Michael T. Braun - 2006

Position title: Academia, Medical Education Research

Pronouns: he/him

What career pathway have you pursued since your time in the UW-Madison English major?

I didn’t have any career in mind when choosing English as my major. It was simply the best way to take classes I loved with passionate, fascinating professors, and to study a subject in which I excelled. With my technology work during college as an Apple Campus Representative and technology manager for the Daily Cardinal, I was able to get a job at Epic working in technical services. I met my girlfriend (now wife) there, and she convinced me we should leave and go to graduate school.

In 2008, I started my PhD program in communication science through the Department of Communication Arts. It was a quantitative research program, which meant statistics courses every semester. What do quantitative research and English literature have in common? So much! Nothing taught me better to draw conclusions from the evidence available (not the evidence that you wish you had) than my English major. Nothing helped me understand the balance between objective truth and subjective interpretation than my English major. And nothing helped me excel as a writer and trusted editor for my professors than my English major.

Since completing my PhD in 2013, I’ve had a few jobs in teaching and research, as a visiting assistant professor and then back in the world of research focused on child welfare programs and now medical education. I don’t know where my career will take me next, but I know it’s the skills I developed as an English major that will lead the way.

What did you enjoy about the English major?

The best thing about being an English major is that your classes are literally reading, talking, and writing about fascinating books with experts. I wish I could be continually taking an English class. Most of my favorite professors have retired or moved on. I think back to Richard Knowles in English 219 (first half of Shakespeare’s plays) giving amazing, dramatic readings; showing us how to cut up our complete works tome to make it more portable; advising, “If you work steadily, you never have to work hard”; and reminding us that doctor in Latin means teacher, “not those quacks who cut people open.” I think of Rebecca Walkowitz (now at Rutger’s) and her class “Englishness and Jewishness.” One of my favorite TAs Taryn Okuma recommended her class, and Dr. Walkowitz started it with a clip from Da Ali G Show, which set the tone for an amazing semester.

Leslie Bow introduced me to favorite author Susan Choi in her class on Asian American Literature, a class that featured some of the most invigorating discussions and debates. Caroline Levine (now at Cornell) was one of the most thrilling lecturers I had. Thomas Schaub’s two classes on contemporary American literature were an absolute blast, including hilarious quotes (“I bought a Smith Corona typewriter in 1963. In 1976, I wrote my dissertation on it. This computer thing is a scam, don’t you think?”—Yes, this stuck with me so much I wrote it down), challenging discussions, and his comment, “This is the best paper I’ve read on this book” for my essay on “The Crying of Lot 49” by Thomas Pynchon. I felt so bad that I had done the WORST job proofreading it as evidenced by his many red circles. Last, teaching assistant Taryn Okuma (now associate professor at Catholic University of America) in Grace Hong’s (now at UCLA) Intro to American Literature class did endless amounts to improve my writing and convinced me to major in English. What good fortune I had to encounter so many amazing teachers.

Other majors, certificates, or key points of involvement during time at UW:

Who needs another major when you can major in English! That said, my MA and PhD are in communication science through the Department of Communication Arts.

How did your time as an English major prepare you for your current work? What skills do humanities students bring to your industry?

You may find yourself aghast when you see how poorly most people write. When teaching writing, I stress that disorganized thoughts lead to disorganized papers. And it’s amazing what majoring in English does to organize both. When you raise your hand to contribute to a discussion, you train yourself to state your point and your evidence succinctly, and to build off the contributions of others. You must stay present in the discussion if you hope to contribute to it. This then translates to your written work, with clear theses and topic and transition sentences. You learn to marshal evidence in order to—quoting Adolph Gottlieb and Marcus Rothko—”make the spectator [reader, in this case] see the world our way—not his way.” These skills will put you above most others in the workplace. Fundamentally, research work is about evidence and interpretation. Majoring in English teaches you to scrutinize the evidence and prepare a convincing interpretation. It is persuasion at its highest form, and prepares you for the sometimes exhausting and maddening task of building coalitions for interpretations and ideas in the workplace. Once you’ve had to convince a professor to see a book your way (and perhaps NOT the professor’s way), getting others to support your way of seeing or doing is a cinch. Last, for those who love to read, there is no more fun major in English. It’s no surprise then that English majors have the highest GPA at UW (at least, this was true when I was an undergraduate). It’s not because the classes are easy; it’s because—more than other majors—classes are a joy. When your studies are more fun than work, you’ll find success greater than ever. This lesson may also translate to the workplace, where fun work also leads to best work.