The following is the text of Hans Weyandt's keynote speech at the English Banquet on April 5th, 2009.
I'd like to begin by saying what an honor and great surprise this is for me. Ten years ago I never would have imagined standing here and talking to you--or anyone else for that matter. At the first banquet it was an honor to listen to Fr. Pat McDarby speak--and no one, I assure you, would be more surprised than Fr. McDarby that I am giving this talk. My chief goals tonight are a) not to bore you and b) well, let's stick with one goal.
One of America's great questions is: What next? When we arrive at college people immediately want to know what you plan to major in. Once you've declared a major they want to know what next. What will you do, exactly, with this fill in the liberal arts major space?
When I came here in the fall of 1995 I had no idea "what I wanted to do with my life." And right away I struggled with priorities--like getting to class. And how to live outside a city. After one very mediocre semester I desperately wanted to quit and go somewhere bigger or flashier or just plain elsewhere. My dad insisted that I finish my first year before making any major decisions. I was then lucky enough to have a J-Term class on writing memoir with Sr. Mara Faulkner. It was the first class I connected with and wanted to do well in. Later that spring I decided to declare as an English major. From that point I was always enrolled in at least two English courses per semester.
Several classes and professors helped form me. But three moments stand out: The first is a critical theory class I had with Luke Mancuso. I was one of two juniors in the course and was forever just trying to keep my head above water. There was something exhilarating about being challenged to such a degree that I was happy each and every day I exited the 3rd floor of the Quad without being publicly humiliated. After some time, some of that theory began to make sense. Second was a poetry seminar taught by Sr. Eva Hooker. She was always kind but honest in her criticism of our work. One of the highlights of the course was when the poet Marie Howe came and did a two-day workshop with us. Sr. Eva and Marie were a brilliant pairing--and both offered to meet with us at a coffee shop or bar to work more into the evening. It is this kind of interaction between students and profs that is commonplace here and not so much at other institutions.
Finally, I had a creative writing course with Fr. Pat McDarby. After the first class he told all of us to write one short story. When we returned two days later and began to workshop them he had one piece of advice for all of us: write shorter stories. We looked at each other and thought, "This old guy must be buts. His class is going to be cake." Not exactly. Once every 3 or 4 weeks we had individual critiques with him. At my first session we spent two or three minutes examining one sentence in particular and, finally, one word. "Do you mean this or that?" he asked. I must have stared at him dumbly before muttering, "Does it matter that much either way?" A priest shouldn't say what followed--and I never repeated such a foolish question in our following meetings. Language mattered deeply to him and as the class went along we all became better writers and readers because of him. There is no single moral in any of these examples other than the overriding power of language and words.
In the fall after graduation I began working at the Hungry Mind bookstore. I quickly learned that bookselling didn't need to be a short-term job. Amongst my 50 or so co-workers were lots of life-long booksellers. People who enjoyed reading, writing, reviewing and editing. People who are sometimes reference librarians, sometimes helping book clubs choose their yearly selections and sometimes, on very late nights, handing out popsicles to kids as they await the new Harry Potter release. I was hooked. And I still am.
Now that I own my own small bookstore a few things have changed. But much has not. I'm lucky enough to work closely with three of the finest independent publishers in the country. Coffee House Press, Graywolf Press and Milkweed Editions are all within five miles of Micawber's. And we're able to work with the people who work there--interns, editors, publicists and agents and sales representatives. Not all of whom were English majors--but many were. I've also gotten the chance to work hundreds and hundreds of author events and readings. Two stand out for very different reasons. David Sedaris, the infamous comedic essayist, passed around a hat at his reading and gave the proceeds to a young duo who agreed to go on a blind date. He was charming and hilarious and had the crowd doing the wave--while smoking (against the rules) the entire time. The second event was about one year ago at a publication event for Kao Kalia Yang's memoir The Latehomecomer. It is the first book to be published by a Hmong author written in English. To see the outpouring of love and happiness towards her was an amazing thing to see and be one small part of.
The biggest thing a major in English gives you is a solid set of skills--such as grammar, communication, writing and debate--that give us the freedom to pursue occupations in a wide variety of fields. Friends that I went to school with here have become cabinet makers, youth workers, run Catholic Worker houses, gone to dental, law and architecture schools, become published authors and worked at advertising firms. They've gone back to school to become professors (yes, some English profs but others as well). Sometimes the broadness and lack of one true direction this major can provide can be overwhelming or seem like a curse. To be sure, it is not a technical degree. Do know that the skills you've acquired are sought after. My father, an attorney, has told me many times how his law firm started to prefer English majors to political science, government/law and philosophy majors. This is because nearly anyone can be taught a particular job. Writing and reading well and articulating thoughts are not nearly as easy to teach.
I urge you to embrace the freedom your major has given to you. Don't set boundaries of what kind of jobs you can do or what you can bring to any type of work. Believe in the values that the Benedictines teach--enjoy deeply the simple things. The next few months can be a stressful time in your life. Trying to transition from a place and time where you know what to expect and do to an unknown future is difficult. I believe, though, that during this upcoming time and throughout the rest of your life you will be well served by the skills and experiences you've gained while studying here, specifically, with an English degree. So, what next?
Hans Weyandt, SJU 1999