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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

English Majors: Are We Doing It Wrong?

A Deconstruction of the Anxieties Associated with English majors, Fiction Writers and Beyond

If you’re an English major, fiction writer, poetry buff, or literature lover, chances are you often encounter a dash of crippling anxiety from time to time (or perhaps that’s just me). Why? Well, I feel that over time those of the literary persuasion have gotten a bad rap. It’s become a bit of a running joke in the academic world that those who choose a life of metaphors, papers, and workshops are also choosing a life of unemployment, low-pay, and uncertainty. I have yet to meet an English major who hasn’t heard in so many words that they will not make any money and are in for a rough go once graduation hits. And in my personal experience, after listening to this lecture so many times, it becomes harder and harder not to believe the prophecy. It was this inkling fear and curiosity that lead me to this.

In his article, “The English Major’s Guide to Getting a Job,” Matthew Hall tells us all what we’re doing wrong and how we can fix it, despite the debatably awful choice made in our undergrad. There are many things wrong and ultimately anxiety-inducing within this article, but let’s just start with the title:

“The English Major’s Guide to Getting a Job”: I feel that on some level this somewhat exoticizes English majors. It kind of lumps us into this certain brand of person, particularly one that has quite a bit of trouble finding a job. Although we do obviously have some things in common, such as a love for literature and the inevitable desire to one day become authors, we are not clones.

The title is then followed by the subtitle, “What You Need to do NOW to Have a Great Life.” This begs the philosophical question, what is a great life? What’s more, am I headed for a bad one?  Plus, the urgency created with the all-caps “NOW” makes me want to get up and stress-apply to all the internships in the world because apparently the chips that I’m currently eating aren’t good enough.

After reading that inherently terrifying title, Hall launches into the actual breadth of the article. It starts off relatively well, addressing a few of the nerve-wracking aspects of being an English major (i.e. teachers with a defeatist mindset, being told that our only option is teaching, that we will never have money, etc.) that many of us can relate to. This makes me feel hopeful. Perhaps the answer to all of these fears lays head. Hall continues with “if I had known then what I know now,” which insinuates that there’s a secret and we’re not in on it. After that he dangles the six-figure income that he supposedly has. This becomes a main selling point, and is mentioned many times. I’ll admit that the materialistic capitalist inside me begins to drool a bit, since money is everything and six figures sounds pretty nice. Maybe this will be worth it. Maybe this is what I, the useless English major, actually need.

But, surprise! “The English Major’s Guide to Getting a Job” is not only the title of this article (blurb, propaganda? The jury is out.) But also the title of his book, complete with a brief list of what you can learn if you buy his book such as: what undergrads need to be doing to secure the right job (and apparently it’s not an internship) and “the 7 biggest sins English majors commit that make finding a job impossible when they graduate.” I suppose this is probably a pretty good marketing strategy (but how would I know? I’m just an English major). Not revealing all of the actual secrets, making us want more, and so on. But in doing so Hall does nothing but reinforce all of the negative feelings surrounding the English major mentioned in the first paragraph. Then, he goes on to make it a bit worse by essentially saying “Hey, yeah…you are ill equipped for the real world and your major taught you nothing and this is why you need this book.”

I’m sure this guy probably feels like he’s helping us out. Or, maybe he just knows how terrible anxious we are and was smart enough to capitalize on that. Well played, Mr. Hall, well-played. I’ll admit that for a split second I did consider buying your book. However, in the next split second I realized that in doing that, I would become part of the problem, just like the book itself. It’s a perpetuation of the negative stereotypes surrounding English majors and all worries we must encounter because of them. So thanks, Mr. Hall. Thanks for nothing.

However, it appears that not all hope is lost. According to author, USA today columnist and “the country’s leading small-business expert” Steve Strauss, English majors could be a lot more lucrative than we think. In his article “Why I Hire English Majors,” Strauss goes on to commend those studying English on their intelligence, boldness and writing ability. We’re also incredibly easy to work with and considered “interesting,” “well-spoken” and “pleasant to be around.” Go us! And all without having read Matthew Hall’s book. So maybe, just maybe, we can get a job. No manual required. 

-Shelby Heinrich

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