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English Majors

July 28, 2009 | 28 Comments

To the Host:
So, what exactly IS an English major supposed to do after college?



This is the beautiful problem that confounds us all, Andrea, and we must face it every morning with as much wit and bravery as we can summon up. What you do, exactly, is get out of bed, pee, put water on to boil for tea or coffee, put bread in the toaster, choose between the apricot and blueberry yoghurt, eat slowly and thoughtfully, take a shower, and put on clean clothes, and by this time you likely will know what comes next. Merce Cunningham faced this problem and so does Michelle Obama and Brett Favre and the Queen of Tonga. If I believed in the efficacy of long-range planning, I'd recommend it, but I believe in luck and improvisation and the gyroscope in your heart and the built-in b.s. detector that English majors are supposed to acquire, having created so much of it in our term papers. You don't have ENGLISH MAJOR tattooed on your forehead so don't consider it a limitation. Just remember that your youth and energy and confidence and ambition are great assets in this world: you are needed somewhere. Remind yourself every day to do things that make you cheerful, which might include strenuous physical exercise or meditation or simply being with friends who make you laugh. Have a good life, in other words. They say that one good tactic in finding happiness is to help people who are worse off than yourself. I wouldn't know about that, but I know people who recommend it. And now I am going to go work on my novel, which is confounding me, and I wish you were here to tell me what to do with it. HEY. There's an idea. Be an editor. Why not? Start out by going over this letter and cutting out all the clichés and reducing it to the one sentence that actually makes sense. And then tell me what that is so I can go do it myself.


I like all of it but it could be boiled down to...
"Have a good life."

also a former English major (it's a journey)

"If I believed in the efficacy of long-range planning, I'd recommend it, but I believe in luck and improvisation and the gyroscope in your heart and the built-in b.s. detector that English majors are supposed to acquire, having created so much of it in our term papers." Now THAT is the truest thing I think I'll read today! I've just set down to the computer with my first cup of coffee, so the day is young. I'm sending a link to the above to all my unemployed Children and/or Friends who may, or may not, be English Majors.

I was amazed to see that the day begins for English majors much the same as for we History majors. We seem to have so much in common.

I think English majors have a special burden as they go through their day however; they must always worry about subject-verb agreement, run on sentences, and the proper use of colons and semi-colons. It is their responsibility to be good role models when it comes to proper usage, and to correct others at every opportunity when they see violations. History majors don't care so much about such things.

On the other hand, History majors do carry a great social burden. Since we know history, we are charged with being the watchdogs to make sure doom does not come by repetition of it. That task is especially onerous for more conservative History majors in these liberal times.

One sentence? Be yourself, laugh often, don't let others tell you what to do.

You summed it up perfectly, Garrison! I do recommend the "helping others" thing as a fulfilling direction for using an English degree. I found opportunities to do that by working in communications at a regional office of the American Red Cross, being a food editor (nutrition and delicious food can go together), and doing media relations for a not-for-profit organization with volunteer programs nationwide. It's a great feeling to use your English knowledge AND do good in the world! Have a great life, Andrea.

Is it not paradoxical that to have devoted a college career to any of the Humanities has worked against the possibility of employment? Post Modernism offers cold comfort that instead of a grand scheme of English there is the possibility of semiotics, and by extension one is more given to direct traffic than to interpret Joyce.
Be cheerful, the gift of being ironical will serve one well at parties where Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer is served at Brooklyn Move On fund raisers. Foucault will turn up in one of the more challenging cross-word puzzles, and the transition to finding the Chase blue pleasing will be effortless.

After editing this, all that's left is: Queen of Tonga.

Curiouser in Escondido

My one sentence: appreciate that you read well-constructed words, regardless of how often you apply the experience later.

P.S. to History major Donald: semicolon has no hyphen per book-publishing style manuals.

When stuck pondering life's mysteries, I find it's best to learn to bake the most awesomely delicious blackberry cobbler. While it's baking, call your math major friends, who have jobs, and proclaim to their answering machines, "Pie are not square. Pie are round. Cobbler are square." Upon hearing this message, they will call you. Then, you tell them how you spent the morning pondering the universe while eating blackberry cobbler warm from the oven. Your friends will come over and you can all ponder the universe together. Tomorrow will take care of itself.

Well said indeed; however I am Lutheran so I could also be confused.

Before reading the comments, my immediate response would have been, "Have a good life." Since that was taken, I took a different approach. And tho it is not a sentence, I used my artistic approach/writers liberty and wrote a haiku from a few favorite words...I am not that good, but I will be brave, so please be kind.


Life's great reduction
Beautiful problems: confound
Write, read, and edit

Dear Donald,

As an English major married to a history major, I feel obliged to point out that your first sentence should read:

"I was amazed to see that the day begins for English majors much the same as for us History majors."

You wouldn't say "the same as for we," so you don't say "the same as for we History majors" either.

By the way, he's in state government and I've had a career in church work. But as far as I'm concerned, the great value of the liberal arts is that you have some chance of knowing when you're being lied to by politicians.

As an English LITERATURE major, I find grammar to be tedious and uncreative :) In other words, I can't parse a sentence to save my life. I have also noticed that since the invention of spellchecker, I can't spell worth a lick either.
But I can still read a novel and fall in love with the language.
Does this mean I have to give back my P.O.E.M. t-shirt?

As a psychology major I would ponder the meanings behind the words and pontificate on their value, but instead, I smiled, and laughed at the play of words... and thoughts... And call it all poetry... (as you can see, I like three dots...)

It is difficult for me to understand that an English major would end a sentence with "summon up." The thought is complete at "summon." (See Garrison's first sentence.)

I was an English Major...I thought I would write stories. So far, I have not, but have listened to lots as a psychotherapist. An MSW degree, not so arduous, after the Eng. major, and there you are hearing some of the best stories ever. You also have a head start on understanding that most folks are not telling a simple story. Metaphors abound, and you know how to hear them, and steer the person through them to the simple and profound job of good therapy....which is helping a person give themselves permission to be real. It's good work that provides " a good life."

The sediment of this statement is "There's an idea."

So few people can write well these days, you'd think English majors would be gods.

this english AND sociology major is an organic produce farmer. sometimes life makes you go in the back door, whether you like it or not. my syntax was said to be archaic 30 years ago & is no better now. i didn't capitalize many things long before e-mail came along, but that works in poetry.

i agree with first comment here as to the core GK's post...have a good life.

but am good, gracious & charitable as host & guest while making the world a better place...that might also take you on some sort of a journey. (and i know i use ellipses too much. some things can't be helped!)

I loved this! I am both English Major and History Minor... special indeed!


your response brings tears of joy to my eyes...

your poetic truths strike my heart...

a complex life made simple....

thank you for everything you do....

your friend....

Tilt at windmills. Occasionally one will fall over out of sheer surprise.

Go to nursing school and be confused as to why everyone makes such a big deal about the critical thinking questions.

Use your writing and analytical skills to dominate message board flame wars. List your opponent's logical fallacies by category for bonus points.

Tutor writing and worry about how helpful you actually are because you can't really explain why something is grammatically correct. It just is, ok?

Feel superior to Philosophy majors because you picked the more practical major.

Write love letters to JSTOR.

Realize that it's a degree you can do nothing and anything with. Gain an increasing appreciation for the "anything" part.

"Have a good life, in other words."

That's nice, only this advice applies equally well to college dropouts and even high school dropouts, which should make you wonder what useful skills you've acquired while earning your degree. I know, the b.s. thing. There's plenty of b.s. in the world. Use your skills to eliminate it instead of creating more of it.

Did you or did you not ask for one sentence? 90% of the people who replied would fail an elementary writing prompt.
Must be the teachers.

Being an English major helped me be a good editor- parent all the way through my son's college career, and even after:) Gilbert and Sullivan (I am also a singer) has helped me laugh on occasion. On a more serious note, meditating on caring for both the likeable and the unlikeable people in your life can be very helpful in creating that good life.

I was an English major, once I abandoned chemistry when I found my math skills were deficient. I ended up with a declared double major, English and philosophy, and an undeclared third major in classics (one semester of Latin and five of Greek). That led me to the Presbyterian ministry, which I did for 25 years. The main thing I think any English major should do every day is be very, very thankful you started out with such a wonderful educational foundation, on which you can build whatever kind of life you want.

A university degree is an extension of a person's academic education. It is not designed to train someone for a job. Presumably, an English major graduate has achieved a high level of communication in writing, speaking, critical thinking, public speaking, etc., and is now in a powerful position to train for a superb career in the many fields that require these skills. the list is endless: politics, journalism, education, government, military, etc. Condemning a university degree because it doesn't qualify someone for a job is like condemning your photo copier because it can't make coffee.

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