For years, English majors have been terribly underrepresented in the mainstream media. You’ve likely seen or heard the John Mulaney quote: “That’s right, you heard me: an English major…I paid $120,000 for someone to tell me to go read Jane Austen. And then I didn’t.” While amusing and even somewhat reflective of my own mindset at times, there are plenty of preconceived notions about what it means to study this thing we call the English language. Most often, society depicts us as struggling post-grads who drink too much coffee and exchange human interaction for a pen and paper. Of course, for those of you who are actually studying English like I am, you know that this isn’t always the case…most of the time. Even so, in the spirit of truth telling, I’ve been thinking about some of the hard-earned lessons from my current college experience, both the bad and the good. Here are just five of those.
- You’re going to get tired of reading and writing. Seriously.
I have a vivid memory of the day I registered for a literature class I thought I would love, only to later find out that I would spend most of the semester chain-drinking green tea, panicking between 1,000-word essays, and reading three books at any given time. It’s a lot. We are well acquainted with this workload, since the very definition of an English major presupposes that reading and writing are inevitable. Even still, I imagine I am not the only one tired of sifting through text for symbolism and allegory. I even imagine that I am not alone when I stare into the sky with a weary face and scream, “What does it all mean?!” Usually? Not very much in the scheme of things. Still, we do it because this is the life we chose, and we love it despite everything.
- You have to make time for extracurricular activities.
Yes, even if you think you don’t have it. Some of you embarking on this path may be juggling jobs, families, and internships. By the end of the day, you may find yourself overwhelmed and exhausted. I, for one, still have many moments, if not extended periods of time, when I lose sight of the reason that I chose this major in the first place. I get so caught up in unpacking the themes of Shakespeare and the rhyme schemes of Frost that by the end of it, I’m just burnt out. I don’t want to read or write again; I’ve been doing that all day. Still, there are moments when I have to remind myself that I genuinely enjoy reading, so I pick up a nonacademic book (usually fantasy or thriller), take twenty minutes to jot down my thoughts, go on a run, or even bake some chocolate chip cookies. Some days, I have to force myself to chill out. Life cannot be lived in between assignment deadlines, and it’s important to take these moments for yourself. If you don’t, you will go insane. Nobody can read that much Shakespeare at any given time.
- Some days, you will use the same words over and over again.
In academic writing, there’s a certain vernacular that English majors get used to. In an attempt to express the right meanings and write clever analyses for the countless discussion posts our professors will assign us, we fall into the trap of regurgitating those same words back at one another until they seem to have lost all meaning. These words include but are not limited to piggybacking, convey, evocative, nuanced, motif, trope, poignant, and of course, the age-old interesting. As in, “You make some really interesting points. Just to piggyback off that, I think the passage conveys the nuanced approach of evocative genre tropes like this…” See what I mean? Of course, there are moments when these are just the most applicable words. If that’s the case, go for it. Otherwise, if you feel so called, we might bode well from thinking up a new set of soon-to-be expired words.
- Sometimes you’re pretentious—and that’s okay.
Maybe you love obscure movie references. You liked that one indie film with that one indie actor, and you think nothing good has ever been churned out from the movie-making machine that is Hollywood. Maybe you like to quote Wordsworth in your spare time, or you have an affinity for four syllable words like proclivity and macrocosm. And maybe you also find people rolling their eyes at you when you express such passions. The important thing to remember is that you can be whoever you want, antics and all. Surround yourself with people who will enjoy your enthusiasm for these things, even if they don’t have an enthusiasm for it themselves. But also, remember communication is important, and no one wants to talk to someone who sounds like they’ve been studying up for the SAT for decades.
- People constantly ask: “What are you going to do with that? Teach?”
If you’ve decided on an English major and spent some time mulling over its many versatile benefits, you’ve likely become all too familiar with this question. I know that I have. I can’t tell you the countless times during my college experience that I’ve been asked this question by well-meaning family members, coworkers who have no idea what an English major is, and even the occasional snide boss who says, “Oh, so you don’t want to make money then.” Yes, that really happened. There were points in my life when I experienced a sense of existential dread any time someone asked me this question. How do I summarize the countless possibilities that come from an English degree? How do I tell someone it’s actually possible—and quite accessible—to go into the writing field? If there’s anything you take away from your English classes, it’s the communication skills they’ve equipped you with to answer that question without spontaneously combusting. The fact is that most people have no idea what an English major entails, and most people presume that there’s nothing you can do in the writing field because the writing field can’t be big enough, right? Well, thankfully, we know that’s not the case.
There are, of course, countless other things I’ve learned during my time studying English. Some of them come from trial and error, a poorly written essay or a fiction piece that was more well-received than I initially expected. I imagine that by graduation, us English majors, wherever we are in our journey, will learn countless more lessons just like these, in between the heaps of tear-inducing research essays and tiresome discussion posts, of course. If anything, I guess that’s the light at the end of the tunnel.