The English major in the real work world

Published 9:01 am Friday, November 16, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

Query: What does the English major say to the Engineer?

Response: Would you like fries with that, ma’am?

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This is a joke that makes my colleagues in the English department cringe. I’ll get back to why I find it both hilarious and poignant later, but first there’s something you need to know: I am an unconventional English major.

Oh, I’ve always loved stories (and poems, movies and plays) and I still do. So that’s pretty traditional English major stuff. And I love the questions that all good stories get people to think about. I love talking about the stories I love reading and re-reading.

The first inkling that this was not enough to be seen as a respectable literary scholar was at a faculty party where I was a student worker pouring wine and serving crackers with cheese. A faculty member asked why I was an English major, and I gave him the answer above. As he turned away, I saw a smirk on his face as he arched his eyebrows at a colleague. While I didn’t immediately change majors, I did make sure I never took a class from that professor.

What makes me different from that scholar, and lots of other English majors, is how I feel about many of those “classic” texts that English majors are supposed to love to read (over and over again). These are the stories that leave me feeling as though the author was self-consciously trying to write literature.

Take Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” Yes, please, take it away, not to burn it or shred it or anything drastic like that. Just take it away and put it on a shelf, where people can gaze at its leather binding in rapt adoration.

If it’s not clear to you yet, I don’t like “Moby Dick.” I’ve read it three times. I know the story well enough to recognize quotations and references to images within its pages. But I find the book tedious. If I want to read a serious and also entertaining novel set in the ocean, I’ll read Jules Verne’s’ “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” or Annie Proulx’s “The Shipping News.”

That tedious thing in “Moby Dick” I want to avoid — as much as I can when I’m teaching, and nearly always when I’m reading for myself — is the feeling that the author intentionally buried deep philosophical truths inside the story. Many of the transcendentalist writers of the 19th century do the same thing for me, and in the 20th, writers like Herman Hesse and Thomas Pynchon fall into this category, as well as the novels of William Faulkner.

It’s especially distressing with writers like Faulkner and Melville, because they so obviously could write stories that were interesting to read without having to use an encyclopedia or a degree in philosophy in order to understand them. Read their short stories if you are skeptical (and believe me, I so understand your skepticism).

Stories worth reading first and foremost need to be good stories. They need to have strong, human characters (even when the characters are robots or elves) who act and react to events in a fictional world that is fascinating (whether it’s inner city Chicago or the planet Gethen) and have adventures (encounter obstacles or create tension) that resonate with readers.

Back to the joke with which I started. What can a person do with an English major? Obviously I don’t really believe that literary types are doomed to careers in food service. But what someone chooses to make out of an academic life rooted in the interpreting of texts is not as narrowly defined as a degree in accounting or engineering.

English majors can do pretty much anything, including trying to become the president. If an English major ends up behind the counter at Mickey D’s, it’s not because they spent their time reading books. For one thing, maybe they actually like that kind of work. It might, however, be that, despite their reading, they don’t have enough imagination to come up with something more interesting.

The last laugh with that joke could come like this: If you search the hierarchy of the companies where many engineers and accountants work, you will probably find English majors among the bosses. In the real world, English majors are everywhere.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.