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Comparative Literature

Kristopher W. J. Kersey ’04

Ph.D. Candidate in Art History, University of California–Berkeley

I began college with a very clear idea of what I wanted to be when I “grew up.” I left without a clue. For that, I am thankful.

If I remember correctly, I came to Princeton intending to study molecular biology or neuroscience in preparation for a career as a surgeon. If you had told me that 10 years later I would be in a Ph.D. program in the history of Asian art, I would have been absolutely astonished. 

When I first arrived on campus, my academic adviser suggested that I add a humanities course to my schedule to complement the mathematics and chemistry classes I was taking for pre-med requirements. My intention was merely to satisfy a requirement, but I unexpectedly found myself more academically motivated and challenged than ever before. The readings were fascinating, precepts were engaging, and I looked forward to each new lecture. In consultation with my adviser, I reluctantly abandoned pre-med and spent the next year exploring my options. When it came time to declare a major, I chose comparative literature. It was an unfamiliar discipline, but one that would allow me the freedom to continue to read widely and explore new subjects.

It ended up being a perfect fit. Comparative literature encouraged foreign language proficiency and coursework outside the department. These courses supplemented the core of the curriculum—the departmental seminars—where we were taught critical thinking, very close reading, and sophisticated writing skills. The small size of the department was also appealing. The faculty were always accessible, and the majors my year formed a tight-knit community, despite the fact that we were all studying diverse languages, historical periods, and media.

An invaluable experience

After two years of rewarding classes and two summers studying abroad in France and Japan, I had learned new languages, broadened my perspectives, and grown into a more critical reader and effective writer. But as graduation approached, I was haunted by a common question: “Comp lit?! What will you do with that?” It hit a nerve. Had I been too idealistic? Should I have chosen a major that was more “practical”?

Once I left Princeton, however, these doubts vanished. I found work right away at the Japan Foundation in New York City, a Japanese nonprofit that facilitated academic, artistic, and cultural exchange between the United States and Japan. After a year there, I accepted a position with the International Program of the Museum of Modern Art, an extraordinary opportunity that led me to discover a passion for the visual arts I never knew I had. Both of these positions were fascinating and fulfilling, but neither would have been attainable had I not followed my interest in choosing my major.

If I look at a sampling of my friends from Princeton, the classics major became an investment banker, the mathematics major became an artist, and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs major became a doctor. But this does not mean the choice of major is arbitrary; rather, to my mind, the crucial factor is that one is inspired, interested, and engaged by the subject. I found that match with comparative literature, and even though I may have feared it was impractical at the time, what I gained from that decision has been invaluable ever since.