In an academic world increasingly dominated by STEM subjects, the College of William and Mary English professor Melanie Dawson M.A. ’90 advocates for the viability of English as an impactful area of study with an array of applicable career fields.
After completing her undergraduate work as a double major in English and music at the University of Richmond, Dawson entered the College’s one-year graduate program for English in 1989.
“After the first semester I was really hooked,” Dawson said. “You find doors just opening up to you in graduate work, and when you find that there are plenty of doors, and that you’re curious about what lies behind them, then I think it’s time to say yes … this is for me.”
Dawson only attended the College for one year.
However she said she was attracted to the passion for learning and drive embodied by her professors and classmates.
“What I liked was the intensity of the analysis, spending more time digging a little deeper … As a faculty member, I still see that,” Dawson said. “I think that’s a really valuable aspect of our department. Students are really engaged, faculty love what they do.”
Dawson is currently in the 17th year of her teaching career at the College.
Following her desire to spark intellectual passion in students, Dawson began directing the honors thesis program for English majors this year.
She said that though she has done work with nine or 10 honors students over the years, this is largely a new enterprise for her.
“It’s a way for English majors to try to experience some of that intellectual intensity that I’ve been talking about, to see where their excitement leads them,” Dawson said.
Dawson said that there is no one-size-fits-all model for writing an English thesis; the process looks different from student to student.
Students typically choose a topic and start writing a proposal during the spring semester of their junior year.
According to Dawson, there are 12 students in the process of writing proposals and approximately nine current seniors working on their English honors theses.
Dawson said that one of the most stressful parts of writing an honors thesis is the work the students put in up front.
“They’re really having to think very logically about not only what interests them, but taking that interest and thinking more strategically about how you accomplish something with that interest,” Dawson said.
The thesis process is much more than loving a book or an author.
Dawson said that a student must be very invested in what they are researching and writing about.
“It’s about a process, and it’s about a strategy, and it’s about understanding the world of the text in a richer way,” Dawson said.
In terms of topic selection, the sky is the limit according to Dawson. She cited the example of a student interested in medicine who is writing about William Carlos Williams, a Puerto Rican-American who was a poet and a doctor.
In another year, a student wrote about literature relating to Ireland’s Great Famine and branched out into trauma theory as it related to this historical event.
Often, students’ personal interests drive their selection of an honors thesis topic.
As a faculty member at the College since 2000, Dawson said she appreciates the passion students have for academics and their drive to learn.
“The students are incredibly hard workers and they’re able to find their own challenges and embrace them,” Dawson said. “I’ve taught at a number of other institutions, and I just see a level of engagement here that’s always exciting in the classroom. It’s not only that students want to do well, but they love ideas, and they’re ready to ask questions. In many ways it’s just a wonderful working environment.”
Despite seeing an increasing allocation of funds and resources to the sciences at the College, such as the construction of the Integrated Science Center, Dawson said she passionately advocates for the value of English, especially in the world today.
“We are at an interesting juncture in American culture where self-representation, articulateness, the ability to analyze a situation are all important in ways that I hope everyone is beginning to realize,” Dawson said.
According to Dawson, there are many misconceptions about what it means to study English that she feels are not always understood by people from other areas of academia.
“English majors don’t just study compelling plots and interesting characters. They learn how to make connections, they learn how to break down information, and they also learn how to work with facts,” Dawson said. “A fact is the history behind the text and how it’s written … It’s a tremendous skill to be able to marshal all of those levels of engagement with the real world and the interpreted world.”
In terms of career paths for English majors, Dawson said that the options are numerous and varied.
“Our graduates have gone on to be not only journalists and news assistants at CNN, but also mobile producers, someone who works on a financial consultancy, we have medical students, we have people who are doing creative nonprofit work, we have a minister, a literary agent … so you don’t have to be an English teacher, and you don’t have to be a writer to find really viable skills in our major,” Dawson said.
For Dawson, what matters most and what reinforces the viability of a degree in English is the success and happiness of alumni from the College.
“I, for one, was very pleased to see that our graduates even from the last decade are so prominently positioned in the world and they’ve found jobs that they love,” Dawson said.