So You Wanna Be an English Major

It's August, which means school's soon to be back in session, and you wanna be an English major. You should probably give up dreams like those in the comic above. It's unfortunate, really. I would love to do crazy things like have people ask me to analyze poems, actually offer me jobs, and have a pile of money - it'd sure make paying the bills easier.

But you want to be an English major, and that's good in a lot of ways. I was like you once, all fresh-faced and optimistic. I'd just spent a year and a half trying to be a math/computer science double major and realizing that I just didn't like doing that stuff anymore. I didn't care about Java. Polar coordinates kicked my ass. I figured, I can do a fair amount of calculus, so I'm good, no big. On to find something I'll enjoy.

And what I always enjoyed, from the time I was a small child, was reading. I love books. When my mother would read to me before I could read, I would pet the books and put them very carefully back on the shelves. When I wanted to hear Dopey Gets Lost every day for more than a month, and my dad would try to change the plot on me to alleviate his boredom, I'd tell him that's not how it went and recite the correct lines to him. Then I'd tell him to "Read it right." Books have been part of my life for as long as I can remember, and I wouldn't trade that for anything.

Now, you want to be an English major. Presumably, though not always since I have known a few who don't, you like reading. You like books. Or you like grammar. That's cool. I do want to give you a decent idea of what you're getting yourself into.

1. You love reading.

Prepare, my friend, to have a lot less time to read the things you would like to read. Prepare, my friend, to be able to give up pleasure reading altogether if you must. I just read Game of Thrones for the first time last month. It's the first time in over three years that I've read a book purely for pleasure (the last was House of Leaves back in either my fourth or fifth year as an undergrad, I can't even remember). When you have the kind of reading load English majors tend to have, there's really not room for reading new, fun things.

As an undergrad, your courseload to get the degree is going to be broad. You'll get a smattering of texts from different places and times, and a lot of it's going to be stuff you have little interest in. As a graduate student, you'll find it varies too much from one university to the next to be predictable. Some universities require you to repeat a bit of that broad base approach, while others say "Okay, pick your concentration and just take courses related to that."

So whatever you do, don't think that you'll just get to do a bunch of pleasure reading. It's not going to happen.

2. Reading is fun.

Reading is fun. It's a joyful, wonderful experience which allows us to see the world in new ways. If you become an English major, you're going to read differently. Your idea of fun while reading is going to change forever.

So You Wanna Be an English Major

You're going to find yourself inundated with modes of analysis and criticism that will seep into the core of how you read. Everything you read from now on, you'll look at it with a critical eye. You may look to the technical skill involved, or to the subtle political elements weaved into the story, but you'll never not be able to see these things, no matter the material. Webcomics? Yep. Superhero comics? Of course. Poetry? Duh. Memoirs and personal essays? Naturally. Novels and short stories? Is the Pope Catholic?

So You Wanna Be an English Major

That's good if you have the right personality for it. If you're naturally given to analyze everything you come across, you've found a good match. If you don't, you're either going to learn to, or you're going to have a bad time. Either way, you're going to get some theory crammed into your skull. Not all of it's going to stick - I still can't tell you what phemonenology really is or how to do it, but I can postcolonize your feminisms Marxistly, in Spanish.

3. Don't think it's like High School

Just, don't. English is taught really kind of poorly in high school. Half the time it's still about basic grammar that they've been hammering in your head since about third or fourth grade. If you're a grammar or language-acquisition nut, I recommend going next door to Linguistics - they'll turn you on like nothing before.

High school English doesn't really involve that much analysis, as I recall. There's reading, and there's some paper writing, but I can't remember doing much analysis then. Students come to me and they go for evaluation rather than analysis, and they think it is analysis. It's not, and it's difficult to disabuse them of that notion. And the poetry. I could write a whole piece on how American high schools kill the joy of poetry for people. Poems are not (some are, but by and large they are not) riddles with a single correct interpretation. It's not a matter of figuring out the trick and the one true answer. In English, there really isn't any one true answer. And a lot of it comes down to how well you're able to support your answer.

4. People are going to laugh a bit.

Some people will laugh. "Oh," they'll say. "So when do you start your shift at Starbucks?" There are people who feel that if it's not STEM, it's garbage. You'll probably get a psych major friend ask you "Why do you guys use Freud?" The answer to that last one is that Freud based a lot of his psychoanalysis on stories, so it's always been something of a tool for analyzing literature. Also, ask the average person to explain psychology and they still think Freud - he's so culturally important that everything written after he wrote is especially fair game for using his theories as an analytic tool.

But you know what? Let them laugh. You're putting together a hefty portfolio demonstrating your ability to organize an argument, do deep analysis and find creative solutions, set goals and achieve them, and write an email that actually makes sense.

You'll be hirable. I think you'll have the last laugh. Unless you get a PhD. Then you probably won't be doing that much laughing.

These have been just a few things to keep in mind, larval English major. Soon, you'll spread your wings like a pretty cool looking moth and fly. Just don't go toward the light. It's good to be optimistic, but don't be naive. You get into this major because you love to read, but you'd best hope to come out of it with that love intact.

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