English Major, to Do or Not to Do?

Graphic by Kapp Singer

On February 28, 2021, the Yale Herald’s Managing Editors—Elliot Lewis, BR ’23, YH Staff, Caramia Putman, BF ’22, YH Staff, and Macrina Wang, ES ’22, YH Staff—seated themselves in virtual chairs to debate the resolution at hand: Should you (reader) major in English?

MACRINA WANG is an English major. But also Political Science.

ELLIOT LEWIS is an English major. He came into Yale as a Physics and English double major, but he dropped Physics because it was too hard.

CARAMIA PUTMAN was once the darling of the English department, but the pressure got to her and she switched to WGSS.

Imaginary Interviewer: Thanks for joining me today. So, the English major. Should people do it?

Elliot Lewis: That’s a great question.

Macrina Wang: I concur.

Caramia Putman: Only if you came to Yale for the classes.

[Silence. Interviewer shifts weight awkwardly. EL sips his juice.]

II: Ahem.

EL: Oh, yes. I chose to major in English so I can leave college with no applicable talents. My LinkedIn currently lists “creative writing” as a special skill—I’m sure that’ll get me employed!

MW: English is THE major for any kid who formed their entire adult identity over that one time their Language Arts teacher said, “Great poem, Macrina.”

CP: As a WGSS major, I also self-obsess over my identity and will leave college with no applicable talent, but at least I know about a little old thing called CRITICAL THINKING! 

II: What are the problems with majoring in English?

EL: In addition to all the books, I had to buy a black turtleneck sweater and several bottles of kombucha just to fit in during my classes, so being an English major has certainly taken a financial toll. Also, I’d say critical thinking has had a net negative impact on my life. I was much much happier when I was hot and ignorant.

MW: The problem with majoring in English is that no one from outside the U.S. (maybe even within?) understands what majoring in English entails. My family back home in Singapore thinks that I’m just logging on to Zoom every day and learning how to use prepositions and subjunctives. Because of this, my mom takes particular relish in correcting me when I make grammatical mistakes. 

CP: If I’m being honest, I just majored in English for the creative writing classes, which turns out don’t really help you get an English major. I think the creative writing concentration shouldn’t be attached to it (sorry, Mr. Salovey).

II: Does majoring in English make you hotter?

CP: No, but it might make you realize you were hot all along and didn’t know it.

II: Have your parents expressed any disappointment in you over your major?

EL: My parents have been supportive, although my friends’ parents have not. Most of the people I went to high school with now study business or graphic design—my cousin majors in hospital management, which to me sounds about as pre-professional as you can get. It is not rare for the parents of these friends to click their tongues upon hearing that I’ve chosen to spend my college years reading books about things that didn’t even happen.

MW: Not really. They don’t understand what it means for someone to major in English, so much like I don’t have any opinions on quantum computing, they’re pretty apathetic.

CP: My father majored in sociology for five years, so I don’t think he can really say anything… He did once suggest I should do something that encourages “upward mobility” though, so I don’t know if he’s a fan.

II: Why English and not some other language?

EL: I don’t speak any of the other ones.

CP: I’m a lazy, ignorant American.

II: Who are some writers who should be taught in English foundational courses?

EL: Although the English department has recently revamped their foundational requirements, it still seems like the majority of foundational readings come from white, British authors—which is all the more strange since most English majors I know cite World English Literature as their favorite foundational course. 

MW: I agree with Elliot. I wish we read more work by writers from Anglophone countries that aren’t the U.S. and the U.K. (that’s a large chunk of the world thanks to colonization!). Why aren’t their works considered foundational? Also pamphlets, zines and non-book texts should be treated as equally significant.

CP: I concur. It would also be great to read books that aren’t in or about formal/academic/grammatical English.

II: What is your favorite English class?

EL: I really loved Readings in American Literature and World English Literature. The readings were great, the discussions were interesting, the class had an arc and a story—I often found myself mentioning both classes to my friends during dinner conversations. And there’s a class called The Bible as Literature that’s been an eternal presence on my CourseTable since my first year—I’m hoping to take it before I graduate.

MW: I loved taking World English Literature with Prof. Priyasha Mukhopadhyay because the things we read were GOOD. We read Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazal “Even the Rain” and wow, I wish I could write like that. Here’s a little excerpt to pique your interest:

What will suffice for a true-love knot? Even the rain?

But he has bought grief’s lottery, bought even the rain.

“Our glosses / wanting in this world”—“Can you remember?”

Anyone!—“when we thought / the poets taught” even the rain?

After we died—That was it!—God left us in the dark.

And as we forgot the dark, we forgot even the rain. […]

Good, right? I think so too.

CP: I think “Daily Themes” is a class almost anyone at Yale interested in creative writing could enjoy. It has a fun lecture (I think still taught by Oppenheimer), and you get really intimate feedback with a tutor the whole semester. It’s also the longest-running class at Yale (if you don’t count one year it got discontinued) and you get to read little stories that different students wrote throughout the ages.

II: What do you think about the lack of male-identifying English majors?

CP: You know what they say; it’s better to have a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in your class than the same monotone man volunteer to read aloud each seminar.

II: In your estimation, do most English majors use their English degree for good? Or evil?

MW: Not sure. Personally I fall somewhere in between on the good-evil scale. I like to name-drop extremely-dead writers I’ve read in introductory English classes to seem smarter than I am. The good thing about English majors is that we could never be THAT evil. Like we could never figure out the nuclear codes because that’s too STEM-y. Sorry, I’m generalizing. We’re not a monolith. Elliot used to do physics.

EL: Much of what I’ve learned as an English major is how to use “synechdoche” in a sentence, and mostly I just use that to impress interviewers. So I guess that synecdochically represents my neutrality.

II: Write a haiku right NOW. Go.

MW: The first poem I ever wrote was a poem called “There’s a Poem under your Pillow.” It was pretty nonsensical. I rhymed “pillow” with “willow”—you get the picture. But in that vein, here’s “There’s a Poem under your Pillow (reprise)”:

There’s a poem un

Der your pillow poetry

Is hard to write lol

II: There’s a common concept that majoring in English = useless. Let’s debunk that myth right now. When have you found your English major to be useful?

EL: Sometimes, in TV shows or movies, the character is reading a book like War and Peace or Beloved, and I can watch that and be like, “I’ve heard of that book.”

II: How often do you B.S. your essays? What is the meanest comment an English prof has left on a paper?

EL: One professor told me he wasn’t originally sold on my “clunky” and “abstract” literary analysis, but eventually he came to LOVE how clunky my writing was.

II: Last question. Summarize for us, in one sentence, why people should or should not major in English.

MW: Pros: Often you encounter texts that really move you. Also you gain clout among a very specific circle of people. People defer to you on obscure grammatical rules. Cons: Extremely white department (meme reference). So useless in non-Anglophone countries. That was more than one sentence.

EL: If you like to read and write but have no clear focus, I’d say it’s worth it, but you can get the same skills (and then some!) by choosing an adjacent humanities major. That was exactly one sentence. 

II: Thanks for your time. Imagine if this whole interview were conducted in French, right?! That’d be crazy.

Leave a Reply