Why Major in English?

"...English, mathematics, and foreign languages are not *about* anything in the same sense that history, biology, physics, and other primarily empirical subjects are about something. English, French, and mathematics are *symbol systems*, into which the phenomenal data of empirical subjects are cast and by means of which we think about them. Symbol systems are not primarily about themselves; they are about other subjects. When a student 'learns' one of these systems, he *learns how* to operate it. The main point is to think and talk about other things by means of this system....an English major is someone who is studying how to master the use of the symbol system.
-- James Moffett, Teaching the Universe of Discourse (1969)

Reports from Our Alumnae

Sarah Caldwell ’08 (Book Publicist)
Brace yourselves because people will ask you: “Why English?”

Well, why not?  You’ve chosen to come to one of the finest liberal arts schools in the country so you’ll be getting your fair share of divisional requirements during your time here.  There will be plenty of equations to be angsted over and French grammar books to study – you may even get to create noxious fumes by mixing the wrong ingredients in Chemistry lab.  But what you really want to do is study literature, right?  That’s as good a reason as any.  If you know you love reading and using words all day, everyday, then the English major is right for you. 

I chose it because I couldn’t see myself not reading, discussing and writing papers about the human experience.  I liked Anthropology well enough and I even considered Art History but Shakespeare was my first love and to Bill I succumbed.  I should caution you: in order to make the most of your Bryn Mawr English experience, you have to be willing to experiment.  The range of courses offered here in subjects like Victorian Queer Theory, Film Studies and Early Modern Drama is what sets us apart.  Cross discipline courses in Comparative Literature or flexing your creative muscles in Creative Writing is also highly recommended.  Example: I knew I wanted to write full-time post Bryn Mawr so I double majored in Creative Writing.  It was a lot of work but I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t love it.  Despite our small size, there are whole new worlds to discover in the canon and even I eventually set my main man aside for a newfound focus on the theories of Jacques Derrida as applied to Victorian Gothic fiction.  Did I ever think my senior essay would be about Bram Stoker’s Dracula?  No way.  But it was and I loved the fact that I stumbled across something new and challenging. 

In my experience, the successful major will sample courses from across the Tri-Co, as well as at her home base, in order to round out her knowledge of literature, theory and history.  Out of all the majors, we’re the ones with a broad knowledge base that is translatable to many unconventional disciplines.  Yes, admittedly many of us want to write or teach – and that’s great.  But I’ve had friends go on to med school, join the Peace Corps, even become grant writers for major corporations. 

What you’ll leave Bryn Mawr with is a skill set that is versatile, wide-reaching and specific enough within the major to give you an intellectual edge over your peers.  Is it tough competition getting a job?  You betcha. But having lived through it, I can attest to the fact that we still manage to impress at interviews and that opens doors.  I’m in book publishing now, working in the publicity department.  It’s a pretty sweet first gig.  It’s definitely not like my wistful days spent in English House, surrounded by my friends and colleagues, but it’s a step in learning about an industry that I wanted to test out to see if it was a good fit.  I believe in taking chances and doing something you never dreamed you’d be doing and the English major is a great way to prepare for that leap into the working world, one book at a time.                  

Ann Dixon, '83  (M.S.E., Computer Science, University of Pennsylvania)
I majored in English because it was hard, much harder than any of the sciences. Along the way, I envied my math major friends, who would do a problem set that was assigned, and then it would be done and they were finished the assignment and could go out and play. An English paper was never done, and this was before the widespread use of computers and word processing software.

In my computer science classes, there was a "there" there, also, and when you got "there," you knew you had gotten somewhere. When do you ever have that feeling when you read a book and analyze it? For me, the answer is "never," because the study of literature is an open-ended inquiry. I've come to believe that science is too, but it was never taught that way back in the day. In a world where you will have many careers in your lifetime, an English major stands up well. Employers of all stripes value communication skills, both verbal and written. You may have thought you knew how to think before you got here, but you didn't, not really. Thinking is also a useful skill for the many careers you will have, even in the corporate-world which has gotten a bum rap from Dilbert.

Laurel Elliot,'05 (Graduate student in English @Princeton University)
The most amazing thing about entering the work force after leaving graduate school is the professional connections that you will have made while a student, which will allow you entry into a job (either by working with that connection, in particular, or by getting from them a strong letter of recommendation). I personally would like to work in a museum, or Rare Books Collection, after I graduate from Princeton, and our Rare Books Curator has invited me to work with him, and has told me that he helps all of the graduate students working for him to get a job once they leave Princeton.

Shannon Friday, '06 (World Traveler)
Currently I am traveling the South Pacific. Right now I'm in New Zealand. Australia, Papua/ New Guinea, and Fiji are also on the list of places to get to in the next 18 months. I think the biggest advantage I have gotten from the English major is the ability to communicate clearly. Despite being another former English colony and sharing a language, there are significant cultural differences between the USA and New Zealand. For me, studying English was more about learning to read between the lines than simply taking in that which is written on the page. That skill has been invaluable as I try to navigate new situations. For example, when discussing Maori treaty claims, a subject on which I am almost totally ignorant, with a roomful of strangers, how does the phrasing of their carefully couched PC opinions prompt my response? Is this a group where it is better to not drive past their limits into a rant, or are these folks to probe for further information on a complex issue? So many people think you can do basically one thing with an English major: teach English. And while this is the most obvious application of the skills learned, there are so many other. The ability to create clear, concise cover letters and CVs has aided me in getting jobs as I move around. While I was working in an office in New York City, my proofreading skills were much sought after. My relative attention to the nuances of language meant that the marketing department would often ask second opinions on-phrasing and my manager would ask me to proofread memos before they were sent out to a wide group. Sometimes studying English has formed unexpected bonds; I got my lifeguarding job partly because my boss was a history buff who had a deep interest in the English Renaissance, my favorite literary period. And if nothing else, studying English and reading works from many different times and places has given me an appreciation of the vastness and variety of the world. It has fed and inspired my travels and my quest for personal growth. It has given me heroes. The books I have read on my travels have eased boredom and loneliness. And, silly as it may sound, habitual writing, in letter, blogs and emails, has helped me keep in touch with family and friends.

Emily Friedman ’03 (M.A., Centre for Eighteenth-Century Studies @ the University of York; ABD in English @ University of Missouri)
The study of English in general is a remarkably fruitful major, producing people capable of a variety of career paths.  English at Bryn Mawr in particular provides a truly diverse set of options both during and after one’s undergraduate career. While in some ways I am doing exactly what I thought I would on the day I entered Bryn Mawr (teaching at the university level), my research interests and passions were transformed in amazing ways through my encounters with the talented faculty and wide variety of course offerings, in everything from James Joyce to Shakespeare and beyond.  

Independent research is a crucial part of learning to be a productive human being — be it as a scholar or anything else.  Within the department, my time as a teaching assistant for Peter Briggs (through what was then known as the D.M.N. Marshall Fellowship and is now the Hanna Holborn Gray program) and as a research/technology assistant for Katherine Rowe gave me valuable (and unusual!) opportunities to see what academic life is really like — both in its challenges and at its very best.  The research I undertook at Bryn Mawr on print culture, readers, and the eighteenth-century novelist Samuel Richardson planted the seeds of my current work in a quite direct way, but also bore fruit in ways I never could have expected.

I am the founder of the Samuel Richardson Society [http://www.richardsonsociety.org], was recently elected the 2009 Chair of the Graduate Caucus of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies [http://asecs.press.jhu.edu/], and am a 2009 Chawton House Library [http://www.chawtonhouse.org] Visiting Research Fellow.  My dissertation, Rediscovering the End: New Senses of Ending and the Rise of the Novel, investigates how innovative endings in both canonized and forgotten eighteenth-century prose contribute to our understanding of the early novel.

Monica Hesse, '03  (Journalist at The Washington Post)
For my current job as a writer for The Washington Post Style section I have: accidentally stepped on Aretha Franklin's dress at the Kennedy Center Honors; stayed out until 4 am with Blelvis, a homeless African American Elvis impersonator; and three times been within spitting distance of the President of the United States. It's the hardest and best job in the world, and I wouldn't have it without my degree.

Being a feature writer requires the ability to write on deadlines like any reporter, but it also requires thinking wildly and passionately, having impeccable research skills, and learning how to make an argument whether you have 60 inches of space or 6. As an English major I learned how to generate my own ideas, how to follow them to unexpected ends, and how to abandon them when they didn't work out. My creative writing concentration taught me to write lyrically as well as succinctly, and that rhythm and tone are just as important as subject matter.

I'm often asked whether I wish that I had majored in journalism--and I know many amazing journalists who took that route. But for me, studying the broader field of English was the only way for me to find my own voice.

Plus, I read a lot of cool books.

Ella Moriarty,'05 (Law student)
A month after graduating as an English major, I moved to Manhattan to work as a bilingual elementary teacher in the New York City Teaching Fellows program. I taught during the day and worked on my Masters in Bilingual Education at night. My experiences as an English major were what got me through teaching and also this next level of education. Having worked with difficult, complicated texts and theories in the past, I was quickly able to process the materials we were expected to read at Fordham University. In the classroom, I continued what had begun at Bryn Mawr as a literary interest in minority writing and experience.

For me, the path from English major to teacher has prepared me for my next step: law school. I have always planned on attending law school, and now I have experience in education, with immigration, and certainly with many aspects of social justice to back me up. However, one of the things that stood out most on my law applications was my work at Bryn Mawr. As an English major, I learned how to do just what will be expected of me as a law student and, eventually, a lawyer. I learned how to do research, to write, to edit, to debate, to join in on important discussions, but mostly, I learned how to think.

In the Bryn Mawr College English Department, we are not only taught about social change as reflected in literature, we are expected to implement it. This has stayed with me over the last three years and will continue to inform my work in law school and beyond.

Christin Mulligan, '07 (Graduate student in English @ UNC Chapel Hill)
Before coming to Bryn Mawr, I had no definitive plan for my future beyond a passionate interest in literature, and the English major helped me realize that passion could lead to a career. The opportunities the major coursework gave me to read widely and critically and to pursue original research, particularly for my Senior Essay, as well as the guidance I received from various faculty members while doing that research, convinced me that I wanted to continue in the profession. A portion of the work I started the summer after my junior year as Hannah Holborn Gray scholar became a conference paper that I presented recently and will be the basis of my master's thesis, which will also hopefully become a published article. None of this would have been possible without the encouragement and support I received when I began the project and that I continue to receive from those faculty members today.

Jenny Sawyer, 02 (Freelance writer)
I wish I could say that the English Department at Bryn Mawr taught me to be a better writer, but that, it seems, was merely the surprising and lovely side effect. Because what being an English major really taught me was how to think. How to be rigorous. How to go deeper. How to be completely and thoroughly original. In my work as an editor and freelance writer post-Bryn Mawr, I've discovered that it's easy to write something that sounds good, even impresses. And yet, the real work is in the thoughtfulness that distinguishes the superficial from the substantive. Bryn Mawr taught me how to uncover that substance--and to make it my own.

Sasha Torres, '86 (Associate Professor, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, University of Western Ontario)
When I left Bryn Mawr with my English degree I headed straight for grad school. I got my PhD in English from Cornell in 1991. Along the way I moved away from studying literature as I became increasingly interested in film and television. Now, as an academic, I still study television. But I have found that the attention to language and textuality I began to develop in my undergraduate work in English continues to serve me both in my work and in the rest of my life. That attention has translated, for me, to the invaluable habit of looking closely at the textures and structures of the world around me.

Amy Villarejo, '85 (Associate Professor in Film Studies at Cornell and Visiting Professor at Northwestern University)
The BMC English major was, in the oft-remembered quartet of Mary Pat McPherson, rigorous, structured, serious, and sound. It trained me for a Ph.D. program in film studies (one not coincidentally located in an English department), but it also gave me much broader training in critical thinking and writing. My English courses were among the most challenging at Bryn Mawr, allowing me to pursue advanced scholarship (through an NEH "younger scholars" grant) and ongoing intellectual conversations that persist to this day.

Elizabeth Walsh, '09
I chose to major in English because I think the kind of analysis that is emphasized in Bryn Mawr English classes is applicable in every subject. The attention paid to theory within the curriculum is an important factor in this and I've really enjoyed being challenged to apply theoretical readings to literary works. We don't offer as much breadth in subjects as English departments in larger universities, but the excellence of our professors more than makes up for it. As a sophomore, Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales was the only English class that fit into my schedule with other division requirements. If there had been a wider range of choices, I wouldn't have chosen to take that class. I was very ambivalent about it at first but within the first two meetings of the class I was completely enthralled - largely due to the enthusiasm and knowledge of Professor Taylor. I ended up taking another medieval class from her the next semester. Perhaps helped by the fact that all their offices are in a big house, the English department feels like a big family. I've always felt comfortable going to any professor with questions, even those who I haven't had classes with.