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“An English Major? What Are You Going to Do with That?”

“Employers really don’t care what you have a degree in. Just as long as you have a degree.” Remember that old saying?  Today, that old saying is as dated as an audio cassette tape, because you don’t hear it anymore.

When I graduated from Louisiana State University in May 2005, I interviewed for a job that recruited conventions to New Orleans. I didn’t have experience in marketing, sales, account management, or business administration. All I had really was a B.A. in English, some bartending experience, and a brief internship for a small magazine. That was it. Turned out, the hiring manager was more interested in my bartending jobs more than anything because that was proof to him that I had people skills. They didn’t end up hiring me, but at least they gave me a shot. 

When I graduated from New Mexico Highlands University in the Summer of 2012 with a M.A. in English, however, the workforce rabbit hole had deepened and was far more nebulous to navigate. I applied to positions that required specific degrees with 7 to 9 years minimum experience in a respective field. And, the “hard skills” weren’t even enough. They expected candidates to have every “soft skill” imaginable as well. In other words, not only do employers expect you to have a specific degree, but also they expect you to have the work ethic of an automaton with more personality than Number “Johnny” Five. One component was usually missing. If I had the experience, I lacked the degree. If I had the degree, they preferred someone with different experience.

I had a M.A. in English, 4.0 GPA, experience in teaching, management, journalism, warehouse, sales, publishing, radio, construction, service industry, and community service. Yet, it seemed most employers weren’t even reading my resume.  People aren’t perfect, but resumes surely need to be in order for anyone to land an interview. Each resume should be tailored for each job that you apply for, and I have written far more resumes and cover letters than fiction. You practically have to be born for a job, or bred for it, in order to get one.

Ironically (or serendipitously perhaps) I landed a fledging career in the brewing industry. I still am a beer writer on the side, but lugging 44# hop boxes, lifting 55# malt bags, operating deafening machines, and handling harsh chemicals is how I make a living wage. And still, the brewing industry has gotten increasingly competitive whereas a strong back and an aspiring palette are no longer enough to be a brewer. But, I digress. Another topic for another time.

Most jobs don’t list an English degree as a requirement or, hell, even a preference. That’s quite understandable for the private sector, right? How can my knowledge of Hemingway possibly benefit your business, right? Well, English majors develop many soft skills that many jobs seek: time management, proven oral and written communications skills, the ability to hit deadlines under pressure, creativity, cultural and social awareness, problem solving aptitude, critical and analytical skills, and more. Interpersonal skills, well, by that point they are what they are. If someone is less personable than a carton of raisins even after college, nothing can really change that. Every scholastic discipline has its share of major jerk-faces and jack-wagons. I’m not saying that an English degree exclusively makes someone a prodigy either. Like all other degrees, plenty of people limp along and somehow emerge with a degree and continue to be prove themselves to be as useless as a ripped screen window during mosquito season. Sorry if I’m being insensitive. Actually not really, since everyone probably immediately thought of at least one person when they read that.

Perhaps most people look at us English majors as people who just know a lot about Shakespeare? While that might be true, we don’t sit around a classroom talking about how great Hamlet is. We read and analyze. We write and argue. We create. English majors read between the lines very well, and that’s just something employers themselves are failing to do these days. Reading a resume thoroughly is very important for employers, but several hiring managers only look for specific degrees or job titles due to the amount of applicants. It’s ironic that an applicant needs to apply through “Human Resources” when the hiring process is frequently anything but human. Certain keywords get filtered through a computer program in many cases, so managers are getting non-human results. Job posts these days are too jargony for their own good as well. Buzzwords like “develop,” “coordinate,” and “collaborate” seem like simple verbs. When you use them in a convoluted way, however, they seem to lose their meanings. If a job post says: “The ability to coordinate and develop collaborative strategies and applications for professional development that encourages involvement and cohesion,” you should ask yourself: Would I be coordinating people or strategies? What specifically is being professionally developed? I swear, this kind of language drove me nearly to Ludicrous Speed as I traversed the galaxy of job postings. The more job posts I read the more I imagined HAL’s computerized voice from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So, I can’t help but wonder: Are hiring managers pitching my resume in the trash as soon as they see my English degree at the top of the page? I had the displeasure over the years to be asked: “An English degree? What are you going to do with that?” If the average person poses this question, I’d have to speculate that many employers think the same. We English majors know why we got the degree, and what we got out of it. We chose to embrace something else that we felt was much more important to us than a potential paycheck. We majored in ourselves and others, not the relentless gears of an industry. Mark Edmundson wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Becoming an English major means pursuing the most important subject of all—being a human being.” If anything, I know more people who regret foregoing their passions and majoring in so-called “marketable” degrees for a career they have grown to loathe.  

I’ll admit, English majors are not qualified for everything. Industries, like the medical field or engineering, require intensive knowledge and speciality training that don’t come easy to right-brained people. So, I am not saying someone with an English major would be a good doctor or an accountant. However, many jobs out there are not so exclusive. In the end, this world is comprised of broad relationships between people and products, people and their governments, and people and their clients. It is not a coincidence that English is classified as being a “humanity” since it is the broad study of the human experience on a variety of contexts. The novels and stories we read are results from things like economics, racism, political upheaval, gender inequality, and psychoanalysis. In short, we study how the world turns.

As far as oral communication goes, English majors usually give presentations, and graduate students participate at professional conferences. The audiences at these presentations ask plenty of hard questions too, so don’t think a scholarly conference is a bunch of people saying, “Oh, I just love Moby Dick so much, don’t you?” Truth is, we have mastered the task of compiling information, organizing an argument, proving a point, utilizing professional sources, and basically making sense of an immense, abstract work like Moby Dick to people who have never read it. I think Herman Melville’s novels are far more complex than your run-of-the-mill T.P.S. reports from Office Space.

And, perhaps I shouldn’t say this, we have gotten used to overworking ourselves. For years if not decades, we’ve been frequenting our local coffee shops and libraries to study, grade, read, or write long into the night.

 

Let’s examine how an English major can be a good asset to a company or organization:

Business: The cornerstone of success (at least ethically) relies on effective communication. I don’t need a business degree to understand that concept. English majors have excellent written communication skills. If we didn’t have that ability, we would have failed out long ago and…just started bartending or waiting tables fulltime a few years earlier. Still, many employers are unhappy with their employees’ writing. Sue Shellenbarger wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Managers are fighting an epidemic of grammar gaffes in the workplace. […] Such looseness with language can create bad impressions with clients, ruin marketing materials and cause communications errors, many managers say.” She also suggested that more and more employers are implementing training programs to improve their workers’ writing skills. If many graduates with “marketable” degrees lack strong communication skills, what use are they to employers?  According to the Washington Post, researchers speculate that the GMAT actually favors negative business attributes, which has led to business schools graduating problematic leaders. In my opinion, it would be easier to train an English major about specifics of a certain company than it would be to train adults to write creatively and critically. It’s like taking college composition all over again. An English major’s learning level is advanced because he or she frequently reads books, God forbid.

Marketing and Sales: I think it’s safe to say that a sales representative or a marketing specialist technically sells products, but they really sell the idea of the product first. Remember the touching moment in Tommy Boy when David Spade tells Chris Farley, “People are really buying you, not just brake pads”? Selling ideas is an English major’s strong suit. Hell, that’s all an English degree is really, and the writing process is very similar to a sales pitch. The author needs to select the best approach to bridge the context between the topic and the audience in order to fulfill his or her purpose. In “salesy” terms, you need to educate the client about the services or products in such a way so that he or she will be confident in making a purchase. It’s selling ideas, not products. English majors read, read, and read to familiarize themselves with literary works while finding data and references. Then, we construct a detailed, written argument that targets specific audiences for a specific purpose: to sell people on ideas. Those ideas typically delve into complex topics like race, gender, politics, and economics. If we can sell those kind of ideas, then I think we can sell frigging brake pads.

Research and Analysis: English majors have both of these in the bag. You can’t write a 20 page essay without thorough research and analysis. Some of my graduate papers had over 30 scholarly sources that read more like a science book than anything literary. In an age when “Google” is just as much an action verb as it is a proper noun, the mainstream search engines aren’t always enough to find credible research. In order to find the right sources, we utilize professional resources like Jstor or Ebsco. It doesn’t end there of course. In order to compose an essay, we must properly implement, format, and cite the sources in a scientific way. The MLA handbook for English professors might as well be the Bible. That attention to detail and strict adherence to a professional standard go a long way in the field. But, what about interpreting data that is confusing and hard to understand? Please. Ever hear of James Joyce or William Faulkner? Go read Finnegan’s Wake or  The Sound and the Fury and talk to me about incomprehensible material.  

Community Engagement and Outreach: This field requires its employees to possess a strong sense of social awareness, cultural backgrounds, and historical contexts. As I said previously, most of what we read encompasses complex topics. If anything, a literature class is practically an open forum about race, gender, economics, and so on. Literature may seem fluffy to some people, but there’s nothing light about Richard Wright. A novel can be a story, a study on social justice, an historical account, and a call to action all in one.  And, I believe several English majors are ready to participate and put that heightened perspective to good use. A lot of us are just stuck behind the service counter or a bar in order to survive.

Anything Creative: A wise gentleman told me recently, “At the end of the day, creative people are the ones that make things happen.” Many of us are creative writers. That may not sound like much, but writers create fictitious worlds and struggle religiously to make them work. You don’t think we can be creative to make things work in this world? Instead of laboring over made-up characters, we can work with actual people? Nearly every job posting I saw required its applicants to have a creative approach to solve problems. Maybe just the simple fact of reading books will generate the creative and intuitive edge that employers are looking for. Last time I checked, people who read books tend to actually know things. And, people (aka clients and customers) actually like to talk to people about these kind of things. On many occasions, bar patrons told me that I was a great bartender simply for my learned conversations about New Orleans writers like Walker Percy and John Kennedy Toole. Their strong drinks may have influenced their opinions too.

Let me be clear. I am not devaluing anyone’s degree that is not English related. Most people choose their degrees in their best interest, whether it is for financial stability or for a lifelong passion.  I’m fully aware that non-English majors learn specific skills and dynamics concerning their own industry. However, I am saying that English majors have more skin in the game than they get credit for. And if employers are looking for candidates with a wide spectrum of skills and experience, perhaps this is an opportunity for employers to “read” our resumes for at least 30 seconds. I get that the pool of applicants is more like a flood of resumes these days, but that is even more reason to take more time to select the right candidate. There’s more chance of selecting the wrong candidate, especially if a computer is making the filtering decisions. Furthermore, the practice of computer screening encourages plagiarism among applicants. If that’s how people are getting interviews then why are we failing students that commit it? Should we then encourage plagiarism? The hell with a zombie apocalypse or an Orwellian dystopia; a future world run by plagiarists is as sorrowful and frightening as it gets.  

Thomas Jefferson once said, “An educated citizenry is vital for our survival as a free people.” He was the “Renaissance man” of his time no doubt, considering he was a writer, statesman, inventor, university founder, diplomat, scientist, and whatever else he dreamed to do. That’s when the “humanities” and the entrepreneurial spirit were the same thing. Given his love for literature and philosophy, Jefferson probably would have chosen English as his major and might have ended up working at Starbuck’s instead of writing a document that changed the world forever.

There is no place for such a Renaissance man in today’s workforce, it seems. America has always been known as the land of opportunity, and it still is in many cases. But, perhaps we need to stop and consider what we mean by “opportunity” as we move into the 21st century. I define the word as having the potential to be happy or having a fulfilling life. I chose English as my major because I enjoyed it and excelled in it. If I followed that principle, I could do good things one day. But, I’m not sure what to tell the younger generations as they embark on their college paths. Should we really start telling kids that they can’t be whatever they want in life? Should we suggest that they settle for a “marketable major” and devalue their hopes and dreams? If that’s the case, then what have we bastardized the “American Dream” into? Jefferson wasn’t talking about “marketable degrees” when he referred to an “educated citizenry.” He meant that we should be able to grasp the world around us so that we can coexist in a just society.

When you meet an English major, the question shouldn’t be, “What are you going to do with that?” Instead, you should ask, “What can’t you do with that?”  If the workforce continues to wane in creativity, communication skills, writing proficiency, and critical thinking abilities in the digital age, an English degree might just end up being the most “marketable” degree after all.   

 

 

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