Life as an English Major
No, we don’t just sit at home and read, but we are secretly judging your poor choice of words.
By Aliyah Thomas, Mount Saint Mary College
If SparkNotes or Shmoop is your soulmate and your closest confidants are leather-bound, hardcover or paperback, then either you’re an English major or you’re just really entertained by those quizzes on SparkNotes.
Don’t get me wrong—English majors actually do work. Our reality is filled with books we love, books we suffer through, papers we’ve stayed up all night writing and a crap-ton of critical thinking, but even that doesn’t completely encompass the experience of being an English major. Sometimes we get those wary stares and quiet, albeit harsh judgment from our peers—still, there’s no way you could get me to regret picking this path despite the bumps in the road.
One thing we always have to be ready for—with a cheeky, self-satiating rebuttal—is that one friend who always tries to downplay our coursework. I would never say, “Math isn’t that hard,” when I only really know basic math and can hardly graph functions on a calculator by myself. In the same token, I would never say, “English is the hardest major,” because it’s all subjective. English majors get a lot of undeserved flak for “literally just reading all the time,” especially from students in other majors who probably haven’t picked up a book since graduating high school. Sorry, but “Charlotte’s Web” doesn’t mean anything to me when I have to read “Anthony and Cleopatra,” “Richard II” and “Henry IV” back-to-back-to-back in the same week.
Nursing majors don’t “literally just stick people with needles all the time,” and psychology majors don’t “literally just psychoanalyze their friends all the time.” Just like you wouldn’t compare apples to oranges, you shouldn’t compare your coursework to painfully writhing through Walt Whitman for five hours straight.
P.S. Even if it was all about reading, it’s many more pages than any sane person deserves to suffer through every night. By the time midterms roll around, even the most tenacious student in your English class starts to lose their patience with 19th century Romanticism. Would Hawthorne please leave the guesswork and just tell us if Pearl really was some screwed up progeny of Satan? My least favorite answer to a serious question: “That’s up to interpretation.”
A love of English is essentially grounded in a love of reading and, if you weren’t already aware, English majors read a lot, but that doesn’t mean we like every story we come across. Watching paint dry is more exciting than the monotony of “Waiting for Godot,” and 1,000-page anthologies are the reason why I can’t manage to have a good night’s sleep, but I knew that I was bound to find a few crown jewels amidst all the rock in four years of undergrad. Count Dracula may be in the business of sucking the life out of people, but “Dracula” definitely doesn’t suck.
Believe it or not, all of that reading and writing gets you somewhere, and I’m not speaking on the point of absolute insanity. But with there being so many known career paths for an English major, you’d think people would stop reducing everyone they see to one line of work. We don’t all want to be teachers. Whenever someone asks me what my major is, I always preface my answer with: “Not English education, but regular English.” It’s a common misconception that most of us, active pursuers of “just a regular English degree” (always seeming to roll blandly off the tongue), come across.
Almost all English majors credit great English teachers—the book-toting, Hilary-Swank-in-“Freedom Writers” kind who found meaning in all of these paltry symbols we’d never thought of before—with shaping them into great readers, writers and communicators, but that doesn’t mean that everyone wants to model themselves or their lives after their favorite teachers. I value my high school English teachers more than words, which seldom fail me, would ever let me express, but damn it, kids are so mean.
“So, you’re not going to be a teacher? How the hell do you expect to make any money?” With smoke starting to billow out of your nostrils, you’ll heave the heaviest sigh of your life. It’s 2016, friend, and English is no longer an impractical major. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that your options are limited, and definitely don’t let them try to predestine your failure.
When I committed to a college and told my all-time favorite high school English teacher about the program I’d be enrolling in, I was met with a sobering response: “Okay, say it with me: Would you like fries with that?” I didn’t say, “Bachelor’s degree in burger-flipping,” I said I wanted to be an English major. I think she’d been caught up in some archaic way of looking at the contemporary English major, because there was no way I was going to work through four years of college just to be spat on when I graduated.
Teaching is just the tip of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic and killed Leo. There are so many opportunities for English majors after graduation, things you never thought that writing fifteen-page research papers would make you qualified for. You know who has an English major? Jodie Foster. That woman beat Buffalo Bill and upended patriarchy! With an English major! If Jodie Foster can win Academy Awards with those credentials—be still, my green-eyed heart—then you can get into library science, publishing and even law school.
As years of undergrad start to fly by, the red marks on your papers become surprisingly less frequent, Chaucer and Shakespeare start to read more as contemporary English and you’ll fall into a routine of identifying all of those symbols that you’d be stuck on in freshman year.
Nothing is better than knowing that you’ve actually managed to retain information, and that none of this was for nothing. After all, you did have it drilled into your head for four years that every single thing has some profound meaning—even if the reality of it is that the dark blue drapes in Mary Sue’s bedroom is because the author just really likes the color blue, not because blue represents some kind of inherent sadness in Mary Sue.
What you’ll really come to learn—after all the hours you spend immersed in that lovely Kate Chopin story, fighting off your latest bout of writer’s block or searching for hours for that one source to finish your term paper—is that this was all worth it.