♪♫♪ Caught by the light, aware but asleep…
As a science major and pre-med student, something I hear often from my peers who are taking the same challenging courses as me is the remark that English majors will never know the difficulty of upper level biology, organic chemistry, or physics courses. During physics class the other day I heard a student remark, “It must be really nice to be an English major—you read some stuff and write some essays the night before they’re due for an A.”
That struck a nerve with me. I know several people who are majoring in English, and it is neither less challenging nor less important than any other subject. It bothers me that some students are so quick to criticize other disciplines of study because it seems easier than their own. A student’s goals are his or her own concern, so attacking someone’s education by dismissing it as easy or useless seems like a vindictive way to feel superior to someone else. Everyone is on a different path, so comparing yourself to others really helps no one.
There are a lot of aspects to the English major that I feel go largely unrecognized. On a surface level, it may seem easy to simplify the work level into reading books and writing papers, but what English majors are really able to accomplish is so much more impressive. A year ago as a freshman, I strongly considered double majoring in Biology and English, but my major choices have changed since then as I keep trying to trip my way to a major I’m most comfortable with. However, I still have a strong love for literature and writing that I defend most ardently.
First of all, I think the most impressive aspect of an English major is that nearly everything you are graded upon is done so subjectively. Unlike biology, chemistry, physics, or other science courses that use practice of formulas or other concepts, there is absolutely no way you could memorize or “practice-problem” your way to a good grade. Of course grammar and mechanics are important to use correctly, but those are just the nuts and bolts that anyone could learn. You have to whole-heartedly put your thoughts out for judgment by a new professor or TA for every class without knowing the values or ideals of whoever will be reading and grading your work. Moreover, these graders have probably read thousands of essays and analyses on the same topics with years and years of experience on the novel, poem, or play you are examining. In order to receive a good grade, the English student must somehow discern an original thought, support it, and put it on paper in ink. Their ideas are completely put out, open for judgment. There is no clear-cut right or wrong answer, which makes grading so much more difficult to predict. As someone who took ENGL 241 (English Literature I, Beginnings through Milton) last year, I know how nerve-wracking it was the first time turning in a pivotal essay and not really knowing what to expect for a grade. Was my writing style acceptable? Were my ideas and analysis developed, or were they too elementary?
These papers are a direct reflection of your thinking. While I have heard students say, “It’s just BS-ing some ideas about what this imagery and tone mean in this story.” But to demean this kind of writing as trite “BS” is drastically undermining what writers are doing. It’s extremely impressive to be able to write something that takes a stance that you may or may not even agree with. It may be even very obviously wrong and lacks proper support, but the amazing thing about English majors is that they will be able to effectively formulate a coherent argument on paper to make you believe it. This skill is incredibly important for everyday interactions – to be able to analyze someone’s argument without immediately refuting it. You are able to consider another side and truly understand someone’s viewpoint instead of just listening to come up with a counterpoint to argue with.
Another incredibly awesome part of studying English is that everything you do, see, hear, study, and experience is relevant. Whether it is directly literary or not, anything can be applied to the human condition and the world around us. Does that sound easy and generalized? Maybe, but it’s also so interesting to see something completely unexpected and unrelated somehow tied back into an essay. English majors are able to take the information from ridiculous places and relate it back to the topic that they are studying. Suddenly, the study of the momentum a car hitting a truck feels from physics could be worked into a paper on Shelley’s Frankenstein, or maybe the ancient Egyptian perspectives of beauty could somehow be brought up in a paper on Jane Austen…the possibilities are endless. Everything an English major student can be relevant. There’s no sheet of relevant formulas to memorize, no reagents or product patterns to commit to memory, and no definite A-Z definition of what might be important or not. These students have memorized information from their other courses to the extent that they are able to incorporate it into their everyday thoughts, interpretations, and writing in a seamless manner. That is probably the most impressive thing about the English major itself – that even though you can never memorize your way to an A, the heart of your writing is based on a much deeper level of memorization that you’ve relied on all your life.
Finally, the English major is a pursuit of passion. A student who chooses to major in English is doing so because they want to, not for the money. This may not be as true for many science, math, or engineering fields where many students are trying to secure a good job after graduation. When you walk into an English class, you’ll find a diverse group of people from all kinds of backgrounds with different interpretations of the content of the course. In this way, every single English class that is taught will always be a little different than any other. Each individual of the class will frame their experience into what they are learning. In the end, that’s what I believe makes majoring in English the real challenge. It’s the experience of incorporating your experiences in the world around you into your writing in order to make it more convincing.
…In the memory it’s deeper, survived by a name ♪♫♪
(Caught By The Light – The Boxer Rebellion)