“English … ah.”
The conversation tends to end there, often because people think they know everything there is to being an English major.
She must want to be a writer or poet. She must wear glasses and live in Starbucks, despise the sciences and debate the meaning of life using obscure metaphors.
What if I said I wasn’t a great writer and that poetry really confuses me? What if I said I wanted to be an editor? Or a medical journalist, a lawyer or an aid worker? What if I said I was trying to figure out what I want to do and that I’m taking English for practical reasons?
Recently, there’s been a lot of coverage by the media concerning the practical use of a humanities degree. English majors have in some ways become the poster child of this predicament, as they’re often seen as a bunch of hipster readers without a practical skill set.
But this stereotype is wrong.
We’re not all snobbish debaters with useless degrees who read too much into things. We’re learning, and we take away practical skills from our seemingly impractical degrees.
One of these is the ability to do close readings — when you read a text slowly, searching for underlying meanings. By learning to close read different documents, we learn to discover biases in a text that aren’t readily apparent on its surface.
This is hardly an impractical skill, when you consider that texts influence the way people think and society runs.
English majors aren’t all unemployed poets. Many of us have particular careers in mind that require intensive reading and writing skills.
Lawyers have to close read laws and cases to effectively argue a case. Scientists, corporations and government officials all need editors, publishers and marketing agents in the production and distribution of their products. All of these professions require the skills developed in an English degree.
Some of us do want to be writers, but what’s wrong with that? Novels and poetry affect the way we see the world, reveal emotions we didn’t know we had and make us laugh until tears fill our eyes. Literature brings these moments to life, and English majors are learning how to write and analyze them.
Next time a person tells you they’re an English major, don’t picture them reading Dickens in a coffee shop with a snobbish look on their face. Picture them as you picture yourself: working towards whatever future they have in mind.
Leigh’s one of the Journal’s Copy Editors. She’s a second-year English major.
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