“What You Give Is What You Get”: Majoring in English

usfclipartgIn less than a month, I’ll be receiving my Bachelor of Arts degree in English. I started my upper-level English classes three years ago and now, fourteen literature classes (and a few creative writing classes) later, I’m ready to end my undergraduate education. Although I’ve already accepted an admissions offer from a Master’s program in English at another university, my future still seems pretty murky. I chose my major when I was very young (fifteen years old in fact, since I attended a collegiate high school) and even then I was well aware of the fact that this wasn’t an academic pursuit that would bring me money or fame. I’m glad that I made the decision to stay in a literature program rather than pursue the creative writing track, after suffering through creative writing classes that required rushed short stories and awkward peer review sessions. Although I learned quickly that creative writing is not my calling, I still wish that I had been more prepared for my literature program.

Let me just start by saying that I’m not really an “expert” on undergraduate education in English—I’m just a veteran, and someone who entered into this program at a pretty young age. I also find it important to acknowledge that every program is different and my “advice” stems from my experiences at a gigantic, mid-tier state school. I’ll be attending a much smaller private university for my Masters and therefore my little nuggets of advice might in fact do me, and anyone else who attends a smaller or private school, little good.

That being said, I still hope that my “advice” might help others get the most out of their undergraduate English programs. As I’ve written in the title, this isn’t really a “blow-off major” although others might sneer at its legitimacy as an academic pursuit, especially in a limping economy that prioritizes STEM graduates. As an English undergraduate, what you give is what you get, and if you’re willing to go above and beyond what your degree audit requires for graduation, I think you’ll really be doing yourself—and your curriculum vitae—a favor.

  1. Learn your theory! My professor for Literary Techniques and Theory (the prerequisite  for upper-level literature classes at my institution) was pretty frazzled and while he was a brilliant guy, his course left much to be desired. In my English department, almost all of the professors have some experience with teaching this basic theory class and what ends up happening is each English undergraduate has a vastly different experience with learning theory. In my class, I ended up learning a lot about semiotics, Lacan, Derrida and Barthes but not much else. I think that it’s important to supplement your learning of theory because it’s pretty difficult for professors to adequately cover all of the different types of literary theory in one sixteen-week course. Luckily, it’s totally possible to get a basic understanding of other theories without having to do too much extra homework. Yale University features an Introduction to Theory of Literature as part of its Open Yale Courses video collection. Dr. Paul H. Fry does a pretty good job of covering the important theories and since this is a video series, you can chill out in bed with your iPad and watch it or fire it up on your phone while at the gym (am I a dork for doing that?). Alternatively, if you want a textual reference, I would recommend investing in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. It’s expensive, but chock-full of some of the most important authors, philosophers, and theorists and their essays.
  2. Take a variety of classes about the literature of different cultures. Majoring in English is great because there isn’t really a “progression” of classes that you’re expected to take. So long as your prerequisites are taken care of, you can enroll in an extremely wide variety of classes. Understanding the experiences and literature of other cultures goes hand-in-hand with knowing your theory (I would recommend reading a lot of Edward Said!). And frankly, these classes can be really fun. Taking courses on the same white Western authors you read in high school can’t possibly be the only thing you bother doing during your undergraduate education. Think about it like this: there’s a whole world out there of texts that don’t take place in America and England. An entire world. Don’t feel intimidated about taking a class about a culture you don’t belong to—classes like these will help you learn to keep an open mind, both in your academic endeavors and in your personal experiences.
  3. Build a portfolio. Your first few papers probably won’t be that enlightening—so what? Your undergraduate years are a time for exploring different time periods, authors, cultures and theories. Hang on to your old papers and learn from your professors’  comments and criticisms. You’ll soon learn what your strengths and weaknesses are in writing. Make sure you address all of your flaws in grammar and syntax early on so that your papers aren’t crippled by poor form during your entire undergraduate career. As you progress through your program, you might even want to consider doctoring an old paper and submitting it to a conference or a journal (both of which I would highly advise if you have the confidence to do so—you’ve got nothing to lose by just trying). Old papers also make for good writing samples if you choose to apply to graduate school. Variety is key here—don’t just continually go back to the same arguments and the same sources. You’ll be writing a lot of short papers during your undergraduate career but don’t waste your time writing about topics that bore you (because chances are they’ll bore everyone else too!).
  4. Find a mentor. Not every English professor is brilliant and in fact some are just plain lousy as teachers. However, your professors are still people, and (most, I’m assuming!) have hobbies and senses of humor and probably won’t shrivel and die if a student approaches them. If you feel like you really “click” with a cool professor and you adore their class (even if you don’t do well) don’t hesitate to strike up a conversation during their office hours (after class can be a bad time since many professors have to hurry off to other classes and appointments). I promise it’s not creepy, so do a google search of your professors’ conference papers, books and journal articles. Ask about their research. Ask questions about the class or get clarification regarding a certain topic or a grade you received on an assignment. Ask about graduate school. Be polite and if your professor seems curt or busy, don’t take it personal, and in the future just send an e-mail if you have any further questions. But you might be pleasantly surprised at how enthusiastic your professors are about sharing their research or talking about their classes. I don’t mean to sound heartless by insinuating that maintaining professional friendships with a few professors should only be for the benefit of getting a letter of recommendation or being asked to help them with a project, but professors are employed by the school not only to conduct research but also to help their students learn and succeed. It’s a really good feeling to know that a professional in your field is in your corner, rooting for you, willing to nudge you in the right direction while you try to complete and get the most out of your program.
  5. Keep an open mind about jobs. Maybe you want to be a journalist or a librarian or a lawyer or a professor or a writer–all of these are possible career paths with a B.A. in English, among many others. One thing that I think many English majors struggle with is confusion towards what path they want to take in life and in an economy as depressing as this one, it’s easy to see why. The video “So You Want To Get a PhD in the Humanities?” sums up much of the attitude towards English majors, an attitude that constantly demands we justify our existence (I also highly recommend this video to anyone with a good sense of humor who is going to graduate school for English). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with setting your sights on being a professional writer one day, but when graduation day rolls around and you haven’t published a single story or poem you might want to reevaluate your immediate plan. Furthermore, the unpaid publishing and editing internships/entry-level positions listed on bookjobs.com, while sexy, aren’t exactly plausible for those of us who can’t afford living in Manhattan, income-less, for months. The reality is that you probably won’t land a good job straight out of your undergraduate program. You might have to go on to get a graduate degree (if you want to be a lawyer, professor or librarian), build a professional portfolio composed of freelance or blogging work (if you want to go into journalism or writing) or get a special certification (such as a TEFL certificate, if you want to teach English as a second language). A Bachelor’s degree in English is like a starting point, but the research and creative skills you’ll learn from this major aren’t to be scoffed at if you’re willing to put in the work.
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