“Yes, but what will you DO with that English major?”

Towards the end of this spring’s Senior Seminar, we took up this question. I had given the class a 2013 column by Michael Bérubé to read as a jumping off point, with this as perhaps its most pointed bit:

After all, who needs another 50-page honors project on the poetry of Charles Baudelaire?

Well, strange as it may sound, if you’re an employer who needs smart, creative workers, a 50-page honors project on a 19th century French poet might be just the thing you want to see from one of your job applicants. Not because you’re going to ask him or her to interpret any poetry on the job, but because you may be asking him or her, at some point, to deal with complex material that requires intense concentration – and to write a persuasive account of what it all means. And you may find that the humanities major with extensive college experience in dealing with complex material handles the challenge better – more comprehensively, more imaginatively – than the business or finance major who assumed that her degree was all she needed to earn a place in your company.

This piece, in conjunction with other essays we’d read this semester that tried to define the “typical” English major and to identify what one gets from a process of sustained careful attention to texts, enabled my students to generate an impressive list of the qualities that characterize the people who study literature and the skills their degrees help hone.

English majors, they said, have opinions and want to express them, are curious, like to read, focus on ideas rather than memorizing things, are often interested in theories, do not have narrowly-defined career goals that are predicated on their majors, are less grade-driven, and–and this was perhaps the most enthusiastically endorsed characteristic of all–are low on sleep.

We all laughed.

But it did occur to me that this type of person would make an incredibly desirable employee in lots of ways: creative, flexible, driven, given to asking lots of questions and approaching topics from multiple angles. “Low on sleep,” it seems to me, is an excellent short hand for “can’t stop thinking about stuff and is good at multi-tasking.”

An English major at my university, after all, manages to read hundreds of pages from multiple books each week, to keep their ideas both differentiated and brought into juxtaposition when comparisons are apt, and to juggle all of that mental work while holding down a job that goes a long way towards putting herself through college.

But as we enumerated a list of skills they thought their undergraduate degrees had helped develop in them, I was forcefully struck by how very adaptable English majors are to so many kinds of work and how very inept we generally are at explaining that fact articulately. Here is the list they generated. English majors are good at:

  • distilling key points from large chunks of text, quickly
  • synthesizing multiple documents to identify patterns of ideas or central disagreements
  • reading carefully for details
  • analyzing arguments
  • translating (literally, if they are bilingual; figuratively, in the sense of being able to explain complex texts to people who are less skilled readers or less familiar with the topic)
  • having opinions
  • being persuasive
  • making well-supported arguments about anything
  • playing devil’s advocate
  • writing to different audiences
  • anticipating the sensitivities of an audience, and tailoring their remarks accordingly
  • researching in multiple ways
  • being open to new opportunities and ideas
  • managing their time efficiently

This list, of course, is not that different from Bérubé’s more general observation that students with experience dealing with complex material and writing persuasively about it may be able to translate those abilities to many different areas of content. But what I like about this list is how specific and detailed it is, and how easily it enabled all of us in the classroom to imagine the widely disparate fields in which such skills would be invaluable: evaluating business processes, marketing products, fund raising, developing community outreach programming, writing grants, maintaining the public/online presence of an organization,  tutoring, creating public programs for a library or an after-school center, doing research-based writing in many different professional/technical arena, serving as a research assistant, interviewer, or in another public writing capacity, helping administer a non-profit organization, and many more.

You might note, that the three standard answers to the question “What are you going to do with that English degree?”–teach, go into publishing, go to law school–aren’t on the above list. Which is not to say that they are not reasonable options, but rather that one of the most productive things that came out of this particular class was that students were able to think both broadly and holistically about their skills and interests in order to imagine why they might be appealing hires for people working in many different fields.

There have been, certainly, articulate and thoughtful pieces published in the last year or two about why employers at non-humanities companies value people with humanities degrees, and yet, there is a surprising lack of consistent, articulate explanations of the practical skills a humanities degree might develop.

I must admit, too, that there is a part of me that resists the notion that a humanities degree is valuable solely for the practical skills it hones. After all, there are passionate, eloquent explanations of the intrinsic value of the humanities for developing a flexible mind and a compassionate citizen. There is an undeniable richness of culture built through art, music, literature, and deep thinking. And there are global consequences for being willing to give sustained attention to questioning our place as humans in the world–temporally, ecologically, cross-culturally–that surely depend upon the history, models, empathies, and modes of thinking that come to us by way of myriad humanities disciplines. For all of those reasons, I would always advocate for humanities study being central to creating a thoughtful human who will move through the world with integrity.

But for self-supporting students about to graduate from college, who are anxious to explain to their parents precisely how their degrees have been helping prepare them for the adult world of work, this class discussion made me think that perhaps we have created a false opposition in insisting that humanities degrees are either about skills or about intrinsic benefits. Perhaps, my students suggested through their very enthusiasm for all they have been reading, perhaps they may be both.

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