The signs were there, but Brian Boggio didn’t yet see them. As a student at the Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences he considered himself generally interested in the humanities, and a quirk of scheduling brought him to the drama department where he became an active participant in courses and productions. In retrospect Brian’s role in the school production of the irreverent comedy The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) seems to foreshadow his Baruch honors thesis on rethinking genre in the Shakespearean canon, but he didn’t come to college expecting to be an English major.
Once at Baruch, Brian found himself increasingly at home in the English department. After First Year Writing and Great Works, where he was encouraged to explore writing and literature in more creative and sustained ways that he had ever before, he first declared himself an English minor, then eventually a major. His winding path to graduation took him to everything from literature courses to poetry writing courses, and even to a study abroad program on American writers in Paris where he fortuitously got lost in the exact same park where the young protagonist of the novel he was reading was sitting. (He used the text to navigate his way home.)
In addition to his course work in English, Brian was one of the founders of the English department-based Refract Magazine, the student-run non-fiction publication that gives voice to student perspectives on the “arts, sciences, politics, culture, and literature.” As Brian describes it, the magazine began as a way to get students “behind their own work” and to show them that “an essay doesn’t have to be just an essay.” The success of their first issue proved that students were interested in finding new lives for their course work and other writing, and also that there was a readership for this kind of student writing. The experience was a confidence-builder for Brian, who noted that seeing course writing, particularly about literature, find a wider audience “takes away some of the shakiness that English majors feel” about adding their voice to those of the “experts.”
After ending his Baruch career on a high note, receiving the Excellence in English award from the department and Kanner prize for Outstanding Baruch Honors Thesis from the college, Brian is turning his attention to the future. He has decided to pursue a graduate degree in English, though he doesn’t yet have a strong feeling about whether he’ll continue to work on Shakespeare or take up more modern dramatic literature (he’s currently working on a Pinter play with some friends). These days most of his writing is for admissions materials, but he’s dabbled in scripting a web series with a friend and has set himself the general goal of trying out some other creative writing before he heads back to academia.
Five Questions with Brian Boggio
1. When did you know that you wanted to major in English, and what led you to that decision?
I only really committed to majoring in English towards the end of my Junior year. I had originally planned on a Theatre/English Ad-Hoc major, but I felt that the classes I chose to take were nudging me along to a stand-alone major – which I’m very happy about. It was never a conscious choice, but once I realized that I had signed up for three specialized topics courses in one semester, as well as a thesis on Shakespeare, the English major just felt like the best fit. Given all that, I think the deciding factor was that my English classes were the ones where I had the most fun. They were where I felt, as a student, both challenged and legitimized.
2. What English courses or assignments do you remember most, and what made them so memorable?
The courses that stand out to me now are the ones I took without really knowing what I was getting into. I took a class on Oscar Wilde and Aestheticism having only the faintest recollection of reading The Importance of Being Earnest some time in high school. To be able to go from feeling like I was faking my knowledge level of Wilde, to ending the semester confident in being able to discuss almost all of his work, is a privilege I hope more students decide to take part in. In regards to assignments, the final project for my Great Works class is forever seared into my memory. One of the great things about our choices for a final project was that one of our options was, in certain terms, to create our own blog topic. What this translated to in my head was a Big Brother-esque virtual competition where I pitted authors like Herman Melville and Franz Kafka against one another to determine whose work best exemplified the ideals of the Enlightenment. It was a messy project, but the freedom of that class allowed me to redefine the purpose of the blog as I went along, growing into a running commentary of my own changing relationships to the texts. Of course, part of that shifting focus involved writing criticism on the relationship between death and romance as seen in the poems of Charles Baudelaire and Christina Rossetti in rhyming couplets, but that project remains my favorite example of just how creative an English class can be, given the chance.
3. What books or authors have inspired you?
As a reader, I’m drawn to the types of nuanced characters found in plays by Eugene O’Neill, or in stories by Mary Gaitskill. I never want to be able to pass judgement on, or feel as if I’ve “figured out” a character on my first read-through. My sympathies for the Tyrone family in O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey Into Night shift constantly, and I never feel like I’m on safe-footing with characters in Gaitskill’s Don’t Cry – and I don’t want to be. As a student, on the other hand, the texts that inspire me to take risks in my essays are those that require me to think outside of their textual limitations. I’ve written about the metatheatrical language of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and the magic realism of Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” specifically because the ideas they present transcend written words. They make you ask questions as opposed to answering them, and they encourage you to engage with your own preconceived limits of what can be considered effective literature.
4. What do you see as the place of writing in the context of your career goals?
I’m sort of stuck with writing regardless of what side of literature I end up on, either studying and teaching it, or writing it myself. Hopefully I can do both, and I can see how my academic interests have influenced the more creative assignments I’ve produced over the past four years. The poetry I found myself writing for a workshop class, for example, would often feature character archetypes and phrases that I had researched and written about in my thesis. From a creative standpoint, I want to be able to move beyond the trends, issues, and themes in literature that I’ll study, and apply them to my own writing.
5. If you could offer one piece of advice or insight to faculty about student writing here at Baruch, what would it be?
Student writing is very easily dismissed by us as just something to be turned in for a grade. This means we respond to texts not as researchers, but as soldiers designed to only reaffirm what makes “the canon” of literature “the canon.” We don’t see the appeal of taking that stray thought we scribbled down in the margins of a novel during a class discussion and doing the work to turn it into an essay because nobody has indicated that they want us to. It’s easier to compare and contrast two novels in their approach one of three predetermined themes than it is to come up with any part of the essay prompt ourselves. There’s a reason professors may feel like they have to draw observations and arguments out of students during class discussions – because we don’t feel like what we want to talk about actually matters. It’s not going to matter for the essay, so why bother with it now? That’s why promoting those “fourth options” on essay topic sheets matters. If there is a push on everyone’s behalf to remind students that they’re allowed (and encouraged!) to form their own thoughts and opinions on a text, and to then confidently express them in a formal essay, the resulting academic courage will make essay writing and reading something to be excited about.