Letters to a Young English Major: Joseph Ross ’80

Read more alumni reflections in the English Department’s “Letters to a Young English Major” series.

JRIPS 300x199 - Letters to a Young English Major: Joseph	 Ross '80Dear LMU English Major:

At the end of an upper-division Modern American Poetry course, Sr. Teresita Fay, RSHM gave us an individual interview as a final exam. I had studied carefully and thought I was answering her questions well when she leaned back in her chair and asked a final question: “How have these poems helped you live better?”

I have no idea how I answered that question. But I know it has haunted me ever since. Her simple question made a point that marked my life from that day onward. Those poems, and many others, dramatically enriched my life. Whether dealing with personal love, loss, age, and illness — or grappling with our broken and warring world — poetry and literature have helped me find connections, see grace, and to love our common humanity. I’ve asked hundreds of my own students the same question that Sr. Teresita posed to me. I didn’t know it then, but it proved to be an essential question.

As a poet and a teacher, I am wildly grateful for my LMU English degree. I am immersed in the texts of my English major everyday. I fondly recall Fr. Bob Caro’s Shakespeare’s Histories and Tragedies. He taught me to love and understand plays I never thought I’d appreciate. I can still see Dr. Frank Carothers in Romantic Literature, lecturing on Blake and Wordsworth, captivating me with their powerful language. I recall Professor Dick Kocher’s British Survey courses clobbering me and I still use notes from his American Literature class. I deeply value Dr. Sharon Locy’s Introduction to Poetry course. Little did I know then that I would eventually write three collections of poetry (so far!) and see it as my vocation.

The English degree helps me — and I hope it helps my own students – everyday. It enables us to see our deep human connections. It reveals the cynicism of those who think we’re actually different from one another. Studying English helps me to see grace, the power of love, alive in our world today. The literature I read as an English major has helped me, in very sad moments, to remember how much I actually love the world.

I know the voices that say English isn’t practical. “What kind of job will that get you?” I heard that question back in the day too. Here’s an answer: If you can read complicated texts and understand them — and if your writing can make nuanced ideas clear — you will be valuable in any job setting. Any smart company values those who can communicate.

Congratulations on choosing a major that can serve you, and the world, well. An English degree is both practical and idealistic. Today’s world needs you to understand our common humanity — and to love it. Your English degree can help you do both.

All the best,

Joseph Ross
Class of 1980

Joseph Ross is the author of three poetry collections and he teaches English at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C.
Are you an LMU alumnus/a whose English degree has served you well? Contact Professor Kelly Younger to submit your “Letter to a Young English Major.”