Why I Study English: Zoe Shaw

I recently told my friend that I would always identify as an English major, even if I pursue a career outside of academia. That seems overeager and even a little obsessive, but it is the truth. For now, I am still happily studying English full-time at McGill. After completing an Honours English degree that included a 45-page thesis, I continue to feel as though I have barely scratched the surface of what I can learn from my university studies. That is why I am about to return to McGill to begin my master’s degree. Any text always has different angles and deeper analyses to explore with professors and fellow students who are always eager to discuss the topics we love. English, and other subjects in the humanities, lends itself to lifelong study. Truly, I am looking forward to it.

Although I never intended to be an English major until I chose to attend McGill, I realize now that I have always been preparing myself to study literature. Thanks to my parents’ encouragement, I had my nose buried in a book from the moment I could lift one. Plunging into fictional worlds kept me company after we moved from the United States to Canada when I was nine years old. It was around this time that I made a habit of rereading my favourite books, and I found something different each time I reexperienced them: extended metaphors, foreshadowing, or subtle character development. As I grew up, I sought out more complex stories as well as different genres and forms. I wrote fiction and poetry of my own, applying the motifs and literary devices I enjoyed reading to my own works. I supplemented my high school’s minimal literary education with the classic novels that my parents had in our home library. These activities challenged my thinking and gave me something to focus on while I struggled through high school.

I quickly recognized that I was drawn to nineteenth-century literature – falling in love with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, and Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. These works started me on the path that I walk today. Over time, I developed a strong interest in British Romantic poetry, the Gothic, and sexuality. My undergraduate thesis studied these themes, and my master’s research will expand on similar ones.

Despite having found my niche when I was a teenager, I still had no idea that I would be an English major until the summer that I enrolled. I studied Creative Arts and Literature in CEGEP, and while this program allowed me to practice creative writing, I did not intend to study literature at an advanced level afterward. I thought of CEGEP as my chance to study something fun before moving on to a “serious” subject in university. My first-choice program was Translation at another university, with the Faculty of Arts at McGill as my second choice. I was accepted to both, but rather than immediately accepting my first choice, I found myself stuck. Was I ready to embark on a degree that was largely technical and would lead me in a single direction? My heart hurt at the thought of abandoning the formal study of literature when I had only just begun. I no longer wanted to limit myself to a skillset designed for a specific type of career, so I registered at McGill as a major in English Literature. Studying literature, either independently or in the classroom, has always made me happier than any other subject. This was my chance to spend at least three years doing exactly what I had wanted for most of my life.

Choosing to major in the humanities seemed a strange decision when I had the option to pursue a degree that would lead me directly to career opportunities. While a relatively secure future appealed to me, I wanted to open doors rather than close them. It became increasingly important to me to study something that I knew that I enjoyed and that would benefit me as an individual. The study of English, and of most subjects in the humanities, encourages above anything critical thinking, the expansion of our worldviews, and our simultaneous attention to detail and the bigger picture. The humanities encourage compassion and clarity in our words and actions. In a polarized world, a command of words and an adaptable rhetoric are extremely powerful tools. Analyzing literature and theory across time periods, regions, and points of view equips us with the ability to understand and challenge the status quo and engage in productive, effective debates to create a safer, more ethical, and more accepting world.

This invites the obvious question: What job options do English majors have, if the skillset we earn is so flexible? Personally, I envision myself doing a combination of teaching, publishing, and writing, and I am not averse to giving translation another shot. These options, however, are only a handful of the jobs that our skills can benefit. While today’s scarcity of career opportunities for many fields frightens me, it is comforting to know that the skills we learn as English majors are valuable for any job that requires critical thinking, writing, and a wide breadth of knowledge. Even so, the individual job titles that English graduates obtain are not what I find most fascinating about studying English. The current prevailing attitude toward university degrees is that they should be job training, but English and other subjects in the humanities train your mind, and they train it for life.

It was a no-brainer for me to pursue English at the graduate level. English has never stopped challenging me, leaving me simultaneously fulfilled and unfulfilled after every semester. Even when I am no longer in school, I will always think like an English major and approach not only literature but the rest of life with an open and critical mind. I wholeheartedly recommend studying the humanities to anyone who can – it is a sublime, worthwhile experience that equips you for even the most uncertain of futures.

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