I Was Afraid to Major in English

I was afraid to become an English major.  They all seemed so . . . smart.  Arrogant.  Self-assured.  These were traits I did not possess, aside from smartness, but they seemed smarter.  They had probably scored at least two points higher on the ACT than I had, and the ones I knew used big words, like “clout” and “ubiquitous.”  I could not compete.  Sure, I loved to read.  I had spent my fair share of time with Mary Higgins Clark and Nancy Drew.  I had even made it through Pride and Prejudice, but I did not see myself as worthy of becoming an English major.

Part of this fear came from my boyfriend’s roommate, Richard, who walked around spouting Shakespeare sonnets, pushing up his horn-rimmed glasses, and saying words like “onomatopoeia” and “juxtaposition.”  His brown corduroy pants were worn at the knees from balancing Milton and Homer on them.  His hands were often ink-stained and his nose was always in a book.  Each time I saw him, he had new words to share, explaining that he was improving his vocabulary and that he loved rolling such words around in his mouth.  He tasted words.  His girlfriend beamed up at him as he explained this, as if he were some sort of god, the god of the English language.

Richard also had some strange habits.  He grew plants in the apartment kitchen, a hobby not so weird until you hear my boyfriend Mike’s side of it.  Apparently, Richard would use his roommates’ dishes for planting his herbs and flowers.  This irritated Mike, as his dishes were new and borrowed from his mother.  When told to stop, Richard began scavenging for dishes at a local thrift store, coming home with chipped earthenware and somebody’s dead grandmother’s china.  Not only did he use these dishes for planting, but he would eat off of them without washing them before or after.  So, Richard and his girlfriend would eat the dust and microbes from the thrift store and then leave their mess behind.  More second-hand dishes would appear, hold a brief meal, and then camp out on the counter until a weak-willed roommate broke down to wash them or throw them (and the ants and flies covering them) away.

This was my impression of an English major: a smart, nerdy, self-assured man who wore hippie clothes, refused responsibility for his actions, lived life with his head in the clouds, and had no earning power.  Mike would agree with this assessment of Richard, but Mike, now my husband, is actually the reason I became an English major.  After spending my first year of college exploring the departments of Humanities, Geography, Construction Management, Anthropology, Psychology, and Communication, Mike convinced me to take the English major prerequisite courses during the summer semester.  I did so, passed with As, found out that I loved literary criticism, and made friends with people just like me.  Apparently, I was one of those English major types.

The next fear came when I realized that my path to an English degree required a language other than English.  I had taken three years of Spanish in high school where I learned nothing, and I could claim being a quarter Spanish myself (my maternal grandmother’s parents had immigrated from Spain).  However, this task daunted me.  Would I be able to complete language classes at a university level?  I guessed the only way to find out would be to take them.

I ended up completing eight credits of Spanish in one semester, earning As.  Apparently, this language was not as hard for me as I had assumed it would be.  I spent five days of the week in class, three days a week in the lab, one day a week with a partner from class to practice speaking, and hours and hours of doing homework each day.  I began dreaming in Spanish and finally completed the Spanish Reading and Comprehension course.  After that, of course, I quit.  That was all that had been required of me.

In my English courses, I began stacking up As as high as the books beginning to fill my room.  I enjoyed the effect they had on my GPA.  However, one English class threatened to ruin my delight.  Titled “American Lit 1914-1960,” the class proved to be dry.  The professor often used the word “modernity” in a nasally, feminine voice, causing many of us to smirk or snicker when he uttered it, which was often.  Despite my lack of enthusiasm for said professor’s teaching style, I spent each night in the library researching my paper.  I had decided to focus on Ernest Hemingway’s Brett from The Sun Also Rises and to characterize the modern woman according to the magazines of that time.   I looked at magazines that had not seen daylight in eighty years or more.  I collected images and blurbs, photocopied madly, and sat beside my tax-studying boyfriend while trying to make sense of the information.  When it came to putting it together, I simply couldn’t do so gracefully.  I had a grand research project, but no direction or thesis.  Eventually, the due date for the paper came and I turned it in, knowing it was not my best work but also smug in the knowledge that I had spent hours crafting it.

The paper returned with a B- on it.  Huh?  I felt my pride shrivel, and my confidence in being an English major was dashed.  Had I made the wrong decision?  Would psychology take me back?  I did not know, but I decided to negotiate with the professor.  I shyly approached him in his office and asked why I had received what I considered to be a “bad” grade.  He was brisk and aloof, explaining that I should take my upper division writing class before embarking on any further English literature studies.  When I revealed that I had already taken that class, he countered with, “What grade did you get?”  His look said that he didn’t believe me and also revealed his disapproval of my age.  He seemed to think that I was too young to be taking upper division English courses, and perhaps he was right.  (I graduated with a B.A. a month shy of 21.)  When I proudly asserted that I had received an A in my upper division writing class, he looked astonished.  We seemed to be at an impasse, which I filled with a tearful explanation of the research, time, and work I had done on my paper.  The waterworks seemed to spur him into action; he responded kindly and offered me a B+.  I took it without hesitation.

Despite that hiccup, my other professors seemed to appreciate my contributions and acknowledged my efforts.  The famed Leslie Norris offered me an A- in his British Literature class, and I ended up having my work in folklore classes championed by two professors for a conference.  The rest of my college English career went smoothly, and I graduated quickly and happily.

However, the job market opened up a new set of difficulties for this English major.  While my husband found himself wined and dined his final year of school by all of the big five accounting firms, I had no offers of employment.  While my husband worked an internship in San Francisco, I left literature behind that summer to answer telephones at a construction company.  When we graduated, Mike began work for Ernst & Young the following week, while I spent my days hopping between temp agencies and job interviews.  I endured one temp job at which the supervisor and manager talked about me as if I were not there.  These women were quick to distrust my proofreading work (although I had a degree and had worked as a proofreader).  I felt humiliated.

I finally landed a job at a law firm, where I typed up correspondence and other legal documents for a few bucks an hour.  When I applied for a better paying secretarial job at a larger company, the human resource representative told me that I did not have enough experience.  When I argued that I had worked as a secretary for two years during college and that I had an actual degree, she shrugged.  Apparently, a degree in English meant absolutely nothing.  She offered me a position answering phones in their call center.

As I thought this over with my mouth hanging open, my husband sat in the lobby chatting with one of his parents’ neighbors, who also happened to work in human resources.  While I went off to repeat the word processing tests required for secretaries, this man told my interrogator to give me a chance because he knew my (married) family.  All of a sudden, I had interviews to be a secretary that day, one of which required an extensive knowledge of the English language and proofreading skills.  I had that knowledge and I landed that job.  To make a long story short, I worked as a secretary for 18 months, and then got promoted to be an associate editor in that department.  I found myself responsible for a daily document and another employee.  My English degree paid off, but only after nepotism, humility, and hard work.

I recently talked up being an English major to some of the young girls in my neighborhood.  They were meeting as a church group to learn about different careers, so I stepped in to talk about English.  They all seemed bored, although I tried to make English sound as exciting as possible.  I talked about the different jobs associated with an English degree, such as technical writer, teacher, editor, journalist, or law school.  I expounded on the fact that every career requires writing.  They were unimpressed, just as they were with almost every other career mentioned.  One woman told about her work as a respiratory therapist.  Another recounted her efforts as a math teacher.  Others spoke about nursing or the health sciences.  Not until the hair dresser got up did any of the girls ask a single question.  I nodded my head when this happened, realizing that I, too, wanted to go to beauty school when I was sixteen.

What good is my English degree now?  Well, it helped me get into a Master’s program in English, after which I became an adjunct instructor.  I teach English composition courses to bored freshman who under appreciate my efforts and feel forced to attend my class.  Yet, we try to have a good time.  I try with them, as I did with the girls from my neighborhood, to make English exciting.  I try to make it less intimidating.  Perhaps I succeed, but most likely they leave my class knowing a few writing tricks, some critical thinking skills, and hopefully how to create and find a thesis statement.  Yet I’m sure they hope that their future profession will never require writing again.  They dislike it.  They are bored by it.  They are intimidated.  They are afraid.

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37 thoughts on “I Was Afraid to Major in English

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  1. Fantastic post! I myself get put off when someone talks to me about English whether at Primary school, GCSE, ALevel, or major level. There’s just so much stuffiness around it like you said and it really put me off. I love writing, I love reading, I love books in every shape and form, and yet…..I can’t stand English classes. Something’s got to be wrong there right? But it sounds like you are doing an excellent job convincing people otherwise 🙂
    Also, congrats on your career, what a journey!

    P.S. are those books in the picture above with the Shakespeare, Edgar Allan Poe etc yours? If so, the covers are beautiful! I’m so jelous! 🙂

    1. Thanks! Yes, something IS wrong if the goal of a class is to make you feel inferior. That’s not how it should be! I’m sorry your experience has not been good. And, yes, those are my books! My husband gets me one every year for Christmas. I love him. 🙂

  2. So…. I’m reading this book called The Marriage Plot that seems to fit so well with your post! Of course, I’m only a small way in to it, but I think you should check it out. Also, I feel your pain about the career thing. I’m still trying to figure mine out 🙂 And my least favorite part of being an English major? Whenever people met me and my roommates this was the conversation:
    “What’s your major?”
    Roommate 1: “Chemistry”
    “Wow! That’s so cool. Are you going to be a rocket scientist?”
    “What’s your major?”
    Roommate 2: “Biology.”
    “That’s cool too. Do you want to save animals and rainforests?”
    “What’s your major?”
    Me: “English.”
    “Oh. Well. Are you going to be a teacher?”

    And granted, I am a teacher (at least mostly), but it always felt a little degrading that they felt that was my only option. It was as if I chose the degree for “fall backs…”

    1. Ah, I’d totally forgotten about that. Teachers. As if that’s the only thing you can do, not that that’s bad. I always hated that comment because I swore I’d never be a teacher because of my mom and step dad. I leaned toward editing. I’ll have to try that book. Jeffery Eugenides, no?

  3. I think you shed some light on the common fears of being an English major. I struggled with that in college too. I took a lot of English classes and enjoyed it, but there were certain people who always made me feel inferior or that I didn’t know enough to major in it. I’m glad it worked out for you, and thanks for sharing.

  4. Thank you for this post. I am thinking I am going to switch my major to English this next semester. I am not too excited about the career options, but there is so much to learn from literature that I am just going to go for it anyway. What do you think, Miss Emily?

    1. I think you should go for it! If you love it and truly find yourself happy in the English department, then why not? Life is too short to be miserable. I know that is so cliche, but it is true. I am excited for you! Good luck.

  5. After reading this, I don’t think I dislike the English department as much as the people involved with English careers and fields that you described. To me it sounds like it isn’t so much about knowledge or profound skills which you possess, but a twisted sense of authority that professors and/or editors of magazines or articles invoke. There is obviously something wrong with our Educational and Career foundation in society if after doing all the work necessary and obtaining an English degree you were unable to find work without further frustration and stress. You are deeply unappreciated Emily. If it is any consolation, you are a fantastic teacher, and deserve all that life has to offer!

  6. Really enjoyed this post, it is inspirational to read about positive experiences in the humanities field. After some set backs and 3 years wasted studying things I didn’t like, because “otherwise I wouldn’ get a job”, I finally got the courage to become a Literary Studies Major student, which I’ll finish this coming year. The simple fact that you’re passionate about what your studying can open up so much more possibilities than the statistically highest job placement degree.

  7. People do tend to write off English as an “easy” or “useless” major—either that or they assume that all English majors want to teach. Needless to say, I’ve gotten plenty of that, especially as a double major in English and history. Saying that is a serious underestimation of the skills that English majors learn. We don’t just read novels—we tear them apart and look at everything that’s underneath in hopes of understanding them. Those analytical/critical thinking skills are super-important and, according to one of my English professors (who heard this on NPR), are one of the top things that employers look for in college graduates. And of course, it always helps to hear from someone who found success with an English degree. 🙂

    1. English has served me well. I guess I care more about beauty and the arts rather than making money! It sounds like you have a smart professor. I think those skills are valuable too. The problem is proving to an employer that you possess them. What are you planning on doing with your English and history degrees?

      1. I want to go into editing and hope to publish my own novels one day. Then I definitely want to go back to school and get my masters in Medieval Studies and/or English and possibly my PhD. Maybe I’ll be a professor someday, but I’ve yet to see how things turn out.

  8. Hi Emily,
    great post, tough subject. If you think it is hard to major in English in an English speaking country, try to imagine how is it to major in English as a Second Language.I live in Brazil and I just simply love English. I majored in English to be a teacher, and now I’m complementing my studies to become a translator. There are not many fields you can pursue in here besides teaching, and I know that’s not what I want to do.
    Hopefully, next year I’ll be studying abroad and then when I come back to Brazil I’ll have a fine résumé to look for a job. Until then, I read stories like yours to inspire me. Thank U for sharing about your life.

    1. Cella, thank you for such kind comments. I could not imagine majoring in English with it as my second language! I admire you. Good luck with your studies and your career. It sounds like you are on a good path!

  9. I just love this post! You are such an honest and funny writer. I also cannot believe how many parallels we share – I too became an English major despite feeling intimidated by every other English major; I studied psychology as a back up major; I worked as a secretary right out of college; and I thought I wanted to go to beauty/hair school when I was in high school (to which my mother responded, “Then why don’t you just drop out of school right now.”) !! (No wonder I feel such an affinity for your blog!)

    I chose English for a number of reasons, with the practical one being that I figured any job and career will require critical reading and writing skills. I don’t regret it, and I do use my English major to some degree now in my career advising and teaching (writing and communication) international students.

    Your story is inspiring and I think it’s great you have made a career of your major. I’d love to go back to school and sit in on some English lit classes again. I guess we can even do that on line now.

    1. Oh my gosh! I am laughing so hard right now because of the beauty school thing. I can’t remember if I wrote about my own desire to do that, but yes, we have a lot in common, right down to what our mother’s would say! I love that you use English to work with international students. I have some classmates from my Master’s program who ended up using their degrees to teach ESL at a college level. I don’t have the talent for that, but I have always found what they do fascinating.

      Yes, sit in on some classes, or watch some videos! I think many courses are now available that way through major universities or through YouTube.

  10. I was just like you, but I gave up. I changed my major from English to Political Science after I saw a friend use his finance degree for some real life application. How the crap could I use my English degree for real life obstacles? I couldn’t think of any – so I changed to Political Science.

    I was scared too. I was scared of some of the harder classes I had to take. When grammar and syntax became required courses for a semester, I did all I could to change my major. I loved reading and digging up the metaphoric symbolism of every book and arguing the significance of each scene, but I wondered, how could that ever translate into “value added” to provide for a family?

    I’m glad to see there are other people out there just like me that had very similar situations and struggles. Thanks for posting.
    -Marc Allred @ marcallred.com

    1. Thank you for the comment, Marc. You raise the interesting issue of providing for a family. I do feel like I had some “luxury” to major in what I really wanted because I’m female and my then-boyfriend (now-husband) was getting a MAcc. He would obviously bring home the bacon while I would sit on the couch reading and eating bonbons! 🙂 Just kidding, but I think it shows how much pressure there is on all of us (but men more specifically) to major in something lucrative rather than something they love. I think the liberal arts used to be more appreciated in the sense of them making one a well-rounded and intelligent person, but now it is all about the money. (I read an article about this in The Wall Street Journal, something about the death of literature majors.) Anyway, thanks for making me think about this!

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