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Oh, the Things I Will Do With My English Degree: Navigating the Humanities
Transcript of Oh, the Things I Will Do With My English Degree: Navigating the Humanities
Hometown: Lockport, NY
Majors: Math and English
Interests: tangrams, feminism, puns and bad jokes, Edgar Allan Poe
Hometown: Fredonia, NY
Major: English, Philosophy/Music Minors
Interests: Reading, writing, music, movies, philosophy, food
Hometown: Campbell, NY
English Major, Communication Minor
Interests: Reading, running, writing, music, and cooking
Correcting Our Course
“No man has a right to ignore what other men have learned before him.”
"We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours."
– John of Salisbury
When I first heard the need for English majors was being called into question, I rolled my eyes in disgust and held back the urge to become intellectually sick. As an English major, I am disappointed in people for questioning such a fundamental necessity and expression for our humanity. It is simply silly and absurd. I realized, though, it calls to my attention that not everyone sees the importance of this major as I see it. By many it is believed that an English degree is a misdirected pursuit.
Hometown: Boston, NY
Major: English, Creative Writing Minor
Interests: Psychology, poetry, and fantasy
Print is Still Valuable
Once upon a time, there lived a girl who loved the magical world of stories. Her favorite part of the day was laying on the floor reading and getting lost in the story world. She would lie on her stomach and flip through the pages becoming more and more engrossed in the plot and characters. One day a horrific storm struck the kingdom that left her story world changed completely. The pages were no longer there to turn, but instead she progressed through the story with the click of a button. Her favorite part of the day had been changed by this storm and she yearned for things to go back to the way they were before.
Now an English major at SUNY Fredonia I can admit that I was that girl. I allowed myself to fall into the e-reader trend that has taken society by storm. Since then I have gone back to good old print. For most of us English majors print still does hold value, and being able to turn the page of a book means something. This isn’t true for most members of society today, for most it is all about speed, efficiency, and convenience. America has taken off on a sprint that never ends. In the words of Gertrude Stein, “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”
Hometown: Fredonia, NY
Majors: English and History
Interests: local history, firefighting and EMS, musical theater
Hometown: Wellsville, NY
Majors: Philosophy and English
Interests: food, talking philosophy, and hanging out with friends
Beyond the Pages We Write
English, the language we speak and the path we chose to dedicate our lives to, is the very essence of how we live. English majors are a different breed of thinkers, brash with contemplations of criticism, but thoughtful and extensive humans on page. Our major is one that teaches humans to communicate effectively, while still being a sensitive artist. Despite being a jack-of-all-trades linguist, the English major still becomes a sort of stigma for joblessness post-graduation among the general public. Embracing the inevitable is the topic of every modern day article regarding the English major when it should be embracing the optimism of a deep passion for literature. The necessity of finding meaning and literature’s endless messages about humanity forever entices minds, teaching verse after verse in our language of being. Humanity needs English and the passion of the English major does more than ensure that passes from generation to generation. English majors are passionate at reading, writing, and researching the fine lines that define our culture.
The very moment I set foot in an English class at SUNY Fredonia, I was taken into a realm unlike any other. The expectations of a college English class are circles where feelings and opinions are shared, but we do so much more. The college classroom is an archaeological dig, and each student digs with valor and pride to find not only treasures of past literary genius, but to create their own and find value in the crazy conceptions we make about the world. English majors don’t merely analyze the world, they create the world and draw further and further into every word. Themes and ideas engage young minds to delve deeper into words before them, elaborating and growing. Reading and writing are staples to our culture and our way of life. How does one read without writing and vice versa? The humanities themselves are a sustenance to how we shall live. Words and actions go hand in hand, we interpret these with every cognition racing through our mind. To deny literature is to deny the raising of culture and the very potential of the human mind. The human mind, the human experience, defines our very presence on this earth.
The humanities is the sole field for the discovery, and preservation, of the individual. Many people believe that science is the only research that’s acquiring new horizons. They are mistaken. The examined role of the individual in this world is a problem approached only in the humanities. It is also a problem that constantly finds new horizons. Right now, people are struggling with the same questions.
Who am I?
What will I do?
Will I make it?
These problems of identity, purpose, and happiness are ever changing and non expiring. The only venue for discussion, and expression, of those questions is the humanities. The writer is constantly dancing with issues of the self. The reader serves to further the work of the writer, or at the least, acknowledge the work they have done. To not see the value in that is an act of great ignorance. Study english for the sake of preserving the individual. An educated inspection of what makes us human will allow for more focused evolution of our sciences. The basis of that evolution should be human needs. Progress is only valuable, if we do not forget why we are working toward it.
For every discovery made, or invention patented, we change the reality we exist in. The humanities should be considered in unison with science to keep that in check. We are becoming a society defined, and structured, by the technology at our disposal. The humanities serves as inspection to what that means. Science is imperative to improving our society. The humanities is still necessary for affirming our identity in relation to that.
Potluck of Potential
What can you do with an English major? How is it useful? What are your future plans? These are some fantastic questions, very to the point and intimidating. Anyone who has chosen a major in the humanities has probably heard some variation of this question every time they share what it is that they study. The idea that we must have this clear-cut framing of the future, where this track will take us, is frightfully flawed.
We need to rewire how we think about the humanities. Currently our ideas about the future and how we phrase our hesitations is giving off a pathetic view of the glass as half empty. We should be looking at this broad area of study though from the standpoint that the glass is half full and filling up fast. There is an ever continuous flow of new criticisms and works that collectively expand our history and strengthen our connecting links.
Having an English major opens you up to endless possibilities. How can you worry when you are pursuing a degree which makes you a better person? It’s not just about reading and regurgitating. It’s about cultivating a set of skills and developing your viewpoint in a manner that makes you more empathetic and understanding towards other human beings. With every piece of literary criticism or work of fiction or even someone’s personal blog post, you are expanding your knowledge of the world and its inhabitants. If you have the ability to step out of your perceived boundaries and usher in a wealth of knowledge, why wouldn’t you?
For the (New) Humanities
In order to understand the world we must first
understand ourselves and what it means to be human.
The underlying premise is simple; in our endless pursuit to understand humanity we are tasked to understand our value as well as the value of others. Only with great understanding of humanity can we truly strive to live a life worth living.
Four Points on the Life in the Pursuit of the Humanities:
- A life in the pursuit of the humanities is not easy.
It should be clear, a life in the pursuit of the humanities is one focused on breaking apart and internalizing the world, as it is, with courage, and without compromise.
- A life in the pursuit of the humanities demands respect for all.
This is the defining feature of the humanities. In understanding the self, and in developing a deep capacity for empathy, we come to understand the world through ourselves and through others. No matter how deep our disagreements may be, we must begin at a point of respect in order to move forward. Human respect is a fundamental underlying value which should animate all of human interaction.
A life in the pursuit of the humanities is not at the mercy of market forces.
Human beings should not be shaped by the market. Instead, the market should be shaped by human beings. No longer, will we allow for superficial gains to sink us into the mundane. Instead we chose to engage life actively, and to contribute to shaping the world around us.
- A life in the pursuit of the humanities demands community engagement
It is only through human understanding and community that we overcome ourselves and elevate life beyond the drudgery of everyday existence.
When my father found out I was majoring in English, instead of a more profitable profession, he nearly had a heart attack. “Why on Earth, Lora?” At first I felt a little ashamed for having angered my dad. This is after all the man who is supposed to love and support me through thick and thin. I told him it was right for me. My love for reading was established all because of him. I still vividly remember those days of me sitting on his lap, wrapped up in his arms, listening to anything he would be willing to read to me. When I reminded him of this, he simply sighed and told me that this was going to have to be temporary. I, thrilled that he was even entertaining the notion, ecstatically agreed. After having spent some time with the major, I called my dad telling him that I wasn't planning on leaving it for something that I was less passionate about, and to my surprise he thought that was okay. This path of studies has transformed me into the attentative, critically thinking student that I am today. Without classes like my Critical Reading, Shakespeare, or World Poetry courses (to name a few) laying the foundation through my educational career, I’d be lacking some of the most crucial skills that ALL college students need in order to be truly successful with their futures. I think harder, I read closer, I problem solve, and interpret more efficiently.
Richard J. Schumacher
Hometown: Alden, New York
Major: English, Philosophy Minor
Interests: Books, Movies, Traveling (heavy interest in Latin American culture), and Camping
Hometown: Smithtown, NY
Majors: English and CDS
Interests: Running, Horse-back riding, Bon fires, my dog, and good times with friends
Adam C. Glasier
Hometown: Fredonia, NY
Major: English, Creative Writing Minor
Interests: He likes to write stuff.
Maelia M. Duncan
Hometown: Brooklyn, NY
Major: English, History Minor
Interest: Reading, writing, music, arts and crafts, and just joking around with my friends
Not Defined by Stereotypes
The English major is filled with talented people, people with bright futures. But statements like ‘you cannot do anything with a degree in English’ or ‘an English degree is not really worth much’ deter many people from pursuing a degree in English. I was originally a Pre-Law major and forced to suppress my love for English by my family. My family assumed that the only way I would make it in life is if I became a lawyer or a doctor. After a year as a Pre-Law major I finally said, “To hell with what they think; I will make it on my terms” and I switched my major to Liberal Arts, received my associates degree, and transferred to SUNY Fredonia. From my time here at SUNY Fredonia I have learned that people with an English degree are at an advantage. They can obtain any job or enter into whatever field of study they choose. Critical reading and writing skill are very much in need in the business world and being the best in those categories aid one’s ability to succeed in their line of work.
People of the English major cannot and will not be defined by the stereotypes that surround the major. We will not all end up as teachers or even authors. Many of us will go off and work in offices and large businesses. An English degree is not a means to an end; one will never stop learning new things, create new ideas or techniques, and develop new ways of thinking.
The Heated and Slightly Insecure Confession of a Writer Upon Receiving an English Degree
“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”
Last winter, I was washing dishes with a coworker. We got into talking about books and writing, and wouldn’t you know I’m more than eager to ramble about my aspirations to sell fiction—I boast about the novel I finished, my participation in the campus writer’s guild, and the short fiction I’m really quite proud of having written. Oh, she says, that’s all very nice. She goes on to say that she writes erotica, and so far she’s published a couple eBooks (as in 12) on the internet. No agent, no editors, just self-published smack dab on the big old spider web! In fact, she’s so prolific that the income she’s made from her royalties is big enough to pay for her last few semesters of college. Did I mention she’s a junior Sociology major?
My jaw hung slack. Here I am, with a collage of rejection slips tacked to the wall above the head of my bed, haven’t had so much as a poem published in my high school’s creative writing pamphlet, and here is my neighbor spewing porno after porno and living all my fantasies for it. I went to the bathroom, stared at my haggard face in the mirror, and I wondered:
What the hell have I been doing for the last four years? I’ve been reading Russian epics big enough to kill a man, studying books on narrative design and poetic form that I hardly retain, writing analysis after analysis on the written works of dead white men, arguing in class about the petty differences between Slipstream and Fantasy fiction, all for a 3.6 GPA and a certificate of degree? If somebody who hasn’t even taken a writing class is paying the bills with her scribbles, why am I wasting the time I could be writing novels?
I was crestfallen. This overwhelming barrage of doubts continued to assault me for many days, until they conglomerated into one very big question.
Do you really need an English major to be a writer?
There is a theory of writing that dictates that we creatively write because we have never truly read the story that we utterly need and therefore attempt to create it ourselves. Maybe that story is out there in the millions of stories written and told, but perhaps it’s not, perhaps it’s impossible to find the perfect story in which to reflect our experience. At its core the English major has been for me an attempt to find that story or to write it. Martin Buber, an early-mid twentieth century writer and philosopher wrote in his book I-Thou about the uniqueness and also utter difference of each person. Every being is a Thou, in many ways completely independent of all others in so much as each individual has had unique experiences and context in which they have developed themselves into the person that they are today. And yet also, each person, each Thou is at a level of relation with every other person, each Thou is equally weighed in a universal sense. This philosophy has been at the core of my understanding of the English major and why generally I see it as utterly valuable. The English major is the study of the human experience, we read hundreds of stories and poems and literature, we read the thoughts and sentiments and philosophies of other to gain a greater empathy and understanding of humanity on a level of relation. We are constantly searching for the story that resonates through us as a whole, that shakes us to the foundation, and when we don’t find it we read more and more and write more and more in an attempt to find that perfect story, that perfect theory, that is utterly vulnerable and speaks to us through its entirety.
Why should I have to defend my choice to be an English major? I don't see engineering students or computer programmers having to justify why they chose to pursue that field of study. I'm sick of constantly hearing the phrase 'well what are you going to do with that?', as if it's such an outlandish field of study. My reply to this is usually something along the lines of: 'Well Uncle So-and-so, I will use this degree to do whatever I damn well please'. Actually I lied, I don't usually say that. In reality I just question why it is that I get that question in the first place.
I wish I could feel the same nostalgia that some others may feel while remembering the days when learning about English wasn't treated with such blatant disregard. Unfortunately I'm too young for that, and the world I have lived in and still do live in is one that does not value the beatnik poet or the literary scholar. The world in which I live thrives on the scientific advances that make our human lives easier. We depend on these people - engineers, computer scientists, and doctors - to provide us with a never-ending stream of innovative products marketed towards people who are absolutely convinced that they are necessary for survival in the modern world. There is no place for literature in this model, and that's why I receive this question so frequently. The metanarrative at work here says much more than just 'what are you going to do with your life?', but rather it scoffs quite pompously, 'why on Earth would you choose to do that? You'll end up completely broke and contributing nothing to society'.
What I think these people fail to recognize is that us English Majors see right through the pretenses. We are all well aware that what we have chosen to pursue is not widely respected or revered. So why even bother having the English Major as an option? It seems that there are hardly any prospective students interested in the major, so maybe the naysayers are right? I would argue that they are not right - they are entirely wrong. In fact, the eradication of the English Major would be an atrocious mistake. The devaluing of the English Major is symptomatic of the larger ills that plague our world, and I think most English Majors would agree with me when I say that there is something very wrong with this country. We are surrounded by flashing lights and glamour, and we are taught to idolize the disgustingly wealthy. We are taught that we need to have the latest and greatest, the most popular and the most revered by the masses. We are immersed in media that perpetuates the most heinous of social injustices. We are instructed on how to walk, talk, sleep, and think, and we are grossly unaware of just how controlled we are by the technological influences around us. We are part of a generation who prefers to read tweets as opposed to newspapers. We are largely selfish, irresponsible, and unappreciative bunch. Sorry to say that it isn’t just an anomaly that will pass- it is not going to go away. This is the world we are inheriting, and if we continue to allow it to be this way, we will become products of it.
Hometown: Patchogue, NY
Major: English, Psychology minor
Interests: gender studies, dance, playing piano, hiking, geocaching, and cooking
Hometown: Rochester, NY
Major: English, Environmental Studies Minor
Interests: Sustainability, agriculture, hiking, food, comedy, lakes, Greco-Roman lit
“What are you gonna do with a bachelor’s in English?”
Let’s see, I will...
Know how to research any topic and develop my opinions as I write about it.
Speak and write concisely and persuasively.
Notice patterns and surmise their significance.
Be mindful of my surroundings.
Seek the line between reality and language.
Understand history beyond the names and dates.
Never be afraid to talk about anything.
Read attentively and with intent.
Solve puzzles, moot or not.
Utilize a brimming vocabulary.
Work to master what humans have created to represent not only the tangible spectrum, but also our abstract thoughts, feelings, and cultural mores.
Attempt to define something that is essentially undefinable for the sake of exercising my brain.
Apply critical theory to the current state of the world and establish the implications.
Recognize when others commit logical fallacies while avoiding them myself.
Remain open to new perspectives within the boundaries of acceptable lines of reasoning.
Get others excited about what I’m excited about.
Know where I stand on the issues I’m informed on.
Know to be fully informed before taking a stand on an issue.
Hometown: Forestville, NY
Major: English, Creative Writing Minor
Interests: Reading, writing, sleeping, drinking, and fawning over cool tattoos
The difference between an English Major and someone who simply likes to read is that once we are done reading, there is even more to do. While we have spent years honing our abilities to read and think critically, it’s not often we carry this knowledge into real life situations and empathetically put ourselves into another’s situation. We are taught to digest all that we take in, to collect everything in our world and use it all whenever we analyze something. Using the different lenses we learn on a text has the potential to minimize someone’s experience though if we are not careful. There are times when we take someone’s story and make a lesson out of it, make it more of a story for a people or a group than one person’s take. This leads to ignorance and is exactly the logic that creates bigotry.
Hometown: Rochester, NY
English Major, Creative Writing Minor
Interests: Poetry, Feminist Theory, Reading
We would like to thank our professor, Dr. Bruce Simon, for challenging us throughout the semester and for his support. A special thanks as well to our classmates for authoring these manifestos and their cooperation with us in doing this project. Thank you to all of the friends that have given feedback and advice about our project and our writing. Last, but not least, thank you to SUNY Fredonia for all the help in publicizing and spreading the word.
Critical theory on the other hand has played an entirely different role in my career as an English Major. The exploration of critical theory is just that, an exploration. When reading Foucault, Derrida, bell hooks, Susan Bordo, or any other of the vast highly regarded writers I am in a constant point of questioning and curiosity. Whether I am reading about Feminist theory, Gender theory, post-colonial theory, or exploring some other area of knowledge I am constantly engaged with the text, questioning the text, my own beliefs, societal structures, and abstract notions. The classes that are focused on Critical Theory have always been for me incredible opportunities for conversation and growth. Everyone is trying to come to some form of consensus and understanding in an honest and full-hearted way. Discussions of framing, situated knowledge, and privilege that are addressed in these courses have helped me grow as an individual; they have helped me to recognize my privilege and positioning, and how that affects others so I may help in a real world sense rather than simply understanding theory in the abstract. This interconnection between theory and reality has always been at the core of the classes on critical theory that I have taken. This connection keeps me curious and driving toward more knowledge bases and perspectives. This sense of drive then feeds my creative writing, it allows and helps me to write about my own personal experiences in the most vulnerable way possible.
The English Major is vital to the understanding of the human experience. It is the study of culture, of emotion, and of the very structures of society. To study English is to study where humanity has been and to try to empathize with the human condition as a whole. This is why the English Major is imperative.
We have stopped valuing things that are inherently human, and have chosen instead to place our faith and reason for existence in our ability to make technological advances to prove our worthiness as a race. When we invent phones that are so advanced we get to call them 'smart' or computers so fast that they can do calculations that humans can't even attempt to do, we think it gives us the right to go 'hah! We are starting to figure out this mysterious thing we call the world; we are masters over nature and we are going to show Mother Nature that we can't be stopped!' What do we gain from being able to have information instantaneously available at the touch of a button-or rather at the touch of a screen because touching buttons is far too tedious? Ideally having things like smart phones would mean that we would use them in a way that would make us better humans; however this seems to be having the opposite effect and people do not generally use devices this way. We see people using devices like smartphones to become desensitized to the world around them by entertaining their thoughts with meaningless things like games, videos, and social media. Too busy to pick their heads up and observe the world around them, we see people constantly looking downward hoping to plunge head first into the cyber world which so soothingly provides them with an escape from the harsh reality that is our humanity.
When you do actually pick your head up and observe the world around you, you see many fantastical, terrific things. You might notice the beauty of a nearby stream that you happen to pass by, or the intrigue and mystery of a fiery scarlet forest you might walk through on your way home. You might laugh at the clouds, admire the ocean, or dance in the sunlight. There is certainly something to see when you make the choice to try. It may hard, or even inconceivable to try and pull yourself away from all of those things that keep you busy and distracted. I think that any English major could tell you that it is worth it. To us, all the world is poetry, all is literature, and all is worth experiencing. It is the reason why we enjoy studying English, and inflames us with passion more and more every day. However, that isn’t the end of the story because when you extract yourself from the whirlwind of constant stimulation you also encounter something that isn’t so pleasant. There is a price that comes with this feeling of enlightenment, and that price is a keen awareness of what evil lurks among the beauty of our world. The harsh realities that we might try to ignore are blaring in our ears and blazing into our eyes. That reality is that we are a people wrought with problems. We cannot shield ourselves from the threat of global warming, nuclear war, famine, rape, violence, and social injustices of all shapes and sizes. Our demise is imminent, and I do not mean this in an ‘end of the world’ apocalyptic fashion- I mean that we are heading down a dangerous path without much regard for the consequences.
What does this all have to do with English? To put it as simplistic as possible, English does something that is not only important, but I believe that it is necessary to live in this world. We need a remedy, an intervention, or some kind of sign that there is hope that someone will wake up out of the matrix and decide to save us all. What we learn as English majors prepares us to enter into this world with critical eyes. We are armed for battle and ready to fight, and with all of the knowledge that is given to us we are adequately equipped to face what is ahead of us. It is time to infiltrate the media, and instead of filling peoples’ head’s with mindless entertainment and bogus information we need to actually take the leap and give them something real. We cannot just hide away and wait for the storm to pass. It is time to take our pent up anger, our frustration, and turn it into something useful. We do not have to be just a passive receiver of this media, of all of these ills. We can be makers, and that is where we gain our strength. It is accessible to us and we need to assert ourselves into the culture we are living in regardless of our qualms and quarrels. We need to be unafraid to try and force others to challenge what they see. In practical terms this is largely about how we experience technology as commoners, as nonscientists. We experience it through media, so we need to get people to question what they see in advertisements and television shows. They need to learn to question what they see in movies and videogames. We need to get at the harder questions – ‘why is it that we think we need these things?’ and if we can acknowledge that it is mindless stimulation and entertainment that we crave – ‘why is that the case, and what are we running away from?’
This is what English has done for me: it has opened my eyes to a world that is equally as beautiful as it is terrifying, and I wouldn’t trade that kind of education for anything at all. This is why we need to provide the public with the same kind of education that we have received. Perhaps this isn’t through reading poetry, literature, or literary theory. I have no doubt that once we make our presence known and lead this movement that an appreciation of these things will inevitably follow. This, my friends, is why we need English because what we inevitably learn is nothing compared to what we do with our knowledge, and how it transforms us as people and as citizens of the world.
The ability to create worlds voices ideas that no mind can see without the skills of craft. Creative writers are the life and blood of modern thought. Life itself takes no breaks, nor should a writer ever withhold the very confines of their mind. Embracing writing allows for the most exotic of introspections, and in harmony with others the functionality of humans can be further examined. In creative writing, the resourceful become magnificent leaders of poetry and prose. Through numerous workshops in fiction, poetry, and nonfiction the connectedness of creative writers has led to many enlightening discoveries. The craft of fiction opens pathways to all facets of life. We are innovators, bringing new kinds of characters, and forms themselves into the pages that will follow us through history. In writing, one becomes the very essence of reflection and growth. Professors open paths for students, leading them into valleys ripe with potential for stories untold.
Through communal harmony, warmth, and respectful critique, all creative work can achieve the full potential sought. In our culture’s rapid obsessions, the content of a story can quickly become distorted or skimmed without a second thought. Thanks to the internet, every story can be summed up into a meme with two sentences paralleling each other like magnets refusing to align. Strike down the summation of words and thoughts that plague texts and textbooks alike. Read for meaning! Read for English, not just the assignment! English is not English solely for name’s sake, but English because we discover so much more than a word. We discover meanings and hidden meanings alike behind the word. We discover history, philosophy, and other disciplines in our lingual odyssey. English majors should embrace technology; there is no argument over the advances and wonders of science that often interweave in the stories we seek to tell. Do not let simplicity overtake the true messages of humanity. Our humanistic ability to comprehend and empathize should dominate every inky parcel from page to mind. We owe it to ourselves to create only the finest literature and share it with the world!
Don’t get me wrong; lots of the demigods of the writing universe were English students. Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Arthur Miller, even Dr. Seuss. But then there are lots and lots of writers who either came to their senses and studied a completely different field or bailed out of the system of formal education: Emily Dickinson dropped out after a year of study, Orson Scott Card was a theatre major, Kurt Vonnegut studied chemistry and anthropology, and Rachel Spangler didn’t take a single creative writing class. Neil Gaiman, my personal favorite, never finished higher education, yet he went on to pursue a career in journalism which evolved into writing novels, comic books, and an episode of Doctor Who. And just look at Douglas Adams; in all his three years of studying English literature, he only recalled writing three essays. So if we choose our majors based on some other writer’s decision, we’re going to be disappointed.
When I enrolled in college, I knew I needed to drastically improve my writing, so it makes perfect sense to study the language you’re going to harness to paint worlds and emotions. I’ve never been sure exactly what genre I want to write—I’ve been struck by ideas ranging from a cartoon fantasy book, to angels and demons, to a rose that kills people—but I know that I love to write. Writers who go to college and pursue an English major do so because we have higher expectations than writing pornography for a living. We want to make
art. We want stories that haunt our readers with their truth and their strangeness. We want a story with an allegory to rival
, or a story with more allusions than
The Waste Land
, a story as masterfully macabre as Edgar Allan Poe’s, or a story with the perfect subtly and strangeness of Aimee Bender, but we just can’t pull it off. Is that what an English degree will teach us? Or does all this critical theory actually inhibit our creativity?
One writer, Ira Glass, said: “It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions.” Critical theory is never useless for us writers. It sets the bar for our expectations of literature. And once college is done and over, we will spend the rest of our days writing, writing, and writing until either somebody hears us or we die with our head on our keyboard. Formalist analysis can teach us the craft of language use; structuralist analysis teaches us how to craft a story through its parts; psycho-analysis helps us delve into the heads of characters; historicist criticism reveals the reflections of the human past in a story; feminist criticism, Marxist criticism, orientalism all bring to light issues that we think about every day—these are topics begging us to be used for stories. In the very least, an English degree is going to help the rising writer learn what’s “going on” in the literary movement. Even though you might not need a degree, it sure does help to be “in the know.”
Writers: all of us need a solid background in literature. Stephen King made it clear: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” So we go to college for an English degree, we probably won’t be writing two novels a year (unless you’re Brandon Sanderson), but at least we are reading a lot. Of course, it’s always possible not to read—there’s always that guy in Novels and Tales who goes the whole semester reading Sparknotes. I tell you, do not even eat with such a man! We must experience each class completely and allow it to change our lives forever, learning from all the writers who have written before us. Dante could teach us the secrets of damnation and love, while Homer may teach us the roots of Western stories in Greek myth. We learn to write on deadlines, and to write in adverse conditions. We might not be able to spew out textbooks of fact and knowledge—we’ll probably never conduct a post-structural analysis in our lives—but now we know that there’s so much to be known. The most important part of our lives is to read, because a writer without literary roots is simply an outspoken narcissist.
Whether we study English or not, we must go to the writer’s guilds, immerse ourselves in a college community of writers. If we aren’t involved in the college culture, or any sort of camaraderie of scribblers with hopes and dreams of ever being heard, we are vulnerable to giving up soon after high school.. Soon we will be released from the campus, and then we will be undercover in the world, learning from the teachers of life. So, English major or not, we won’t let any of the erotica writers and teen vampire novelists in our lives beat down our egos and scare off our muses. We won’t sell ourselves short. We have taste and we have craft. We know how to write with sharpness and economy. We’ve seen the most powerful words literature has to offer, and so we know how to write them, too. We ride on the shoulders of our forbearers, whichever authors they may be. We love books, but more importantly, we know WHY we love books, and that helps us to write more of them. We know how to read between the lines, so we’ll never write another piece of on-the-nose dialogue again.
We are English majors, and we know how to write.
It’s about self-reflection.
You get to watch as your voice changes, as it finds its unique chord. You get to witness your ideologies alter, allowing your opinions to morph and grow as you are exposed to more and more sides of varying stories. No one narrative is the exact same, you have something to learn from every person you encounter, whether it be face-to-face or through the carefully-crafted written word.
It’s about language.
When I think of being an English major I think of the ability to weave words in a manner that will bring your audience to tears over tragedy, of the ability to make them take a united stand for a valuable cause or against unseen atrocities across the globe or down the street. It is the basis of how we communicate. A degree that enables you to successfully articulate ideas and emotions and opinions, can in no way be seen as a waste. Writing is beneficial to both the author and the audience, helping both sides of the pen work through universal issues like love or illness or death.
It’s about critical thinking,
the ability to analyze a medium. No matter what job you might land the skill that enables you to read a situation or decipher subtext is indispensable. Your brain is a vital tool that you will have in your back-pocket for your entire life. The English major strives to help you hone and wield this weapon.
Do not underestimate the power of intimately understanding the basis of modern human society (language). It is ironic that people belittle the English major, when without language they could not study anything else. Language structures our knowledge. English majors know how to argue, we know how to research, we know how to speak, we know how to write, we know how to analyze. And we know the practical benefits of studying literature. We determine where fiction and reality overlap and we explore the grey areas in between. We are free to choose our topics of study, and we broaden our knowledge of our chosen topics by writing about them. These tactics become workouts for the critical mind, therefore when we face problems in the “real world”, we have trained extensively for it. We are not afraid of challenges, to the contrary, we are excited to apply our skills to a diverse set of problems. No longer should an English major have to justify their choice to a skeptic.
“Yeah, I get it, you’re skilled. But what about an actual job?”
Well, I mean, my personal plans are to...
Try to save the world. No joke.
Go to law school.
Use my power over language to alter to current conversation surrounding environmental issues.
Defend food producers.
Organize efforts for improvement.
Fight for restoration agriculture.
Facilitate sustainable development by means of litigation and legislation.
Wake from your sweet slumber.
Will you turn over in your bed,
And smell the burning pages of our lover in your dreams,
turned to nightmare?
Grasp your pen, and fashion your course
Declare, now, your unwavering will—
slay the fiend and stand your guard!
We are the last defense.
As English majors, no matter your focus of study, you know the important role literature, and our major, hold for us and our culture. It is for the understanding of our culture’s development, the preservation of our present, and our aims for the future. It is our duty, our obligation, our privilege to make a thunderous noise for the right to protect our humanities, and in turn our humanity. So often, we are viewed as writers and not people of action. As proof of this false belief, I made one of my dreams for literature a reality. Funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, fellow English majors and I organized and held a poetry-focused charity to further the importance of literature. To show the importance of literature that still exists in today’s world, other English majors and I held a poetry slam that allowed poets an opportunity to present their personal original work, educated others about the work of Emily Dickinson, and raised money to help establish a scholarship for English Majors.
Literature can be presented, supported, and used to better our world and correct our course. Correct it back to a time when literature was appreciated for its own sake. Back when it helped preserve a better respect for humanity amongst most people in a society. We can fight for the sake of literature, or smell the burning pages in our sleep. What will you do?
We have let slip our guard and in has crept Ignorance.
It is a fiend that devours our light, and destroys our humanity.
It mutilates reason, and forsakes understanding
to better the cause of progress and advancement
as it is so called.
What is progress or advancement,
if it desires to neglect the betterment of humanity
through the English major and literature?
Never has there been such a need for English majors, like you and I, to step forward and stand for what we love, and fight for what is essential to humanity’s survival. What the study of literature, for its own sake, provides is empathy and passion for others, the moral kindness and care that we have for one another. Literature gives us an understanding of how others from different cultures and times: love…fear… hate… and rejoice! It gives each one of us a mirrored image of humanity within us all, a deep well in which to reflect, diving to the depths of who we are. Can you and I love, fear, hate, and rejoice with them? We are a dual creature, not just studying literature to better our human reasoning in other fields, but also our emotional humanity as well, which can better our understanding of other people. Can our hearts be moved with empathy and compassion for human beings in their blessings and struggles? How far have we moved away from our own humanity if we consider questioning the need for English majors— those who study literature for its own sake? As death for the English major is imminent and approaching closer and closer to our door, we lie asleep in our beds dreaming the works of Plato, Shakespeare, or Mark Twain. All the while believing the humanities are, with us, unthreatened and secure.
We do nothing but obtain
the position of our predecessors—
hopeless, literate, and unemployed.
The only good we give to society
are book recommendations to employed friends,
and lessons in grammar
to the unsuspecting by-stander.
To others, we are the “clueless know-it-alls.”
For me, the most important aspect of being English Majors is the study of classic literature, or even literature in general. It, and the Humanities, is the best expression and teacher of what it is, and how to be a better human being. It is written by human beings, to human beings, in order to better understand and be human beings. Growing up, my siblings and I were always exposed to literature because our parents knew the importance of it in the development and betterment of people. So, the realization that the study of literature for the sake of literature could be eliminated from universities sends a chill down my spine. This chill came from the mere idea that we have lost our human course throughout history, to such a degree that people in our society actually want or think they need to question the importance of studying literature for its own good. Unfortunately, some would have us read it for the sake of another discipline, which is the cause of my heart descending into remorse because of our lack of defense.
“The life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else”
Call To Action – What You Must do
Stand up for yourself. Assume responsibility. Engage life creatively.
There is no one solution to maximizing your life’s value while responsibly addressing the condition of the world. However, if you wish to take the task of the humanities seriously, then
you must engage the world publicly and energetically
. That means, you must
organize and take action
. This is the only way to resist dominant ideas and overturn a world which is not in accordance with respect towards all human beings. Do not resign, coordinate instead. You must infiltrate, network across industries and systematically, and methodically, challenge the status quo so bent on reducing people into numbers, and overturn it.
As a student of the humanities you must develop tough skin to do this. Only with tough skin will you survive the difficult landscape that is challenging dominant ideas. Tough skin will allow you to do what is necessary. That is; it will allow you to organize and engage in creative action (both communal and political).
As a student of the humanities you must never favor ease in the place of a robust and engaged life. You must not make excuses. This is extremely important as you infiltrate the workforce. You must not easily accept compromise, and you must avoid taking easy way outs. You must commit to ethical work, even when such work pays less. Contribute to a good beyond yourself, while still cultivating and pushing yourself further. Stagnation is undesirable, and so, in order to avoid it, you implement growth as a strategy. Implement growth as a means to actively resist dominant ideas and instead take action, and utilize your own.
They bought our dreams and
Put them in organized boxes
What do you want to be when you grow Up?
The perverse idea of having your person-hood
Defined by somebody else’s ideals
You should probably major in Computer Science, or Business
If you do, you could make a
Someone once told me, that if I focused on becoming rich,
That it would allow me the time to do the things I wanted
That won’t get you a job, but I admire how brave you are
I wish I had the courage to do what I wanted, but I’m too poor
I need a job when I graduate
I guess I’ll try becoming a decent human being
and developing my ideas and beliefs
What are you going to do with that?
What is a life worth living? Is it a two car garage on the northern shore? Is it beach front property? Is it coming out ahead of others by getting over on them? Is it measured by wealth? Fame? Reputation?
-Don’t let your kids go to college just for anything-
-Kids are coming out of college in more and more debt,
and with higher unemployment rates-
Tell me, how can there be so many people out of work, with so much work to be done? I was never told to work in the service of others, I was only ever told to look out for myself. Today, the idea seems apprehensive.
There are those who make religion of superficial success. Those who worship a value system which is neither earned nor developed, or even worth recognition. To this I submit, the first task for the individual who wishes to take seriously the task of the humanities is, first and foremost, to begin by crafting and developing their own self-developed and deeply thought-out value system. A value system containing, but crafted beyond, the four points listed above.
The day has come when our brothers and sisters need no longer mindlessly adopt the ideologies of our fathers and mothers. To refuse to break free from empty “common sense” conventional thinking, which is not measured or actively observed, is to remain a child; to never move beyond coddling; and to never reach full adulthood.
In this way, the conscious embrace, the artistic crafting of an independent value system is a rite of passage necessary for full maturity into adulthood. Without this rite, the individual will never truly engage with the act of life itself, and will be doomed to an existence in the comfortable shade of the ideologies of others.
It is self-evident fact; the humanities are of moral and intellectual value, in and of themselves. No longer will such ridiculous explorations of their value be entertained. The day has passed, and there is too much work to be done for humanity to keep its eyes closed towards addressing the world’s most pervasive ills. The greatest of our human ills; ecological disaster, rampant poverty, institutionalized racism, food security (both globally and nationally), water security, the corporate distilling of our representative traditions; all will require the greatest of human ingenuity. Going forward must mean doing so in such a way that we reinvigorate our human capacity and understanding toward each other while revitalizing our creative energies. To this end the humanities are absolutely necessary
Students of the humanities must play a large and active role in addressing the world, as it is, without concession. They must own it and create rifts within it. Then and only then, when the humanities are integrated into a social-value-system which is driven towards human compassion and understanding, will humanity as a whole have a worthwhile and deeply meaningful existence.
Many are assuming that print is dead with a vast majority of information available on the internet and the invention of e-readers such as the kindle and the nook. Print holds some advantages over its competition in digital. For instance print is a physical object that we can hold in our hands and physically turn through each page. It does not go away; print is always available for you to return back to at any time. Really it is much more work to look at an article online, or read a novel on an e-reader, than to physically hold the newspaper in front of you. Some argue, “print is bad for the environment, it is killing the trees.” Well that precious e-reader isn’t innocent either. It has to get power from somewhere and that energy comes from rare metals and coal. Whereas book publishing companies have been going green and reusing recycle paper.
Instead of having the world at our fingertips, it is time to put it back in our hands. As English Majors we can bring print back and save it from becoming extinct. We can write news stories for printed papers, work for advertising agencies and use print ads, we can work for a publishing company to produce printed works of literature, submit written material to publishers, and so much more. That is right we aren’t all studying English to become teachers, but through studying English we have opened the door to many opportunities. One of which is being advocates for issues that are important to us, such as showing the world the value of print. As English majors graduate and move on to bigger and better things in the world we must hold on to the skills college has given us and use them to share with the world our best written work.
We must expand our understanding within any narrative, examining what is true for an individual, but also what is true for a group. What can be embellished in these stories, lied about, or manipulated with an agenda is something we must be under constant scrutiny with as well. Our minds as English Majors are groomed to take in knowledge, read through it, analyze all of it, but where our true strength should lie is in our ability to empathize. Recreating the human experience through our words is important. Finding a deeper meaning behind the words is how an English Major needs to live, allowing connections to be made between what is being said and what is in comparison being meant.
Too often do we take a story and assign it to a group where we should instead be taking it as simply an individual’s take on any given situation. As we analyze stories, something that we, as English Majors must do is to analyze why any story is told, and what motives are behind every action that takes place. Without doing this, we are only taking in part of the any narrative, the bare minimum, what’s plainly on the surface. Reading these things as something that expands our worldview is why we become English Majors. What is on the surface is not enough to satisfy our desire to understand stories and people. It’s easy to generalize people under the guise of one story. It’s difficult to take a story and allow it to be just that, a story, something that does not necessarily stand for a group. Something that instead is an important vignette of an individual’s life.
In my four years in the English Major as a creative writer I have found that workshops and critical and honest conversation have been utterly key to my development. My creative writing classes have been some of the most nurturing and intuitive classes that I have taken; everyone is utterly honest in discussion and critique and conversation revolves not around what a writer is say, but how they are saying it. It has instilled in me the belief that everyone has a valid and vulnerable story to tell, and my part in the writing community is never to tell them how or what to say, but to help them to tell their truths in a way that everyone can emote and understand. This communal drive to tell each story as best as it possibly can is one that revolves around empathy. No one type of story is better than any other, nor is an form or narrative, but it is the honest core, the vulnerable and raw story that resonates. Those stories are the ones that we strive to tell just as we strive to read them, and learning how to craft them genuinely is an invaluable skill.
English majors are versatile in every aspect of literature we explore. We know the ins and outs of structure and balance. We know the words and sentences we choose. Be it grammar, attention to detail, or the voice of writers and their many eccentricities combined there is forever undoubting hope in our ability to create and interpret. We are more than word machines and the atypical grammar Nazi. We are verbal alchemists and theorists alike! To know theory and how meaning is created for humans is to know there is always literature and humanity. To know there is meaning, gives hope to all those who seek it. Literature, like the very winds around us, changes day to day. The English major adapts, leaping forward without fear of an unspecified job field in the future. We will voice passionately our ideas and strengths. Without the words we speak, who would we be? Learn English. Learn to communicate what means everything to you, make it mean something more with written word, and let the world know what is important to humanity! We are English majors, speakers of a mighty power, and we hone our craft to preserve this stupendous gift of wisdom to humankind.
It’s about creativity.
What other major would allow you to write tidbits about aliens or telekinesis or a depressed octopus and have it feel like just another Thursday? You gain the tools to embellish your language and add color to your speech. The constant encouragement to push your imagination beyond its so-called limits flows into other facets of your life. Creativity is encouraged and fostered rather than stunted and swept to the side. Weird is wonderful.
We have no reason to worry about where an English major might take us. Maybe you’ll end up in a foreign country, teaching the English language and its beautiful eccentricities, or just a few towns over working to get a young author’s message to the masses. Either way we should know that we will be aptly prepared for the challenges to come. Being an English major has value: there is more to it than just reading and reproducing words on a page; it’s about fostering an open mindset and a humanistic view of the world. So let yourself be drawn into a realm of endless possibilities, choose the English major.
With-out my nowlidge of, propar grammer, I wouldnt be as sucesfull of a writer.
Without my knowledge of critical lens, my perspective towards reading would remain static.
Without my exploration of literature, old and new, I wouldn’t be so confident in my understanding of different types of writing and rhetoric.
Without my experience with poetry, I would hate it.
Without my love for the English Major, I wouldn’t be who I am.
After my junior year, I decided to tack on another major, Communication Disorders and Sciences. This was a personal decision; it had nothing to do with my parents opinions. Now my days consist of two realms of study: the humanities and the sciences. They do conflict sometimes, like for instance I frequently witness the simple errors that students who don’t study the humanities make. Sometimes through written communication or even orally. This lack of skill is sort of a plague to all of these other students. Because I have vast experience with Speech Pathology and English, I have become what I perceive to be a well rounded student. This deficit of essential knowledge is crippling for both the people lacking, and the community those people are a part of. I am proud to be an English major. Proud of what I have done, and proud of what I have the potential to do.
Do not underestimate the multitude of applications for an English education. There is no cookie cutter path for us after we graduate. We revel in our profitability, our employability. We decide how we will wield the indispensable skills we have honed as English majors, and our options are inexhaustible. My English education is a set of armor from Hephaestus, made for the battle I have chosen for myself. It bolsters and accelerates my epic journey to curtail our self-destructive path in a way that has not yet been attempted. And I will certainly need it.
Do not underestimate yourselves, English majors of the world. Do not be intimidated by the skepticism, nor feel the need to validate your decision. Be excited and primed to prove the skeptic wrong.
So, the next time someone asks me,
“What are you gonna do with a bachelor’s in English?”
Influenced by the constant questioning about the usefulness of the Humanities, and more specifically the decision to study English at a more rigorous level, we decided to each write manifestos that addressed some aspect of the reasoning behind our choices. We felt that those outside the major should be made aware of the practicality that accompanies an English degree and that we should defend this commonly misconceived form of study.
As students in this program we thought who better to fight for it than those who practice and have chosen to make a career out of it. We hope that by the time you have made your way through our array of explanations that you will no longer have to ask whether our endeavors are of value, but will rather stand along side us in its support.
In this collection the authors wish to present a divergence of approaches and methodologies. This is because, as uniformly as possible, the authors wish to articulate that there is no one answer, no one “thing” that they wish to do with their education and their studies in English. The Question “what are you going to do with that” already prescribes the answer. It also, insidiously prefixes a value, or lack of value, both in education and in personal growth. It presumes that there is “something” we should be doing with our lives and English studies is not it. To that logic we present these manifestos, which attempt to both refute and launch the conversation beyond the limitations of conventional understanding.
These works are in no way intended as youthful optimism. Instead, we collectively wish to state that we are coming to an understanding about our generation’s greatest challenges, and see English studies as part of the solution. We see English studies as a broadening of approach, and as a platform to foster greater problem solving and ingenuity.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost
While reading Robert Frost I came across the poem “The Road Not Taken”. The stanza above is a wonderful analogy to this compilation of manifestos. The English major is a road that has become less traveled in college. The road of the English major is equally beautiful and beneficial to the journey and advancement of humanity as other fields, but over time has become less and less traveled. In times past these two roads were traveled equally well, but in today’s world many have left the road that English majors trod.
We have, in many ways, lost the meaning of the major and its purpose. These manifestos are intended to be a call to others that are, like Frost, unsure of the road to take. We English majors ‘took the one less traveled’ and it truly ‘has made all the difference.’