All posts by Amanda Leary

“The underground railroad” by colson whitehead

Each year, the English Department presents its Big Read: a common read program designed to connect Purdue’s campus to the greater Lafayette area. Our book selection for 2018-2019 was Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning novel, The Underground Railroad (2016). The Big Read came to a close with the department’s annual Literary Awards, where Whitehead was the keynote speaker. His visit also included a reading from The Underground Railroad and a book signing.

Set in antebellum America, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young slave on a southern plantation. Born and raised into U.S. slavery (the novel also includes a glimpse into Cora’s grandmother, Ajarry, who was forcibly taken out of Africa and sold in America, and her mother Mabel), Cora is left an outcast after her mother runs off without her. A fellow slave named Caesar approaches Cora with an offer to flee, but she is reluctant to go with him; once conditions on the plantation worsen, however, Cora agrees.

What follows is an unconventional coming of age story, part slave narrative, part historical fiction, part magical realism, in which Whitehead transforms the metaphorical Underground Railroad of our historical memory into an actual mode of transportation. Secret tracks buried beneath the ground connect cities as “stops” along the way, while conductors like Martin, whom Cora en-counters in North Carolina, operate the train and help runaway slaves on their way to freedom.

The Big Read organizes several community events and activities, including book discussions open to the public, to foster connections between campus’ and the community’s literati. Recently, the West Lafayette Public Library was host to one such gathering of students and local residents. The review that follows is the result of an afternoon spent delving into the pages of Whitehead’s novel. While not everyone enjoyed the text, we all appreciated the beauty of Whitehead’s writing, and the story’s social significance.

Colson Whitehead talked with Dr. Dixon at our annual Literary Awards
Colson Whitehead talked with Dr. Dixon at our annual Literary Awards

The Underground Railroad is written in the third person, unlike other novels featuring enslaved female protagonists, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred or Toni Morrison’s A Mercy. Participants worried that this narrative distance might inhibit some readers from identifying strongly with the novel’s protagonist. However, Whitehead turns this narrative pitfall into success in the presentation of his minor characters. Our group was impressed by the dynamism and roundedness of The Underground Railroad’s supporting cast—especially its villain Ridgeway. While it is easy to dismiss the slave catcher as immoral, the unbiased third person narration—plus the inclusion of a chapter from his point of view—results in a surprisingly and uncomfortably relatable character.

This is what Whitehead’s novel does best: It forces the reader to confront the gray area in what they thought was black and white—both historically and in contemporary society. Of course the slave catcher is evil, and, certainly, the brutal violence of Ridgeway and his associates bear this out. But Ridgeway is much more terrifying because we understand who he is. He, like us, has a moral code. We can disagree with that code, find it despicable, but the novel’s ambiguous treatment of Ridgeway’s fate suggests to the reader that the Ridge-ways of the world are not confined to history—they prowl among us today.

Likewise, The Underground Railroad’s America demands comparison with ours. In its opening pages, the novel shows us America through Ajarry’s eyes: “In America the quirk was that people were things… If you were a thing—a cart or a horse or a slave—your value determined your possibilities” (p. 7). This first glimpse prompted our group to wonder if the issues dealt with in the novel still affected us today, to a resounding yes. Several people drew comparisons between the slave catching scenes and the racial injustices of the 1960s and even now.

What generated the most conversation was the novel’s titular feature. In what some considered a brilliant innovation, Whitehead transformed the historical Underground Railroad—a network of abolitionists and sympathizers that ferried and sheltered runaway slaves, famously associated with Harriet Tubman—into an actual railway. This blurs the genre of the novel. Is it historical fiction? Magical realism? The result is somewhere in the middle, with the train structuring the text’s episodic nature; each chapter is like a station, and the travel motif also governs the nonlinear time frame. While Cora’s story does not progress in a sequential order, the train contextualizes the resulting disjointedness of time and space.

Our discussion ended with us considering the news that The Underground Railroad will be adapted into a television series. We were all pleased that the story could be seen on the small screen. Several people likened the possible adaptation to Roots, another slave narrative transformed into a generation-defining miniseries in the 1970s. They believed The Underground Railroad had the potential to be as culturally important in this medium.

Despite our excitement, however, we had concerns. Would the series sanitize the violence of Cora’s experience? How would it depict the Underground Railroad? Is it possible that those unfamiliar with history would take this more fantastic of version of the network as fact? On the flipside, could its magical elements be taken too far in an effort to attract viewers? The novel’s hopeful, open ending leaves space for continuing the story, and we discussed the adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as an example. We don’t know if Whitehead is involved in the adaptation, but we hope the television series is faithful to what made The Underground Railroad so successful: its captivating story.

Amanda Leary is a Literature PhD Student in the English Dept. at Purdue.

Project Managing with Kristi Brown (English BA, 2001)

It wasn’t too long ago that popular wisdom said the only thing you could do with an English degree was be a teacher. The idea that a degree in English wouldn’t lead to any other kind of job led to memes like this:

We, of course, know this is untrue. In fact, English majors are statistically more likely to end up as doctors or CEOs than as Starbucks baristas (Matz). English is one of the most versatile pre-professional majors, providing in-demand skills: every one needs the ability to read carefully, think critically, and write well. As more employers recognize the potential of an English major in the workforce, it’s opening whole new career trajectories for our graduates.

Kristi Brown, an alumna of Purdue English Department, is evidence of just that. After graduating from Purdue in 2001, Kristi went on to a successful career in construction, working her way up to projects administration for Capital Program Management. She decided to major in English because it interested her and she was good at it, but Kristi also considers it to be a vital part of her career success.

Portrait photo of Kristi Brown.
Image taken from https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/purduetoday/purdueprofiles/2018/Q2/purdue-profiles-kristi-brown.html

Project management is one of today’s fastest growing fields, with membership in the Project Management Institute growing 500% over the last fifteen years. “When big bosses go hunting for project managers,” George Anders, author of You Can Do Anything, tells us, “they cherish people with the full suite of critical-thinking skills. If you can make allies, think on your feet, and learn fast, you’re the sort of liberal arts graduate who should thrive in such settings” (94). So what is it about English majors that make them attractive employees? “In my opinion,” Kristi says, “the most undersold part of being an English major is our ability to tell and sell the story that needs to be told to accomplish the task. My work in construction affects the campus community and people’s ability to get around. Being able to convey the facts of what is happening, why it’s important and make that relatable to the public is important.” The storytelling skills that come with an English major are crucial to thriving in such a position.

As Kristi’s career shows us, the value of an English major doesn’t end with the classroom. While there is, of course, undeniable value in teaching as a profession, it’s not the only career path open to our majors. Project management is a viable option for those looking for opportunities in all sorts of industries. It isn’t limited to construction; companies such as Amazon, Google, and Sony hire project managers every day. The thinking skills acquired in the humanities will well-prepare you for planning, executing, managing, and meeting your team’s goals. Projects come in all shapes and sizes: tech, data science, finance, and even (surprise!) literature. Publishers and digital archivists need project managers to keep team members on track and on budget.

Projects are unique operations, limited in scope and resources, designed to accomplish a singular goal. For instance, a project might include the “development of software for an improved business process, the construction of a building or bridge, the relief effort after a natural disaster, [or] the expansion of sales into a new geographic market” (The Project Management Institute). Project managers, then, apply their knowledge and skills to special assignments, meeting their requirements successfully and on time.

Let’s look at an example. A recent job posting for a project manager at a digital marketing firm seeks “smart thinkers with strong communication, organization and project management abilities to service and support key clients.” Such a person’s responsibilities would include planning, budgeting, and managing projects; preparing marketing schedules; coordinating with vendors and clients; handling estimates, orders, and billing; and investigating media opportunities.

While this posting requests a degree in marketing, Kristi and others are proof that project managers come with all sorts of BA degrees as credentials. As George Anders informs us, “If you’ve got enough energy, optimism, and willingness to learn, what you’ve already developed might suffice” (98). The adage “hire for attitude, train for skill” is motivating companies’ out of the box hiring practices. As the value of a liberal arts increases, companies like Kristi’s are taking notice that, as she puts it, “even in a technical position, effective communication skills are essential.”

Of course, becoming a project manager may require additional training or certification, or a minimum number of years’ experience in industry. Still, not all project management jobs require or even seek such qualifications, and, oftentimes, the most important skills you can bring as a project manager are people-related ones. Kristi’s strategies for selling herself as an English major include knowing her own strengths: “I think it is important to have confidence in myself and understand the skillset I bring to a position. Being humble enough to know that I may need to work my way up and work hard to learn the technical skills but always knowing that I have a unique skillset that makes me a valuable employee.”

The Project Management Institute also offers classes and exams to obtain licensure. Membership to the Institute, which is available to students regardless of major, provides access to webinars and training, tools and templates for projects, and tips and tricks for navigating the job market. An invaluable benefit of membership in the Institute is the community of project managers—both local and global—that you can tap into and network with.

So the next time someone questions your choice to be an English major, or jokingly asks for a coffee, remember project management. Kristi Brown has built a successful career integrating the people skills she developed as an English major at Purdue with the needs of the construction industry. Similar opportunities abound.

What should you keep in mind while looking for jobs outside of traditional English professions? Follow Kristi’s advice: “Be flexible and think outside the perceived constraints that…you may think your English education puts on you. Spend time thinking about what you like to do and, if possible, get a range of experience in various fields to see what you like to do before you ‘decide’ what you want to be when you grow up. You might surprise yourself. I did!” Though the job market may seem daunting, project management is a rapidly growing field—one quite possibly looking for an English major like you.

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For more information:

Anders, George. You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education. Little, Brown, & Co., 2017.

Matz, George. “Cultural Myth of the English Major Barista.”

The Project Management Institute: https://www.pmi.org/

**We especially thank Kristi for her time and thoughtful answers to our questions!

Amanda Leary is a Literature PhD student in the English Department at Purdue University.

Editorial Intern at Arthuriana

A portrayal of King Arthur.

One of the newest of the department’s many internship opportunities is with Arthuriana, an academic journal devoted to all aspects of the Arthurian legend from its beginnings to present day. You read that right: King Arthur, Merlin, Camelot, the sword in the stone —right here at Purdue. Our Department Head, Dr. Dorsey Armstrong, is the editor of Arthuriana and oversees the journal’s production. Housed on the fourth floor of Heavilon Hall, Arthuriana’s graduate student Editorial Assistants are involved in the academic publishing process, from article submissions to copyediting. Undergraduate Editorial Interns for Arthuriana work closely with these graduate students on typesetting and proofreading articles.

Duties:

As with most editing internships, this is a grammar-heavy position. Arthuriana is looking for a strong proofreader with a good grasp of grammar; if you know a comma from a semi-colon, this could be the internship for you. Having a handle on the general principles of citation comes in handy, too. Because Arthuriana has its own in-house citation style (“Chicago-adjacent,” as Editorial Assistants Aidan Holtan and Adrianna Radosti describe it), the ideal intern has an eye for mistakes in articles’ citations.

Editorial interns also use Adobe InDesign to finalize articles, so knowledge of that program is a plus. But don’t worry—even though their InDesign skills mostly involve fist-shaking and prayer, the graduate students are happy to train.

Additional responsibilities include supervising “proofing parties” for graduate students in medieval studies, which spread the proofreading wealth. Arthuriana’s Editorial Intern would answer questions about articles, relay issues to the Editorial Assistants, and act as a go-between between the volunteers and the journal. The ideal intern would also show initiative in identifying projects that need to be done (like organizing the boxes of Arthuriana’s back issues that take over the office) and following through.

Perks:

Interns also have the possibility of attending the International Congress on Medieval Studies hosted by Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan every summer. Arthuriana hosts an exhibitor’s booth at the Congress, where they sell subscriptions, back issues, and other Arthurian and medieval swag. Students have the opportunity to attend panels and meet medieval scholars, as well as other exhibitors—an excellent professional development opportunity.

So if you have an interest in medieval literature and aren’t afraid of commas, Arthuriana could be the place for you to gain experience in academic publishing. Working closely with graduate students is helpful for those who may be interested in pursuing graduate school; plus, as you will be reading all the articles Arthuriana publishes, you are sure to learn quite a bit about all the cool and exciting new developments and discoveries in the field of Arthurian studies.

Perhaps the coolest part of interning for Arthuriana? Seeing your name in print on the masthead for the issue!

Application Advice:

Decorative

For those interested in applying, the most important part of your application is the cover letter. Since this position is mostly about grammar, make sure your materials are free from errors!

If you have questions about Arthuriana, you can reach out to the current Editorial Assistants Aidan Holtan (gaunta@purdue.edu) and Adrianna Radosti (aradosti@purdue.edu). They’ll be happy to help!

You can also book an appointment in the Writing Lab if you want help with your cover letter.