English Majors are Secret Weapons: How I Infiltrated the World of Business by Sarah Smith-Robbins

 

Sarah Smith-Robbins

 I was sitting in a boardroom surrounded by expensive suits, leather-bound padfolios, and chatter about “return on investment,” “points of differentiation,” and “leadership succession planning.” Feeling overwhelmed, I glanced down at my feet and the Edward Gorey tote bag with its “So many books, so little time” message on the side. What was I doing here? Why did they ask me to come? Maybe it was a mistake. I was an English major, with a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Ball State University, surrounded by business faculty at a Big Ten school, and I was nervous.

This was my first meeting at my current job at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. I had been invited to consult on a project that included using a virtual world for business collaboration within a Fortune 100 company. Because my research is about communication in virtual worlds like Second Life and World of Warcraft, the faculty at the business school thought I might be able to help with the project. I was out of my element, but it didn’t last long. I soon realized that all the skills I had learned in my coursework made me a valuable contributor. My liberal arts background meant I knew how to learn just about anything. I can research and process information quickly. Above all, my training as a rhetorician meant that even when I didn’t know the terminology, I could interpret the motivations and relationships in the project. While the other team members were jotting down financials, I was drawing rhetorical triangles in the margins of my notebook. I was labeling the relevant audiences along with their motivations, the messages they’d need to receive, and how the ways in which those messages were conveyed would influence how they were interpreted. I was in the zone.

That was two years ago. Since then, I’ve become the Director of Emerging Technologies in the executive education department at Kelley, as well as joining the Marketing faculty where I teach undergraduate and MBA courses in digital and social media marketing. As an emerging technologist, I get to play with new tools and evaluate them for their value in learning and business communication. I advise companies on how best to leverage technology to engage employees as individuals and learners. I collaborate with faculty and industry experts to design learning experiences that range from online communities to alternate reality games. In my courses, I secretly teach the insightful gems that an understanding of rhetoric can contribute to consumer marketing. The students don’t know that they’re learning the lessons of an English major, but what they don’t know won’t hurt them.

I’ve stopped apologizing for my academic background. I enjoy the power of my secret weapon, as we all should. It’s too easy to stereotype us as Shakespeare fanatics or commodity composition teachers. We’re more than that, but only if we leverage our skills in realms other than our own. If we do, slowly but surely, we’ll change the perception of an English degree.

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