Joey Gamble: English Major

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Joey Gamble, a senior at the University of Alabama majoring in English with a minor in Creative Writing speaks about his experiences here at UA. Through his involvement with Sigma Tau Delta as president, Gamble has been able to dive into all aspects of the English department. Gamble discusses his experience and love of the English department at the University, as well as advice for incoming students deciding on a major and their passion.

What made you decide to major in English at the University of Alabama?

When I was in high school, we read Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman; I thought it was the most brilliant thing I had ever seen. The line about Swiss cheese? Dramatic gold. My English teacher that year, Mrs. Dobelstein, was also really influential: that was probably my first encounter with New Criticism, though of course she didn’t call it that. I knew then that I wanted to major in English so that I could keep thinking about literature. Until then, I thought I was going to major in music composition and then continue on to teach music history. But I fell in love with living in other people’s words, rather than their notes. Around that time I saw Amy Hungerford’s open course on “The American Novel since 1945,” which was—and is—an absolutely brilliant survey of contemporary novels. That sealed the deal. I thought “If this is what English is like in college, sign me up.”

What attracted you to the English department here at the university?

To be honest, I stumbled into the department here. I came to UA because they offered me a scholarship. I didn’t know enough then to research the department. I just knew I was coming here, and that I wanted to major in English—because of the subject, not necessarily because of the people. I think a lot of incoming undergraduates are like that. But I have to say: that was the most fortuitous stumble I have ever performed. I’m convinced I chanced upon the most erudite and welcoming department at the University.

How has majoring in English helped you in other aspects of your life?

It has made me a more empathetic person. I view that as the primary purpose of the English major. Certainly there is the received knowledge of literary history—but that is an ancillary benefit, to my mind. Directly because of the English major, I feel better equipped to interact with and empathize with others. It’s almost impossible to spend so much time thinking of other people’s lives—even fictional ones—and not come out the other end with empathy. And that’s a trait that is applicable in every single scenario one can find oneself in. Cheryl Strayed has this beautiful line—in an essay she wrote specifically to UA English students, actually—where she says “I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative writing degree you’ll say:…Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters. And then smile very serenely until they say oh.” I’m still working on my serene smile.

What is one piece of advice you would give to another student wanting to major in English here at the university?

Seek. When you are reading a poem, seek out its meanings, its rhythms, its valences. Seek out books in the depths of Gorgas (the scary basement is your philosophical friend, and the nook by the window on the third floor by the art history books is the best spot on campus to read). Seek out professors and instructors—they are here to help you, and they are some of the most welcoming, educated, intelligent, funny people you will ever meet. Do not expect to learn if you do not seek learning out. Undergraduate education—maybe all education—is what you make of it. Be constantly active, constantly seeking. And never stop.

Has majoring in English helped you in terms of being President of Sigma Tau Delta? If so how?

Well, on a basic level, it qualified me to be in the organization. Running Sigma Tau Delta is hard. It is very hard. It is a wonderful organization, and its members do amazing things, but there is an amazing amount of energy that the officers and the sponsor put in behind-the-scenes. It’s all worth it, of course. Perhaps one of the best things the English major has prepared me for is fundraising and grant-writing. Writing is such an important skill—even on the level of an email. It’s much easier to raise funds for an event if you can write someone an eloquent appeal.

What are some things you like that the English department does in terms of communication with its students?

We are extremely lucky, actually, in that our department is heavily invested in communicating with its students. We have extremely dedicated administrative faculty who are constantly corresponding with students. I think a lot of people take the English major listserv and the creative writing minor listserv for granted, but those emails are sent out of love for the students. The administrators have a lot of other things to be doing—they don’t have to send those emails. For a while, I was a double major in another department. I never received a single email from that department—I never knew what was happening over there, and that was a large part of my decision to switch that second major to a minor. I just didn’t feel at home there like I do here.

If you could redo something in the English department what would it be?

I suppose, if I could change anything, I would reorient the major requirements away from the 200-level. Currently, a third of the major is at the 200-level, and though those classes have the potential to be fantastic, the instructors are often having to teach to a variety of different levels. Most of the students in the lit-surveys are non-majors; they aren’t in those classes for the same reasons we are, and it is difficult to teach to both levels. Most of the English-major magic happens at the 300- and 400-level, and I think shifting 6 hours of the major away from 200-level surveys and into the 300-level period classes that already exist would be useful.

What would be your dream job upon graduating if you could choose, no rules?

I’d love to be a professor, of course. That’s what I’m working toward—I’m lucky that I can work toward my dream job, even if I don’t ultimately attain it. But outside of English? If I could do anything? I’d love to be an orchestra conductor. Have you ever watched Gustavo Dudamel conduct? What that man is doing is what we mean when we say “magic,” when we say “passion.”

If you could go back and do one thing over with your time here at the university what would it be?

If I could go all the way back to my application, I would have applied to the Blount program. I was unaware of its existence at the time, but it’s a program that I’m envious of. And I would have been more involved in the Honors College. And I would have started a third language sooner. Languages are more important than we often give them credit for.

What are some other programs and organizations you’re involved in, if any?

I’m involved with the Rude Mechanicals/Improbable Fictions, which is an amateur Shakespeare troupe in Tuscaloosa. Getting to act in so many Shakespeare plays has been one of the best experiences I’ve had in Tuscaloosa. They are a really great troupe, and their existence is a great boon to the community, and to the department. A lot of the actors are English students who don’t have much acting experience—I certainly didn’t have any before I started with them—and it’s a great chance for them to work with Shakespeare (and some Greek drama, too) on the stage, rather than the page.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Who can know what will happen with the job market, but if everything goes well I’ll be nearing my tenure-review somewhere in ten years. That’s the best-case scenario, of course. Wherever I am—whatever I’m doing—I’ll be carrying my English major with me, as I do all things that matter.

What is one stigma you’ve heard about student’s majoring in English? Do you believe it’s true, if so why or why not?

I think the English major is often viewed as “easy.” I’m not sure where that stigma comes from, but I get the sense that that’s what a lot of people—especially people in the sciences and engineering—think of us. But, of course, they haven’t tried to read Kant or Ben Jonson or Cormac McCarthy or Judith Ortiz-Cofer, so they don’t know what they’re talking about.

What is your favorite part about majoring in English?

Interacting with people. Don’t get me wrong—I’m like the rest of us: I enjoy sitting alone, reading and thinking, but the best rewards come from attempting to articulate your thoughts to others, and from having them challenge those thoughts. I think that’s because, no matter what words we’re using to do it, what we’re really saying in those conversations is this: “I see that you’re human. I’m human too. Let’s try to figure out what that means. Together.”

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