What are you going to do with an English degree?

Jennifer - Winter Springs, Florida
Entered on March 27, 2008

“What are you going to do with an English degree?” is the question English graduates loathe. It implies English degrees exist as a fallback. Because I listened to such criticism, I’ve derailed from my passion several times. However, as I try to cram literature into the heads of daydreaming adolescents, who laugh when I sentimentalize Dickens, I’m discovering how best to answer the world’s cynics.

While teaching Beowulf, I found Old English audio clips of the epic. My students couldn’t believe it was not some foreign tongue, but an older version of their own language. We carried our discovery further while modernizing 17th century poets encouraging readers to “seize the day,” an idea back in vogue in the 21st century. I wanted my students to realize the stories they read were not conceived by stuffy old-timers, and useful only for collecting dust on cobwebby library shelves, but living thoughts from the collective consciousness of our entire culture. What can we do with an English degree? We can discover were we came from and use it to guide our future.

“But Ms. Silva,” they say, “With technology, nobody reads or writes anymore” Technology is their panacea; yet, when we studied the Romantics and spent a class period doing “nature writes,” we discovered technology isn’t always the answer. That day, I received beautiful reflections about how pretty the clouds were, how nice it was to slow down, or how they missed playing outside like kids. Now, I constantly remind myself that Emerson and Thoreau were on to something. What can we do with an English degree? We can learn to stop and smell the roses, because the minute we forget this we lose a piece of our humanity.

As an undergrad, I didn’t understand the integral part English plays in life. I stumbled into it awkwardly because it was what I’d been good at in high school. The class that killed my spirits was 18th century British Literature, a junior-level class I enrolled in as a freshman. Everything seemed archaic, and instead of searching for humanity within the text, I grumbled over static characters and stuffy language. I long to go back in time and remove the blinders from my younger self, who changed majors several times before settling on English. I don’t think she realized the greater purpose awaiting her.

I’m through with society dictating usefulness, and I don’t want to stop evolving at 25. Next time someone asks, as I pursue my Masters in English, “What are you really going to do with another English degree?” I’ll answer, “Truly, everything.” I’m going to write short stories, bad poetry, and possibly a novel. I’m going to continue teaching and expand into teaching community college. I’m going to lie on the grass gazing into the open sky like a Romantic, delve into mysterious Gothic fancies, examine my world critically like a post-modernist, and carry those sentiments over into an expanded appreciation of the arts. I’m going to take a plethora of people on my adventures, and I’ll excuse them if they laugh at me along the way; I’ll be too happy to care!