June 22, 2005

We're English Majors, not the Second Coming

Oh, dear. Just when you think it's safe to admit to people you have an english degree, another professor comes out with a piece calculated to reinforce every negative stereotype of the discipline (The Chronicle link has links to the full text on the prof's website). On behalf of my discipline, I would like to say that english professors who feel compelled to portray english majors as somehow brave or noble because they don't go for the "money disciplines" tend to be those professors who haven't entirely come to terms with the fact that the english major is not the same as the physics major. They aren't at all the same, and the fact that society privileges folks who are working on actual physical "things" that can help mankind over the folks who stand back ironically observing mankind and then writing the observations down is not a negative thing. It's a practical thing. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that, just like there's nothing wrong with opting for being the writer over the scientist. Unless of course opting for writing makes you feel inferior to the scientist, in which case the problem is you, not Shakespeare or Yeats or eeevillle post-911 society holding you, like, down with their, like, bourgeois expectations, dude.

English majors are not "continuously questioning outsiders." They're people who like books--reading them, discussing them and writing them. They tend to be good at reading and understanding, which makes them eminently trainable in any number of unrelated disciplines. My english degree made me a pretty good webmaster, because I knew how to communicate visually and was able to use my reading and learning skills to do things like learn programming. The only "continuously questioning outsiders" I encountered in the discipline were the ones who were desperate to become academic insiders by continuously questioning only those subjects approved by their faculty mentors. The rest of us got the degrees and got jobs. Total bourgeois sellout, I know. And I'm happy about it, damn the luck!

English majors also aren't going to save the world by going around and digging through the muck of human stupidity looking for definitive evil and being surprised that it isn't out there and then patting themselves on the back about their sophisticated "nuance" which has no doubt been brought about by their years of "questioning." Jesus.

Look. I'm an english major. I don't suffer from "existential dread." I have a decent job but will never be rich. Of course, that wasn't ever my expectation. I also didn't expect society at large to bow down before my large, egg-shaped head and obscure Beowulf knowledge because I felt they somehow imparted to me a greater mental clarity than that attained by lesser souls in the sciences or, God forbid, the great unwashed. We english majors have a word for that attitude: insufferable. See also: stupid, ego-centric, and Berkeley.

UPDATE - Jeff pointed out the Chronicle link was subscriber only. I've changed it to a direct link both in the first paragraph and here.

Posted by Big Arm Woman at June 22, 2005 10:40 AM

The Chronicle piece is for subscribers only. Do you have the offsite link handy? I think I'd get a real kick out of this one...

Posted by: Jeff at June 22, 2005 12:08 PM

Ironically a physics undergraduate degree won't get you much of a job either. At least not in physics.

I have undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering and my graduate classes had many many physics majors who had re-enrolled for graduate work in engineering becuase of their otherwise dim job prospects.

Posted by: Locomotive Breath at June 22, 2005 01:58 PM

To be a humanist, that is, means not only to see clearly the surface of things and to see beyond those surfaces, but to place oneself in opposition, however subtle, an opposition that society seldom lets you forget

What struck me is that he's still smarting from lessons about not splitting infinitives.

Posted by: Ron Hardin at June 22, 2005 02:46 PM

The sad thing is that, though English majors choose the major because they love books, about two-thirds to three-quarters wind up hating to read after their degrees are finished. Those that don't have it beaten out of them by grad school. I have thus far refused to relinquish my love of books. Wish me luck in keeping it through my PhD.

Posted by: holly at June 22, 2005 05:07 PM

A former student of mine (history major) is now a mortgage banker. She said that reading medieval documents were good training for reading mortgage instruments, and that the finance guys were better with numbers, but she was better at everything else (like writing and other forms of communication). Last year she made $150k. Not bad for a 22-year-old.

Posted by: Michael at June 22, 2005 11:54 PM

Michael -

Dang. Should have been a history major!

Posted by: BAW at June 23, 2005 07:55 AM


I'm a scientist, and I don't expect people to worship me or even hold me in any particular esteem because of my choice of major. Hey, I liked science, I was kinda good at it, I saw it as a way to make a living doing something I enjoy. (If anything, I've had people back away from me in fear when I mention I'm a biologist. Sometimes it's amusing but mostly it's just annoying).

I guess the people who feel the need to trot out the old "two cultures" argument and try to pit humanities vs. science either have some serious inferiority complexes going on, or they've got waaaaaay too much spare time on their hands.

And I have to admit, some of those humanities types who spend their whole careers questioning EVERYTHING make extremely tiresome party guests.

Posted by: ricki at June 23, 2005 10:33 AM

..and I have to admit, some of those scientist types who reckon they have a certain geek-chic for never having read a novel in their lives are extremely tiresome at parties too:)

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at June 23, 2005 12:24 PM

My BA was in physics. Yes, you may worship at my feet, but try not to get my sandals all lipsticked, OK? Seriously, Locomotive Breath is in the right, here. An undergrad degree in physics is pretty much worthless, jobwise. Several years later, I'm back in school, getting a PhD in the Classics... neither the sciences nor humanities feels "better" or "harder" or "richer" or whatever, to me, but they do feel very, very different!

Posted by: Bane at June 23, 2005 08:30 PM

Michael...another noteworthy Midieval History major is Carly Fiorina, formerly CEO of HP (actually a double in Medieval and Philosophy, IIRC)

Posted by: David Foster at June 26, 2005 12:07 AM