The Flight of the English Major

A recent NYT opinion piece gave some pretty surprising statistics on English majors:

“In 1991, 165 students graduated from Yale with a B.A. in English literature. By 2012, that number was 62. In 1991, the top two majors at Yale were history and English. In 2013, they were economics and political science. At Pomona this year, they were economics and mathematics.”

Though I have no doubt there are numerous factors in this decline, I also suspect that one of them is an entirely logical response to the ever-climbing expense of going to college. If you’re going to sink into debt for the degree everyone insists that you must have, why wouldn’t you try to set yourself on a course for a high-paying or at least stable job?  I also suspect that English departments themselves are a contributing factor. Individual professors aside–no one is doubting the passion, the ability to spark ideas, the dedication to the art that many teachers (even/especially “contingent” faculty) bring to the classroom–the national craze for occupational training gives “English” and “literature” and “literary studies” departments an identity crisis. What’s our mission and our method? Why study literature? The answer varies greatly, as it should–there so many texts to read and so many ways to read them–and a great deal of the answer has to do with the “human” part of “humanities.” But consequently, English departments have never been readily able to answer the question of what kind of career they prepare you for.

I’ve been thinking about this a great deal this summer, since we have our usual summer crop of interns, and in a few weeks we will sit them down to have an honest talk about how we got our jobs and what the job market looked like for us. Most of our young people, in their cover letters and questionnaires, have reflected the same views that I remember having fresh out of college. What kind of occupations does an English major train for? Writing, editing, or teaching. That’s it; that’s all we can come up with. And it’s a sad view of the effectiveness of our educations, too, because those are three of the most endangered occupations in the country.

Write?  Yes, if you can. We all do it if we can. Everyone wants to be a writer; only the few, the lucky, the well-connected make a living from it.

Teach? Yes, certainly, if you have a passion for it: go right ahead unto the breach that is public education and try to infuse the young with a love of language. No, seriously, do–I’ve done it, and though I didn’t stay long, I have no regrets and carry some warm memories in my heart along with the painful ones. Oh, you meant you want to teach at a college, like as a professor? Well. . . from the NYT review of The Marketplace of Ideas:

It now takes a decade on average to get a Ph.D. in English, and surely that fact discourages risk-taking. . . .  Menand notes that most graduate students don’t earn Ph.D.’s, and that most Ph.D.’s don’t get tenure-track jobs: “There is a sense in which the system is now designed to produce ABDs” — graduate students who have completed all but their dissertations — who can teach introductory courses for a pittance.

Okay then. Editing? Maybe, although most literary-minded folks end up shepherding texts of far different genres than they imagined and in far less literary ways. (Who graduates college dreaming of arranging the peer review of medical journals? Of hounding historical archives by phone until they cough up permissions for images?) And publishing is not known for being a stable career. And let me tell you, it is actually very challenging to go home and write creatively after a full day of word work. Word work is hard and it can be draining.

When we host this real-talk session with our interns, my usual advice to them is to cast their nets wide. Surely language is not your only passion. Surely putting words on a page and moving them around are not your only skills. What else can you do? What else makes you proud? Searching broadly is an easier, more concrete suggestion than to dig into your word work itself, and name what it is about reading and writing and editing that supposedly turns you on, and what actual aspects of those labors are you most competent in, because “literary studies” is itself a wide net.

In any event, an English major structured well and done right is brain training. I may, right now, be living a garbled version of the English major’s dream with a publishing job, a partially digested doctorate, and a freelance writing contract, but before I landed in this odd position, my English degree and I tried on all kinds of jobs powered by my study of language and art. Tour guide. Word puzzle editor. Stage assistant. Museum devotee and woman-of-all-work. I’ve interviewed for positions as an education facilitator for a theater company, a web writer for a small museum, and a corporate communications specialist as well as the various other positions within presses large and small. My degree(s) in literary studies did nothing to advance my chances for these positions, but the skills and interests I learned in my course of study absolutely did.

Prior to our seminar with the interns, I’d love to hear from other English majors who have gone on to do interesting and  unexpected occupations. Or even expected occupations, if you’d like to talk about that. Do you feel that your degree prepared you in any way for your life after college? Do your professions and passions link back to literary studies? Do your professions and passions overlap, by some lucky chance? What do you wish you had known, when you were sophomores and juniors like our interns?


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