“Oh, so you’re an English major? Do you, uh, plan on getting a job when you graduate?” –Something more than three people have actually said to me in the last six months.
You know how Harry Potter was destined to save the wizarding world from evil? Well, I was destined to become an English major. (For about five minutes at the start of freshman year, I thought that I was destined to become a Russian major. I wasn’t.) My lit teacher senior year of high school told us that a former student of hers was studying English at a liberal arts school in upstate New York or western Pennsylvania or something. The former student was taking a semester-long class devoted solely to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
Upon hearing this, I turned to the girl sitting next to me and mouthed, the horror! (Unrelated note: Julie was in this class with me for an entire year. She sat at the opposite side of the classroom and we spoke maybe twice. Star-crossed lovers.)
Now, let’s pause here for a second. I thought my joke was totally hilarious because 1) reading Heart of Darkness is kind of like slogging through a muddy swamp in Old Navy flip flops and 2) I am a nerd. (If it’s been a long time since your last high school lit class, the horror! The horror! is what Kurtz says at the end of the Heart of Darkness just before he dies. He’s talking about human nature or vegan chicken or something.) I don’t remember exactly how the girl sitting next to me reacted—if I had to guess, she laughed politely and then quickly left the room—but I chuckled to myself at my literary pun for a long time. I mean a long time.
How did I not realize that English was my destiny?
Before I became an English major, I asked the same questions that you would. What could you possibly do with four years’ experience studying literature? How could that translate into anything remotely practical? Are beanies and oversized eyeglasses required to gain entry into a Shakespearean lit class?
To answer your most important question: no, beanies are optional. (Oversized glasses are strongly recommended, though. That’s why I got a pair this summer. People can smell your intellect.) But when I declared an English major, I found that people tend to have questions. And comments. And a lot of confidence that I’m never going to get a job.
“So, you want to be a teacher, right?” Nope. Nope I don’t.
“You’re an English major? Hey, I know English too!” Everyone thinks they’re the first to come up with that one.
“English? So… what are you going to do with that?” I mean, I was kind of planning on doodling Toni Morrison quotes on park benches for the rest of my life, but now you’ve really got me thinking!
“What’s your favorite book?” I like this question, I really do. But it feels like my answer should be terrific. I usually go with On the Road by Jack Kerouac because it’s avant-garde, yet classic. (Plot twist: I have never read On the Road by Jack Kerouac.)
So yes, I take classes like “Introduction to Shakespeare” and “Contemporary American Literature.” I write scenes about people who only exist in my head and I say words like doppelganger and synecdoche out loud when I probably shouldn’t.
But when I have a thought, or a weird feeling, or a crazy idea, I can bring it to life.
That’s a practical skill, if you can believe it. Just look at any book, article, headline, or advertisement that’s ever been published. For me, being an English major is all about finding the right words, putting them in order, and making you see what I see. It’s like inception or telepathy. Being an English major is like being a magician, basically. We are wordsmiths in training. So you can keep telling me how unemployable I am—I don’t mind. If you need me, I’ll be over here making magic.