Byline: Gloria Mellesmoen Shutterhack/Flickr
English majors are often at the heart of jokes culminating in the word "barista" and accompanied by smug laughter. Though I acknowledge the job market may be harder to navigate with a degree not funneling straight into a high paying profession, I will never give in to the belief that a degree in English is not worthwhile. While I might get some respect for my ability to write or edit with more ease than my peers in more "practical" fields, I did not pick my major for these skills. I declared a major in English because I really love -- and see the value of -- reading.
Sometimes I tell people I study English because I am an academic nomad. When you study something with a more concrete set of rules and figures (such as Chemistry or Statistics), there are fewer opportunities to truly interact with the curriculum. Literature allows one the freedom to walk among sights that have been seen and studied for hundreds of years while possessing an opinion that matters. I savour the ability to be able to move between eras, authors, and genres with only the weight of my own experiences to bear upon my adventure.
Along the way, there are many relics left in the form of critiques and responses from those who have previously explored each piece. Literature is a conversation that spans many years and is host to a variety of different voices from all walks of life.
With that said, reading texts from any era is not simply about engaging with a story and forming an opinion on it. The stories comprising fictional literature are only a small part of what an English major studies; books are vessels carrying information from different fields that beg analysis on many levels.
Literature is written by people, for people, and is most often about people. Stepping away from the conventions of mere plot, there are many layers of economic, linguistic, historical, psychological, scientific, and social depth that are conveyed in a text. In order to provide a strong analysis of a literary work, one must consider all the contextual factors stemming from the time period and the author's life. Reading literature is reading society and learning through the observation of the many interacting factors affecting human life.
Literature is relevant, regardless of the era in which it was written, because written expressions of fact and fiction are records. They detail everything from social movements to political and religious reformations, and therefore provide information about the world as it was at different periods of time.
The roots of all our modern academic fields can be found within the pages of literature. The way we do things is a product of our history, something documented through writings that describe the mundane activities along with the societal fears and dreams of a culture. Though a plot itself may not appear to serve anything other than enjoyment, it is actually riddled with facts and lessons. A degree in English is a thing for the curious, and for those who love learning. It is because I want to study everything that I study literature.
While I respect the work my peers do in the more employable fields, I stand by my choice to do an English major. Though I have learned to write and edit in the process, the real gain is in my knowledge of the world and the people who inhabit it.