So, What Do English Majors Do?

If you’ve ever wondered that question aloud to yourself, you’re not alone. Every time I hear the question, “So what’s your major?” it’s usually followed by something like “Oh. Um… what do you do with that?”

Well, mostly I talk about nerdy English things.

Oh, you mean what I can do — like, for a career? After school is over? I dunno; I try not to think about that too much.

For now, it’s all 100% theory and 0% practicality. English majors love to theorize and ponder and read way too deeply into everything. We love to wonder about fictional stuff but not so much plan for real stuff. We love to talk, really. As far as I know, it’s the only major with a focus on sitting around and chatting, book club style, about stuff or whatever. Doesn’t even matter if you know what you’re talking about as long as you make like you do.

Hilariously, that stuff or whatever can get surprisingly heated. For instance, I was talking to an English major friend today about Robert Frost. (He’s… kind of a big deal around here. That is — in the US, but especially here in New England. (His farm is fifteen minutes from my house.)) I was complaining bemusedly about how everyone seems to misread “The Road Not Taken.” You hear people reference it — the title, at the very least — about every five minutes in this neck of the woods. Part of that fiercely individualist, take-the-less-traveled-road thing that Americans are so hot for — that ideal of forging your own path.

But… that’s not what the poem is about. It’s about the opposite: the speaker’s inability to be satisfied with the choice he made, and wondering what would have been different if he’d taken the other road. It’s about regret. Second-guessing yourself. That wish that you could go back and see how every other option would have played out too — because maybe, just maybe, the others would have been better.

That’s my takeaway, anyway. It doesn’t have to be everyone’s — that’s the beauty of art — but I do think that there’s a difference between an interpretation informed by your own experience and one based on things you’re seeing but that aren’t there. I honestly can’t fathom how you can get the individualism-ho! sentiment out of a reading of “The Road Not Taken.” If anything, it’s critical of it.

My fellow English nerd then put forth the obviously wrong opinion that it doesn’t matter what it is as long as you get something out of a poem. The poor, naive, little Freshman. I’m sure he’ll have that idealist, no-objective-truth nonsense beaten out by his second or third year. Doesn’t mean I wasn’t willing to (and did) argue for an hour about the nature of poetry. (Including such highlights as comparing “The Road Not Taken” to Schindler’s List somehow.) And apparently I got quite “cheesed off” in the process.

I’m honestly not sure what it says about me when I don’t really get upset over anything… except literature stuff. Definitely got my priorities straight there!

Oh, Robert Frost. All this strife over one of your silly poems!

Life in the English Department right there, if you were curious. I thought I ought to shatter the mystique about what we English majors do. How about you? Can you also say things about stuff? Do you like to argue about pointless subjects? Then we want you!

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