green study

The English Discipline and the Great “Or Maybes.”

“What will you do with a degree in English?”

Inwardly, I’d crouch in defense, ready to spring, returning with something about good foundational skills and a “besides, I’m passionate about it,” all delivered with a practiced airiness and a quick change of subject because I was nothing if not polite and diverting in my early 20s. I always thought less of the enquirer after such exchanges, both on counts of indelicacy and what I perceived to be obtuseness. A combative part of me also understood that in fact very few of my classmates knew what they were going to “do” with a degree, period, and I therefore found the question snarky and unnecessarily pointed.

I understand things differently now. I perceive in those conversations a blaring misalignment in expectations of higher education, an awareness borne of age and seasoned by my years in the non-profit world, attempting in small and, sadly, ineffectual ways to improve educational access and attainment for underserved communities. What is the purpose, after all, of a degree in higher education? What should it be? Job training? The cultivation of good — or if not good, informed — citizens? Free intellectual inquiry? Knowledge for knowledge’s sake? Specialized skills? Generalized literacy with the status quo of one’s times? Etc. My answer to this question has evolved over time. There are too many inputs to land in one place, and many such perches are unfair to those unable to afford college. And so my view remains permanently unfixed, somewhere between the joy of reading F. Scott Fitzgerald for the first time (“greenswards“!) and the transactionality of a stamp on a piece of paper that might permit me to, for example, operate heavy and specialized machinery. All I know is that I would probably dissuade my children from pursuing an advanced degree in the humanities. “Business, a minor in business,” my Dad used to urge — not so loudly that I’d listen, but enough that I remember and regret. I recognize the irony in my rue, because every suspect decision I have made has, improbably, enabled this spacewalk I call a career, but I find myself hoping for a more straightforward path for my own children. A friend of mine, commenting on struggling through a particularly circuitous time in her professional life, noted: “I just woke up one day and asked, ‘Does it have to be this hard?’ And the answer was no.” Something pinged inside me. Not that I have endured a hard or troubled professional life by a long shot (in fact, I consider my own both garishly lucky and deeply meaningful), but just this: there could have been more linear paths to a livelihood, fraught with less humiliation and self-doubt. Paved roads instead of winding dirt ones. Besides, my brother — a tenured professor — informs me that higher education will never be what it was when we were in our late teens. And so there are different matters for my children to consider that never dawned on me.

All to say: I have gone back through those college exchanges and grimaced at my reaction — in all cases save for one. A friend of mine, a smart one — one with whom I enjoyed sparring and found companionable intelligence and open-mindedness — had stared, blinkingly, at me, after I had stated: “You can’t just read whatever you want into a book. There are always many plausible interpretations, but there are also incorrect ones.” If an English major had taken me to task on this point, I would have respected the upbraiding. There are valid theoretical tacks that would handily unseat such claims. But his reaction lacked such theoreticizations.

“Isn’t…that…what you do in English? Read whatever you want into the books you’re reading?” He said this slowly, in befuddlement, as if I were an idiot.

I saw, then, how flimsy my chosen discipline appeared to him — how spineless, immaterial. He might respect my intelligence, but he would never respect my field. Where I saw tools, procedures, the unyielding scaffolding of Marxist or feminist or close reading criticism, the fact that the majority of success in a degree in English rests upon good persuasive writing and a lawyerly attentiveness to detail (how can you string together metrical feet, narrative design, choice of setting and de-code such minutiae such that they support a thesis suggested by the text?), he saw a bunch of dreamers braiding hair and reading a lot of something into nothing.

I gaped back at him, perceiving all at once the lack of prestige and meaning my degree carried in his eyes. I wanted to invite him into one of my seminars, to watch him flounder in confusion at the intensity of thought and meaningful conversation my classmates brought to bear. I wanted to prove myself, to prove English to him. But instead I half-heartedly groped to explain that he was wrong, changed the subject, and then laid in bed that night and decided that humility was the best course of action. From that day on, I’d laugh along with the inquiries about where my degree would take me: “I know, I know. I have no idea what I’m going to do.” I’d disparage my degree when given the chance: “I mean, I’m just an English major. You’re doing actual stuff.” I eagerly turned conversations about career choice back toward those around me.

I have long since dispensed of squeamishness when talking about my chosen career. I am admittedly shy about it, but I do not stumble over the facts: “I am a writer,” I say. I used to twitch with apology, stammer with explanation. But I write for a living. That is the bald truth of it. In moments of unflattering self-absorption, I wonder whether my friend’s opinion of English as a discipline has changed over time, whether because of me or not. Does he still dismiss the field as wool-gathering? In truth, sometimes I have a general appreciation as to where he was coming from. I approach the world with a sponge and chalk, absorbing, drawing, erasing, re-drawing, leaving a permeable white cloud around my lines. And he, and others like him — my many friends who are doctors, lawyers, finance people — bear a chisel, or surgical scalpel, or any number of implements that make material, physical contact with the world.

But is it fair to say I “practice English” anyway? Or did I cultivate good roots there, and then stumble into stretches of meaningful work elsewhere, and all of it — every non-linear diversion along the way — brought me to this moment, perhaps itself a pit-stop on the road to something else? Or maybe I was born a writer and would have landed here without the degrees? Or maybe my stint in the start-up world enabled me to pursue this second career in a way that would not have been previously possible, and so what I do for a living has little to do with the English degrees I earned at UVA and Georgetown? Or maybe, or maybe, or maybe —

I can say this, though: the or maybes is the great gift of a degree in English, the vindication I might offer my friend, should we ever revisit the topic: the accommodation of a multitude of narrative possibilities. English trained me to look at a single word and ask: “but why this one?” and to recognize a certain rhyme scheme and ask “what if it were another?” I am forever shaped by the way those questions both exact and forgive. They taught me to respect what is there on the page while wandering down the side path, investigating the alley behind, poking around in the shrubs — a sleuth-like procedure inherently blessed with both pragmatism and possibility.

Or maybe, or maybe, or maybe.

Post-Scripts.

+Lessons from a great class at UVA. And lessons from another great class at UVA here. Both English.

+I am not a numbers person.

+I love a good em dash.

+Words I hate.

+Things I need to unlearn.

Shopping Finds.

+These leggings in the sage green color are amazing.

+These channeled liner coats are great for transitions between seasons. I have been wearing mine a lot the last few weeks.

+These clear and inexpensive makeup cases would be great for travel — whether for your own cosmetics or baby gear or even your traveling medicine cabinet (I always set aside a pouch filled with everything from sunscreen and bug spray to bandaids and benadryl.). I can’t overstate the convenience of clear pouches while traveling — makes everything so easy to find!

+And these travel toiletry canisters would be amazing for decanting your shampoos, etc. Love that they come in different colors — again, makes things very easy to locate!

+Why is this the only thing I want to wear?

+My daughter would love this bug notepad.

+In love with this simple and chic striped button-down.

+Another great basic that I know would be an absolute workhorse in my wardrobe. I’m always drawn to color and print but there’s something to be said for well-cut black.

+Speaking of “well-cut black,” this under-$40 tee dress would be amazing for the first half of a pregnancy. Loose-fit, easy to pair with sandals or sneaks, etc. Would also be great for those of us trailing little children! Easy to wear and launder, moves nicely, non-precious.

+Just added this tweed cardigan to my cart in the ivory color.

+A total splurge, but I adore every detail of this striped dress.

+This windbreaker is absolutely adorable.

+A sweatshirt with major polish.

+More spring fitness finds.

+Dream bag. Would look so good and unexpected paired with this season’s trendy acid wash denim. (ICYMI: I love this $40 dress, which nails the look without breaking the bank. I’ve worn it several times already. Target also has a similar style in a top format.)

+Some great sale finds on Beyond Yoga fitness gear here. These racerback cropped bras are seriously the most comfortable sports bra I’ve ever worn. I also bought these $20 cropped tanks and they are amazingly comfortable, too. I have been generally underwhelmed by Amazon fitness finds, but these are good (just remove the cups!).

+A happy eyelet find, and even more here.

+This chic puffer was the clear favorite in my roundup of the patchwork trend.

+Cute hostess gift. More gift ideas here.

+These woven sandals have been a big hit! More chic spring shoes here.

21 Comments

  1. I love this entry. As a double major (twenty years ago, ouch!) in English and studio art, I felt I had to defend my choices on so many fronts. At the end of the day, it was simply what I was good at and what felt comfortable. Painting, writing and reading were where I experienced a flow state. Why wouldn’t I crave and pursue flow?

    I’m also very intrigued to hear more about your brother’s perspective on the state of higher education. That sounds fascinating!

    1. Hi Molly – Again, such a great point, and one I hadn’t considered. I triple majored in English, History, and French, and I did it because I excelled in those disciplines and felt totally at home in them — challenged, but happy. I gravitated unthinkingly toward them. I would never have thought to consider a degree in math or economics or engineering or any science, really, because I had always considered myself “not a numbers person.” It would have been diametrically opposed with who I imagined myself to be! So, there’s that – I think I forgot how much that weighed into my decision to pursue the degrees I did.

      Thank you for weighing in here!

      xx

  2. I didn’t think I had anything to say about this subject until I saw Mary’s comment, “A liberal arts education these days seems like a luxury,” which stirred some thoughts. I very much agree with her statement based on my perspective when reading it.

    7 years ago I became a first generation college graduate and had attended an out-of-state school with little/no financial assistance. My dad literally started a business in order to pay my tuition and worked harder than anyone I’ve known. At the time, I was cognizant of this but it’s only looking back that I’m able to clearly see his hard work, dedication, and the sacrifices he and my mom made. To the degree that I was aware of it in college, I felt that I had to make my time there extra “worth it” – which to me was getting a degree in economics, forgoing certain clubs that might incur extra expenses, not going the Greek route, etc.. I did not have an interest in liberal arts so it’s not exactly apples to apples, but I do wonder what I might have done otherwise if I felt more free (i.e. full ride scholarship, grants, etc.). Sometimes, though, I float the other way and wish I had done something even more practical like engineering

    What’s funny though is that a good friend in college did major in English and had an exceedingly linear path into a very (seemingly) fulfilling career at a major TV/Online Network while I, with my economics degree, have had an exceptionally squiggly and rather unfulfilling career (though it’s still in it’s infancy/maybe toddle phase as far as the grand scheme of life goes). However, to avoid ending on a sad note, I did recently complete a program that, coupled with my degree, will transition me into a new and much more fulfilling career.

    1. Hi JC – Thank you so much for sharing these insights. Your parents sound like such amazing people. I think you are hitting the nail right on the head with the concept of making college “worth it” — what does make college “worth” the incredibly expensive price tag, especially when many students are then laden with unforgivable debt for years to come? It feels like part of the calculus must be assurance of job attainment, right?

      I’m so glad you’re on your way to a career that feels more fulfilling to you. It requires a lot of bravery and self-knowledge to pluck yourself out of the flow, set your sights on something else, and then jump through all of the hoops required to make the change. Bravo.

      xx

  3. This is a thought provoking piece! Being over a decade removed from receiving my B.A. in English from a liberal arts college, I have cycled through some similar thoughts, including some regret that I didn’t opt for a second major in a more practical, vocational area. I see your father’s perspective – it’s helpful to understand things like how to read a profit and loss statement. With my own winding career path (and aren’t most career paths a bit winding these days?), I appreciate the skills I gained through liberal arts. Because they’re never precisely practical, liberal arts degrees don’t become outdated. Indeed, my work life has taught me that there is always a need for people who communicate and write well and can see the big picture. Perhaps most of all, the habit I appreciate most from studying English is the study of human nature and behavior. I remember reading somewhere that people who read novels tend to be more empathetic because their reading requires them to put themselves in others’ heads, evaluating motives and actions in different contexts. Liberal arts degrees have become luxuries, but I do wish for a world in which they were not.

    1. Hi Sarah – This is such a provocative point: “Because they’re never precisely practical, liberal arts degrees don’t become outdated.” On the one hand, having a more technical degree can help you with the start of your career, as you are up-to-date on whatever the current conventions are, but if you are getting a degree in a technical field that you set aside for a bit, it does seem much less useful than the more general grounding in writing, reasoning, etc that liberal arts might provide.

      Great food for thought!

      xx

  4. As an English major and now someone working as both a content creator and in a sort-of HR position for a small business, I think the writing skills I learned in college were hugely helpful, as you said, to not necessarily get me in the door but to help me distinguish myself once in. From the hiring perspective, the ability to communicate deftly and effectively is perhaps the number one thing we look for across any position, since it’s so crucial for success on a team and in every single job function. You certainly can learn some writing skills in other majors, but I think English majors have a leg up! 🙂

    1. Hi Em – For sure. Strong communication skills can be such an incredible differentiator in the workplace. It opened all kinds of doors for me — “oh, Jen is good at writing, maybe she can help with x.” Then I was pulled into those conversations/rooms and lots of new doors opened, I was closer to decision-makers, etc. Definitely a strong benefit of a liberal arts degree!

      xx

  5. My parents also offered the same advice, Claire. We were encouraged to pursue a liberal arts education for a number of reasons—as way to expand our minds and learn to digest knowledge in a way that made us better citizens, to think through the deep questions of life through different lenses, to understand our own place in the history of civilization. Anything more “practical,” we were told, could be learned on the job. A good employer should hire us based on our demonstrated ability to learn and grasp new concepts quickly and not see us as limited by a “useless” college degree. Like you, Jen, I have had a windy career path, and I find myself pondering how I will counsel my own children when their college years approach. A liberal arts education these days certainly seems like a luxury. My work currently doesn’t reflect the thousands of hours I spent practicing piano for my two degrees in piano performance, haha. While I am grateful for the years steeped in musical beauty, I often wonder if I would be better off having had a bit of business training thrown in the mix many years ago. The good thing is, learning never ends! Omnia in bonum. Thank you for yet another thoughtful reflection. I enjoy your writing enormously.

    1. Hi Mary! Thank you for these vulnerable and insightful reflections! I have been pulled through similar loops of thought, and two of your comments really jumped out at me as great examples of the tent poles I vacillate between: “A liberal arts education these days seems like a luxury” and the litany of reasons your parents gave for pursuing one. How to reconcile? Glad I’m thinking through this now, years in advance of when my children will be pursuing a degree (if college degrees as they currently exist are still deemed useful…anything is possible).

      xx

  6. Such an interesting post! I have two degrees in art history and passed on an opportunity to pursue an MBA while finishing my BA. I, too, faced so many questions about what, exactly, would I DO with an art history degree?? Turns out I would do nothing with either of them! Life happens, marriage and children entered the picture, priorities changed, and I now find myself owner/director of a preschool. 🙂 I’ve worked in many jobs along the way, in several different industries, and have often reflected that my love of learning has served me well!
    I do regret passing on the MBA, but I do not regret my art history degree. The humanities provide such broad well-rounded education and there is great value in that, if one is fortunate enough to have the opportunity to study them.
    Have a great week! xo H

    1. Hi Heidi – So interesting. I love where you’ve landed, with gratitude for the opportunity to have studied something you love and an appreciation for the well-rounded education it afforded. It’s interesting – one other dimension I had not thought through is how my strong writing skills (cultivated through years of writing-heavy academics) helped me progress in my first few jobs. I wouldn’t say the skillset got me in the door anywhere, but I was quickly noticed and promoted because of it. I guess regret is useless because everything we do leads us to where we are meant to go. But sometimes I get stuck on the “I wonder if…”‘s.

      xx

  7. Oh! My story is so similar and yet so different. I went to Bucknell on a full athletic basketball scholarship; the expensive tuition was completely outside the realm of possibility for my family. I came home freshmen year and announced “I’m majoring in English!” My engineer parents (my mom was a SAHM, but a trained engineer) didn’t miss a beat. They said: “that’s nice. And what else are you majoring in?”

    So, I double majored in English AND Business, in the name of practicality and employability. “Regret” is a strong word, but I spent SO many hours doing business course work I didn’t even care about then, and still don’t care about now. I have a wiggly “career path” too (will spare you the details) — but is a squiggly path a bad thing? When parents long for more “predictable” courses for their children, is it actually to benefit the child or to comfort the parents? I’ve learned a lot in the unpredictable twists and turns of my life.

    Would I pay to send my sons to
    Bucknell, even if by some miracle I could afford it? Absolutely not, for myriad reasons. At the same time, the poet in me feels called to revel in my windy “life path” and I only occasionally envy those on the straight and narrow. What’s the point in being “socially accepted” by (quite frankly) a profoundly sick society?

    I’d rather be a creative than a pragmatic, I suppose. I’d rather choose “the artist’s way.” 🙂 This will likely encourage my kids to choose the most practical professions on earth 😉 but I believe life has been preparing me to be unprepared.

    1. Such thought-provoking comments here – wow! I spent my entire run this afternoon thinking about: “when parents long for more ‘predictable’ courses for their children, is it actually to benefit the child or to comfort the parents? I’ve learned a lot in the unpredictable twists and turns of my life.” I really had to think on that. I think you are right that growth happens in those terrifying moments of uncertainty. We become stronger, more convicted, more resourceful, or simply more practical. I have seen that in myself for sure. And in that sense I cannot regret any of my decisions, even the suspect ones. At the same time, I absolutely would not wish my experience in entrepreneurship on anyone else, and I associate the squiggly path that led me to my first entrepreneurial endeavor as intrinsically connected to my English degree. But come to think of it, when I really boil it all down, maybe it’s just the entrepreneurship element that I’m thinking about wanting to shield my children from, and not so much my chosen degree. Building a start-up in the industry and context we did was a…merciless experience. Of course I now recognize all of the upside and value and lessons in it but I am still (!) processing it, still not quite over it, all these years later. Anyway, that’s a story for a different day perhaps, but thanks for helping me really press on some of my assumptions.

      xx

    2. Jen, I am so impressed by your ability to open the door to such thoughtful conversations on your blog. I am intrigued by your entrepreneurship experiences (of which I have none), and am sorry it was painful for you. I will definitely read along if you ever choose to share more on that front.

      I’ve found it takes me YEARS to process nearly anything….. always much longer than I expect. I am 32, and after struggling to write novels with protagonists in their 20’s, I’m now finding it much easier to write a high-school-based novel, and I’m wondering if it’s because I’ve only really processed the first 18 or so years of my life. Ha!

      But oh! The proposition of shielding my children from painful experiences that I wouldn’t wish on anyone hits so close to home. Isn’t that the most natural, most loving inclination? One specific for me: Division One NCAA Athletics. I just don’t know if I could LET my babies go through four years of that. (I can hardly enjoy March Madness anymore after living on the “inside.”) But what if they love sports? Will I be protecting or depriving them? When I swirl around things like this (which I do often) I try to remind myself of the poem, “On Children” by Kahlil Gibran; although my husband can’t stand it (ha!) I find comfort in the invitation to release perceived control.

    3. Hi Joyce! Thanks for the compliment. I love hearing what you smart ladies have to say. I always leave with a slightly modified view!

      Such an interesting insight re: processing time. Maybe I am just still in the throes of moving through that experience…will be glad to be out of it and into post-processing, although it sounds like some experiences just never leave you, as with your athletics!

      xx

  8. Jen,

    As a fellow English major, it breaks my heart to hear that you probably won’t encourage your children to pursue advanced degrees in the humanities. I swear that through books and a very solid liberal arts degree (despite having a B.S. in English….WestPoint-ism) I learned to LIVE.

    On the other hand, my husband chose to forgo the master’s programs we emailed about in favor of applying for an MBA or a degree in systems engineering for many of the reasons you just listed.

    Have you read Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library? It’s about a woman who tries to end her life and ends up in a library with books holding all the other choices she could have made (and whether it would have made her happier or her life easier.) It’s a really simple read but I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

    1. Hi Veronica – Thanks for this note. You made me realize — maybe I overstated things, and in general should be extra cautious in how I frame things moving forward with my children. I hope I will empower them to choose whatever path they feel passionate about, but I don’t foresee myself actively pushing them towards English. (Strange thought: my children might eventually read these posts and then use them against me. Ha!). Anyway, it does pain me to NOT be actively advertising English as a great destination for any student, because I loved it. I loved it then, I’m grateful for it now, and I have no regrets. Maybe just some perspective that I would want to bring to bear for my children…

      Exciting news for your husband! Hopefully my email didn’t scare him off. Haha!

      I have read that book. I liked elements of it but wasn’t wild about it…I do see the dovetail in themes a propos of this post today though, for sure! A good reminder that the path we’re on is usually the best one.

      xx

  9. So interesting — my parents’ sole advice for college was to NOT major in business, figuring that I’d learn its machinations on the job if need be. And they were right. A degree (or several) in English is not for everyone, of course, but I whole-heartedly believe a solid grounding in the humanities is critical for, well, life!
    On a tangential note: have you read My Salinger Year? I devoured 4/5 of it yesterday; it’s an easy read but a lit fiend’s goldmine!

    1. That is SO interesting — I think my Dad felt the opposite, that a solid grounding in business is critical for life, even for thinking through practical things like making an offer on a house. I guess as with most things, balance is the goal.

      I haven’t read the Salinger Year, but I’m now intrigued! Just added to my list.

      xx

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