For every person who decides to enter the discipline of English there are two questions we loathe to be asked. Why? Because these questions rarely convey curiosity or interest. More often than not they drip with confusion and condescension. Like no one in their right mind would choose to get an English degree or find it useful.
My answers to these questions are all mine. Perhaps there’s overlap with other members of my faculty, but I wouldn’t know. The only people who don’t ask why someone has decided to earn a degree in English are other English majors. Not because we have more couth than most, but because we couldn’t imagine not earning such a degree.
Why did I get an English degree?
Over the course of my life there have been only two unwavering constants: I love to read and I love to write. My attention to either has ebbed and flowed over time, but I always come back to both.
I have a healthy interest in other disciplines, like biology, philosophy, history, and anthropology to name a few. I enjoy spending time -when I make time- on other hobbies, like painting and drawing. I go out and socialize, of course. But I could never devote myself to any of these as I was able to do with English. I was fortunate enough to realize this before entering university. Retrospectively, I’m relieved I knew instinctively from the get-go.
The time and dedication involved in getting a Bachelor of Arts in English is mind-boggling. The amount of reading and research required to complete three papers per course is torturous. Multiply that by roughly three English courses a semester on top of other classes to fill requirements and the stress level is insane. But if you want to do well you figure it out, and you figure it out fast.
I did well. And I was beyond burned out when I handed in my final paper.
Yet, I wouldn’t change a single thing. There’s something alluring about literary criticism. Taking apart minute details and ideas found in some of the best pieces the English language has to offer is exhilarating. For me at least. No matter how tired I was, how short on time I was, I could always find a measure of entertainment while writing essays. That, if nothing else, kept me going.
Is my English degree useful?
My current day job has placed me in the world of finance, a place I never imagined I’d be even during my interview. My degree isn’t explicitly useful there, but I find that all the skills I learned over the course of my four years pop up quite frequently.
However, I find my degree instrumental to my writing. No, I don’t think any writer needs a background in English to succeed. There are too many examples that would refute that claim if I even tried to make it. But my background elucidates a lot of things.
For instance, I have an excellent grasp of the English language. I am not one of those grammar savants, to this day I can’t tell you what a gerund is without using a manual, but I have a good ear. I can listen to how a sentence reads and figure out what’s wrong with it immediately; given the number of essays I’ve written I’ve grown adept at writing relatively clean first drafts because I didn’t have hours to spend editing every single essay; and, I have good line-editing skills because I was my only editor 85% of the time.
I’m also familiar with writing techniques and devices. Similes, metaphors, onomatopoeia, foreshadowing, and the like have been drilled into my head so often that they’re second nature to me. I’m not saying I am perfect at using them, but I know where and when they should be at least during the editing process.
The writing and communication skills I’ve reinforced by earning my degree are invaluable to my fiction writing. So long story short, yeah, it’s useful.