Department of English professor Dr. Will Duffy explains why he majored in English as an undergraduate — and why he’d do it “all over again” if he was starting college today.
Not too long ago a friend from college asked me what I would major in if I could turn back the clock and do college all over again. My friend had no ulterior motive with the question; it was just one of those random “what if” conversations we sometimes share with our friends.
I thought about the question for a moment.
One answer I considered was communications, but I quickly dismissed this response because in communications programs there is very little by way of philosophy. When you study literature and writing in an English program, you ask questions about not only what makes for effective communication, but you also study the reasons why people think and act—and speak and write!—in the ways that they do.
I don’t mean to sound critical of my colleagues in communications departments, but I’ve always framed the difference between English and communications using that aphorism about teaching another person to fish. You can give someone a fish, and feed him for a day, or teach someone to fish….well, you know how it ends. English programs dive into the why of in addition to the how.
Another answer I considered was economics. Economics is interesting because there is a strong philosophical dimension to it (you have to know how to think), as well it requires a cursory knowledge of psychology and rhetoric (you have to understand how other people think, and what persuades them). The problem with economics, however, is that you also have to know math. Without going into details, I’ll just say that math and I broke up years ago. It was a messy break-up, too. We hardly even talk anymore.
A third possibility I considered was religious studies. I did then and continue still to enjoy the study of religion, in particular the philosophy of religion. That is, I have no real interest in theological debates but I do love talking about the ways that religious belief influence and inform how we see the world in general. To be honest, I have nothing negative to say about religious studies; in fact, if you’re an FMU student, I encourage you take as many classes with Professor Blackwell as possible. But would I want to have majored in religious studies if I could do college all over again? No, but not because I don’t think it is a valuable area of study, but rather because I fell in love with the study of rhetoric as an English major, which allows me to study religion as a rhetorician.
After running through these answers in my head, I finally answered my friend’s question by stating that I’d major in English all over again. I justified my answer by noting how everything that interests me—philosophy, reading, writing, rhetoric, religion—I can “do” as an English major. Sure, English might not be a particularly sexy degree, but it’s certainly comprehensive and it’s even practical. This latter characteristic of an English degree might not be obvious on the surface, but studying English requires disciplined work in reading, thinking, analyzing, and writing–skills employers value.
Moreover, and more importantly, majoring in English gives you the freedom to define and in turn pursue your own particular interests. If you like creative work, you can learn to write fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. If you like analytical work, you can pick schools of literature in which to develop specialized knowledge and experience. If you like art and design, you can study professional writing and rhetoric and put your education to work in the fields of public relations and communications. If you’re like me, you enjoy reading and writing about ways that people produce arguments about the world around them and how they share these ideas in the public sphere. This interest is what led me to pursue graduate study in Rhetoric and Composition (a sub-discipline of English!), which in turn allowed me to become a university professor.
The point of this story, I guess, is that I’m not at all surprised why I answered my friend’s question the way I did. If there’s one thing I know about myself, it’s that I have reaped lots of value from my experience as an English major. I’ve never second-guessed this decision.
I share these thoughts here because I’ve recently had several conversations with FMU students who’ve decided to switch their major to English (usually from something else!), or who’ve decided to minor in English. One of these students in particular, let’s call her Emily, came by my office early in the semester to tell me this news. “Great,” I said. “Good for you.” But clearly my response wasn’t adequate. This student wanted something more from our exchange because she kept lingering in the doorway. “I just feel like I have to tell people,” she said. “I don’t know why.” While we didn’t have a long discussion, this student explained this was the first decision she’s made about her college career that she feels has been totally her decision. Declaring a major in English was obviously a kind of affirmation for this student—a way for her to tell her friends and family that she has found something she loves to do and that she’s going to do it.
I love witnessing these moments. I’ve had ones like that myself. It’s a fun thing to recognize when another person discovers a vocation that excites them. Too often I see college students simply go through the motions; checking off courses one by one; completing their schoolwork with little passion, little care. English is an area of study that grabs hold of you and gets you excited about the how things like narrative, argument, and the rendering of experience keeps our world going. Well, it will if you let it. Jump in, I always tell my students.
If any of you have stories about your “conversion” to English as a major or minor, please share them here!