Share / Discuss

On Making Connections

A liberal arts worldview draws us—and everything—closer

During my first semester at Swarthmore, I took an English literature course called Ruin and Rebegetting—a theme that might also describe my experience as a writer in that course. 

My first paper came back covered with voluinous red notes, which my professor generously spent an eternity going over with me in her office. While her critique was pointed, she never criticized any of my ideas or suggested I lower my ambitions. Miraculously, I left that extended critique feeling like my perspective mattered. 

When our next assignment came up, an essay on Melville’s Moby-Dick, I mulled over ideas for a few days, then made a serendipitous connection: I would compare Ahab and his quest with an essay I had just read in The New York Times

In that essay, a woman wrote about solitude, describing her experience living in a cabin alone for a year, cut off from her social circle. When I mentioned this to a friend, he scoffed: “You can’t compare great literature to an everyday New York Times column!” But I was convinced. I had read something contemporary that made Moby-Dick meaningful to me, and I knew I could communicate that connection to at least one careful reader. 

It worked. This time, the professor used her red pen only for praise.

So began my career of connection-making at Swarthmore. In my Renaissance Epic seminar, I connected the theme of “The Fall of Man” to a May Sarton poem, “The Beautiful Pauses,” told from the perspective of a hotel window overlooking busy city streets. 

When I spent a summer working on a ranch in Wyoming, I wrote a column for the local newspaper, The Douglas Budget, connecting the challenges faced by ranchers who choose to “rough it” in a world of convenience to being a Swarthmore student choosing to spend weekends in the library. 

Drawing these unexpected connections was more than just a creative exercise—it helped me decide my career path and see the world in a different way. This became even clearer after I took a literary theory seminar at Swarthmore and realized that the difference between “literary” and “everyday” language was a social construct, not an objective distinction. When I moved to Los Angeles after graduation, I carried that idea with me. 

By day, I taught English as a second language to junior high school students; by night I taught it to adults. I went on to graduate school and wrote a dissertation on the stories told by high-school dropouts. Making connections between the lives I studied in Los Angeles and what I learned in my liberal arts education at Swarthmore helped me realize that there was value and joy in analyzing the everyday conversations of teenagers as carefully as one might a Shakespearean soliloquy. 

Today, I research language in classrooms and teach about talk in schools. I am a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but I also work with teachers at Strath Haven High School, just steps away from Swarthmore. We have been introducing concepts from the fields of sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology to encourage students to make connections between the complex, layered communication among peers and the language they are learning to interpret in literature. 

Language, for me, makes all connections—even the most unexpected—possible. I’m fortunate to have gone to a school that recognized this, and that allowed me to develop the courage, knowledge, and skill to make creative connections between disparate worlds and ways of thinking. And every day since, I work to pass along that ability and insight to empower students and teachers to do the same. 

—Betsy Kreuter Rymes ’87 is an associate professor in educational linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania. Visit her blog here.