What’s with the Hate for English Majors?
Or, as some people insist, English Literature majors. (I went to university and picked my major and it was called “English,” so do with that what you will.)
I was at the grocery store, and I overheard the guy bagging groceries saying to the cashier (as they discussed one of their co-workers), “So, what, she studied arts or, well, English? You mean she studied unemployment.”
I studied English. I haven’t been unemployed a day of my life since I left school (and that’s pushing on a decade ago now—yikes). Sure, maybe I’ve been underemployed and overemployed—on contract, part-time, temporary, freelance, full-time, whatever you want to say—but I’ve been pretty steadily employed. I started running my own business (partly out of necessity) when I was still pretty green; I’ve recently transitioned back to doing that full time. So I’m also an entrepreneur, a CEO, a business owner. I’ll also point out that my income has been higher than my S/O’s, although both of us are self-employed and that situation can change. (He’s an athlete, so there’s an element of chance in his line of work.)
It reminded me of the firestorm wherein the author of Outlander decided to shit all over English majors. I guess she never went to school or didn’t study English, and well, look at her! Clearly English is a useless degree. She knows how to English, guys. She Englishes well enough to make a bestselling series.
Guess what? An English degree doesn’t teach you how to write. We did not go over one whit of grammar during my four-year undergrad. We were expected to know how to write. I vividly remember, during my final year, one professor approaching me and inquiring what the heck my major was. When I answered that I was a fourth-year English major, she sighed and said, wistfully, “That explains it then.” She said it was a relief to read my papers in a class where virtually everyone else was a second-year science major. My papers were well-written.
What Do You Do in English Lit.?
So, what, did English teach us how to read? I mean, if it didn’t teach us how to write …
Yes. How the hell did we get to university if we didn’t know how to read, you might ask? We knew how to read—but not in the same way I know how to read now. I’m analytical. I think about structures and plot, themes and meaning. Let’s talk about extended metaphors and feminist theory. I dream about postmodernism, and I wonder if postmodernism has culminated in this supposed post-truth era—because we’ve long been postulating that there is no single Truth, but multiple millions of fractured truths—so an alternative fact is just as much truth as any other perception. Postmodernism, once considered the esoteric domain of a few intellectuals, has now come home to roost.
If you haven’t studied postmodern theory in an arts-related discipline, you likely have no idea about how well the “post-truth” era we’ve entered jives with the hypotheses it puts forward. And the theorists who envisioned it and championed it are only now seeing how dangerous it is.
Useless Knowledge and Academic Nonsense
Sure, that all sounds impractical and like a lot of bunk. Maybe it is. But back to the reading thing—that’s not nearly as impractical. Why? Because I read between the lines, against the grain. I read carefully, cautiously. I don’t just read, I seek to understand.
And that’s important in my particular line(s) of work. I’m employed as a book editor. That’s right, I edit books! Yes, I need to know grammar. Yes, I need to know a lot about words and sentence construction and spelling. I need to know how to use style guides.
But I also need to look at bigger picture stuff. How well is this being communicated? What are you communicating to me when you use this word, this sentence construction? Can this be interpreted in another way? When we step back from the work, what is it saying?
I bring that to my writing as well. What themes am I playing with? What is the overarching narrative? (You may well note there’s a serious political bent in Slapshot!—much as it’s drama and fluff in many ways, it’s also an exploration of the state of female subjugation projected onto male characters; it’s also an exploration of sexuality and identity.) In short, I think about more than just whether I should use a period or an exclamation point, or if that’s okay as a comma splice. (Hint: It is rarely okay as a comma splice.)
To Write, Learn to Read
Yes, all of that grammar stuff is important. But many, many people think writing is easy. Many people think telling a compelling story is easy! It’s not. Anyone can tell a story; we do it all the time. A compelling story is another thing entirely. For every great novel you read, how many middling or mediocre ones have you read? What about the forgettable ones, the ones you can’t even remember? I’ve read hundreds of fanfics, most of them terrible, now erased from my memory banks. I’ve picked up manga I can’t be bothered to recall.
I read a lot of books and short stories; I had to as an English major. Not all of them are on my shelf. I have a carefully curated fiction library. And sure, as an English major, I can extricate a theme or deeper meaning from just about anything (I read Victorian serial novels and 1950s lesbian pop fiction as items of study, folks). But part of what makes me a good editor, a good writer is my ability to pick up those threads and pull on them as we try to weave something into a cohesive whole.
We’re Out There
In short, I’d like to see this writer’s first drafts. I’d like to pick them apart—not to be malicious or cruel, not to destroy her ego or prove that she’s not a good writer but to demonstrate just what an English major can do.
‘cause, oh yeah, I make books.
If this idiot thinks she doesn’t need English majors, I’d like to her to talk to her editors and the other people employed at the publisher’s. Chances are you know a few English majors, and chances are you think some of them are doing good work.
And that probably means some of them are employed!
Shocking, I know.