About a month ago, an acquaintance politely asked me what I’m studying. After I told him I’m an English major, his response was swift and automatic, a question as predictable as the auto-fill extension on my Google Chrome browser.
“Oh, so you want to be a teacher?”
I’m not sure why this is the knee-jerk question, and it’s not exactly a welcome one. When I chose to study English, I didn’t choose a career path by default. Still, my future role in a society hyper-focused on clear, external results often makes me wonder why I chose a major with such an ambiguous destination.
If I had to trace my English major origin story to some catalyst, it would be the passion for reading I developed after I finished my first Nancy Drew novel. Yes, I was reprimanded in fifth grade because I opted to sit on the steps outside the classroom with a novel during recess. Yes, I made a Goodreads account the summer after my freshman year of high school to diligently keep track of all my books. And yes, I was romantic enough at some point to picture myself as a full-fledged fiction writer, a fantasy born from that love of the written word.
But amid the bleak realism of adulthood — in which an apparently universal emphasis on productivity makes dog days a thing of the past — that love seems to have waned. I recently picked up a book to read for pleasure, and I can’t remember the last time I did that. I also logged onto my Goodreads account: The last full book review I wrote in earnest was from nearly four years ago.
So, I’m not exactly the enthusiastic reader I was when I was younger. But this disenchanting plot twist isn’t the reason for my lack of interest in being an English teacher. Truthfully, I just don’t have the patience for it. Oddly enough, the right words to explain myself have never come easy, so to take on the burden of unraveling the complexities of another person’s ideas — say, those of some poetic giant in the canon of English literature — for someone other than the GSI grading my papers isn’t exactly appealing.
But the elephant in the room remains: What exactly do I want to do after I get my English degree? In answer to the teacher question, some vague, evasive response about work in publishing usually stumbles out. The most honest response, however, would be that I don’t actually have a specific answer.
It’s no secret that majoring in English can be a hard pill to swallow when study in the humanities is largely perceived as a bittersweet gamble. Maybe that’s why answering yes to the teacher question is often tempting. An answer grounded in certainty is, after all, much easier to stomach, especially when the alternative — admitting that my future career is a fickle question mark — implies a relatively high chance of failure.
This is all to say that I have nothing but respect for the profession of teaching, English or otherwise; sometimes, I wish it were something I could be genuinely content in pursuing.
But I’m socially awkward, I have an embarrassingly short attention span — I am a relatively slow reader, ironically — and I rarely enjoy doing any kind of academic research, which is, all things considered, perhaps also ironic.
Here’s another irony: We’ve built and sustained a culture that seems almost overly sensitive to the mere possibility of “judging” the decisions of others, yet we often forget how certain questions do that for us. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a simple “yes” or “no” question, of course, but a question based on assumption is nevertheless rooted in carelessness, not sincere curiosity.
To automatically ask if one majors in English to teach the subject is an act of implicit assumption: It’s a question that ultimately fails to recognize the possibilities invisible beneath the most visible path of that degree. In answering it, I often slip into autopilot, a broken record only I, of course, can hear. Whatever happened to not judging a book by its cover?
I still haven’t finished that novel from almost a month ago. But I added it to my Goodreads account with a (relatively noncommittal) vow to finish it soon. I don’t think I could write a decent novel to save my life, but I revisited a neglected collection of poems I’d started writing about a year and a half ago. I wouldn’t call myself a great poet, but a grand total of two people have compared me to Emily Dickinson, and I’m shameless enough to admit I didn’t mind at all.
I’ll leave you with one last irony, and it’s at the heart of what English majors study: people, fictional and nonfictional, all composed of a number of complex contradictions, constantly challenging us in their own ways, often silently, to never assume.
Assumptions are tricky: They fill in the ever-changing gaps in our knowledge, only to inevitably expose what’s missing. Perhaps there is more than you think to the language you know so well.
For me, this more lies in the mystery between the lines. And a language that seeks to understand is certainly worth learning.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members separate from the semester’s regular opinion columnists. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.