Community Voices: English as “Fluffy”?

Last month I had the chance to speak to an English 195 class at BYU, which is a class made up of mostly freshman. I took that class before most of those students were even born, in a building that’s no longer used for Humanities, and I spoke in a building that didn’t exist then (talk about a time warp).

My job was to show how, as a former BYU English major (who graduated cum laude *cough, cough*) had gone on to use her major. It was a great experience being able to encourage the students, especially since I knew full well that they’d been the butt of the same jokes I have been (“What are you going to do with your major when you graduate? Ask, “Do you want fries with that?” Hahahaha!!!!)

To come back and say that I’ve been successful in my chosen field and to explain how an English major teaches you to communicate, analyze, and THINK was exciting. Those are tools these students will all need in today’s world, regardless of the industry they end up in. Just about every  job requires those skills.

(Not to mention the Dead Poets Society factor: knowing and enjoying literature is a fantastic reason and way to enjoy life. Dating myself again. That came out WAY before these students were born.)

After mentioning the “fries” jokes (which they all groaned and laughed over; they’d been there), I shared the following story I posted years ago on my blog and thought it fitting to retell here.

There are those of us who know precisely what we’re going to do with it. In my case, that meant being a writer. To remain practical, I also went into Secondary Education and planned to get a teaching certificate to be a high school English teacher. (I decided in the end to graduate sans certificate, but that’s a story for another time.)

Even those English majors who were pre-law or had some other big career plan got razzed about their major because so many people think that English is somehow easy and has about as much depth as cotton candy—that anyone could do it.

In fact, I had a close family member (who shall remain nameless to protect the innocent . . . or, er, guilty) who was a manager at a company. When hiring employees, she rolled her eyes at anyone trying to apply with a degree as “fluffy” as English (her word, not mine—right in front of me, though).

During my last big semester of college, I had an American Literature class usually taken by seniors. Daring souls who were not English majors could take the class as an Arts & Letters elective. The semester began with three such students in our class.

Within about a week, two had dropped the class because it was too hard.

(Can you hear my maniacal laughter?)

The final, non-English-major, student was (and I’m not making this up) pre-med. Not exactly a stupid person, right?

He stuck it out through the entire semester, but boy did he struggle. His returned papers looked like someone had dumped a bottle of red ink all over them. His tests were much the same. As the rest of us reviewed and compared notes prior to quizzes and tests—discussing American Romanticism and Whitman, maybe—he’d say, “Huh? What does that mean? Where was that? I don’t GET it!”

He was used to memorizing clear-cut answers in math and science classes. (A + B = C, darn it!) Having to use an analytical and subjective side of his brain, to find evidence and prove your point with words, to think about things in an abstract way? All of that about killed him. Add critical theories to the mix, and I think he came close to melt-down. (If I recall, he also said things about the books like, “That character died? Where?”)

The poor kid just scraped through the class, while I left each day smiling. The class was a challenge (yes, even for the English majors), but I loved every second of it. Yet it was brutally hard for him—and too hard for the other students who didn’t even dare try the course for more than two days.

The pre-med guy is one reason I’ll always remember that class; it felt good to see someone gain respect for what I had chosen to study.

Another reason I remember it is because of what happened mid-semester: President Hinckley became the new prophet.

For those of you who don’t know, he was . . . dun-dun-dun . . . an ENGLISH MAJOR.

My professor, the beloved, now-retired Richard Cracroft, had seen and heard plenty of put-downs about his chosen field just like the rest of us had.

I’ll always remember what he said the day after President Hinckley was ordained:

“Students, we have an English major as a prophet. We are vindicated!”

Amen, Dr. Cracroft. No one’s about to mock that man’s English degree.

A COUPLE OF IMPORTANT REMINDERS:

1) Readers have until December 31 to nominate titles for a Whitney Award. Books published in 2010, written by LDS authors (not just in the LDS market) are eligible. Finalists will be announced February 1. Awards will be given out at the annual Whitney Gala on May 7 immediately following the LDStorymakers Conference.

2) Speaking of which, the 8th (at least?) annual LDStorymakers Writing Conference opened for registration this week. It’s shaping up to be the best yet.

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12 Responses to Community Voices: English as “Fluffy”?

  1. FoxyJ says:

    My husband and I were both English majors and have endured years of ‘what are you going to do with that?" questions from friends and relatives.

    I double majored in English and Spanish. I noticed in both of my classes a dichotomy between the people in them. On the one hand, there were students that were in them because they loved literature, theory, languages, and so on. There was also a subgroup of students who were pre-med/pre-business/pre-law who were majoring in a language either with the hopes that it would be ‘easy’ or that it would look diverse on their grad school applications. Those students often struggled, especially in upper-level Spanish classes. Living in Mexico for two years as a missionary does not really prepare you for analyzing difficult sixteenth-century literature from Spain. I still remember being particularly annoyed when I had to work together with a group of students in one Spanish class and several of them complained about ‘all the books we had to read’.

    I did just finish grading papers from a first-year composition course I’m teaching and was satisfied by many of the responses students gave to a brief writing prompt about what they felt like they got out of the class. The focus is not so much on literature, but on critical thinking, rhetorical analysis, and academic research and writing. I was really pleased that many people liked it a lot more than they expected since it is a required class. Many also felt like they had a more positive view of English as a subject and that they liked analyzing texts and doing academic research. Of course, they could just be saying that because that’s what I wanted to hear, but I think many of them were sincere.

  2. Th. says:

    .

    I’m frightened by the idea of doctors that get through school only by memorizing facts. While, yes, I want my doctor to know lots of facts, my body is complicated enough and the world of bodies diverse enough that strong imaginitive and critical thinking skills seem pretty darn important to me.

    The skills we impart in teaching English are vital.

    And many students who think they like math or science because it’s all rote leaning hit a serious wall when they get past that level and discover, when you move high enough up the ladder, [i]every class is like English class[/i], viz. you have to think.

  3. Annette says:

    "You have to think." Amen, Th!

    FoxyJ, Totally agree with the research side too–should have mentioned that. My experience doing research for my major was one big reason I was capable of writing four historical novels (not to mention a bunch of freelance jobs and more).

  4. Scott Parkin says:

    I studied first electrical engineering, then music/vocal performance (I used to be an operatic bass), then English. What was intriguing to me was how fundamentally similar they are despite the fact that they’re not at all similarly expressed disciplines.

    It seems to me that at the base of all disciplines is a way of thinking that enables one to accurately see a problem; the rest of the course of study is helping students devise creative techniques for addressing the problem. Most majors spend the first three years teaching you how to see and priming you how to solve, and the last year (and post-grad) exploring advanced solution.

    The thing is that most people bilge from the program before they’ve learned to see–aka, before they’ve discovered the mystery of the craft (as it were). But I can suggest from personal experience that the journeys are shockingly similar.

    Essentially, you spend the first three years of anything filling your head with facts and learning how to learn. That’s why English is a common path to a Law degree–a lawyer’s primary job is to interpret texts and devise creative responses. More importantly, the lawyer’s job is to spend the rest of their lives learning new or changed law and responding to new arguments about that law.

    But just to be fair, I’ve taken more than my share of heat from English majors bemoaning the shallowness of my soul and describing Engineering as nothing but math and memorizing facts–the hallmarks of the uncreative mind. I’m just playing with tinker toys while those people are creating and exploring and feeling. The problem is that math is just a way of describing things–another language, if you will. To apply math you need to not just know it, but feel it and see and intuit with it.

    That’s what knocked me out of the EE program at BYU–once a problem was math I could solve it more efficiently than most, but I didn’t have the intuitive mind to see how to change the words or the picture into that solvable math. In other words, I could see the shape of the problem but I couldn’t deconstruct it into individually manipulable elements or themes, and thus I could not see how those elements fit together to enable a solution.

    (More than 25 years later I can still remember the problem from the Physics 122 test that knocked me out of the program. A triangular trough with specific dimensions is filling with a liquid at one rate and draining at another. Assuming constant flow and that the trough started empty, at what point in time will the volume of liquid contained be nn cubic liters?

    Ultimately, it’s a simple bit of math, but I just could not figure out how to turn those words into those easily solved equations. I stared at it for thirty minutes or so, came to the horrible realization that I could not be an engineer if I could not figure out [generically] how to convert between math and words, closed my book, turned in my test, and walked down to the Music office to change my major.

    Interestingly, the next time I seriously looked at the problem I understood instantly how to make it into math. It was twelve years later after brief stints in both Music and English programs, and six years since I’d last been in class. I tend to think that taking a different approach to problem-solving as an English major is what ultimately taught me how to succeed as an Engineering major–same fundamental discipline; different methods of expression.)

    We all have natural affinities toward certain modes of analysis and expression, but ultimately it’s all just learning how to think deeply about the unique elements of a particular discipline. And it’s all founded on an ability to first see truly, then do something with what you see. The rest is just sibling rivalry and should be taken no more seriously than that.

  5. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I loved analyzing written works in school, but I ended up studying mathematics, physics, and engineering subjects for my bachelors and masters because they way they challenged me appealed more, for some reason, than the way the subjects were taught in the English department.

    I’m with Scott that the different disciplines all have different approaches, but eventually, they get around to teaching students how to think (or, at least, they should–if the students are willing to learn how to think, that is).

    I also took education courses, and one of the things I thought was particularly cool to learn (it was in a "philosophy of education" class) was that the whole idea behind a PhD was (maybe not so much now, but originally) to teach the scholar how to learn (research, analyze, study, think) in their respective fields/doctrines and thereby give them the tools to be able to understand and learn other fields/doctrines, if necessary.

    Of course, that implies that all the facts of other fields/doctrines are either simple to learn or not really all that important, and I’m not sure I agree with that. But I did think it was a cool idea that the ultimate goal of "learning" is learning how to learn, and I’ve been trying to keep doing that ever since, even though I never actually obtained a PhD.

  6. Melinda W. says:

    I am an accidental English major. I had a scholarship that would cover four years of college. At about two and a half years, I thought, "if my scholarship runs out, I have to pay tuition. What major can I finish before my scholarship runs out?" It was English. By the time I finished the degree, I realized I disliked the sort of literature taught in college – you know, everything has to be bleak and hopeless and highly symbolic. I devoured trade paperback fiction to compensate for all the literature I had to read.

    Then I went to law school. I didn’t need any of that bleak literature in law school, and I wished I’d majored in business since I specialized in transactional law and tax. At least my English degree was free. I’m sure the writing and analyzing helped in law school, but all I really remember about my English degree was hating all the modern literature classes.

  7. Annette says:

    Melinda, You had the misfortune of having a bad English experience and crappy professors! BYU even has Sci Fi classes (which have produced Orson Scott Card, Brandon Sanderson, and others).

    An English major doesn’t have to be stuffy and blah. Much like math, the teacher can make or break the subject.

  8. I think Scott and Kathleen made some good points. I particularly liked the following from Scott: "It seems to me that at the base of all disciplines is a way of thinking that enables one to accurately see a problem; the rest of the course of study is helping students devise creative techniques for addressing the problem."

    Learning how to analyze a piece of literature involves a particular set of skills and a lot of demonstration and practice. Learning how to think critically in other subject areas doesn’t necessarily help much with that. Even learning how to read and write other kinds of texts doesn’t help all that much. English (and study of literature in general) is a discipline, like any other discipline.

    Sadly, the BYU English Department has become less flexible in some ways in recent years. The science fiction as literature course that used to be taught is now no longer offered, so far as I can tell.

    All of which isn’t intended as disagreement with Annette’s basic point. I’m an English major, and proud of it, even if I eventually decided that I wasn’t really cut out to be an English professor. I’ve been known to staunchly defend various literary/critical approaches (in extended family gatherings and the like) that personally I have little interest in, just because I agree that *someone* should be studying those things.

  9. Melinda W. says:

    Annette, you’re right. After I posted my comment, I thought about it some more and realized I really only had two classes that I detested. Both of those professors had an agenda, and it wasn’t teaching good literature. There was another professor that made Beowulf interesting, and genuinely loved good writing. I remember liking that class.

  10. Ross Wright says:

    I’ve always found English a challenge. But that hasn’t stopped me from trying to master the craft. Of course being dyslexic doesn’t help. In school, english was a necessary evil and grades were hard won through mind-numbing work and the grace of sympathic instructors.

    But my goal for the last 30+ years has been to earn my livelihood as writer. Regretfully, I’m still at the starving stage of a writing career. Mastering my native language, english "ain’t easy."

    Knowing the Pres. Hinckley was an English major makes sense as to his love for the English people, the country, and its history. To understand England is to know it’s literature history.

  11. Moriah Jovan says:

    Hi Ross. Didn’t you post on another thread this morning? I liked your comment, but now it seems to be gone…

  12. Moriah Jovan says:

    Oops, wasn’t your post that’s gone.

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