When I was applying for colleges back in 2015, what I was looking for above all else was an outstanding English program. I pored through my gargantuan college guide and scoured the internet, and in the end, I applied to four schools: Kenyon College, Emerson College, the University of Iowa, and the University of Washington.
If it comes as a surprise to you that the UW has such a good English program, you’re not alone. It seems people don’t often know much about the English program, or even about the merits of an English education. As an English major, I often feel lost in a sea of STEM.
There’s an incorrect assumption in our society, especially if you’re coming from a school with advanced STEM programs, that English is easy or that English majors are unemployable. It comes down to a lack of awareness about what an English program actually entails — it’s easy to look down on English as an easy major when you have no real idea of what it is.
Graduating senior Katana Tran, an English and biochemistry double major, is no stranger to this.
“Sometimes my friends think that English is really easy,” she said. “I’m like yeah, but have you ever actually been hit with these seven-page essays?”
Her friends, she explained, can be a little elitist.
“There’s a hierarchy that STEM puts out,” Tran said.
But this conception of English classes is plain wrong. They’re a lot of work, and they’re challenging in ways that STEM classes perhaps aren’t. Just ask Colette Moore, director of undergraduate studies at the UW.
“I don’t think that English done properly is less rigorous,” Moore said. “It’s a different kind of thinking, and it’s one that lends itself well to connecting to other kinds of thinking.”
This is why a double major with English can be so productive, Moore explained, and Tran is certainly a good example of that.
“It just felt like it was a lot different than biochem,” Tran said. “It’s a bit more freeing to talk in an English class. Biochem and a lot of the STEM classes do have a very different dynamic. You’re always trying to compete with one another; you don’t really tend to work together toward your goals.”
But a double major isn’t the only productive path with an English degree.
“I see value in a life of study and of reading books that, to some extent, our society has moved away from valuing in economic terms,” Moore said.
Chair of the English department Brian Reed is no stranger to these sorts of misconceptions.
“I think that based on what English classes are at the high school level, people have some assumptions about what goes on,” Reed said. “People are surprised to find the kind of vibrancy and diversity [that] goes into an English classroom, and actually where an English degree can take you.”
Tran agreed, and is planning on emphasizing her English degree over her biochemistry one when she applies to medical school.
“I think that there is a lot of push in the media, and it filters into anxiety that STEM is the only way to have a future,” Reed said. “If you start looking around at the data, you’re going to find that English majors frequently have higher percentage of job placement upon graduation than some of these STEM and business fields that are imagined to be pipelines to jobs.”
So, being an English major is valuable to employers, but an education isn’t just about finding a job. It’s also about understanding the world you live in and the place you have in it.
“It’s the stories we tell ourselves that allow us to imagine what we can do, and allow us to see the constraints of what we are doing,” Moore said, speaking about how studying other texts can allow us to better understand the world and the people around us. “I think there’s something critical and hard to pin down about the way empathy works with identification, the way that in reading a literary text … you’re asked to sort of be that person, to see the world from that person’s eyes.”
And that, Moore said, is a crucial skill for us living together in a community.
Tran was of the same mindset. She explained that a lot of her views had changed as a result of her English classes, including her views on political subjects such as gender or race. She added that in English, you get exposed not only to literary texts, but to a lot of current events as well.
“I think that the one thing that makes English truly exciting is that it is an opportunity to better understand your place in the world and improve your ability to communicate with others … in terms of writing, speaking, thinking,” Reed said. “All these are the fundamental skills that will enable you for the rest of your life to succeed in anything, not just occupationally. This is a major that allows you to work on your spirit.”
Reed said he can’t imagine something more fundamental than that. And after all, why do we seek higher education?
“It’s not simply vocational … It’s about becoming a full person,” Reed said.
English really is a valuable course of study. It’s rigorous and intellectually stimulating. It’s edifying, and it fosters empathy and understanding. It’s valuable in the economic marketplace, even in STEM jobs.
But for me, none of these are the most important thing about being an English major. For me, it’s about the classroom. It’s about the excitement of discussing and analyzing a text, of collaborating with other students and professors and hearing their perspectives. It’s about working together to find meaning that you wouldn’t have been able to see on your own.
“[It’s about] the intellectual excitement that comes with learning to read something better than you did before, sitting in a classroom with a group of people fleshing something out together, talking through it, the excitement of that — the way that can’t be captured by an online lecture or by reading an article,” Moore said. “That classroom feeling … it’s kind of magical.”
Reach contributing writer Sierra Stella at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @sierramstella