And What Do You Want to do with THAT?: The English Major

Go English majors! Long live liberal arts! Below is the speech I gave, during the weekend of my college graduation, at my English convocation:

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At the start of the movie Adventureland, there’s a scene in which James, the main character, has just graduated from college. Although he got into Columbia for graduate school, his parents tell him that if he wants to go to Columbia, he has to get a summer job. He starts calling various places to see if they’re interested in hiring him. The first employer he calls asks about his previous job experience and he responds, “I wrote for The Gordian Knot, it was a literary journal in college.” The employer tells him that he’ll have to get back to him.

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“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard” – A.A. Milne.

Eventually, James tells his parents he knows the only place he can get a job is with his friend at the local amusement park. His mother responds, “What, at Adventureland? You got a concussion on the teacup ride there when you were six,” while his dad tells him, “You can do better, kiddo.” James responds, “I majored in Comparative Literature and Renaissance Studies. Unless someone needs help restoring a fresco, I’m screwed.”

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Posing with my boy Hugh Morris at Morris library.

In the end, everything works out for James, he winds up getting the girl he loves and goes to graduate school. Yet, like James, I think a lot of us can relate to the concern we evoke when we tell people for the first time what we chose to major in, in college.

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Graduation day.

We might think back to a Thanksgiving dinner or a time we ran into an old kindergarten teacher, when our relative or teacher asked us what we’re majoring in. And when we told them we chose to major in English, our relative or teacher might have nodded for a minute, and then asked the inevitable question: “Oh, an English major. And what do you plan on doing with that?”

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We might have offered some self-deprecating response to show that we understood their concern, or given a more optimistic one, like that ideally, we hope to be the next J.K. Rolling.

Yet, now that we are about to get a degree in English, I think most of us can agree that there are a lot of benefits to majoring in English.

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Posing with my cousin, the celebrity.

For one, Urban Dictionary defines the English major as “The thinking man’s major.”

An article put out by the University of South Carolina’s English department suggests that another benefit of our major is we can impress our significant others by being able to recite Shakespearean sonnets.

But on a more serious note, more and more employers are saying that they love hiring English majors.

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I found a great page put out by Villanova’s English Department that lists a series of articles, in which CEO’s discuss why they love hiring English majors.

Most of them suggest that all of the qualities they look for in the workplace are what we have studied over the past four years.

One employer says that a recent survey by Metlife found that 97% of business executives rate good writing skills as very important.

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She adds that employers also look for people with good communication skills, the ability to think critically, do extensive research, and more recently, for people who are empathetic. A study done by the University of Toronto found that people who read fiction frequently have higher levels of cognitive empathy because readers are asked to enter into the characters’ situations and minds, which also improves their interpersonal understanding. Other CEO’s suggested that we are easy to work with.

One referred to us as an endangered species and said, “If you find one, you need to run over and catch him or her in a conversation.”

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Chelsea, one of my best friends from back home, and I on the Red Carpet.

Another said, “I love English majors… I love their intellectual curiosity. And I love their bold choice for a major. Most of all, I love to hire them.”

Recently, I noticed that our own English department put up a poster that lists some successful people who majored in English in college, so I decided to look into it.

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Among the list include the singer Sting, Conan O’Brien, Barbara Walters, Diane Sawyer, Steven Spielberg, not so surprisingly, Stephen King, Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy all time champion, and Vin Diesel.

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Chair of the English Department John Ernest: “Let’s get this party started.”

One of my favorite quotes is by another famous person, John Lennon. Some of you might have heard this one. He said, “When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”

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We made it!

I think many of us can agree that another benefit of majoring in English, and more particularly, majoring in English at UD, is that we love it.

Studies have found that English majors tend to have high levels of job satisfaction. A study that surveyed alumni who had been English majors at California State University found a low unemployment rate and that they often used what they learned as English majors. 84 percent of the students said they were satisfied with the content of their work and the direction of their career, while 96.8 percent, said that given the chance to do it all again, they would major in English and recommend the English major to others.

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Although I may be biased, I think many of us know there is something special about liberal arts, and especially, English classes.

I have always enjoyed hearing some of the comments friends in other majors make when we’ve talked about our day.

“Your professor came in wearing a pirate hat on Halloween and wears a Canterbury Tales tie? That’s awesome.”

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Professor James Dean!

or, “Your professor didn’t get angry when you explained the term ‘baller’ was originated by Shakespeare and brought in juggling balls for your group presentation?”

“You start off every class with a song?”

and one that I’ve heard a lot,

“You actually have conversations with your professors? Your classes seem so interactive.”

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So glad Ron Burgundy showed up for the big day.

From our first class in Memorial 126 to E110, medieval literature, Shakespeare, creative writing classes, and more, I think it’s true that we’ve we taken some of the most exciting and interactive classes at UD. And like most college students, we perfected working under pressure, with the help of a lot of caffeine, as we continually told ourselves that we would never again start a paper assigned months ago, the night before it was due.

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A selfie with Hugh.

About a year ago while writing a paper, I came across a term that has not yet made it to Webster, but is listed in something called the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. It’s become one of my favorite terms:

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n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

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After today, many of us will eventually go on to new jobs or schools, and cities. Yet, I think we’re lucky to be able to say that our home in Memorial Hall, along with the people we met there, is now a large part of our epic story.

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Posing with my family!

Before I conclude, I just want to thank my parents for always being so supportive of me and for helping me have such a great four years here. I want to thank my family and friends who came today, which really means a lot, along with Morris [the library]. I also want to thank all of my English professors, along with John Ernest, who helped make my experience at UD so great. And finally, thank you to my grandparents, who have always encouraged me, and my Grandpa J., who was one of my biggest supporters over the past four years, often volunteered to take me home for winter and summer breaks, despite joking that he didn’t know he needed to bring a u-Haul truck, and who also helped make my time here possible.

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High school graduation with my grandpa, 2010.

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Posing with my parents!

To conclude, I found a quote that I really enjoy by a professor, Mark Edmundson, who remarked, “The English major reads because, as rich as the one life he has may be, one life is not enough. He reads not to see the world through the eyes of other people but effectively to become other people. What is it like to be them at their best, at the top of their games?”

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So like James in Adventureland, I think that everything is going to turn out okay for us. And the next time we’re asked what we’re going to do with our degree, we should go look at the person with confidence and reply, “Oh plenty. I’m an English major.”

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59 Responses to And What Do You Want to do with THAT?: The English Major

  1. Geraint Isitt says:

    Absolutely. I have a diploma in journalism and a degree in Professional Writing, and while not an English major, my entire scholastic career was spent thinking, writing, discussing, and challenging conventions. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to publish a non-fiction book back in Canada and currently work in Dubai as a writer/editor. And because of it, I’ve got to see more of the world than I would have dreamed to.

    Yes, be proud of that English major. And as a writer, and a good one from reading your blog, if there’s something you just can’t get around to do in real life, you can always create a character who will.

  2. billgncs says:

    if you can communicate and think on your feet, you’ll do fine. Life is your adventure to live.

  3. madisonrolls says:

    I’m not an English major, but I am in the humanities and can totally relate to the reactions you get from others about major choice. Glad to see other people have just smiled through it and kept moving like I have. Good luck to you!

  4. jackiegiles says:

    This feels very familiar. When I tell people I’m majoring in public relations, I either get, “What’s that?” or “What do you want to do with that?”
    Like you, I get to make people jealous of the awesome, laid back professors in my department. Yay for writing majors.

  5. Well done. Take it all with you in whatever you do.

  6. paranoiasnfm says:

    So, again, i have to say: congratulations!!!! 😀
    I’m happy for you! 😀

    kiss

  7. Reading this took me back to the times of English classes and feeling so enthralled by the books, short stories, epic poems and such.

    I was almost an English major. As lovely as your experience seems, though, I think I would have hated it mainly because of the people in the department at the time :/

    All your points do make sense and still carry weight with me. The thinking man’s major–I ser that.

  8. Congratulations!
    I really enjoyed this post, and as an English major myself, I say: preach, girl!

  9. What a great post! I’m not an English major – psychology/sociology were my majors. Writing was a key area in my government career, and now I’m doing what I always wanted to do – write fiction. My first novel, The White Limousine will soon be published. It’s a time travel, action adventure romance. Learn more at http://www.johnrpaterson.com

  10. Love this!
    My friend and former ethics professor has always been quick to joke about how people with arts degrees (hers is in philosophy) should get used to saying “do you want pickles on that?)
    But, as you stated, more and more employers are looking for critical thinkers, those that can put a presentation or report together and do it well.
    Our world is not run only by the mathematically inclined!
    Good for you!

  11. DebraB says:

    Lovely speech/post. I am an English professor, so it’s nice to read about how great English majors are!

  12. Annette Rochelle Aben says:

    awesome! wonderful! I am so happy for you and for US, the world at large to have an English major who will be out there taking charge! God Bless you in all you do and thank you for this terrific offering, it made my day!

  13. salpal1 says:

    lol, wish I was 18 right now! I wanted to major in history and English. My father said no, I had to major in business, so I could get a job. I did, but every elective I got, I took English and history. At the end of 4 years my advisor was mad at me, my father was annoyed, I was sad I listened to them, and all my history major and English major friends got jobs before I did, because they could research and write. I could too, but didn’t have a degree that said so. fast forward 30 years – a good chunk of my work week is spent writing reports, marketing materials, etc. Oh, I wish I had your speech in front of me way back then. I might be a fantastically fun history teacher or English teacher right now. 🙂 (don’t get me wrong, I do like what I do, but this really resonated with me.)

    You go forth and take on the world, I know it will be a better place because you have that English degree.

    • Aww, thank you for this comment. It was so sincere and I really enjoyed reading it 🙂 I think there are also benefits to the more practical decision you made too though! But thank you again because your comment made my day!

      • salpal1 says:

        lol you are welcome. I am sure that my degree helped me get where I am , but you know how it is – I think about the road not taken. However – maybe I should go back to school and study what I like, not what someone else tells me is practical. It is never too late. 🙂

  14. What a fantastic speech! I wish something like that had been read at my English commencement. It’s true, I’ve heard that question posed to me a thousand times, especially because I work in finance (how did I end up there?). You’ve captured everything there is to love about being an English major and you’ve proven that there’s so much more than reading and writing when it comes to the study of English. Congrats on your graduation!

  15. gracieromero says:

    Congratulations from a fellow English major!

  16. Reblogged this on Sarah Solmonson's Blog and commented:
    Is your recent graduate considering an English major? If so, you’ve got one bright young adult on your hands!

  17. Good: now I don’t feel embarrassed by my major.
    Bad: I am now worried somebody will ask me something about Shakespeare…
    good: now I have the motivation to take a refresher on said Shakespeare 🙂

  18. Congrats. I’m still in high school and I don’t really know what I want to do exactly, but I know I want to be an English major in college. I can’t imagine studying anything else. For a little while I was worried that if I did become an English major I would have trouble finding a job, but this post and your speech has given me confidence to peruse what I want. And I want to be an English major.

    • Thank you 🙂 And aww, it was so nice reading this comment. In h.s. I also knew I loved English, so I would say that if that’s what you’re leaning toward, go for it! Happiness will definitely find you.

  19. Aquileana says:

    Congratulations on the speech and graduation…
    What a beautiful and remarkable moment, thanks for sharing with us,
    Best wishes, Aquileana 😀

  20. This is so inspiring!!!

  21. fineandkind says:

    This post is amazing! I’m an English major too entering into my Junior year. Every single person expresses negativity when I say I’m studying English. However, we are extremely empathetic, I have wonderful relationships with my professors, and we can think critically and write it all down! Thanks for the support in my educational pursuits 🙂

  22. scoby27 says:

    Great post. Thanks for teaching me the meaning of ‘sonder,’ and for sharing your enthusiasm for your education and the English language with such eloquence. I especially like the John Lennon quote. It certainly sounds like you understand the meaning of life.

  23. So, so, so inspiring. You have a long career ahead of you and a gift to help you get there. Congratulations!

  24. osarobohenry says:

    Congratulations!!!

  25. alsoranagain says:

    First, congratulations on graduating from college! Second, I agree with you that being an English major is fantastic. I was one (with an emphasis in creative writing) and loved my undergraduate experience. 18 years after graduating from college (I’m old), I still pull out obscure literary allusions and wow my friends. (Just kidding–I get a lot of eye rolls.)

  26. It’s interesting how I get the very same reaction of “and what are you going to do with that?” having graduated in theoretical physics – one would think that maybe the other side of the spectrum would not invite such comments, but it so does! The most important thing is that it does not matter to me. I may or may not have problems finding a job, I may or may not work as a physicist in the future, and I may or may not find myself successful in ten years (but of course I’m working towards that anyway!). So what? I’ve just spent few years of my life doing something I love, and it’s never a bad choice.
    Good luck in grad school! It’s going to be awesome 🙂

  27. jmchri13 says:

    I’m taking liberal arts to the extreme, and combining my English major with an environmental studies major (so my diploma will say “English-Environmental Studies”). Humanities is the way of the future! By the way, I love that Edmundson quote.

  28. emeraldcity5 says:

    Thank you for writing this! I am about to go into my second year at University and just officially declared my major in English Literature! 😀 I’m super excited yet it’s easy to get discouraged when you explain to everyone your major and they always assume I’ll end up teaching someday (something I really don’t want to do!) It’s great to see all the statistics and studies you put into this post; definitely makes me even more excited to graduate as an English major! 🙂

  29. cerikson says:

    This is great post! I agree that English majors and the Humanities, in general, are often looked down upon, and I have been at the receiving end of many of those responses, especially since I was an English/History double major.

  30. cc says:

    LOVE the quote on your cap. I’ve been seeing it a lot since I just graduated too. I couldn’t relate more to that quote especially- the feeling is so bittersweet. Congrats!! You’ll go far with that major and confidence 🙂

  31. I absolutely love this. Apply it to the humanities in general. And all those people who disparaged my occupation — teaching and practicing psychology — because you couldn’t get “a job in it” without an advanced degree. Nonsense! Employers understand the usefulness of research skills, to say nothing of what we really do teach and learn about people. Sorry to intrude on your theme, but let me add that I was as close to an English major as I could get. And how hard it was for me to get the parents of my advisees to understand you don’t go to college to get a particular job skill, or even particular job skills, because the needs will have changed by the end of one’s college career. The best major is the one that gives you joy.

    So, thanks a million for this speech.

  32. akzelaya says:

    Congratulations! I was an English major and graduated about 2 years ago and now work at an Engineering firm, which I would have thought was my worst nightmare. It’s weird what you end up falling into after you graduate and now I’m looking at Graduate Business programs. I think that assuming you’ll stay in a field you majored in is very small minded, especially with degrees that are vastly applicable–like English. When people graduate and enter the work force they see that a majority of their peers end up in places they never thought, and the new adventure is really exciting, so enjoy it!

  33. Head Out West says:

    Love this post! I was an English major too – go us!

  34. treehugger04 says:

    This is very inspiring. As someone who desperately wants to major in English, but has been told by my parents that it is pointless, I found your article exciting and truly great. It makes me feel like English majors CAN accomplish something. I think I will send this on to my parents!

    Thank you for this, and I wish you all the best in your future endeavors.

  35. Max Rialto says:

    You have even greater competition – from us “Music Therapy” majors!” ((seriously). At least, the general public recognizes that English major is a “real” degree…and I would bet our per capita income ranks at 37.9% of a comparable English major’s after two decades (source, unverified). We do have communication skills, fluent in another language using a different style of “notation” and are proficient in at least one “instrument.” So I don’t regret my major either. 🙂

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