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To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Interviews with Brandeis University’s academic leadership: The English department

Studying English and having good writing ability is the essential foundation for a well-rounded liberal arts education. Professor John Burt is the chair of the English department with an expertise on American literature. In his eyes, poetry and literature have gone beyond words and texts by having deeper implications that connect minds of the readers and authors. The Brandeis Hoot invited him to provide insights into English literature and the English and Creative Writing programs at Brandeis.

When Burt graduated from school, he found that jobs in academia were extremely scarce. Brandeis offered him the job, so he came to Waltham and stayed at Brandeis for 40 years. “Yes, this is my 40th year at Brandeis.” Burt commented. 

Burt was a biochemistry major in college. At the beginning of his college career, he took an American romantic poetry class to fulfill a distribution requirement. Then, Burt discovered that it was not just science, but other important scholastic fields in which feeling and thought illuminate each other. That is why he chose to explore the English field more.

Burt said that the most important thing he learned from English majors was that everything people say has layers containing qualifications. “They have subtexts, which they have implications, and the implications might be different in different minds,” said Burt. These realizations came to Burt when he was a college junior which resulted in him taking more English courses in his senior year. Finally, he picked up a second major in English. This decision changed Burt’s whole life. He decided not to attend medical school and instead chose an English graduate program.

Burt also has a podcast. It is all about what he thinks about literature, and it’s open to everybody. Burt said, “It was informal and fun.”

Burt also offered some suggestions on course selection for the spring semester, as students at Brandeis may still be thinking of changing their schedule for the upcoming semester. For those who want to try English-related courses, Burt recommended ENG19: Introduction to Creative Writing Workshop, which he thought should be the first class for students who want to try creative writing courses. Creative writing courses are open to everybody, but an essay portfolio is needed.

The English department offered a variety of courses for next semester. The creative writing workshops are all based on credit/non credit format. Burt mentioned, “We have a poetry workshop, a fiction workshop and a screenwriting workshop which is taught by Professor Marc Weinberg who has taught screenwriting here for about 15 years.”

In addition to traditional creative writing courses, the department is also offering a brand new course named ENG159A: Short Film & Web Series, which is mainly about writing the scripts of YouTube videos or any short films. ENG 70B: Environmental Film, Environmental Justice is a course with an interesting combination of English and science.

Burt also wanted to let international students know that language should not be a barrier when studying English or creative writing. He said, “One of the best readers of English poetry I ever had is an international student from China whose English was her second language.” It is hard at first, but it is possible to do. A lot of excellent writers’ first languages are not English. Burt gave an example, “Joseph Conrad. I think English was maybe his third language. Polish was his first language.”

The way an English major can be transmitted into real industry jobs is always under heated discussions. Burt said, “Oh, so if you were gonna be a spy, the first thing you had to do was learn how to read poetry.” Reading and writing are important for almost all lines of work. Burt continued, “not just being an editor, being an English professor. You can become a lawyer, or be in public relations. Or even medical schools love to bring English major students in.” Also, students who want to teach creative writing in the future have to have an MFA degree, so lots of students who majored or minored in creative writing continue pursuing an MFA degree after graduation. Specifically, MFA students write novels, short stories, and poems.

At the end of the interview, Burt said that there’s one thing he wants to share with students who wish to study creative writing or English, “studying writing and language will give you the ability to negotiate the ambiguities of people’s expression of what people say.”

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