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Ed Finn '02, Freelance writer

Comparative Literature

Why I chose comparative literature

This isn't about how I became an investment banker or a NASA scientist -- I'm a freelance writer, and let's face it, the money's not great. But I live in Manhattan, I make my own hours, and the dress code is boxer casual (could be less, but my desk is by a window). Plus, I can work while I travel. For example, I'm in Turkey right now. Still boxer casual.

For my first two years at Princeton, I had no idea what I wanted to study. Well, that's not really true: I wanted to study just about everything. The idea of picking one subject area and sticking to it sounded like a straightjacket to me. In the end, based on the wild jumble of courses I took those first two years, comparative literature was the best major for my interests.

It turned out to be perfect. Imagine a department with almost no required courses, where students explore not just different genres and periods of literature but work in different languages, cultures, and fields of study. I could satisfy my interest in the classics, in French, and even count courses on hypertext, historiography, and modern drama as departmental requirements.

A diverse discipline

Flexibility is comparative literature's strong suit. The discipline encompasses theorists, translators, poets, and literary historians, all of whom find common ground in the exploration of literature across the divides of time, space, and style. I used my time to write a creative poetry thesis, do an independent computer science project on James Joyce, and still justify taking epic seminars with the likes of Professor Bob Fagles.

All that freedom of choice makes life easy, in some sense -- take the classes you want, build your own major! But in another sense, it demands a great deal of focus. Once I realized that nearly any course with a reading list was open to me, I had to decide what I really wanted out of my undergraduate experience.

But what, you ask, can I do with a major that's so broad and ill-defined? It turns out to be useful in two ways. First, all that academic diversity gives you something to say on a breadth of subjects. Second, the focus you need to build a coherent course of study on your own is something you'll need out there in the real world, where there are no departmental guides telling you how to do your job.

The first gift is one most Princeton students seem to think they're born with, so backing it up with real knowledge is simply icing on the cake. But the second lesson really is valuable. From comp lit, I learned to write intelligently about different subjects.

Value to my career

All of this has been useful to me as an itinerant journalist. Over three jobs in locations from New York to Hong Kong, I have had to adjust to completely different ways of writing -- from Time's distinctive reportorial style to Slate's clever analysis to Popular Science's well-informed technolust. This is a lesson any journalist has to learn sooner or later, but I got an early start in mental diversity with comp lit.

Now, as a freelancer, I face the challenge of adaptability day to day. My livelihood depends on convincing different publications to accept my work -- publications with their own peculiar nuances, buzzwords, and unspoken rules. It's not that they require photographic recall of Tang dynasty texts I read freshman year. But learning how to read those texts, and to see what made them tick, is a lesson you can use in any job where you have to read and write.

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