Welcome to Four Years of Anxiety, English Majors

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I went into my first quarter of classes at the University of Washington with a clear objective: Break my affection for literature and turn to a more promising academic field. I thought of school as a purely financial investment. Paying $4,000 for 10 weeks of English classes? Preposterous. Besides, as most English majors can attest, an interest in literary pursuits begins in childhood; so holding on to such pursuits must be childish, immature and trivial. So instead I took chemistry.

I hate chemistry. Okay, sure, I can appreciate the field. Only the most brilliant minds can look closely enough at the world to uncover the very substance of the universe. I simply couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the study of matter in the way that I enjoyed the study of language, and I accepted the blame for this.

First, I wasn’t here to love what I studied or study what I love—that wasn’t what school was for. Second, it wasn’t acceptable to study fiction when your education is supposed to set you up for the real world. English offered only fiction, and that’s not what I needed.

In truth, I probably could’ve finished a chemistry degree. I finished the general series, but not without indulging myself with two English classes that hooked me back onto my lit habit.

I registered for an upper-division class, not knowing that a 300 level class would be more demanding than a 100 level (clearly I’m not a math person). I walked into that class with little confidence or insight to offer as it pertained to the works of literary giants like Virginia Woolf, D.H. Lawrence, E.M. Forster and Katherine Mansfield. So instead I listened in wonder and admiration to the upperclassmen that spoke with such eloquence and passion when discussing the power and intensity of words, ideas and their creators. Sitting in a small dusty room on the fourth floor of the combined geography, history, political science and Slavic languages building, we hunkered down to pick out the meaning in Mrs. Dalloway. We weighed words against each other and drew conclusions about their worth, purpose and impact.

The second class promised a light workload and simple reading expectations. Instead, our ambitious, well-meaning, but somewhat insane grad-student instructor chose to introduce us naive freshmen to John Milton’ Paradise Lost. On one occasion, we were expected to “pick a side.” We stood in two groups, faced each other, and debated over whether to place power in the hands of Satan or God (I happened to be in the Devil’s Party).

In that class, Milton taught me how to take apart a text and analyze every piece of it in spite of not enjoying the task. Many people think English students choose their major based on enjoyment, but truthfully we really gain so much more—in terms of analytical skill and research strategy—when we’re challenged by pieces of literature that aren’t “fun.” Frustrating and puzzling, they dare us to try to figure them out. Milton, especially, refuses to let you off easy. Pouring over each word, each allusion, each rhetorical device, we stewed in the terrifying blank verse for hours each week before emerging at the end of it with a somewhat satisfying comprehension and even more questions—but that may have been the point.

I walked out of those two classes not with a sense of peace that my studies would always feel rewarding or important, but instead with the overwhelming sense that I am meant to study this. And so I was stuck. Forced to resign myself to the life of an English major, I felt constantly bombarded with images of how my academic pursuits were deemed worthless or unchallenging compared to those of STEM students. Ignoring those preconceived notions of an English major’s achievements, I resolved myself with the knowledge that English majors truly acquire the skills and complexities of an analytical mind.

When I finally declared myself an English major, it didn’t relieve my anxieties and insecurities. No, I still sometimes find myself sitting in an English class, wondering if it’s worth the money. For some reason it always comes back to the money for me (maybe I should’ve majored in business). This time though, instead of walking away from literature in order to avoid these worries, I walked straight towards them, and faced them head on.

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