I started college 30-some years ago knowing only that I loved books and literature and could write well. Advertising? Public relations? Journalism? Teaching? It all kind of swirled together in an abstract of future career possibilities. Even at 18, I think I also knew a lot would depend on what job opportunities presented themselves when I finished this four-year marathon . . . and that the future does funny things to your efforts to prepare for it.
Journalism would have been a natural choice, but when I entered Butler University, the journalism department seemed in danger of being eliminated. Its students were understandably uneasy. The English department was all stability, warmth, and great books by everyone from Julian of Norwich to the poets and novelists who visited. How could I not major in English?
A liberal arts education was more fashionable back then, but I still got the invariable questions. All were some variation of: “What are you going to do with it?” More than one person suggested business as a double major. Or I could at least join a sorority for the connections and a place in the university’s social order. (I did neither.)
What I did was intern for a couple of local publications, help Dr. Jim Watt grade freshman writing exercises, and write a bit and edit tons more for the college literary magazine, Manuscripts. I got to read and study great literature and practice the art and craft of writing.
Did my career path become clearer as graduation drew closer? Nope. Life kept happening. And, what do you know, that’s the nature of literature — and perhaps, life. We react, respond, and try to make sense of the world as it turns and shifts. Some of us write about it, or we study how other people write about it and what that means and why. And if we confuse the daylights out of everyone by the time we’re done, so much the better. (Just kidding. Mostly.)
Whether you are thinking about majoring in English or did so decades ago, here are five great things about it. These are based on my experience and observation; academic advisors, parents, and other advice-givers may say otherwise. As always, individual results may vary.
1. It’s highly flexible and applicable. The communication and critical thinking skills you will develop by majoring in English will benefit you in all kinds of work environments. Internships can give you valuable experience in specific areas such as teaching and journalism. If you find you can’t stand a particular line of work, you have plenty of other options without changing your major.
2. It works as a single or double. You can combine an English major with a major or minor in another discipline. For example: Double major in English and engineering (and have fun moving between those two worlds) and become a technical writer who can actually explain mechanical stuff to English majors.
3. It puts the ball in your court. What you do with an English major and how it pays off — whatever that might mean — is really up to you. There is no prescribed career path for a student majoring in English; you are free to create your own. Some paths are more financially rewarding than others. Some are more suited to your gifts, talents, and life circumstances than others. So you get to start by applying your critical thinking skills and creativity to your own life.
4. It allows you to see through eyes very different from your own. You will read books, poems, essays, and plays by writers from throughout history, all over the world, and many walks of life. Read the ancient Greek poets and see how a civilization comes together. Read Alice Walker and learn about resilience in the face of racism and male domination. Read Mark Twain and learn how a person takes the world’s woes and incongruities — but not necessarily himself — seriously.
5. It’s an important work in progress. Piecing together your classes, extracurriculars, internships, and whatever else your college years bring is a great introduction to piecing together your life. Studying literature and learning to form and express your own ideas is not a bad way to tell, and live, your own story.
Blessings on the journey.