In Defense of English Majors

graduation 2000
Receiving my English degree

I keep thinking I need to update, but then I sit for a long time, staring at a blank page. Between work, grad school, and general adult responsibilities, I’m in a permanent state of exhaustion. That makes it rather hard to be creative when I sit down to write, but here goes.

Twenty plus years ago or so, I wrote poetry. I don’t think I was particularly good at it. But I wrote it anyway. I dabbled in playwriting, too. I wasn’t good at that either. Short stories? Meh.

I also made an attempt at a novel and gave that up. I still have it somewhere on my hard drive, and it might be fun (or horrifying) to read it. I expect a glass of wine or two will be mandatory.

I think most writers do that, don’t they? They experiment until they find what works.

Nonfiction ended up being my jam, specifically the personal essay. The travel essay, in particular. But I don’t travel much anymore, which is a sad state of affairs.

Maybe I always knew nonfiction was my true genre, somewhere deep down. I started out in undergrad as a journalism major. I wanted to tell stories – true stories. I think I majored in journalism for about a year, but I ended up changing to creative writing. I got this idea in my head that as a journalist, you would have to hound people frequently to get a story. And that’s not always true, which I know now. But at the time, that’s what I thought. And I didn’t have an assertive bone in my body, so I figured that wasn’t going to work.

Well, creative writing didn’t work either. I enjoyed the classes, but I think I had too much of a thin skin at the time to really handle the peer reviews. One poetry instructor strongly discouraged me from becoming a poet.

I don’t remember when I changed my major to English. It might have been shortly after I transferred to Ohio State from Bowling Green State University. Because I took some creative writing classes at OSU, too. But in the last two years of undergrad, I was immersed in literature, and creative writing took a backseat.

Of course, I heard the jokes about majoring in English. “Embrace a life of poverty.” “It’s a useless degree unless you become a teacher.” Blah blah blah. Twenty years later, not much has changed there.

Yes, STEM is the thing now. But there is still a place for English majors, too. Critical thinking seems to be in a sad decline these days. English majors? We have those skills. (Humanities in general, I hasten to add.) Writing? Editing? English majors are likely to have those skills, too. (I’m not saying all do. Trust me. I’ve seen that firsthand.)

And contrary to popular belief, not all English majors end up being teachers. That seems to be the obvious career path, and everyone assumed that’s what I would do. (And to my teacher friends, you guys are rock stars! I appreciate you!) Well, I actually hated teaching, to be honest. It took two years as a graduate teaching assistant to figure that out. So, no academic life for me.

So, back to writing and editing. You *can* make a career of that, and I have. Sadly, journalists seem to be disrespected a lot these days and there have been massive layoffs at newspapers. Editors don’t get much love either, it seems, as they are often the first to go if there are staffing cuts. (Why yes, I have noticed a sharp uptick in errors in print and online publications in recent years.)

But there is always marketing. And there will always be a need for marketers. And English majors are a great fit for this career, though you can come into marketing from any background. (Storytelling makes great marketing, and English majors know stories.)

I’m currently in the Buckeye Pen Pals program, an Ohio State-sponsored initiative that pairs a current OSU student with an alum. The pairing is based on major and the student’s career plans.

While I wasn’t paired with a student this year (more alumni were signed up than students), I am still in touch with my pen pal from last year. She’s an English major who is considering a career in professional writing. I know she’s concerned about her career prospects after she graduates. That’s understandable. I just don’t know how much of that is tied into being an English major – a lot, I suspect.

So, while an English degree is not the path to riches, it still has value. It does open doors.

Don’t believe me? Here’s proof:

The Washington Post: The world’s top economists just made the case for why we still need English majors

Business Insider: People said majoring in English was a waste of time and money — but here are five ways I use it in my everyday life

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