Having an “English Major” Brain Helped Me Figure Out My Post-Grad Plans

The cover of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Also, a symbolic image of STEM majors trying to be hired for their people skills (per George Anders.)

I think that if there’s one thing having an English major teaches you, it is how to be clever. You can—pardon my French—bullshit your way through a conversation by being persuasive. You die on a hill without understanding the metaphorical “hill”. George Anders in You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Education calls this (much more eloquently than myself) improvisation of a project manager. He exemplifies this idea by stating that translators who can write with “great accuracy and clarity” in their own language are superior to translators with the best English skills (Anders 100). This is because a base level of understanding regarding one’s own language is more important than the literal translation. Anders quotes Bridget Connolly, project manager of wikiHow, “If you’re going to tell people how to bake a cake, the batter needs to rise when you put it in the oven” (Anders 100). All of this is to say that a firm grasp of English–writing, rhetorical skills, effective evidence collecting/research—alongside the ability to creatively think, persuade, and analyze provide the ultimate bedrock for a successful career path, regardless of what the path ends up being.

Beyond being an English major, I am also an International Studies major and a member of the Honors College. However, there is not a single International Studies or Honors course in which I have not utilized the important skills honed by being an English major. During my sophomore year, I had recently solidified my double major status, thus taking an Age of Reformation history course that would satisfy some requirements for the International Studies major. Although I was not too terribly interested in the Reformation, it happened to work for my schedule. This course, ironically, ended up being one of my favorite courses I took throughout my four years of undergrad, due by and large to the research I did for it. Throughout the semester, I research the witch hunts in early modern France and how they were tied to the Catholic Church. I was interested in the historical female experience, which led to much of my later undergraduate research. By the close of the semester, I had written the best paper I had ever written to date. It was the best because I was able to combine all my skills–I could write well, yes, but I could also closely analyze primary texts, cross-compare literary sources with historical ones, and even “read against the grain” of texts written by men, for men. This was the first paper I had written for a history course. However, instead of drowning in this 300-level course outside my major, I found myself perfectly comfortable. This was by and large because of my English writing and rhetorical skills. I took a primary text––Jean Bodin’s On the Demon-Mania of Witches––and used it like I would a novel in an English class. My English major brain, I would argue, gave me a “leg up” in this history course because I was able to formulate a new idea and support it with evidence instead of reiterating the obvious, as some of my other classmates struggled with during our preliminary research period. 

The following semester I participated in an Honors course entitled “Nationalism, Cosmopolitanism, & Their Discontents.” Within this course, we would read or watch a primary text (for instance, we watched Gone With the Wind when analyzing Southern United States nationalism), contextualize it historically, and then observe its contemporary effects. While this can sound complicated, this is exactly what I had been doing in my English courses. I would read Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, contextualize when and where Austen was writing, and then look at the effects of it on contemporary literature/literary discouse.  Even more, my ability to write effectively for our daily reflections (typically three pages of writing) was what caught the eye of my two professors teaching the course. When it came time to meet with them at the close of the semester to discuss my term paper ideas, they informed me that they had full faith in my ability to analyze and write. I had caught their attention throughout the course with my capacity to read closely. Serendipitously, the relationship that I established with these professors led to one of them becoming my Bachelor’s Essay advisor. 

The English major allows me to bridge the gaps between different majors to open up opportunities across many fields. George Anders asserts in You Can Do Anything that most jobs that one has are (a) unlisted because (b) they do not exist yet. On a smaller scale of this, had I not been able to adjust and improvise in uncharted territory, I would not be able to do the research I so thoroughly enjoy for my Bachelor’s Essay. I created a new department, using the Honors College, that allows a History professor to advise an English and International Studies student on a paper addressing history, political science, anthropology, and literature. I am writing, with his guidance, about Florence Maybrick, the infamous “husband killer” of the Victorian era accused of poisoning her husband using arsenic. Instead of determining whether Florence is guilty, however, the focus of the study is how Florence has been portrayed in non-fictional books detailing her story. I am looking at what choices were made, how she was portrayed, who the author is and what their motivations are for portraying this woman in this way. My ability to closely read and analyze for this project comes from––you guessed it–-the skills I’ve learned as an English major.

Finally, it is noteworthy that the English major allowed me to determine what I wanted to do post-grad (which is, ironically, not English). Alongside Dr. Timothy Carens of the English Department, I received a SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fund) grant. Over the course of this past summer, I spent eight hours a day, five days a week researching and writing. I loved it.  I culminated in a conference paper entitled “Pale Beauty: the Privilege of White Deception in Vanity Fair.” I argued that race was critical in this text because whiteness acted as a mask to veil malicious actions whereas blackness was a visual alarm that inaccurately led to distrust from other characters. My takeaway from this experience? I have loved researching for the English major, but I do not want it to be my career. By the end of the summer, one of my favorite novels (Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackerary) became one that I resented because I had analyzed it so thoroughly, I became sick of it. However, without this project, I would have never learned how much I enjoyed not only the research process, but also presenting my research at a conference (the Victorian Institute Conference, to be specific). That is why I decided to reserve the literature I love the most for my life, but pursue research generally in my work/graduate school experience. All in all, English has been an ever-present thread throughout my undergraduate career, both in the classes I enjoyed the most as well as the decisions I made regarding my career path. 

One Response to Having an “English Major” Brain Helped Me Figure Out My Post-Grad Plans

  1. Prof VZ April 7, 2023 at 5:58 pm #

    What I appreciate most about this overview of your academic work is the real variety, and also how describe how the close-reading skills that you bring to English–viewing historical texts as just another set of rhetorical and narrative maneuvers–have helped you in a range of other areas we well.

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