“What are you going to do?”:  In Defense of the English Major

“What are you going to do with that degree?” the woman asks me with a theatrical laugh. “Go into the professional world of poem? Are you going to write The Next Great American Novel?”

Welcome to the life of an English major.

Often I get the impression that people envision English majors as foolish romantics who spend all of their time either lying on grassy hills reading Shakespeare, sipping lattes in third-wave coffee shops while discussing postmodernism, or writing long papers about the significance of “the bean” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. People think that we live in the world of ideas, of theory, of dreams–far from the realm of practicality, of “reality.”  

As with many stereotypes, there’s an inkling of truth to this depiction of the English student.  However, as my literature courses require me to do, I want to go beyond the surface.

What does an English major do?

We think critically. We don’t take everything at face value. We analyze literature, like data, for patterns and deviations, and we use those observations to develop an original argument. We contextualize an individual’s story in a larger social and political framework. We engage with the world, seeking understanding and perspective. We cultivate consciousness, and we think for ourselves.

We communicate effectively. Yes, we spend a lot of time in the realm of ideas, but we must also express these ideas, on paper and out loud, in a way that is comprehensible and convincing to an audience–in a way that is our own. We develop a unique and powerful voice that we use to connect with others.

I believe that the greatest value in education, whether you are an English major or an Engineering major, resonates in how your studies have shaped you as a person. Ultimately, you are the one who must achieve your vision of success. Your major will not do that for you.

“What are you going to do with that degree?” the skeptics ask.

Well. I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing.

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