Last summer, I applied for a job at the local movie rental store, Family Video, to make some extra money. As the manager scanned my application, he paused and said, “Oh, you’re majoring in English?” I had expected this video store manager of five years to make me defend my decision, as I had already done so many times to my family. But what he said next was far worse: “That’s what I majored in, too!”
In the end, I was grateful to not get the job at Family Video, yet the manager’s English degree loomed large over my head for years to come. Was my mother right? Was I continuing to put myself in debt for a worthless degree?
While talking with SUNY Fredonia graduate Edward Janak, I’ve realized how little has changed since he received his Bachelor’s in 1992 — both in terms of campus life and of parental opposition towards choosing to major in English. The eye rolls have failed to cease, as people continue to underestimate and misinterpret this field of study.
As the fifth in our series of life stories about Fredonia State English majors, Edward Janak’s serves as an example to those wondering if their English degree will lead them to years behind the counter in fast food or retail. You can read the four previous stories here:
Change Your Major or Move Out
Dr. Janak had wanted to be a teacher from a young age. “I’m one of those naive fools,” he says, who believes teachers are born, not made, and that teaching is an art not a science.” Yet, even though in Ed’s mind a future in teaching was a given, his engineer father had different plans.
For a semester and a half, Ed attended Fredonia State as a mathematics major and was miserable. In a struggle to live up to his father’s aspirations, Ed attended class and tutoring sessions faithfully, but was still unable to pass his math courses.
“The English courses, they clicked with me,” Ed says, “It wasn’t that they were easy, but I was able to do well in them. So I wound up switching over from math to English; and to say it was a contentious decision is kind of an understatement.”
His dad took the anger over English to new heights. We often hear of English students being given a hard time about their choice in major but Ed, who was only 17-years-old as a freshman, was given more than a hard time — his father gave him the choice between majoring in something other than English or moving out. Nevertheless, Ed stuck to his decision and his father eventually relented. “It was a battle,” he explains, “it was a battle with my family; it was a battle with everybody.”
After declaring English, even an education professor told him that his major was a waste of time. In a class called “Foundations of Education” Ed was one of three male students that the professor told to drop the course on the first day because he felt, according to Ed, “That as men, we should not consider teaching because we’d never be able to support a family. He really took it out on the guys in that class, trying to drive us out.”
Despite the negative experience in the foundations class, Ed “absolutely loved” his time in Fredonia. He still remembers lessons from his undergrad courses, from public school law to Native American studies to myth and symbol, and uses them within his own teaching. After having a more positive experience with education foundations classes in his graduate studies, he has even chosen to focus on it now, with a goal of “Fighting to make sure foundations of education is still part of at least some future teachers’ training.”
Now Ed has shifted his own teaching to focus on foundations of education, as he explains that, “You’ve gotta know where you’ve been to know where you’re going … I think to be a professional, which is what teachers want to be, you’ve got to know where you’ve been historically; and more significantly, philosophically, you’ve got to know in what you believe.”
Ed’s Advice to Students? Unplug.
Ed reflects on his time in Fredonia, from time spent with friends in the sound recording studios, at WNYF and at the radio station, to spontaneous campus jam sessions and party-hopping on Day Street. From his descriptions it seems that the small town is not much is different since the early nineties. What has changed, however, is the infiltration of technology in the lives of students.
Ed’s biggest advice for students now would be to “unplug.” Though an avid emailer who uses Skype and teaches on Second Life, he says there is a time and a place for technology and he urges students to make the most of their personal interactions.
“What I see happening,” says Ed, “is that undergrads are so busy living through their devices that they’re not living. And some of the best experiences I had in Fredonia, outside of the classroom, were experiences I had with people.”
From pick-up soccer and mud football to simple face-to-face interactions, these experiences should be valued. Ed says, “I think when people graduate from university, they should have some memories in addition to what they were typing on a keyboard.”
Another factor that Ed believes can benefit undergrads is taking courses with varied subject matter. “The philosophical introduction that I got in Fredonia shaped part of my PhD [in historical, sociological and philosophical foundations of education],” Ed says. “My background in philosophy came right from Fredonia. My passion about areas of social justice, especially from a historical point of view, came out of my experiences in Fredonia.”
Ed, who continues to emphasize the value of lessons learned outside the classroom, laughs, “I’ll politely say that I never let school get in the way of my education.” Having spent his childhood in Eden and Hamburg, NY, the greatest experience for him was getting used to the variety of people from different places and backgrounds. To sum up his time in Fredonia, Ed says, “It altered my worldview forever.”
When looking for a career, Ed emphasizes how important it is to be willing to relocate. He taught high school in South Carolina for nearly a decade, and in the meantime earned his Master’s degree from the University of South Carolina in 1996. He loved his time in South Carolina, where met his wife (also a graduate student), and ended up earning his PhD there in 2003.
After his wife had earned her PhD the year before, Ed followed her career move out West and began teaching at the University of Wyoming, where he has recently been tenured as Associate Professor of Educational Studies.
From a Fredonia State student to a tenured professor, Ed Janak serves as an example for English majors and helps us see that great writing can truly pay off. When asked if there was anything he’d do differently, without hesitating Ed replies, “No.”
Though admitting to making mistakes throughout his education and career, he recognizes that these mistakes have shaped him as a person and an educator. Dr. Ed Janak continues to value both his studies and life experiences, never ceasing to develop his worldview and skills as a professor.
“I do think there’s a lot of official and unofficial opportunities open to English majors,” he says, “I think the biggest thing they need to keep in mind is their skill set when they graduate is in communications. English majors are taught to read well, write well, and speak and listen well. If they can communicate those skills well, it can take them very, very far.”
Post by Christina Stock