Bartleby the Scrivener Convinced Me to Pursue Journalism

09/28/2011 01:47 pm ET Updated Nov 27, 2011

For a lot of seniors in college, the fall semester marks two beginnings: the beginning of the end of their undergraduate career, and the beginning of their job searches. Students on campus are well aware that it's tough to find a job in our current economic climate. On Monday, a USA Today article illuminated the fact that unemployment rates are high and it's a reality that both recent grads and soon-to-be college graduates have to come to terms with. "Bottom line: This is a hard economy for graduates to find entry-level work."

Syracuse University is home to 10 undergraduate colleges within the university as a whole. Nine of them are professional schools for studies like business, communications, and education. The remaining college within SU is for liberal arts. As an English and Textual Studies and Women and Gender Studies double major, I've long been a defender for the College of Arts and Sciences. Often I'm asked, "If you're interested in journalism, why are you taking literature courses?" or even better, "Liberal arts are a waste of time and money, you can't get a job with a degree in Women Studies."

These common inquiries are valid ones -- I spent the entire summer wondering the same thing. My internship at a non-profit, online news source focusing on women's issues was the absolute ideal position. I attended press conferences, reported on local protests, and published commentary pieces all within the realm of the subject matter I care about most. But I wasn't getting paid.

This issue isn't specific to the one Website I worked for -- it speaks to the larger issue of companies not being able to pay their interns and is also reflective of the current economic status quo. As a result, my post-grad plans started to shift in another direction. I started looking into jobs in human resources at major corporations and positions as an administrative assistant.

Upon my return to campus, I was faced with the inevitable question and ultimate paradox for all students: should I follow my true passion, or take the job that pays? I didn't end up confronting this issue because of three years of higher education or summer internship experiences, but because of a literature course I'm taking this fall.

That's where Bartleby comes in.

Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, written by Herman Melville, was originally published in Putnam's Magazine in 1853. The story is about Bartleby, a copyist in a major law office in Manhattan, who refuses to do the work that's demanded of him. The famous line he constantly repeats in the story when asked to perform expected tasks is, "I would prefer not to."

Melville's iconic story and character are both timeless in the way they relate to modern day events 158 years later. Bartleby doesn't solely resonate with the vast majority of college students and recent grads -- in our current economic situation, everyone is forced to make decisions around compromising our work-related dreams in order to play it safe and obtain paying jobs.

Bartleby illustrates an example in literature of what can potentially happen when you make the decision to take a safe job -- you can fall into such a deep depression that it can literally be your demise. The character felt so alienated in his work that he alienated himself. If I followed in Bartleby's footsteps into a path of daily monotony and misery I would make my boss and co-workers resent me, and I would fail at my work.

It wasn't a real life experience that put me in the position to think about my future. I was forced to consider this question as a liberal arts student within the confines of a required text for my English class. Bartleby illustrates the realities of taking 'the job that pays,' and it wasn't a reality that I was fond of. The famous American fiction icon convinced me to be a writer once and for all.

It's no coincidence that my professor assigned this piece of literature to a collective of upperclassmen in a course offered through the College of Arts and Sciences. His underlying purpose clearly spoke to me -- reading Bartleby reaffirmed my initial rationale behind studying liberal arts in the first place and also convinced me to pursue journalism no matter what the cost.

Maybe I'm an idealist, or maybe I have too much passion. But after thinking about participating in the daily monotony of the corporate grind, only one thought entered my mind thanks to a little inadvertent advice from Herman Melville and some lengthy self-reflection: I would prefer not to.