If I had a nickel for every time I heard English Literature mentioned as one of the least practical majors on news programs, I’d have… well, I don’t know what I’d have. I was an English major. Math really isn’t my thing.
Hilarious. I know. Yet, chances are, if you are or were an English major, you’ve faced no shortage of jokes about your skills and future prospects. Perhaps even worse than the jokes are the sincere questions from concerned friends and family members. Questions like: So, are you going to teach? But, what will you do for a job? What did your parents say about that choice?
Okay English majors. Nobody knows the ins and outs of stories like we do. So, let’s start taking control of our own public narrative.
I have a BA and MA in English Literature. And, yes, I did teach college English once upon a time. I also worked in commercial real estate development. I worked in database management. I am currently the Operations Manager for a nonprofit. I’ve had a rewarding and eclectic career and a career that may seem contrary to the public view of what an English major can/should do.
I don’t know where the viewpoint that being an English major is a liability originated, but I know it’s time for it to stop. Not just because it’s annoying and incorrect, but because when this narrative isn’t challenged it becomes the predominant narrative. It becomes true. It becomes the narrative your prospective employers consider when they see your degree listed on your resume.
So, what assets do English majors bring to the table? English majors just, like, read poetry and talk about their feelings right? NO! (Well, sometimes, but let’s not talk about that right now.)
I think the most significant skill that I acquired from studying English is the ability to construct and deconstruct complex narratives. People understand the world through stories. This concept is important to marketing and to making the case to potential donors in a nonprofit context, but it’s more than that. Every business, every occupation needs to own and tell its own story. Moreover, defining and understanding any organization’s story is just the beginning. The story then needs to be told through a variety of lenses depending on the intended audience. Studying English gives us the tools to deal with these complex and essential issues (and much more).
If that sounds too abstract, let’s shift to a more practical and concrete topic. Writing.
The internet has changed everything. It also means that we live in an increasingly text-based world. Who creates a text-based world? Writers!
In my experience, a lot of people are just plain terrified of writing. So, if you’re the person in the office who speaks up and takes on writing related tasks, you quickly become an invaluable member of any team. Plus, as the writer, I often feel real ownership of the story/identity of my organization.
Do I know a bunch about Hamlet? Yes. Yes I do. Is that all I got out of being an English major? Not even close.
Do you need to make a complex case for funding? Hire an English major. Do you need to explain to a number of audiences why they need your product? Hire an English major. Do you need somebody who can understand the subtle internal interplay of office politics and still communicate effectively across an entire organization? Hire an English major.
I have never felt that my chosen course of study was a liability. In fact, I find that the skills I gained as an English major have placed me in leadership positions again and again. I understand complexity. I know how to communicate. I know how to own a story.
So, English majors, let’s go take control of our narrative.