Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Humanities and Work

On the myth of the "English major Starbucks barista." From 2016, but in my feed last night and I missed this the first time around.
What are we to make of this new old joke about the English major? Why did barista replace fast food worker? The fact is that English majors are not particularly likely to end up as baristas or as workers in the food service industry in general. Plenty of data is available to disprove this idea, so what does its persistence mean? The English major barista is a myth in the sense of being untrue. It is also a myth in the deeper sense of that word: a story that a culture tells itself to explain wishes or fears. In this case, fears.
I think about this with history a lot, too. We know that historians in fact go on to do great work in myriad fields and generally feel pretty good about their history majors. But no one believes it coming into my office as a student. Their parents, moreover, don't believe it either. And data (SEE THIS WONDERFUL DATA) isn't persuading the story.

In my scholarly work, I often turn back to the anthropological definition of a myth as a "story with a purpose or function." The function of the barista myth is:
[it] reflects negative attitudes about the English major itself rather than the realities of an English major’s likely employment. Since coffeehouses are places for reading, writing and talking, spending time in a coffeehouse is a lot like spending time in the study of English. Naturally enough, English majors like to hang out in them. STEM majors have their labs; English majors have their Starbucks. The joke about the English major barista implies, however, that unlike the science done in a lab, the study of English, whether pursued in coffeehouse or classroom, is without value. What better punishment for wasting this time than being sentenced to work at a coffeehouse rather than enjoying its pleasures, serving those who presumably chose some more valuable and lucrative major?
More on this to come.

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