrepreneurial Education Technology
Thanks for your message, it's great to hear from the Comp. Lit. department. I have kept up with a few of my professors at Brown, especially Prof. Weinstein, but good to hear from the department.
I would be happy to respond to the questions--it does strike as a particularly relevant point of discussion to Comp. Lit. majors, who fall somewhat outside of the traditional spectrum of professionally-oriented concentrations.
1) I currently work for an entrepreneurial education technology firm called ConnectEDU, which is geared towards easing the high school-to-college-to-career transition process. The firm is approximately 50 employees, and in our 8th year we are making some great strides in the government solutions space, in particular the various statewide longitudinal data systems grants funded through Race to the Top. I work in the product development group, where much of my work involves writing technical requirements--detailed documentation of how software should function under various potential scenarios.
2) My first step off of College Hill landed me at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey, as an English instructor. I was able to take some graduate business courses while teaching, and of course was able to travel extensively. I would say that Comp. Lit. fostered a spirit of inquiry, encouraging me to do something adventurous.
In terms of what the degree means for my professional life, much of what I do is a function of persuasive, clear, and concise communication. Writing is a skill that will always be in demand in the workplace, and Comp. Lit. gave me a fluency as a writer that is a constant boon. My career path has been a product both of my studies and accompanying experiences and relationships. I would say that looking at the degree as a set of skills--rather than a set of knowledge or expertise--is a great way to get started in the job search.
3) Comparative Literature emphasizes above all else the depths of meaning that can be found in the unobserved and overlooked details of life. Cultivating a curiosity gives me a greater sense of connection to my peers and my surroundings, and leads me to explore without a sense of judgment or precondition. That may sound a bit whimsical, but it's also a valuable asset in my current line of work.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Enjoy your studies and time at Brown, there's no place like it on Earth. But even as you make the most of it, take some time to look around at the world beyond before you're marching out the gates. My summer experiences--and a part-time job during the academic year--turned out to be very influential on my career path. Reaching out to recent alumni in various fields--BEFORE you need a job--is a great way to build a network. Brown alumni are amazingly eager to help out, most of the time. *Class of ’07.
IT for Language Learning
I am now in Boston, working in Business development for a software company that builds language learning programs.
I have been working primarily in business and education since Brown.
Language and literature have remained big parts of my life, and I’ve appreciated the foundation in these things that I gained at Brown.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Get a summer internship or a different one each year. I think internships are a critical way to build “real world” skills and experiences. These skills and experiences are especially important for Comp Lit people and can be a great way to round out one’s resume and set oneself up for success post-graduation. *Class of ’04.
Public Health Research
Sorry for my delayed reply. Glad that you will be providing this to students; it seems like a resource I would have loved to see while an undergrad as well. My answers are below.
I am currently working as a research associate for a sexuality education project at the Public Health Institute in Oakland, CA.
I took a somewhat alternative route after finishing my comp lit degree--I worked during the summer before graduation as an editorial intern at South End Press, a radical political publishing company then based out of Cambridge, MA. Following graduation, however, I worked in HIV prevention programs in Boston, then moved to Berkeley to pursue a master’s in public health.
While my work post-Brown has been in the public health field, I strongly believe that my comp lit background has been a huge asset in my professional, academic, and personal life. Studying comp lit at Brown made me a better and more efficient writer as well as a more critical reader of research. I also feel that it deepened my appreciation for and understanding of literature, which feeds my continued love of reading in my own time.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Go abroad! And don’t worry if your studies don’t seem to track directly to a certain profession--I chose comp lit because I loved the courses, and while they are by no means connected to the work I am doing now, they still provided me with a skillset that helps me in my daily work. *Class of ’05.
This year I am working full time on a CSA farm called Chubby Bunny in Falls Village, CT and in the years to come I am hoping to integrate food justice/food access work on my own small farm for people who don’t have the money or the means to buy locally grown vegetables.
My senior year I did a translation project that led me to a trip to Mexico to work with the poet and I spend a month with her at her house. That project landed me in an issue of the Denver Quarterly and on online literary mag called Fascicle.
[How has the study of Comparative Literature informed your life after Brown?] Literature IS life. I was exposed to thinkers and writers who continue to shape/shift my thoughts and understandings about the world around me and beyond me. Also, it really improved my Spanish skills and helped in the work I have done in the Latino communities and with Spanish-speaking students in the U.S.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: My friend Rachel used to wear a pin that was handed down to her from her father that said something like, “If it feels good, I’ll do it.”
That’s how I think about my degree. It felt good to enjoy ALL the courses in my concentration and because of the relatively low number of required courses I was able to enjoy classes in dance, art, religion philosophy and biology. Furthermore, since my courses were not as intensive I had ample opportunity to work in the community at Hope High School and in the community garden at UEL, where a different kind of education took place for me. It was outside the classroom that my deepest learning happened through my relationships with the people in Providence and through my explorations of the world around me. *Class of ’05.
Healthcare and Educational Consulting
[Where are you now?] Washington, DC. I am a senior analyst at The Advisory Board Company, a consulting firm serving the healthcare and higher education sectors. I conduct best practice research in topics pertinent to hospital management and leadership--and design training and development workshops that are conducted on-site at roughly 1000 member hospitals and health systems.
[Where did your degree in Comparative Literature lead?] A broad question. It led me, first, to spend my final semester of undergrad abroad--studying at the Sorbonne in Paris (although I focused more on European politics and Italian cinema than on French literature, ironically). Then, perhaps elaborating on a theme of life in translation, or comparative 20-something experience, I moved to Tokyo and spent a few months running my own ebay business, selling Japanese products to American collectors and learning to cook Japanese cuisine. This was followed by my first "real job," when I joined a small nonprofit dedicated to biodiversity conservation in Costa Rica. There, I learned Spanish, wrote grants, website copy, newsletters, donor outreach materials, etc, and conducted fundraising presentations. Finally, I moved to the consulting firm where I currently work, doing research and program design.
[How has the study of Comparative Literature informed your life after Brown?] In many ways. The almost mechanical skills that you develop by taking a slew of comparative literature courses-- how to closely read and analyze a text, how to think critically about a subject before you, how to re-think and question your own assumptions about a text, how to construct and argument, how to write clearly--although it's almost a cliché to point out, all of these are directly relevant to just about any kind of work that you might do after college. So I would say, my Comp lit education has served me very well--not so much via the content that I learned but more from the methodologies that I practiced.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: I would just reiterate a message you hear regularly as a student, but may not feel able to completely trust--like any of the humanities degrees, a degree in Comparative Literature prepares you well for life after college. Thinking critically, communicating, researching, understanding and appreciating divergent perspectives, seeing between the lines--these are the skills you need to succeed. Dig deeply into the areas of study that you find most fascinating, now, and be confident that you will emerge from university with a strong foundation for anything you should choose to do next--from law to banking to consulting to teaching to journalism to administration . . . and beyond. *Class of ’04.
I am a second year pediatric resident at Children’s Hospital Boston.
In some ways, you could say my degree in Comparative Literature has not contributed directly to my career path. It was not a requirement for medical school, nor for residency. Yet it has benefited me hugely in my work: the same focus on word choice, communication, perspective, history, meaning and interpretation that led me to Comp Lit has served me well in medicine. It informs how I communicate with my patients and their parents.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Challenge yourself to make your course of study rigorous and broad. Take courses with varied class sizes, varied formats, and with an eye to themes that cross disciplines. Get to know your professors, TA’s, and colleagues. Seek out young alums. Learn to be a scholar both singly and in a group setting. People who are successful at their endeavors and passionate about their work do find jobs! *Class of ’04.
[Where are you now?] Salt Lake City, UT. Moving to Ashland, OR this coming spring.
[Where did your degree in Comparative Literature lead?] To medical school at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, OR. I have since entered residency, training to be an Emergency Medicine physician. I am chief resident, and will be graduating this spring.
I consider myself a “well-rounded” physician, able to relate to and communicate with both my patients and my colleagues. I am constantly complimented on my “documentation” and charting, and believe that my education in Comparative Literature enabled me to continue my proficiency in Spanish, which I use clinically on a daily basis.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: The only advice I have comes from my mom, who advised me when I was deciding my concentration. These days, many professionals go on to pursue graduate degrees and when it comes to admission to these higher education programs, the specific area of concentration as an undergraduate seems not to matter very much. Your undergraduate education should be for you. Choose something you enjoy and are passionate about and you will learn to think critically and be inspired. These skills will stay with you in whatever you do after Brown. *Class of ’04.
Human Evolutionary Biology
I am in Massachusetts, in the final year of a PhD program in Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard.
[Where did your degree in Comparative Literature lead?] Where didn’t my degree in Comparative Literature lead? This is a challenging question to answer only because Comparative Literature is so deeply intertwined with every part of my intellectual and professional life. Through an extraordinary advisor (Professor Viswanathan), Comparative Literature led me to pursue biology and neuroscience. It gave me space to begin interdisciplinary work linking the analysis of literary texts with biological information about the human body and its progress through the life course. It gave me the tools to make a case for myself as a graduate student in human evolutionary biology. It also nurtured the practice of foreign languages that allowed me to biological field work in both Argentina (Spanish) and The Gambia (Mandinka).
Since Brown, I have maintained contact with advisors in Comparative Literature, consulting with them as I develop a project in evolution and literature. Professor Weinstein granted me the privilege of giving a lecture in one of his courses. Now I am designing a postdoctoral fellowship position focusing on adolescence, the area I’ve researched in a population of Gambian subsistence agriculturalists, incorporating biological data with analysis of literature from 20th-century novels to Shakespeare.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Take note of what sorts of thinking and knowledge bring you the greatest pleasure and sense of curiosity. What feels like a satisfying explanation? What do you like to read? What kinds of conversations leave you wanting more? If you think associatively, let the connections that arise for you take shape, even when they look different from any sort of connection you’ve encountered before. Mine the areas of dissonance, surprise, and discomfort. *Class of ’05.
Delighted to be involved in this! Here are my answers (they are all quite linked, so I didn’t separate them):
I am currently pursuing a PhD at Princeton in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, writing a dissertation on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I was a double-concentrator in Slavic and Comp Lit and the two definitely directed my post-Brown steps. I spent the first year after graduation on a Fulbright in Russia studying art history. Then I read for my MPhil at Cambridge in the Modern and Medieval Languages department in a program called “European Literatures and Cultures.” For those first two years I went back and forth about whether I wanted to go in Slavic or Comp Lit and I feel really luck to have had both options open to me. I am glad not only to have done Slavic because my Comp Lit background made me think more broadly about literature across languages and national boundaries. My only advice would be to do what you love. You can never know what opportunities will appear later. The point of a liberal arts education is not to be pragmatic: it’s to make your mind a more interesting place to live in. Comp Lit can do that like nothing else. *Class of ’05.
Right now I’m in Los Angeles in a graduate creative writing program. I also teach freshman composition.
After college I moved to L.A. to work in film. My Comparative Literature degree was helpful in getting me jobs because it told interviewers that I understood how story structure works, I like to read, and I had a good background knowledge of literature and movies.
Majoring in comp lit led me to the study of languages at Brown. I’m fluent in French, proficient in Spanish, and have a reading knowledge of ancient Greek. The Spanish comes in helpful in Los Angeles. The Greek, not so much.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: 1. If you’re planning to go to graduate school:
a. Don’t go right away. Take time off. Doesn’t matter if you’re doing an MFA in fiction, a PhD or an MA, get some real world experience doing something. If you want to write, in particular, it’s a good idea to get a job, so you have something to say. If you’re going for something more academic, try spending time in another country for a year if that’s a possibility. Just do something, so that when you start your applications you can really be sure about why you want to go, and what you want to do there. That said, it’s probably not a good idea to take more than two-three years off between college and graduate school, if it’s something you’re sure you want to do.
b. A Comparative Literature B.A. doesn’t necessarily lead to a Comp Lit Ph.D. English is a possibility as are Gender Studies, French, Spanish, Classics, African-American studies, etc. . . . the market for Comp Lit Ph.D.’s is tough right now, and it’s really important to be aware of that. Go into a field you’re passionate about, but make sure you’re keeping the reality of the job market in mind. People who get hired tend to have some research that’s off the beaten path under their belt.
c. Do a thesis, even though it isn’t required. You’ll gain invaluable research skills and, even if you don’t decide to go to graduate school, you’ll have graduated with honors and that’s a good thing to have on your résumé. *Class of ’07.
Education: ESOL Teacher of Adults
I chose to study Comparative Literature at Brown because my personal and professional interests lie in opening channels of communication within and across cultures and communities.
I currently work as an Adult Educator--a profession I discovered my love for as a volunteer during my four years in Providence--teaching ESOL to adults from all over Latin America at a grassroots, immigrant-rights organization in New York City called Make the Road NY (a name serendipitously inspired by the Antonio Machado poem I studied as a freshman at Brown).
Naturally, my languages (Spanish and Portuguese) are helpful in this field on a day-to-day level as I relate to my students and help them connect to legal, health and community-organizing opportunities outside of class. And sharing the intricacies (as well as nonsensities) of English with dozens of endlessly eager, generous students every day is entirely animating.
But beyond the language piece alone, I'm especially compelled by the connection between language and the carving out of a just place for oneself in the world. I am continually inspired in the classroom as students work together--against countless barriers--to live with dignity in a new language and in a new community. Though not directly related to literature, my profession is influenced by the study of literary and artistic expressions across cultural distances, and deeply shaped by the desire to create spaces of connection across such distances.
Even before arriving at my current position, the “comparatist” mindset has pushed me in other, more unexpected ways, to explore the means in which authentic, meaningful communication can occur across seemingly uncrossable lines. After completing my Senior Thesis in translation and graduating in the spring of 2007, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to spend a year in São Paulo, Brazil on a Fulbright scholarship.
Compelled by my studies in Comp Lit to explore the connections between visual and language arts, I decided to embark on a study about the use of photography and visual literacy as a tool for social inclusion in popular education settings. Though I knew before going to Brazil thatI would be actively involved in the work of Alfabetização Visual, a local NGO whose name translates as “Visual Literacy,” what I didn't know was that I would be helping to coordinate, design and implement a year-long photography course for blind and visually impaired teenagers and adults.
Working with these students to learn to rely on other senses to “read” visual material and “write” their own images with digital cameras was both challenging and hugely motivating. The process involved not only learning to carefully frame each photograph as desired--paying attention to exposure, composition and angle--but also learning to frame ideas and opinions in this new visual language, so that students could then share their personal view of the world with a larger audience at an accessible, interactive public exhibition.
The depth of this experience not only reinforced my identity as an educator today, but also immensely enhanced my respect for different ways of looking at the world, and for all those who, by choice or by circumstance, see it in another light. My only advice to current Comparative Literature students is to push your understanding of what it means to be a comparatist. Try out different lenses as you look at our linguistic and literary interests and their relationship to the world around you. *Class of ’07.
Education: ESOL Teacher in Public High School
It was so nice to be contacted without being asked for money. I’ve inserted my answers below.
I am teaching English Language Learners at a small, public high school in Canarsie, Brooklyn.
A number of my students have arrived here from Haiti over the last year, and while I wasn’t expecting to use my foreign language background as a high school teacher, it has been invaluable to be able to speak French with my students. Before I took on my present position, my comparative literature background propelled me into teaching literature to high school freshmen.
Working with students from a range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds, I try to approach teaching with a mind to the theory I encountered throughout Brown. Systems of education often ask teachers to be reductive in how they view and treat students, but my experience in comparative literature reminds me to try to resist those tendencies.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Consider teaching in the public school system, because you can bring the kind of close consideration of diverse stories that happens in comparative literature classes at Brown to students who may have been denied such experiences. *Class of ’04.
Education: Teaching Abroad
It is great to hear from you! I am happy to share some of my post-Brown and post-comp lit experiences. It is interesting to reflect because I find myself more and more realizing that I am doing things more closely related to and "using" my comp lit study and coursework, perhaps making my way along the path of putting it all together.
I am in Buenos Aires, Argentina
In the first couple of years after graduation I found myself thinking that I was not doing much very related to comp lit, and while I thought about going back for further study in the area, was not sure I wanted to take the route of academia and that my study at Brown had really been an (intellectually indulgent and thoroughly enjoyable!) focus on one of my passions, literature. I had also been for the past few years very inclined towards education and had been volunteering teaching English in Spain and Olneyville, RI, and after school I worked for 2 years with a group of charter schools in under-served communities in the SF Bay Area, though I was grant writing and copy editing rather than teaching. This time was interesting and developmental and really made me want to pursue teaching, so I got certified to teach English and moved to New York where I taught ESL for two years to adult immigrant populations. I loved (and continue to love!) teaching, and I certainly think that my comp lit education and Brown education in general has informed and influenced my inclination towards languages, literature and teaching, and certainly helped to refine some of the skills I work with in language every day. In New York I started teaching a literature class to advanced language students, which was an amazing and fulfilling uniting of two passions! I am now teaching ESL/EFL in Buenos Aires and also teaching literature, which brings me more and more to the feeling that I am indeed "using" my comp lit degree (apart from the obvious of what I gained from it--thinking, reading, critical analysis, and exposure to literature, cultures and histories).
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Study what really attracts you--we all study literature because of a certain love for it, and for the insights we can gain into other eras, places, peoples, political and cultural movements, and of course humanity as its own sometimes overwhelming topic! Do not worry too much about what exactly you will do after Brown or how exactly you will apply your comp lit degree. Even if one were to go into finance or chemistry, for example, our lives and minds will have been enriched by our comp lit study, and this will never cease to inform our further pursuits. Take advantage of the wealth of knowledge, insight and resources you have at your fingertips in your professors! You will only wish after Brown that you had talked to them more, picked their brains, and engaged in more lively discussions. Do not feel too young or intimidated or unprepared/ignorant about a topic to explore a theme and enter into discussion with professors, and ask questions! The beauty of literature is that we as readers each create our own realities and truths about it as we explore and question what we read, and we each inform the text in a unique way, so there are not "correct" answers! This is something I am learning through teaching literature . . . I as the professor am not the ultimate authority--I lead students through a reading and analysis, but students always bring new things to the table, and I believe that even the most schooled and well read veteran professor will question a work the way we all do . . . so believe in your ideas and your own discoveries in your quest as you study literature. *Class of ’06.
Education: Humanities Educator in Private Middle School
[Where are you now?] Boston, MA.
I am currently the lead teacher of the humanities at a private, tuition-free middle school in Dorchester, MA. After graduating from Brown with my degree in Comp. Lit. I started teaching English, and fell in love with the profession. I might have initially started teaching because I wanted to share my love of literature with a younger generation, but it soon became about providing educational opportunity and challenging my students to be better readers, writers, and thinkers. I went on to earn a master’s degree in Education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. In my current position, I do a mixture of teaching, curriculum design, and professional development for new teachers.
I teach literature and writing, but I also supervise social studies, language, comparative religion and arts classes. Although my Comparative literature degree gave me specific knowledge and understanding in my literary and creative areas of interest, I was also given a picture of the broader creative and historical context in which a work was created. The interdisciplinary and thematic approach to many of my classes at Brown influenced how I think about curriculum, within a class and within an entire school. I should also mention that the classes I took in Comp. Lit. challenged me to think critically about who I am and what I will be in the world--without the self-shaping reflection I went through in those classes, I would not be the person I am today.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Try lots of different classes--even things you wouldn’t expect to be interested in. Take a leap of faith and go somewhere unfamiliar after graduation--don’t go home. Teach, just try it. Repay the privilege of education that has been given to you at Brown. *Class of ’05.
Education: Program Director, Teach for America
I currently live in San Francisco where I work for Teach For America as a program director, coaching teachers across the Bay Area as they work to close the achievement gap in their classrooms.
Leaving Brown, I was eager to engage in work outside the academy, and to have a social impact. This drew me to teaching and to Teach For America. While my knowledge about literature hasn’t played a great role in my years as a young professional, the way I was trained and nurtured to think as a student of comp lit certainly has. Brown’s courses in comp lit encouraged me to think both expansively and sharply about language, arguments, and art. That disciplined yet creative thinking has proven invaluable for a classroom teacher and problem solver working to provide an equally rigorous education to students perpetually failed by our education system.
Comp lit made me brave about making unlikely connections. This shows up in the ways I think and speak, in the risks I choose to take, in my imagination. I value this immensely.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: This is a broad field; choosing a focus can be wise and satisfying. *Class of ’05.
Education: English Teacher in Alternative Program
I am a high school English teacher at Brookline High School in Massachusetts. I teach 10th, 11th, and 12th grade classes in an alternative program called Opportunity for Change, which serves students who have not been successful in the mainstream high school.
My experience as a Writing Fellow at Brown interested me in education. After graduating, I served as a college advisor in a Providence high school through an AmeriCorps program called the College Advising Corps. I then decided I wanted to teach and went to the Harvard Grad School of Education to get my Master’s degree and teaching certificate. I just started teaching English in Brookline this fall.
As a teacher of literature, I find it very important that students use literature as a way to see from multiple perspectives, which I think was an important component of Comparative Literature. The reason I chose it over an English major was that I did not want to limit myself to the study of British and American literature and was interested in the points of view that cross-cultural comparison opens up. *Class of ’08.
I graduated '07 with a degree in Comp Lit in English and One Foreign Language (French) and a double major in the History of Art. To take the questions one by one:
I am currently living in Paris, doing my Master's at the Université de Paris VII in Cinema Studies. I've been living here for two years; before that, I worked at an art gallery in New York. I also write short stories (in English) and have had eight published since graduation.
Though I am not working directly in a "literary" field, the kind of theory I studied in Comp Lit certainly informs my current studies (and will continue to do so as I begin my doctorate next year). In addition, studying Comp Lit allowed me to achieve a level of fluency in French that led to my acceptance in my current program, as well as a deeper familiarity with French literature and cinema.
I would advise current Comp Lit students to balance out the CL department's offerings with deeper explorations of related fields; it's an interesting discipline in that it is most valuable when combined with an in-depth knowledge of one or two particular subjects (such as Modern Literature, French literature, etc). Let the CL department lead you to the kind of framework in which you can explore other subjects you've studied in greater depth. *Class of ’07.
Thanks for the email, and best of luck to everyone in the Comp Lit department. My time at Brown was something I'll always be grateful for, and I feel so privileged to have been a part--and to still be part, albeit from a distance--both of the Brown community and of the community in the Comparative Literature department. Below are some short answers about life as a Comp Lit alum.
I'm a playwright finishing my MFA in playwriting (this spring!) at the University of Iowa Playwrights Workshop.
After I graduated in 2006, I spent the summer in New York working on a play of mine which was produced in the NYC International Fringe festival, then moved to Japan where I taught English and trained martial arts. Finishing my contract in Japan, I traveled in Asia and North Africa, eventually moving back to the US to get my MFA at the playwrights Workshop. Over the past two and a half years I've been developing plays in Iowa, New York, New Mexico, and have been in and out of Japan since I left. I received a grant this past summer to return to Japan and interview South African expats for a new play about immigration and assimilation in Japan, which I'm currently writing.
I was always interested in international literature, global perspectives, and multilingual texts. My comparative literature degree allowed me to embrace these interests to the fullest, honed my writing skills, and exposed me to entire bodies of work by writers in all disciplines that I might never have discovered on my own. I'm currently studying Arabic, an interest that was sparked by a Comp Lit class years ago in which we read North African and Palestinian works. As a playwright, my trade is to be interested in everything and to search for underlying stories everywhere. Comparative Literature nourished my hunger for stories and encouraged my ability to analyze and to perceive them clearly.
On a purely practical note, playwrights and artists are required to write grants all the time to pay rent/ make a living/ fund our next projects. I have a much easier time with grant-writing than artist friends of mine who majored in less writing-intensive disciplines. A degree in Comp Lit worked better for me than even a degree in English would have, because of the focus on exploring and engaging with international issues through the lens of a text. This is what I do in my plays, and in order to fund my plays, I'm required to write grants in which I discuss these issues and my intentions clearly and in-depth.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Don't let anyone tell you that Comp Lit isn't a "realistic" degree, or that you should be majoring in something more likely to "guarantee you a stable job." In today's economy, nothing guarantees you a stable job--but your passion, your enthusiasm, and your facility at language and communication will guarantee you a full and exciting life and will open up countless possibilities. With these things you can go anywhere, do anything-- teach in America, teach outside the country, translate, write your own work, become a grantwriter for an arts organization or an NGO, the options are endless. Also--save all the books and course packets you bought for your comp lit classes, even the ones that you didn't read in time. You'll read them later. Probably after you graduate. Maybe when you're living in a rice field and the only English reading material that you brought with you is an inexplicably bilingual manual from the 1980s on How To Operate A Forklift. Then you'll really appreciate that previously-untouched Derrida. *Class of ’06.
I am currently living in Cairo, and I am working 3 part-time jobs, which is frankly too much, but they are all good learning experiences so far. I am a translator for Al Masry Al Youm, which is a leading independent newspaper here (I translate articles from Arabic to English, and occasionally write culture pieces for their English edition). I am a Content Producer for Meedan, an online community for Arabic-English dialogue and translated current affairs, and I am also working as a supervisor/lead cashier at the Egyptian Museum Gift Shop.
Back to what I gained from Brown/Comparative Literature: Translation. The work I did in this department helped me develop my writing and analytical skills, both of which have been key in the non-profit writing jobs I worked the first year and a half after Brown, and the media jobs I'm working now. My major at Brown led pretty much directly to the Fulbright that I got last year to study Arabic here in Cairo. Fulbright grants for language study aren't that common, you have to make a case that you will do something worthwhile with your language skills in order to get it; I made a case for myself based on my interest in translating Arabic literature into English. Comp Lit work on Translation also gave me an informed perspective on intercultural issues, which is essential for the Meedan job especially, and for basically everything I've done in Cairo. Comp Lit also means developing second-language skills, which are pretty marketable, as well as awesome. Naturally language skills are a huge part of the jobs I'm doing in Cairo now, although I actually studied Latin and Greek as an undergrad. That aspect I did not carry on with, but it certainly still contributed to my career process. And since I'm talking about the practical side of things, though I can't use it to get jobs doing the kind of translation work I'm doing now, saying you studied Latin and Greek does tend to impress people, and that's never a bad thing.
Also, it's worth recognizing that it's not just the in-class activities that count. My first job out of Brown was a paid internship for Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival in the grant-writing office, and for that it was really important not only that I had writing and editing skills, but that I had been involved in the students arts activities. Likewise on the Fulbright application, and my current jobs, I used/referred to writing samples from the BDH and Indy, as well as from classes.
When I was at Brown, I think I almost willfully ignored the jobs question. I thought it would be almost selling out to think about careers, that it would sully my attempts to explore my interests. Most likely this is because I imagined working for money and doing things you care about to be mutually exclusive pursuits. I also thought career development was for future investment bankers only--an impression that the resources available at the Career Development Center sometimes reinforced. Whereas now I tend to think of the career question as gradually figuring out what I can do that I consider valuable and fulfilling, and make enough to live in a way that I feel comfortable with. The thing with careers that aren't on the list of "everyone knows them and considers them financially viable" jobs, is that there isn't an obvious, well-known path to get to them. Which means that things like networking, informational interviewing, good old fashioned asking around, become much more essential.
Really, I think the bottom line is learning how to search for jobs effectively--how to identify jobs that you are qualified for and that interest you, how to present yourself well. Almost no one graduates college with a degree that directly translates to a related job, but by virtue of the work you do and the activities you're involved in, you do graduate with usable skills, whether that is writing and analytical skills, or research experience, or experience organizing events, etc. *Class of ’08.
I'm a staff writer at the Washington Post, based in Washington, DC.
I've applied the kind of analysis taught in comp lit courses at Brown to my work as a journalist. A few months after finishing my senior thesis on the literature of the U.S.-Mexico border, I took a job reporting on immigration and border security from South Texas and Northern Mexico.
[Where did your degree in Comparative Literature lead?] It has certainly made me a better writer and a more astute reader--both skills that I put to use in my current job. My background in comparative literature has informed the way I think about politics and history, and has piqued a lifelong interest in the interplay between art and culture.
Advice for present Comp. Lit. concentrators: Take advantage of the opportunity to immerse yourself in great literature, and to wrestle with texts outside of your comfort zone. Remember the value of a close reading, but don't let a focus on criticism overwhelm your interaction with a work. Allow yourself to be blown away by really great writing, and then return to it again and again, and try to understand why it was so affecting. *Class of ’07.
I just completed a master of philosophy at the University of Cambridge. Before my year in England, I worked for three years as the Senior Associate Producer of a national weekly news program on PBS, called The Bill Moyers Journal. I produced news segments that blended breaking news with historical analysis and investigation of the wider social impact. My beat focused on national politics, some stories that I covered include global financial crisis and its wider financial fallout, emergence of healthcare reform, labor, Congressional ethics, legislative politics, and media criticism. I am currently a freelance multi-media producer and writer working for diverse network of media houses from MTV to Huffington Post.com to advertising consultancy groups.
My degree clearly led me to a career in media, particularly in journalism. But due to my facility with languages and sharpened analytical skills I have been able to do a range of creative and managerial tasks. I know that the cross disciplinary training I gained as a comparative literature concentrator provided me with this critical thinking skills that have been invaluable in my professional experience--not to mention notably prized by all of my employers. I also have noted, to be frank, that the kind of broad and yet detailed thinking that comparative literature training provides has given me a particular social capital that is shared in the undertone of contemporary American white-collar workforce.
Being a mid-career professional who is experiencing the educated workforce squeeze, I know that the level of my education at Brown comp lit provided the lateral thinking skills and the facility with multidisciplinary/cultural/social issues, [which have led to] a professional agility that is necessary to succeed in today’s working environment. I argue against the notion that the humanities do not provide readily applicable skills to the workplace because I know that the critical thinking skills, sophisticated information processing dexterity, top-notch writing, language expertise (etc., etc.) are all the skills that I have been hired for and were a direct cause of my concentration in comparative literature. I would also like to note that the most important issue facing college-educated American employees is the volatility of our economy. If you are so specifically trained that you cannot adapt to rapid changes in the financial landscape, it is clear that you will be out of a job. I think that comparative literature concentration provides a solid and wide base of essential skills that will serve you in any profession. Simply put comp lit makes you a critical, engaged, intelligent and agile adapter, which is what every employer is looking for. *Class of ’06.