“What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?”

I believe I have said here or elsewhere something about the importance of the relationship between the humanities and the physical sciences: While the arts need the sciences for the sake of utility in the “real world,” the arts provide for the sciences a conscience. The sciences teach us how to experiment and examine the world as an outside observer; the arts teach us how to examine the world from within ourselves. Scientists work with their heads and their hands; an artist’s work comes from the head and the heart. While these examples are gross over-simplifications of these disciplines, they do illustrate the symbiotic relationship between the hard and the human sciences, a sort of codependency that is demanded of the individual who is studying them. And yet…

There remains a constant need to justify the equality of these fields, particularly from the humanities side. As an English major at a STEM-heavy university, sometimes it feels as though there is a perpetual chip on my shoulder, as if I must always remind everyone else about the relevance of my skills and my discipline. The pressure is not only pervasive in academia. Every family visit results in someone asking “So, what exactly are you going to do with your degree?” as if I am some dewey-eyed hippie, whose only future path is to live on a commune with huts made of tires, spending my days reading and writing poetry, telling stories, and living a frivolous life of frolicking through tulips, smoking a peace pipe, and generally being a disappointment to my ancestors. My response (somewhere in the ballpark of “Um…teach, hopefully…” “Well, if you do what you love, you never work a day in your life” and “Excuse me while I go nail my eyelids to the front deck in order to avoid having this conversation again…”) is never satisfactory. Besides, and perhaps most importantly, what role would I have in the event of a zombie apocalypse? While others with more practical skills would be building shelter, tracking weather patterns for safe travel, building farms, and finding a cure for the accursed zombie virus, what would I be doing? Soothing the undead to sleep with the sultry sounds of my silver-tongued recitations of Wallace Stevens’ “The Emperor of Ice Cream”? Fighting off a flesh-eating horde with my hardcover copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Unabridged, wiping bone matter and pieces of half-rotten corpse off of the dust jacket every few minutes? I was beginning to feel like the character in that Avenue Q song:


But of course, all of this is ridiculous. Even though the market seems to value certain career paths over others, that’s not to say someone couldn’t live a perfectly satisfying life working in a humanities field. After all, there are some universally practicable skills that aren’t learned in the science classroom, such as reading comprehension, public speaking, clear and effective writing skills, visual literacy, crafting a well-reasoned argument, etc., etc. Part of the reason why I feel so strongly about interdisciplinary practices is due to my liberal arts background, where each field is appreciated for its particular contributions in creating a well-rounded classroom full of jacks-of-all-trades. This ruined me. Now I can’t favor one discipline over another without feeling a twinge of guilt as though I have failed in academia by not being some sort of mutant renaissance man. I do not have strong math skills, and though much of it eludes me like so much effluvium drifting above my head just out of reach, I am still fascinated with mathematics as a field, to the point that I feel compelled every so often to brush up on some of the concepts which I had previously forgotten. I say this not to brag–only to illustrate the state of mind that I’m in regarding academia, and, really, life in general. If we live in a world where we are able to not only appreciate other disciplines, but to utilize their skills for our own work, we will be expanding our potential–exploring and discovering nuances in our own disciplines which had previously remained elusive.

And, should the need arise, we will be much better equipped to kill zombies, which should make us all sleep a little sounder at night.

6 thoughts on ““What Do You Do with a B.A. in English?””

  1. People like to see numbers. If there is a hint of subjectivity, it is not seen as credible as compared to quantitative methods. That being said, there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

    This discussion brings the need for what will be ideas rather than disciplines that will begin to drive education in the future. I feel that many disciplines will come together to solve issues related to water, food, shelter, and quality of life, rather than using one discipline to solve issues.

    To keep the motif of using your degree in the advent of a zombie apocalypse, you could write a mean technical manual on surviving an encounter.

  2. I like your post! As a non-humanities person who has spent a lot of time pondering the value of the humanities and liberal arts, I will offer you another perspective: Let’s say there’s a zombie apocalypse, and the farmers, doctors, and military help us survive. Then our engineers build some things to make life easier and safer. Then what? Then we’re going to want some artists/writers/musicians to entertain us and teach us how to make our own art, and psychologists to help us process our feelings after what was certainly a traumatic series of events, and historians to help us figure out what went wrong to cause the zombie apocalypse in the first place so we can avoid another one! Life, fortunately, is about more than just survival.

    Also, it may be helpful to keep in mind that, for those of us who didn’t take many humanities classes beyond high school and a couple of gen-ends, we may be remembering the parts of those classes that made us memorize things and slog through books we hated more than the critical thinking parts of those courses. Learning writing and critical thinking skills are super important to a lot of aspects of our lives. Memorizing Shakespeare…I don’t know…how that is useful to…anyone? I think that’s why the humanities seem so irrelevant to our lives sometimes, at least for me. Of course, that’s where you come in, English Professor, to give our students a better education than what some of us had!

    1. Thank you for your comment!

      Memorizing anything in this day and age seems unproductive due to the utility of the Internet, be it Shakespeare or not. In my experience, the best classes in the humanities (or otherwise) were those that either helped me build an appreciation for something I never thought I had, or afforded me the means to do so on my own. This is universal, not tied to a particular discipline. The worst classes were those that I had no stake in. Shakespeare will matter to students if you allow them an entry point into his work, if you are able to show them (or teach them how to show themselves) the relevance and nuance within it. What I think makes the humanities so particularly intriguing in academia is that it allows students the opportunity to say “Yes, and…” which is a luxury other disciplines may not have. If you make learning deterministic and limiting, then you miss the point. It’s not about exclusion; it’s about invitation.

  3. I am sorry to say that I really really enjoyed reading your blog. I know it sounds awful that I laughed at your plights :-). It just goes to show what a talented English major you are … What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger :-)))

  4. As the sole STEM person in a family of humanities majors (phys ed/history, political science, and comparative religions), I’ve always believed that the humanities have a lot to offer. If nothing else, every scientist and engineer will, at some point, need to write something. Knowing grammar is a generally a prerequisite for that (I hope). As a whole, though, engineers tend to be pretty focused on functionality, and that does lead to a very narrow view of what’s “useful.”

    Sorry your family gives you grief! You can always come talk to my family. I think they’d probably understand you better than they understand me, anyway! I’m the weirdo in that bunch.

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