By Diamond Smith
“What will you do with your English degree?” I hear this all the time when asked about my degree. The question is always asked in a tone of genuine curiosity, but it feels like it is also steeped in the sense of inadequacy. The phrase leaves me unsteady because I’ve been met with: “What do you even do with that degree anyways?” “Are you sure that’s what you want?” It’s almost as if English major students are some elite white-collar priesthood of bespectacled nerds whose only purpose in life is to go to college to be a teacher (which is great, but not every English major is going to college for educational teaching purposes) and eavesdrop on other people through their literary works.
Trying to describe all the benefits I will receive from my English degree will be impossible. But I can say it’s given me a great way to learn about myself and the world around me, and it’s given me an incredible opportunity to read some incredible writers. So if anyone ever says, “What will you do with your English degree?” just say this:
“Literature is the art of discovering something extraordinary
about ordinary people and saying with ordinary words something
extraordinary.” Boris Pasternak
Academia, like a kind and gentle parent (and often a strict, exhausting parent), is always looking to reveal our innermost passions if we allow it through our choice of degrees. So when someone asks you, “What will you do with your English degree?” don’t just say something mundane. Don’t answer like everyone else. Because if you do, I think it’s impossible that you’ll have them understand your path. As with any degree, the English Major combines your skills, passions, life direction, and aspirations.
There is something people outside of the English degree don’t understand about literature: The English major is a kind of trap. It seems accessible, but it’s not.You have to be driven to want to learn about literature. As I see it, if you’re a creative person who loves words, your passion for learning about them will be difficult to ignore because language awakens the desire for understanding. As English majors, we are often grappling with our limited world perspectives and not being afraid of them. In class, we try to learn how little we truly know (if you’re wondering what this means truly means: it means we strip ourselves bare and say: here’s me, here are all my mistakes, as I write, as my peers read my drafts, and here is where I lack ability about said person or societies, but watch me learn about it anyways).
Alternatively: I am a writer, and I am only now discovering what that means.
● You are a writer.
● You are not a person who writes, but one who writes well.
● Writing is not a job, but a way of life.
● Writing is not a career, but an obsession (and you know what I mean by that).
Reading deceased writers like Virginia Woolf or Bell Hooks
honors the brilliance of their lives and the strangeness of their
There is value in learning about the lives and times of deceased writers. It’s important to understand the context of their history and how they were shaped by it. If you want to read something that will give you an idea of what it was like in 1930s London, try reading a book by someone who lived through that time: Jane Austen would be an excellent choice.
“Literature is the best thing humanity has. Poetry is the heart of
literature, the highest concentration of everything that is best in
the world and (humanity). It is the only true food for your soul.”
When someone says they don’t like poetry or books, you can always remind them that if you don’t read it, then you are missing out on some of life’s most beautiful experiences. If someone asks what kind of writer you want to be when you grow up, tell them to read any one of these books:
● Toni Morrison – Beloved
● William Faulkner – As I Lay Dying
● Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises
Meanwhile, the coursework is reading and interpreting; we are –essentially–holding the weight of histories, souls, and truths in our hands.
As part of our coursework, we study literary criticism, historical and cultural pieces, as well as Early American Literature (among other topics); we work to analyze and read critically from various texts. Literature is about the human experience and our history as a people. It gives us an opportunity to explore how others have felt before us; what they endured; what they dreamt of achieving but couldn’t because of circumstances or circumstances imposed by others. Literature gives us an understanding of ourselves – who we are as individuals and where we fit within society at large – which is something that cannot be achieved anywhere else except through literature itself!
The truth is: Sometimes, as English majors, some of us don’t know what our English degree will actually do for us, as do many other majors. In the personal sense (talk about being meta), you’re probably asking yourself this question; maybe it’s because you’re looking for direction in your life. Maybe you’re considering transferring to grad school or regretting your English degree path. Or maybe one day, years from now, you’ll look back on it and realize that — despite the difficulties of classwork — it was an incredibly meaningful experience that had a lot of impact on who you are today and helped shape who you have become.
The only person who knows what you would do with your life is you. So, next time someone scuffles at your degree title or picks at you for it, I would advise you to take writer Cheryl Strayed’s advice, I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative writing degree, you’ll say:
“Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.”
As a fellow English Major and a student, I can confidently say only you will discover what that means on your journey.