Should I Major in English? The Pros and the Cons
This post is for all you baby undeclared Thunderbirds and baby English majors. 2017 marks my final year at UBC and boy, it’s been a ride. A whirlwind of cramming readings, looking up MLA formats, and hitting word counts, to be exact.
The first few English courses you’ll take in undergrad are amazing and so very different from high school, with brilliant academics as professors and a high degree of challenge. Upper-year courses are also great—you’re treated with more respect, and the wall between instructor and student crumbles away.
At the end of second year, I applied for the Creative Writing program, the English Honours program, and the English Major—Emphasis Literature program. I applied for all these programs because I assumed at least one would fall through. Miraculously (and sometimes I still think they made a mistake!), I got into both English Honours and Creative Writing. Of course, I was elated and grateful. Then, this excitement quickly turned to fear and anxiety. Being in a competitive program means studying alongside brilliant people, and I began to doubt my own, well, shininess.
I enjoy my English degree quite a bit—and I wouldn’t drop it for the world—but I did eventually switch out of Honours and into the Major program. This was not an easy decision. I switched for a variety of reasons, from not wanting to elongate my degree (Honours can take more than 4 years , and I had already extended my timeline through Go Global and Co-op) to not liking the stringent period requirements. Truth is, I have little interest in studying Shakespeare, Chaucer, and “the Greats,” and there are more required courses in these areas in the Honours program.
Like every other major specialization, English has its ups and downs. There will be aspects of it you hate, and aspects of it you absolutely love. Some English courses have changed my worldview completely, while others didn’t make a dent in my memory because I took them merely for a checkmark on my Degree Navigator.
Some things about majoring in English you may want to be aware of:
- The professor is an enormous part of the learning experience! Don’t underestimate their value. Listen to student testimonials, look at a prof’s research publications, and don’t be afraid to drop a course because you know in your gut you won’t jive with the prof.
- Check your reading list as early as possible. Make sure it’s stuff you actually want to read. You should be asking: “Can I talk about this book for two weeks straight without drooling?”
- Spend some time deciding on your final paper thesis. Make sure it’s something you want to write about, and something that is interesting and unique. You get points for originality, not by regurgitating a very obvious theme in the text that’s been talked about over and over.
- Don’t listen to all the rhetoric that English (or Arts, for that matter) is a useless degree! I worked three wonderful full-time work terms with Arts Co-op, and learned that my degree is quite applicable to many fields such as: communications, social media, marketing, publishing, and journalism, among others. If you’re more interested in the writing aspect of literature, I urge you to take up volunteer writing positions with campus publications like The Ubyssey and Discorder (they hold free and helpful workshops), or even go off-campus to local, independent publications that are looking for student voices (just inquire). Bottom line: BAs are not meaningless.
- If you’re serious about pursuing grad school, consider Honours. It takes longer, but you’re grouped with ambitious and inspiring peers who will challenge you to become a better scholar, plus you get a taste for graduate life by writing a thesis and having a professor be your personal supervisor. Many graduate programs also prefer an Honours degree (though what “Honours” means differs by school and region; in some places it simply means a higher average and not a program of its own).
- A note about Creative Writing. Many students think Creative Writing and English are very similar; some even ask me (as a Peer Advisor) whether CRWR fulfills literature requirements (it doesn’t). I can say as someone who does both that they are very different programs—a major in Creative Writing on its own leads to a BFA, while an English major leads to a BA. Creative Writing is more focused on original student work, and most classes consist very little of lecture and more workshop and critique. English is about reading, analyzing, and writing critically, creatively, and coherently about the meaning of a text, while Creative Writing is about crafting a text that generates meaning in a creative and original way.
I do believe people underestimate an English degree. You don’t just read and write essays on books written by dead people. You think and talk about very real things happening to you and the people around you in the here and now. You ask tough questions and come up with tough answers. Your worldview expands. Plus, people who read might be better friends and lovers!
- “Pomp and Circumstance” by Dave Herholz via Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0
- “Reading” by jywg via Flickr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0
- “Folio Society” by Kate Farquharson via Flickr. License: CC BY-ND 2.0
- “Modified Photo: ‘Mother and Son in book'” by Ken Wytock via Flickr. License: CC BY-NC 2.0
Li Charmaine Anne (English Literature + Creative Writing major) is a Canadian-born Chinese writer who grew up on unceded Musqueam territory. She has written for local publications such as Ricepaper, Discorder, and SAD Mag, and you can find her original work on her website Breakfast with Words. She is passionate about diversity and representation in literature, film, and television.