Why I Study English: Alex Barnes

In recent years, the decision to study the humanities at the university level has been a controversial one. English majors often face questions about not only their supposed unemployability, but also the perceived uselessness of their acquired knowledge. It would be unlikely for an engineering student to face questions such as ‘what can you actually do with that degree?’ and ‘can you actually get a job with that?’ This is partly because the job title “engineer” is conveniently identical to the name of the degree, and partly because we find ourselves surrounded by buildings, electrical systems, bridges, and computers. We can point to all of these concrete, critical structures and say, ‘an engineer designed that.’

Humanities students, on the other hand, usually have to justify their choice by laying open the otherwise hidden ‘practical’ applications of their degrees, such as teaching or legal editing. Rather than talking about why they love their subject, or its inherent value, we craft a spiel filled with phrases like ‘critical thinking’ and ‘soft skills,’ to convince people that we are still valuable to a society that values employability.

Most English majors can agree that the barista jokes start to get old, and I think this is because they serve to represent certain bigger problems in the way that English majors are viewed. There is a pervasive idea that, as communication becomes more technologically driven, the skillset of the English major is more frequently deemed outdated. As the world starts to feel more apocalyptic, it is easy to rattle off gloomy and reductionist sayings about how “poetry won’t save us from climate change.” Literary analysis, close reading, and academic writing have come to be considered analog skills; they are often viewed fondly in a nostalgic sense, but they are also seen as anachronistic in our increasingly digital world. It is common to define the domain of the English major by the supposedly archaic technology of the printed (or manuscript) pages that they study, while forgetting that they are taught to think dynamically and adaptably.

Before starting my B.A. at McGill, I had imagined that there was a distinction between ‘practical’ and ‘enjoyable’ occupations. I pictured these words as designating two separate ways of spending time, which were like wavy lines mainly running parallel to one other and only occasionally intersecting. I wondered if the time that I spent earning my college degree was going to feel like time spent ‘enjoyably’ or ‘practically.’ In high school, many of my friends looked forward to English as the most enjoyable class. We laughed at the fake American accent that our teacher put on when he read passages from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and, like typical 15-year-olds, we earnestly tried to decode all the sexual innuendos in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” But by the time of graduation, I was puzzled when only two humanities majors emerged out of this group of kids who had seemed to love literature at the GCSE level. Maybe this kind of learning just didn’t have any ‘practical’ applications in the real world.

Even when I decided that I wanted to be an English major, I wasn’t fully honest with those around me, or even with myself, about the motivation underlying my decision. I told friends and family that I would get an English degree as preparation for law school. Being a lawyer was a ‘practical,’ and therefore acceptable, occupation. I could fool everyone into thinking I had a long-term plan because going into an English degree without a contingency plan seemed like the kind of luxury not afforded to a scholarship student.

Behind this no-nonsense exterior, however, was the truth – I was hooked on reading and analysing literature. I knew that any degree I chose would likely involve staring at books for hours at a time and I wanted them to be the books that I loved. ‘Practical,’ ‘useful,’ and ‘meaningful’ have become buzzwords in hundreds of think-pieces about higher education. But, as corny as it sounds, studying English has shown me how to think about these concepts in entirely new ways. While completing my English degree was not a stepping-stone to an immediately obvious career choice, it was probably the most defining and inspiring thing that I have ever done.

I think my more pragmatically-minded friends and family sometimes forget that studying English is just as challenging as studying any other subject. I have always been a hard worker, and I always work even harder when what I’m doing is a labour of love. It is certainly true that to become so engrossed in interesting study that you forget the passing time is an ecstatic feeling. But an English degree also requires the juggling of huge amounts of reading and writing, so that it is difficult to avoid feeling burned out. My degree taught me how to manage overwhelming amounts of information, without losing sight of the fact that an expansiveness of meaning and feeling can be conveyed in a single written line – a skill that is well-suited to the Information Age.

Humanities scholars know that crossing a book off of your reading list tends to produce the ironic effect of making the list even longer, as one good book typically generates interest in several new avenues of inquiry. This phenomenon of the ‘never-ending reading list’ is illustrative of the fact that studying English doesn’t conclude on the day of graduation. Knowledge of the scholarly methods for interacting with literature is certainly valuable for ‘practical’ reasons, but I think it also sparks an everlasting interest in all forms of written communication.

This blog post would be a lot longer if I were to encyclopedically document each skill in the toolkit of the English major, and to explain its relevance to the modern world. Instead, I am going to close by saying that studying English allowed me to view learning as a life-long endeavour. I have come to understand that there is inherent value in studying the past, and not just because it teaches us about the present. The conscious devotion of one’s attention and time to a small detail in a work of literature that might otherwise go unnoticed is an act of reverence and love. To try to understand what someone from six hundred years ago might have been thinking is not just an effort in historical and literary research, it is a grand exercise in empathy.

Alex Barnes recently completed her B.A. in English at McGill, with a focus on medieval and renaissance literature. Her honours thesis examined themes of blindness and legal literalism in Piers Plowman in relation to anti-Judaism in medieval England. This fall she will begin her masters in medieval English literature at the University of Oxford.

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