Why English Lit Isn’t A ‘Useless’ Degree

Categories Blog, Writer's Life

Is there a more scorned major than one in a liberal arts field? Maybe, but I haven’t heard of it. Perhaps because I couldn’t hear anything over the chorus of “what the hell are you going to do with an English major?” questions. In one particular instance, that exact question was asked of me by a complete stranger, someone who definitely did not have the right to even concern himself with my future endeavors.

It was during my junior year of college, the day of a pretty big football game over Thanksgiving break. I was at a tailgate, bouncing from one group of people to the next, trying to find a conversation I could seamlessly join. I wandered over to an older group of people, including one man who was a few beers short of schwasted. The group enveloped me into their huddle. They forgave me for rooting for the other team at the otherwise one-sided tailgate, but they wanted to know about my “plans,” because of course I needed to have plans with little over a year left in school. I explained my love of writing, that I was an English major, and that was when the almost-schwasted man bellowed out, “English? What the hell are you goin’ to do with an English major?”

He swayed as he said it, and the words came out like syrup, but they struck a nerve. I wanted to say, “Excuse me?” because it was a bit stunning that someone I’d never spoken to could ask that question in such a callous way. Or I could explain my plans of becoming a writer, knowing the unhidden scoffs I would receive. Instead, I blurted out, “I’m going to rule the world,” because honestly such an absurd question deserved an equally absurd response.

As I walked away, though, I couldn’t help appreciating — though far from respecting — the blunt honesty with which he reacted. I’d told strangers before about my English major and had been met with the tightening of smiles, and the ever present follow up question “Do you plan on teaching?” asked in such a polite manner that I could match it with my own polite, but firm, response of, “No, I plan on writing.” Reactions ranged from doubt to pity, but most kept their personal opinions to themselves.

Family, on the other hand, responded quite differently. Though still not as blunt as a drunk man at a tailgate, they had their own way of expressing disappointment in my choice of study and future career goals. One uncle mentioned that even if I became a best-selling author it’s not like I would have a “real job.”

Let’s all laugh together.

Honestly, though, I can see their point. English degrees, any liberal arts degree, comes with a stigma that is pretty hard to shake. You tell someone you are studying literature and they picture you in a cafe apron with a composition book squirreled away for break time scribblings. They think you must go to law school after graduation to have any hope of success. They gently remind you that not all famous writers had English degrees and that many best-selling authors actually had very lucrative careers in various stable professions long before putting pen to paper. I hear them, I do, especially those who have a right to concern themselves with my plans, those who care about my well-being.

But the English major isn’t just literature classes and nightside writing. It’s… college literary magazine production opportunities, and campus newspaper positions, and university press internships. There are research projects to get involved in, thesis programs to join. There are a host of career-oriented opportunities that train you for a future, guided by people who don’t want to see you fail (because seriously how would that look on their program statistics?)

And sure, they may add some nice fluff to your resume, but they’re also enjoyable, and they really help you decide what field you want to go into. I myself dabbled in the school newspaper, writing articles about the goings-on at my university, and found that I really liked reporting. That helped me decide what I wanted to do after I graduated.

An English major, like most majors, is what you make of it. Personally, I didn’t want to study anything else for four years, and while I could have forced myself through a business degree or something science-related under the assumption that it would have made me more palatable to employers, I simply didn’t want to, and over time I realized I didn’t need to. Because just two months after graduation I accepted a full-time job as a  journalist, in an area of the field that is definitely on the rise and definitely looking for good writers.

So take that, schwasted football man.

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