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Characteristics of an English Major

Updated on November 23, 2013
The Decameron, written by Giovanni Bocaccio follows the story of a group of Florentines who escaped the city ravaged by plague. Over the next ten days they pass the time by telling each other 100 stories, with each one an allegory.
The Decameron, written by Giovanni Bocaccio follows the story of a group of Florentines who escaped the city ravaged by plague. Over the next ten days they pass the time by telling each other 100 stories, with each one an allegory. | Source

Would you consider being an English major?

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I am an English major.

When I say that I have a Bachelor’s degree in English I get an almost universal response: ‘Are you going to be a teacher?’ ‘No’ I tell them. Well, maybe? My reasons for becoming an English major were as follows: I've always had an interest in the subject yet I felt as though I wasn't learning. Let me say, I will spell this word out since it might raise a few eyebrows. I didn't learn sh*t in my high school English classes and I felt as though there was more to literature than obsessing over the symbolism or writing in a way that fits a mold, but lacked creativity. But my writing skills did need some more improvement, not to mention my favorite authors were English majors and I had a secret desire to be a best selling author.

One of the things we learn in our writing classes is to not quote from the Internet. defines an English major as follows:

“Along with Philosophy and International Relations, English is arguably the most difficult college major in the Humanities. This is largely due to the fact that being an English major encompasses the study of several other fields, including, but not limited to philosophy, psychology, history, sociology, law, and political science. English majors read and write far more than any other major, and often suffer from severe caffeine addiction (or worse), insomnia, and manic depression. Despite what lobotomized Business majors believe, English majors (like many humanities majors) seek graduate school enrollment and end up with J.D.s, M.B.A.s, L.L.M.s, or Ph.D.s. Thus, they end up in lucrative careers with sexy ass women. But best of all, they actually learn how to think and generally live rewarding lives because of that.” I am still in the infancy of my own career path. As of today, I cannot verify whether this statement is true. However, if I travel a journey filled with sexy ass women and men, I will let you know.

Readers and Opinionated

What makes an English major, you may ask. English majors are avid readers. The number of reading assignments feel as though we are reading a novel a week, except this literature does not always include writing with a narrative, but essays, tracts, as well as literary criticism, that provide background information behind our assigned reading.

English students take this copious reading, analyze it for meaning, form an opinion and communicate our ideas, in voice and in writing. We act as lawyers on paper, transitioning smoothly from prosecutor to defense in our effort to persuade the audience. The thesis in the essay is the anchor to our prosecution, the heart of our papers. The supporting arguments act as battlements providing defense against the contrary opinion to our own. We have been known to be ‘too opinionated’ or ‘read too deeply into the text’ to the point that it could be argued as, dogmatic. As an example, as I was researching, I came across a blog titled: 20 things an English major would understand. At number 10, the author wrote that as English students we are encouraged to think that "Everything must have a deeper meaning" and she included a diagram to illustrate this concept. The picture shows a venn diagram where one circle is labeled “What the Author Meant.” The circle on the right is labeled “What your English teacher thinks the author meant”. Underneath the circles, there is an example passage and a comparison between what the professor believes what the author implied in that passage versus what the author actually meant. The passage says: "The curtains were blue". The professor believes that the curtains imply the author’s “immense depression and his lack of will to carry on.” What the author meant: "The curtains were f***ing blue”.

Curiosity and an Eclectic education

But I feel that the quality that makes an English major an English major is not whether they can come to a conclusion if Hamlet was insane, or not insane, neither is it having an ability to type an essay into the wee hours of the night with a deadline for tomorrow. I feel that students who decide to study English are curious people. What do I mean by curious. The best literary analysis comes from a comprehension of not just the work at hand but having an understanding of the historical context in which it was written. The political events which occurred during that time period, to the power of the church, insofar as the intellectual movement in Europe all play an influence in a deeper understanding of literature. Take for example, John Milton's Paradise Lost. Paradise Lost is written in an epic poem, similar in style to the Classical epic poetry such as the Illiad and the Odessey. It traces the Fall of Mankind as well as Satan's fall from an archangel to the dark side. The war in heaven ignites because Satan feels envious that the Son became God's chosen one and declares war. Satan's actions and his rhetoric that God rules as a 'tyrant' could be a historical reference to the reasons behind Parliamentarians overthrowing the increasingly unpopular Charles I. Biblical and Classical mythological references pepper throughout the piece. In the opening to Book Seven, Milton asks Uranina the muse for his own protection as well as the poem's pleading that in his attempt to write the great English epic poem, he feels that he may become like Orpheus, who used his gifts to better the world but ultimately lost his life when Bacchus’ followers tore his body apart.

Truth with a capital "T"

An English major seeks to understand meaning behind the text. Going back to Milton's example, Milton was known as a political commentator during his lifetime. He wrote treatises expressing his opinions on kingship, regicide and divorce among others. During a time when marriage was meant for economic stability, Milton argued that the purpose of marriage should be for companionship and not for politics or continuing a lineage. Reading this text we ask ourselves: Why does Milton think the way he does? When Milton argues for ‘ideal marriage’ does he actually mean a Platonic friendship? Does Milton’s views on marriage influence how we should interpret Adam and Eve’s relationship in Paradise Lost? What does he mean when he writes "conversation is the chiefest and the noblest end of marriage?" As we read literature, we learn about the author’s time and place but not only that, we expose ourselves to many disciplines in the humanities. We learn ways of thought that may be different from our own and we get to experience reality through the author’s eyes.

The English major likes the challenge to question and to think. The reason why we read so ‘deeply’ in the text is because we want to discover a certain ‘Truth’, what it means to live the human experience. As “secret” writes, “Science… may have the key to understanding our existence and improving our livelihood, but language and art (both the study of English students) humanizes our lives. Humans are separate from animals because they can think, feel, hope and love. They do not want only existence, but yearn for more, for a meaning.” The critical thinking skills we utilize during literature analysis and especially poetry analysis, allow us to discover what is common among human relationships, if thoughts and feelings that motivated men and women from say, the 17th century could still resonate with people today. The curious mind and aspiring philosopher I'm sure will salivate at this chance to learn a broad education. English majors are more than just readers and writers, they are complex and inquisitive people, ready to tackle the toughest questions, a fire burning inside.

Characteristics of an English Major by StellaSee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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    • StellaSee profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from California

      Hi FlourishAnyway, sorry about the late response, thank you for your kind words, that's awesome that you decided to pursue graduate work in psychology, I'm sure whatever experience you took away from your English classes has made you a more well rounded psychology student. Thanks for stopping by!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      3 years ago from USA

      I love your passion and the rationale your provide. I started out as an English major, having selected my undergraduate university based on its strong literary tradition. I even had professors who alleged I had talent for literary criticism. However, in my sophomore year I just wasn't feeling it and instead decided to turn to psychology. I ended up getting a Ph.D. in psych but have always loved writing.

    • Greenson profile image


      5 years ago


    • StellaSee profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from California

      Hi Rachael, that's great your mother wants to go to graduate school. They say its hard to get employed as humanities majors but I think it's fine as long as you have a direction.

      Hey pstraubie, okay maybe I sounded a little harsh ahaha. I'm sure I learned some useful things in my high school English classes, I guess it didn't stay with me as well as material I learned in say, my chemistry classes.

      Thank you guys both for reading and commenting!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      5 years ago from sunny Florida

      Sorry to hear you felt you did not learn in high school....I was blessed with teachers who gave me the passion for literature and inspired me to learn more of the Greats on my own.

    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 

      5 years ago from Illinois

      As an art history major, I have a lot of the same experiences you have. My mother went to school as an English major, but as an English Education major. She graduated a couple years ago and doesn't have a full-time teaching position yet, but she's a teaching assistant at our local children's museum. Still thinking about going to graduate school. She has a great passion for Shakespeare and English literature in general. I think she's also great at inspiring others to feel as strongly about such things as she does.


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