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So, you want to be an English major
Students contemplating an English major don’t need to be told about the joys of literature. They already love reading, and some of them have been writing stories and poems from an early age. Maybe a favorite high school teacher noted at the top of an essay: “You should think about being a writer!” The idea was tempting.
But college brings with it a daunting dose of adult issues and responsibilities: The cost of an undergraduate education may mean one’s parents must draw heavily on family resources; often there are student loans to be shouldered. The future is likewise unsettling, with the prospect of an increasingly competitive job market and the cost of living spiraling upward in an uncertain economy. In this light, the decision to be an English major—to immerse oneself for four years in novels, plays, and poetry—may seem just a little too enjoyable. Perhaps all that reading and scribbling are better kept as hobbies. Isn’t it self-indulgent to study English?
The answer is most certainly, no. In today’s fast-changing global environment, particularly, a liberal arts education, that blending of broad intellectual sweep with portable skills, may well be the requisite keystone. And the English major lies at the heart of the liberal arts, with good reason. At Boston College the English major has enjoyed long popularity—720 students are currently enrolled—because of the way in which the reading of creative work in this discipline extends beyond the text into the realms of history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, religion, and politics. Our courses teach students how to employ these vantages, because we believe you can’t fully read medieval women writers, for instance, without considering what gender meant in that time; you can’t understand the Puritans’ essays without knowing the religious context; and you can’t get at the richness of John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy without embracing early 20th-century America—its labor strife, the budding film industry in Hollywood, the presidential politics and international entanglements of the First World War, the speculative stock market that ensued after Armistice.
I became an English major because I had the feeling that reading broadly, deeply, and within a cultural context offered up the world to me. A working-class kid from a public school in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, I could travel in time and encounter people—Shakespeare’s Macbeth, or Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, or Eliot’s Prufrock—who were at once thrillingly different from anyone I knew and yet instantly, intimately familiar in their essential yearnings, ambitions, failings, and happinesses.
But if the English major can transport you to other worlds, how can it help you survive in this one? In our changing times, when the career options available to new graduates are unpredictable, and people’s paths are apt to veer one way and then another during their working lifetimes, the English major is among the most practical of foundations. To be an English major is, by definition, to be an interdisciplinarian, conversant in imaginative and nonfiction texts, film, and other media, even Facebook. (No, there’s no course on Facebook in our department, but who’s to say how it will evolve as a form of discourse and how it will, perhaps one day, be studied?) As students at Boston College range through courses in Renaissance English drama, Anglophone Caribbean memoir, and contemporary American fiction, they are honing their discussion abilities in the demanding give-and-take environment of small classes and strengthening their analytic and writing skills—all the while broadening their view of what it means to be an individual and to live in society.
There’s a simple question i ask of every new english major I advise: “What kind of an English major are you?” The answers are rarely as simple, but I’ve discovered that students tend to favor three tacks. There’s the Burning-In-Love-With-Literature sort, which is how I would have described myself, the student who dreams of a career in writing, teaching, editing, or some combination thereof. Many other students—my husband was an example—want the skills that the discipline imparts, so they can pursue a course having little to do with literature (in the case of my husband, law school). But besides this Strategic English major—the English-first-law-school-later type—there’s a third kind of advisee I often find coming to see me, and that’s the Generalist. This is the student who is good at many subjects, interested in even more, and genuinely reluctant to specialize in any one. This person senses that the English major is capacious and, no matter what branch of letters he or she explores, will lead to a richly informed life. For this student, life after college offers not a single outcome but rather a galaxy of possibilities.
And the possibilities are almost endless. Our English majors have gone on to graduate programs in writing at places like the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to jobs as reporters and editors throughout the world of publishing, to law firms and medical teams, to banking and entrepreneurship, often with many stops and turns along the way. There is Siobhan, a former student of mine, who spent two years teaching seventh grade in the Bronx as a member of Teach for America. She next became head of the English department in a charter school, then a curriculum consultant, and is now in journalism school, pursuing her interest in international reporting. Another of my former students, Michele, having written and produced screenplays, founded NewEnglandFilm.com, a website for people involved in the independent film industry. A colleague’s thesis advisee last semester, Kara, a double major in English and finance, is going on to a position in mergers and acquisitions at Goldman Sachs. And Ryan, a current advisee of mine, is headed for a political internship at the Massachusetts State House.
At the end of the day, the one trait all English majors share is the breadth of their worldview. True, they’re all strong writers and voracious readers. They are dynamic, engaging communicators. But much more important, what distinguishes and unites them is their curiosity and their ability to make connections between disparate points of view. Whether they’re headed for careers in creative writing or corporate law, they aren’t satisfied with black and white truths. They relish complexity and realize that no answer can be sufficient if you haven’t generated the right questions. Nuance matters, as every English major knows.
Suzanne Matson, a professor of English at Boston College, teaches creative writing and contemporary poetry. Her most recent novel, The Tree-Sitter, was published in 2006. Her essay here is drawn from a talk she gave on April 20, 2008, during a forum for high school seniors accepted to Boston College.
Read more by Suzanne Matson