After the Bubble Bursts

James M. Cornelius, ’81

The unemployment rate is now over eight percent and rising. The last time it got this high I wore a cap and gown across the stage and then went out to New York to look for a job. I’d written nine letters in advance of my train trip. Results: one interview, no job, and many mornings with the want ads in the paper. I found something part-time in about four weeks, and a good full-time job about a month later.
This all on the strength of an English degree. Yes, people in those days joked about its worthlessness, as they do now, and I laughingly agreed, but I wanted to be an editor in the book publishing industry and English was apt preparation. My grandfather was astounded – he had recommended sales.
A few people in New York had heard of Lawrence – the ones who mattered, it seems. Many people had not, and their confusion always reduced them in my narrow mind, but I suppose the school is better known now. Some key words will help you travel far on the Lawrence passport: “same conference as Carlton and Lake Forest,” and “part of the Posse program” (they’ll ask); and “famous conservatory of music” and “really close to Joe McCarthy’s grave.” After you have landed the first job, you are pretty much flying on your own passport.
I worked for Doubleday and Random House and Macmillan, as well as some fill-ins during an ill-advised freelance-writing career. The challenges of reading, writing and editing in a for-profit industry were pretty good, but I wanted something more in-depth. I never really considered graduate school in English, because during the 1980s the field ceased to be about people and the books they inhabit, and had been taken over by bogus French theory and non-humanistic word-farting. The field of history had maintained its actual focus on people and the world they inhabit, so I took up that.
At the University of Illinois I found a highly learned professor and a vast library (third largest in the U.S., after Harvard and Yale), and for seven years gloried in much more reading and writing and editing, for a doctorate. (If you are considering graduate school, the two best things to find are that professor and that library.)
I emerged into a job market spoiled by 9/11, but got lucky to be hired at the U. of I. Library. For eight years I helped manage the Illinois history and Abraham Lincoln collections. Then the unexpected happened: the guy who ran the Lincoln collection at the Presidential Library in Springfield up and moved away; and they asked me to take over. That was two years ago, and many are the days when I, like Lou Gehrig, tell people that I consider myself the luckiest man on earth. I am luckier than Gehrig – I’ve been healthy.
There were a lot of lousy days, sporadic brief unemployment, a despairing spouse, and the knowledge that classmates who had majored in economics or biology were making two or three times my salary (and some making five or ten times). But graduates in the liberal arts live on and thrive because:a. society needs people who can spell, punctuate, organize, think, and write;
b. they work well with others;
c. the unexpected is not that hard, once you’ve met Goldgar, Troy, DeStasio, Podair, et al.

Remember, Lawrence and Luck begin with the same letter: effort.

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