English Major Profile: Zee Almutairi (B.A. 2012)

Zee Almutairi majored in English, with a particular focus on theory and culture. He went on to earn an M.A. in Political Science from Western and then attended the University of Iowa Law School. As an attorney in Chicago, he currently works on issues of government accountability for Cook county.

M&L: Why did you choose to major in English at Western?

I chose to major in English at Western because I wanted to expand my mind in a particular way and studying English seemed like a worthwhile endeavor. Spending my undergrad years in a business program learning about “circling back,” “touching base,” and “optimizing solutions,” while “architecting personal and professional goals” was never an option. Not only did it seem like a waste of time, but also a surefire way to destroy my brain in the exact same way I was told drugs would do when I was in middle school. I knew going into college that I wanted to push my mind and come out thinking differently. There was so much going on around me (in movies, music, literature, life) that I wanted to wrestle with but didn’t yet have the vocabulary and the concepts to do it. It was like The Matrix—I knew something was off, but I didn’t know how and why (one might say I got lit-pilled). Looking at the course offerings and the degree requirements, I knew majoring in English at Western would set me on the right path.

The other reason (and this is a big reason) why I majored in English at Western was because of the faculty. I still remember looking at the faculty website the summer before I started and seeing that there was an expert in nearly every area of English. I saw faculty that were experts in British Literature, American Literature, Theory, Postcolonialism, Environmental Literature, Old English Literature, Pop Culture, whatever it was that Dr. Bradley Dilger taught. They had everything. I was looking at a lot of other colleges back then and it seemed like the only options were small liberal arts colleges with two or three professors in the Department, or huge universities with tons of faculty where one might get lost. The English Department at WIU had incredible breadth but it was a place where everyone would still know your name.

I knew I made the right decision the first week of classes when I reached out to Dr. David Banash (who I didn’t have for classes) and told him about my interests in theory and the questions I had on my mind. Dr. Banash recommended I sit in on English 500, a grad level theory course, because he thought it would be helpful. It was a very intellectually exhilarating period of my life.

M&L: What is your current job?

I am currently an attorney working in compliance at the Cook County Assessor’s Office. Basically, I’m making sure to prevent unlawful political discrimination in employment actions. I was at the Civilian Office of Police Accountability before that working on mostly fourth-amendment claims.

M&L: How did your study of English help you to succeed in your career?

Studying English taught me to read, write, and think. It also taught me to listen. I’m not being flippant when I say this either. Studying English taught me how to examine a text, take it apart, pinpoint the underlying assumptions and ideologies, and critique it. English made everything clearer and simpler: my reading, my writing, and my thinking. Reading an academic article or book can be intimidating. I remember Dr. Shazia Rahman telling me, “You know how to read an academic book, right? You read the beginning, the end, and then you go to the first chapter.” These are skills that everyone needs, not just a lawyer. You’d be surprised how many people struggle in these areas in a professional setting. I’m not talking about literacy either. I’m talking about the ability to read material that expresses something complex or write something that is concise and coherent, or the ability to recognize what’s really going on with statements like “shots were fired” and “mistakes were made” (or why this very question is about success in my career, as opposed to life). I absolutely would not say I’m the best writer, but I’m always having to revise and edit colleagues’ written work (either because they asked me or a supervisor did). As far as I see it, you can either major in something “practical” and spend the rest of your life trying to be a better reader and writer, or you can major in English and let writing open doors and opportunities.

M&L: What were some of your best experiences as a student in English at Western?

Too many! My last year there I got to go to the American Comparative Literature Association’s annual conference after getting encouragement from Dr. Shazia Rahman to submit a paper I wrote. She really helped fine tune the paper, and the idea would never have occurred to me had she not suggested it.

I was in a small independent study with Dr. Joan Livngston-Webber my last semester as an undergrad. It was one of the last weeks of the semester and I mentioned to Joan that despite all the brochures and depictions of college life in media, I never actually had class outside, lounging on the college green. Joan told us “Pack up your book!” We went out and sat by Lake Ruth and talked about linguistics. It was even better than the ads said it would be!

But really, just being in Simkins Hall and listening to my professors and fellow students talk about big ideas and meaningful things was a beautiful experience. I met three of my best friends in Simkins. I remember distinct discussions from inside and outside the classroom that have stayed with me ever since. The incredible experience of reading a text that changes you, whether it be reading Edward Said’s “Culture and Imperialism” for Banash, “The God of Small Things” for Rahman, or “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” for Dr. Amy Patrick Mossman. All of these experiences aren’t just memories either, they helped form habits that I still perform. To this day, I still read each year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize because of Dr. Marjorie Allison.

M&L: What advice would you give to students considering studying English here at Western?

If it’s what you want to do, do it. Resist the naysaying of friends, parents, whoever, that try to dissuade you with statements like “What are you gonna do with that?” or “But what about getting a job after college?” The single best indicator of getting a “real” job directly out of college is being related to, or friends with, someone rich and powerful. That’s it. Everyone else is facing a lot of uncertainty. I say this not to frighten you or make you feel down, but to liberate you. Every graduate is worried about their income, paying bills, securing housing, finding insurance, and putting food in front of them. If you want to study English at Western and develop the intellectual and analytical skills the program provides, you will be fine. Don’t worry so much! If you can handle the rigor and discipline necessary to succeed in the English program, you’ll find work and you’ll find the work easy (though, sadly, way less intellectually stimulating).

I think my biggest piece of advice is get to know your professors. Talk to them about your interests and questions. I know it sounds silly, but do it. They are experts in their fields and every single professor in Western’s English Department was always happy to talk me about topics related to class, as well as topics unrelated to class. Dr. Margaret Sinex once chatted with me for forty-five minutes outside of class about Žižek’s article on “Courtly Love” and gave me suggestions about how I might incorporate some of my own interests in the papers we had to write for class. Dr. Chris Morrow was always happy to break down all the debates surrounding Shakespeare and authorship, and how the debate was really about class.You can always be the student that just shows up, but I’d really encourage you to do a little more. Reach out to your professors. They encouraged me to develop my interests and always pointed me in the direction I needed to go.

Major in English at WIU, read, write, listen, talk to your professors, and relax. Have some fun too. You’re in a better position than you (or all the English naysayers) think.