In celebration of the English major

In college, I started out as a wide-eyed freshman interested in journalism. As the daughter of a sportswriter, I understood the concept of a deadline before I knew the alphabet. My dad is a hard-nosed reporter who turned his penchant for getting the facts into his latest gig: writing a celebrated sports column in Washington, D.C.

I’m a columnist, too — albeit on a much smaller scale. It happened sort of by accident — and not because I’d gone through the J School at the University of Maryland, alma mater of both my father and sister.

No, friends, I was that rare breed of mocked college students everywhere: the English major. Tell someone you’re studying literature and the response is almost always one of two options:

A) Are you going to be a teacher?
B) Oh, so what are you going to do with that?

I didn’t necessarily plan on working for a newspaper, though that’s the world in which I’d grown up and understood better than other fields. I’ve been writing since I was a kid and had completed my first “novel” — 100-some typed pages, all in Courier font — by fifth grade. By the time I enrolled in college, I figured journalism was the route I was born to take . . . though I quickly realized I’m not made of the same stuff as Dad and Kate.

English seemed a natural path. A lifelong reader and devoted supporter of the written word, my English degree was a natural extension of my desire to be as nerdy and bookish as possible. There’s scarcely a plot you could describe that wouldn’t find me blurting out authors’ names and titles, and I love nothing more than trying to connect an author to his or her most famous work. I’m a book geek through and through, even taking a job at Borders during my senior year of college.

English majors go into a variety of fields, it’s true. Some of our teachers. Some become actors. Some are writers, or accountants, or vice presidents of marketing. As English is a broad major that exposes you to many wonderful concepts, ideas and backgrounds, it’s versatile — and can take you anywhere.

In English programs, we’re taught to be analytical, intelligent and serious. We study the words of others for hidden meanings — and then translate those meanings into comprehensible concepts. We read the works of Shakespeare, Austen and Bronte and make them applicable for today’s world. And in some cases, we begin to craft our own masterpieces. With my concentration in creative writing (poetry), I learned to take criticism and defy others’ low expectations.

Now I’m fortunate to be able to write and edit for a living — both skills enhanced by my time in an English program. And though my professors may or may not have scoffed at my alleged “talents,” I can smile the broad grin of a woman who is far from a failure. Even if they told me I suck.

Other people turned out pretty awesome, too. From a recent edition of Shelf Awareness:

Question: What literary quality do Jon Hamm, Alan Alda, Maureen Dowd, Jodie Foster, Tommy Lee Jones, Stephen King, Paul Newman, Joan Rivers, Sting, Helen Thomas, Barbara Walters, Sigourney Weaver, Tom Wolfe, Bob Woodward and RenΓ©e Zellweger have in common?

Answer: They were all once college English majors.”

So PSA for parents with children considering a major in “the arts”: we’re not all lunatics. And you won’t have to worry about us starving to death or taking up permanent residence on your couch . . . the kids will be all right.

16 thoughts on “In celebration of the English major

  1. Great post. English majors are so misunderstood! I got those same two responses you did – though usually the teacher one over the complete and utter confusion.I always say that English majors learn how to communicate, which we all know is an essential skill in the real world. As for me, I took my English degree to graduate school and got a masters degree in library and information science and now I’m a librarian… at a completely health sciences oriented university. Yep. No literature involved here. lol


  2. I was an English major – always knew I would be, the only ‘wavering’ was if I wanted to specialized in Writing or Literature. I ended up with a degree in Lit, but several writing classes + 3 years on the Campus paper (only Editor to never take Journalism, baby! haha) πŸ™‚ I was also a double-major in History, and people would also ask me “Are you going to Law School?!” when I answered no, they asked if I was going to teach. Also a no. I went to graduate school for Library Science — with the plan to be in the schools πŸ˜‰ Although now I am also considering the idea of teaching English, at the time – my English major was about *me* and my love, my passion, what made me feel happy and at home. I knew I’d be able to apply it wherever I decided to go in the future – and I got to have a college experience that was perfect academically πŸ™‚


  3. Believe it or not, but I’m envious of you all. I loved all things literary, but I got a degree in Accounting because I liked the income potential. It did serve me well, but I didn’t love it and eventually burned out. That will teach me!


  4. I can totally relate! I got a degree in History and everyone was like “what are you going to do with that?!” Well, I’m in marketing and doing just fine!


  5. Great post! English majors unite. πŸ™‚ Since I’m still in school sometimes I get a little fed up with the whole thing, but I’m pursuing a path I’m very happy with and being an English major has definitely paid off for me.


  6. Love the post! Got the same responses with my MA in History. Three years after I finished, people still asks me if I am planning to be a teacher. The answer is still, no.

    The funny thing is that you find people like us almost everywhere πŸ™‚


  7. Ahh! I love this post. I was an English major and I went down the teaching path, but I have many friends that decided not to and are very happy with the outcome. I completely agree with your post and English majors are some of my favorite people. πŸ™‚


  8. Fantastic post! I started out in journalism but am now in my last year as an English major, Communications minor. I’ve found I’m learning more in my English classes than any others, In my small part of Alabama, I only get one response, a statement rather than a question: “So you’re gonna be a teacher.” Then they look as if I’ve grown another head when I correct them, saying, “No. I’m a writer.”


  9. Love it! I have degrees in English and Technical Writing. I would have done a master’s in Library Science, but my university discontinued its program the year I graduated. 😦 English was the perfect major for me.

    There was a quote on the wall in the building that housed the English/Humanities program where I went to school. It said, “An English Major studies merely language and literature. Language makes possible all civilization. Literature reflects all human life…merely.” I’ve always loved that.
    2 Kids and Tired Books


  10. Reading this just sparked a big pondering/musing/whathaveyou in my head. I’m bookish but I can’t relate to English majors at all, and that’s always seemed strange to me. But my bookish career path is library school to librarian, and I think it’s just a different offshoot of “booknerd.” It’s service industry as opposed to writing and analyzing, but we’re all a part of the big ol bookworm family!


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