What do you do with a B.A. in English?

In our final post for University Press Week, Phil Hearn reflects on how he ended up working for Project MUSE and why, despite the uncertain times our endeavor faces, the future of scholarly publishing is anything but bleak.

Much to my parents’ dismay, I majored in English.  Much to my undergraduate advisor’s delight, I chose not to apply to law school. Upon graduating, all I knew was that I wanted to start my career in an environment where I could use my critical skills and continue learning while contributing to something exciting. I found myself working on the technical side of the academic publishing world at Project MUSE.

To some, a BA in English is a punch line, or at best a step stool to a graduate program; it is, like other arts degrees, useless on its own and unimportant for most people’s education, as suggested here by “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams. I studied what I love, but the cost was emerging from college without an obvious next step. All I knew was that I didn’t want to go right back to school and I wanted to find a career relevant to my interest in literature.

When I spoke to my English professors about potential paths, publishing inevitably entered the conversation (after law school had been dismissed, of course). They advised me that the combination of a bleak economy and changing technology was shifting the industry toward an uncertain future. They reminded me that more people were losing publishing jobs than were landing them. Will people soon collect books the way some still collect vinyl records, with a sort of retro-nostalgic novelty? Was flaunting my English degree on my resume and shopping it around to publishers akin to trying to use Monopoly money to buy a cruise ticket for the Titanic?

I was lucky enough to start working for Project MUSE just months before the UPCC books on MUSE platform launched. I soon realized that the world of scholarly publishing is not a sinking ship in the hands of innovators. Most exciting for me is that MUSE is advancing its platform not for its own sake, but rather in the interest of enhancing scholarship opportunities for its users.

Fresh out of classes comparing Wordsworth and Coleridge, I have had to adapt to a technology-based business. There are no required English courses on coding XML or understanding the importance of accurate metadata. The newness of the books project itself has yielded many problems that have required trial-and-error PDF troubleshooting and various decidedly left-brain tasks for this right-brainer.

But the beauty of this environment is the overwhelming creativity that permeates it. There has been continuous dialogue between departments through which problems are discussed; the combination of different minds and perspectives has been invaluable to finding solutions.

Adaptation is the name of the game. I continue to value and use the critical and analytical skills I learned earning my degree, yet in an increasingly paperless world in which technical proficiency is becoming more essential, I think I found myself in the right place at the right time.

As my professors were telling me to proceed with caution toward the publishing business, a mile from campus a Borders store was selling off its inventory. A few miles further, a Barnes and Noble was selling its Nooks. One of those businesses is still standing.