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Ethan Goodman

Urban Planner

What do you do for a living and what's it like?

Once I was on my way, with Masters Degree in Urban Planning in hand, I was able to use all that essay writing and term paper experience to write clearly, accurately, concisely, and get my point across.  And when you enter the working world, you realize what a rare and valued skill that is.  After some years preparing environmental impact statements for major development and public works projects, I now work in the land use practice for a New York City law firm, guiding developers and institutional clients through the maze of regulatory, zoning, community and political hurdles to get buildings built.  It’s fulfilling work because it lets me indulge in what I love: shaping my physical world and affecting how people interact with that world.  Every day, in some way or another I serve as a mediator between those in the private and non-profit sectors who want to build structures in New York City and those in the public sector who are charged with controlling what gets built and where.  It’s a job of interpretation, negotiation, communication, and organization.  All skills that I honed in college, through reading, writing, and arguing: in short, through literature.  There may be a lot to be gained from memorizing facts and numbers and testing hypotheses; but for me, literature and its window into the ideas, struggles and desires of those who came before me taught me more about thinking, living, and loving than any other field of study I can imagine.  And after all, what else is college for?

Why did you choose to become an English Major? 

Frankly, when I chose to major in English it was because I liked reading books.  What better way to spend my college days than reading the classics—diving into the greatest literature ever written, deconstructing novels that broke new ground, enjoying the beauty of words on a page? 

What lessons did you learn as an English major?

When I was in college, I can’t say I knew precisely what it was all for. I suppose, at the time, I thought I was there to choose my profession, to master a set of skills that I could use to get a job and earn a living. Well now I know it had nothing to do with that. I was in college to learn to learn. I was in college to learn to think. And in hindsight, I can say confidently that majoring in English prepared me as nothing else could have. But now, the true benefits have become clear. Distilling three grand themes from a 500-page novel is not so different from producing a one-page summary memo of a development project kickoff meeting. I can now think critically and logically about the world around me, and I can express my thoughts in speech and on paper. This is what being an English major at the University of Michigan did for me.

What’s the path you’ve taken to get to where you are?

My career has taken a path from logic to love. My first job after college was the logical choice of an English major: publishing. I marketed college textbooks, traveling to college campuses across the country and speaking to professors about what they wanted in a textbook. Quite logical for a recent college graduate with an English major, no? But after a few years of that, I moved toward a field that brought in more of what I loved to do in my leisure. I chose a career path that would combine all my loves in the world: a love of maps, of cycling, bird-watching and the outdoors, and a love of the way humans interact with each other in their built environment. I went to graduate school and became an Urban Planner. No, I didn’t take the lessons of Moby Dick to planning school. Nor did knowing the first 15 lines of The Canterbury Tales in Middle-English help me appropriately site public open space. But reading great stories, structuring thoughts in my head, and struggling to comprehend literary narratives helped me understand what I really loved in my own life. And it gave me the confidence to shape those loves into a career and pursue that career.