Recently, I read an article in The New Yorker titled “Why Teach English?”. It was an article defending our need to keep teaching liberal arts, such as English, in academia. I understand why this article was written. The English major is indeed declining in popularity. Young people who aspire to go to college are faced with the ever-present question — “What job are you going to get with that degree?” — when they are deciding what to study. Choosing to study English doesn’t give you a formulaic answer to that question. (Keep reading, I’ll see what I can do about that.) English majors, along with many liberal arts majors, tend to get a ton of crap from their friends and family about their choice to spend WAY too much money on a “soft” degree. Just inquiring about the job one expects to get after college, not the life one expects after college, shows that what college means to the world has changed. College wasn’t ever supposed to be a formula for a job. It was supposed to educate you, to make you a better person, right?
Well just in case you still haven’t caught on, (looking at you, English Departments) not anymore. The cost of getting an education has become astronomical. I WAS an English major for goodness sake, and I 100% understand that we cannot expect people to choose to go to college to simply “better” themselves without providing some sort of way for them to get a return on their investment. Obviously, I felt that I would get a return on the investment, a small part of which would be becoming a slightly better human, but there is so much more to the English major than that.
Okay, so here is the final paragraph of the article: “Even if we read books and talk about them for four years, and then do something else more obviously remunerative, [FYI: remunerative means financially rewarding or lucrative] it won’t be time wasted. We need the humanities not because they will produce shrewder entrepreneurs or kinder C.E.O.s but because, as that first professor said, they help us enjoy life more and endure it better. The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough.” (Gopnik, New Yorker, 2015) Yay! Humanity! Feels pretty good doesn’t it? We need English majors in the world because we’re better humans! Not because we need kinder C.E.O.s! I feel better about my choices now!
WAIT. STOP RIGHT THERE.
That’s all you’ve got?
How can we call it a “defense” of teaching English when reputable magazines such as The New Yorker, make weak arguments like that? I’m not saying that the argument isn’t legitimate, I’m saying COME ON FOLKS, STEP UP YOUR GAME! Of course I like having a society consisting of humans who have learned to be better humans, but the world has changed. In order for the English major, and other majors like it, to continue to exist, we need to provide far stronger arguments to protect these programs. Why? THEY’RE BLOODY EXPENSIVE. That’s right. We’ve got huge negative dollar signs hanging over our students’ heads and it kills me to say this, but we can’t ignore the expense. Money matters. I don’t want money to matter, but it does.
Okay. So college is expensive, and being a better person doesn’t matter anymore. Then why are we still talking about English?
Contrary to popular opinion, I think that the English major does provide a return on your investment. That being said, the returns are not as obvious to everyone. I think part of the reason why that is, is due to the fact that we (liberal arts folks), by nature, resist translating our thoughts and experiences into “job skills” or “quantifiable data”. It just feels… wrong. I don’t blame anyone for feeling that way but… too bad. It’s time to break down what you learn as an English major into some resume-worthy job skills that directly translate into valuable, possibly even quantifiable, skills that an employer and the rest of the capitalist society that we live in will love to see. Yeah, yeah it’s painful to do this, but I’m sorry folks, that’s what we need to do, and what English Departments need to do to help their students these days. College is different than what it used to be, and if we want to keep the English major around, academia has to adapt. (Or perhaps we could change the system? Wouldn’t that be neat? For the sake of the rant though, let’s just adapt to the current situation, working with what we have and dealing with the current crisis.)
Okay so… where to begin. Let’s start with the basics. What do English Majors do?
Read and write… and read and write some more?
Yep! Let’s unpack this.
If I tell the average, everyday person that I am attending school to read and write, you may get a response such as “Okay… Doesn’t everyone learn to do that in like, elementary school?”. Well, duh! So articulate yourself. Why do your reading and writing skills stand out? What makes a college-educated reader and writer different from the everyday person?
Answer (One of many):
“As an English major, I have advanced reading and writing skills that allow me to communicate my thoughts clearly, analyze texts, think critically, and understand another’s perspective. I am very good at lateral thinking and researching, which makes me a great addition to any team.”
Okay, that’s starting to sound better, but we’re not quite there yet. Pretend you’re an employer who perhaps doesn’t understand the value of someone who can analyze texts or “think critically” (like wtf does that mean dude?). Employers want results. They want numbers. They want to know that you can do a variety of tasks that are specific to their needs. What did you do, how did you do it, what were the results? Let’s use our ENGLISH MAJOR SKILLZ to interpret this sentence, and translate it into something that an employer will be intrigued by.
There are several juicy phrases we can pull out of that statement.
- Communicate my thoughts clearly
- Analyze texts
- Think critically
- Understand another’s perspective
- Lateral thinking
PLEASE NOTE: These are not the only skills you learn as an English major, this is merely an example exercise in expressing skills in business speak.
Even though these things shouldn’t need to be explained, I think breaking it down and explaining them does a couple of things. It helps you understand what these things mean, just in case you really don’t know. (because let’s face it, sometimes we just read words and understand contextually, but can’t really give an exact definition.) It helps others understand what these things mean, just in case they didn’t know. Doing this also gives you an alternate way of saying these things so that you can elaborate on them if asked to do so. coughatjobinterviewscough
So what we’re going to do now is unpack our super awesome statement and really dive into what it means and more importantly to an employer, what value these things bring to the table.
Let’s start with number 1.
COMMUNICATE MY THOUGHTS CLEARLY
This one should be reasonably easy to show how valuable it is. According to Google, to communicate is to “share or exchange information, news, or ideas”. This includes verbal/nonverbal information such as emotions and feelings. No matter what field you go into post graduation, you’re going to have to communicate with other humans. Even if you work for yourself, at some point you will be exchanging goods or services with someone, and your ability to communicate could make or break a critical business relationship. Relationships between your supervisors, customers, co-workers, and the general public matter to a future employer. It should go without saying that the easier you can communicate with others, the better suited you are for a position in virtually any workplace.
When you study English, you learn a plethora of different ways people communicate with each other. The obvious one is through writing, and most people will assume that if you’re an English major, you’re good at writing. Which, by the time you graduate, should be true. Writing isn’t the only thing that you learn, though. An English major will often study other forms of communication such as film, comics, or the spoken word in addition to the essays, poetry, short stories, novels, and other written work. All of this prepares them to understand a variety of ways people can share thoughts, feelings, emotions, and ideas with each other. Communication. It’s good stuff.
Next up we have:
Oooh, there’s a good word, analyze. Let’s consult Google again. To analyze something is to “examine methodically and in detail the constitution or structure of (something, especially information), typically for purposes of explanation and interpretation.”. The ability to look at something complicated and make sense of it is incredibly useful and important. There’s a certain amount of detail-orientedness that goes into analysis that employers love. If you’re paying attention to details, you’re less apt to make mistakes. Mistakes cost people money.
Another cool part about analysis is the ability to look at the structure of something, even if it is complex, and derive meaning from it. English majors spend a lot of time dissecting sentences, obsessing over punctuation choice, and meticulously counting syllables. All of these things help them understand the layers of meaning in a written work of art. This skill, as it’s practiced, gets better and better, and becomes translatable to other things. Here’s an example. I work a lot with data in my current job. Even though I do not have any sort of data analysis classes/experience in my background, I possess the ability to look at the structure of the way the database at work “thinks” and then “translate” what the data means into something that anyone can understand. Some of this is done by creating graphs/charts, but a lot of it is simply understanding the structure of how the database works, and then being able to explain it to someone else. Analysis doesn’t just happen with numbers either. People that can analyze can look at problems, figure out why they are the way they are, and help solve them. This could be social problems, efficiency problems, communication problems, anything really. The first step to solving problems is to possess the ability to understand and interpret them.
Anywho, I could keep going, but lets look at the next one.
Okay, critical thinking, or “the objective analysis and evaluation of an issue in order to form a judgment”, (Thank you Google) is another valuable skill that English majors develop. Objective analysis, or to look at something without letting your personal feelings get in the way, is very desirable to employers. Humans tend to have differing opinions and beliefs, many of which conflict with even our closest friends. Looking at a product, service, problem, or whatever else your employer needs you to look at objectively, and then being able to evaluate it for solutions or ideas is gold for employers. It’s important to be able to temporarily step completely away from yourself in the workplace, even if it’s merely for the sake of getting along with others. English majors have to do this regularly as they often read work that may be uncomfortable, or written by someone they do not like. The poem may not be your cup of tea, but you better be able to explain why the tea is still important, or perhaps argue why the tea is, in fact, not so good after all.
Critical thinkers are good problem solvers. Problem solvers make money. People that make money are important to employ. Critical thinkers also have the ability to understand things and make informed decisions, because they look at various facets of an issue even if they don’t agree with it 100%, to make informed choices. Really, when it comes down to it, English majors should be masters at critical thinking at the end of the day. Critical thinking is how one develops a solid thesis statement for an essay, which is literally what English majors do for years in a row, over and over and over again.
Time to move on again, though.
UNDERSTAND ANOTHER’S PERSPECTIVE
In a way, this could be grouped under communication or critical thinking or another skill, but I think that saying outright that you have the ability to understand other people’s perspective is really important. First off, it’s true. English majors consume a ton of words/media written by other people, and these people are unique individuals with their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions. As stated in previous paragraphs, sometimes you have to work hard to understand these thoughts, feelings, and opinions, and English majors are equipped with skills to do so. Secondly, earlier in the sentence you’ve listed a few buzzwords about yourself, and saying “another’s perspective” indicates to the person you’re speaking with that you are actively thinking about other people as well.
I’ll be honest, I don’t hear the term lateral thinking as often as I hear critical thinking, but it merits saying because it’s meaning provides a different type of value. Lateral thinking “is solving problems through an indirect and creative approach, using reasoning that is not immediately obvious and involving ideas that may not be obtainable by using only traditional step-by-step logic.” (Wikipedia) You could say that lateral thinking is a fancy way of saying “I’m creative”, which is true. Employers desire people who can think outside of the box. English majors practice lateral thinking on a regular basis in class discussions and individually in their own writing. Whether talking about and interpreting a creative work by someone else, or working on their own project, English majors spend a lot of time not only looking at the facts in front of them to come to conclusions, but ways to connect the dots that are obscure to others. So many of the morals, ideas, opinions, and feelings expressed throughout history cannot be broken down into reasonable, obvious logic. Humans tend to be wishy-washy, confused, obscure, or contradictory with themselves. If there’s one thing you learn as an English major, it is that nothing is black and white. Everything is a shade of grey, but somehow we have to think through and try to solve problems without a formula or step-by-step guide.
Okay, one more thing, bear with me!
This skill seems rather obvious, so obvious that I don’t think English majors give themselves enough credit for it. Obviously, English students write a lot of papers, and writing papers requires extensive research. Researching is not just looking stuff up or googling something, though. It is seeking out information and developing a conclusion or new idea from the findings. Researching something really well means that the researcher is concerned with the quality, the source, and the relevance of the information. (BONUS: if you do a lot of researching for huge projects, one of the side skills that you pick up is time management! It goes without saying that employers like that.) After finding information, an English major must use all of the skills listed above to develop their ideas and craft them into a piece of writing that makes sense to others.
Not all researchers are made equally. Sure, you can quote a bunch of google articles and whip up a paper, but producing a quality thesis takes time, effort, energy, creativity, honesty, hard work, and intelligence that is rare and valuable. Many jobs in a variety of fields will require you to look things up, develop conclusions, and communicate these ideas to others. English majors have an advanced ability to do just that, and they should highlight the ability to do quality research as a strength.
Okay, so I’ve talked a lot about some of the many skills you develop as an English major, and hopefully equipped you with unpacked, easy to digest versions of the fancy buzzwords you may throw around in an interview, resume, or explanation on why you want to be an English major to your parents. Quantifying these skills is arguably the hardest part, because it’s really going to depend on your personal, professional, and educational experience. Let me throw out some ideas for you.
Quantified English skill: “My ability to think laterally and communicate clearly as an English major carried over into my student job/internship, where I increased the effectiveness of the communications of XYZ department/company by 50% by reformatting the emails that we sent to students/customers, leading to more engagement and clicks to our website”
Quantified English skill: “I can type over 60 words per minute, which, combined with my research skills and ability to think critically, will allow me to write articles for your website in approximately XX minutes, which, compared to industry standards*, will save your company XX dollars.”
*that you researched in advance!
Quantified English skill: “My ability to understand other people’s perspective and communicate clearly allows me to connect with others efficiently, so that I can make more sales per hour than average salespeople.” (Provide specific numbers if you have the experience)
I could keep going, but if you’ve stuck with me this far, thank you! I hope by now you see that English majors develop more skills than just “being a better human”, which is important, but that statement alone is NOT enough for students these days. Students deserve to know and understand what else they’ll be getting with their fancy, EXPENSIVE degree. Of course reading and writing to make yourself a better person is a huge part of the English degree, but that’s really not what employers, parents, and even students who have a genuine interest in English care about. I mean, they can’t afford not to care about being able to do something lucrative with a degree. In the conclusion of the New Yorker article I mentioned earlier, it implies that if you get an English degree you’re not going to end up using it if you want to make any money. What I’m trying to say is that actually, English majors develop very useful skills that they will be able to apply directly to a variety of careers.
English departments, if they want to their programs to survive, must be able to provide learning outcomes that give employers what they want to see in order for students to be interested in getting an English degree. Performing exercises like I just did, where they explain to prospective students, parents, and employers the very essence of what reading and writing teaches you is the first step. I was only able to write this article after I graduated, because it was only then that I had learned the skills to do so. Presenting the value of the major before someone spends a ton of money on it is essential to getting people to do it in the first place. Expanding on the examples I provided, along with providing quantifiable data (perhaps using alumni testimonials) would be the next step. Having classes, services, internships, and other programs that help students develop their resumes may also be a start. A lot of colleges have general career services, but students need all of the help they can get. Whether we like it or not, college is a business, and we must look at it with a business mind if the English major is going to survive. We don’t have to demolish the essence of the liberal arts, nor downplay its value in the “real world”, rather, we need to give students the tools to venture into the business world and thrive.