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This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Queen's U chapter.

By Catherine Marcotte

Over the past four years of telling people that I study English Literature and Language, I’ve often been met with confusion as to what that means – both in terms of what exactly I do as a student, and in terms of what exactly I think I’m going to do with it after I graduate. So, after being met with the question so often, I’ve been wondering about it myself: what does it mean to be an English major?

I have come to think that studying literature opens up much more than just a single field of research and inquiry. Instead, it opens new ways of thinking about issues, histories, and realities. While this may not be a particularly ground-breaking statement in the sense that higher education as a whole is, hopefully, opening new ways to analyse, critique, and rethink dominant structures and practices, I feel (albeit biasedly) that the study of literature has something unique to offer. 

The thing about literature is that it’s difficult to contain. Over the four years that I’ve been studying literature, I’ve found myself borrowing and learning from fields like history, politics, Black studies, cultural studies, gender studies, philosophy, and linguistics, just to name a few. I’ve had the opportunity to consistently learn about and thoughtfully discuss the realities of people and places that supersede my own geographic, temporal, and personal moment. If I’ve managed to think more critically about my positionality, to question dominant structures, and to become more aware of realities beyond my own (and I hope I have), I firmly believe that it is because I have specifically dedicated myself to literary studies. Though this is not to say, by any means, that literature is the only way to foster growth and critical thinking, I have found it to be the most thorough and expansive avenue for me. In that way, my time as an English major has been a firm investment in myself while simultaneously being a firm investment in the world outside of myself. 

I recognize that I’m painting an extremely idealistic portrait of higher education, and that for a lot of people, there are complex barriers that preclude not only post-secondary education, but the kind of post-secondary education where you have the luxury to focus so deeply, and perhaps uniquely, on yourself. Though I have always worked during the school year, I’ve been extremely fortunate to devote most of my time to my studies. Students make incredible personal, familial, financial, and even physical sacrifices to complete their degrees. I recognize that for some, the idea of majoring in something that doesn’t essentially offer a reliable, high grossing salary at the moment of graduation isn’t particularly feasible. At the same time, I feel that it’s important for me to highlight that contrary to popular opinion, there are in fact, a lot of things you can do with a degree in English Literature. 

One only has to think about the realities of our digital age to recognize that the abilities to read thoughtfully and write effectively are in high demand. And who (among others) develop those skills all throughout their degrees? English majors. Writer, copyeditor, managing editor – these titles, and the people who hold them, have become indispensable to companies and organizations that publish any kind of text. I feel that there’s a lack of awareness about the value of good reading and writing skills and their centrality to daily life. The skills obtained in a literary program are – and I cannot stress this enough – marketable, profitable, and in-demand. After all, I too have wondered about the staying power of my degree over the years. Luckily, my anxiety-fuelled deep dives into researching job postings online have only reassured me of the demand for literature and language degrees. 

Even more concretely, a friend of mine, who’s graduating from a French literary studies program, was recently offered what she describes as her dream job. The moment she graduates, she’ll be working, full-time with benefits, for an organization that supports francophone publishing in Ontario. Though we have long been enamoured with publishing, this was not an opportunity either of us knew existed. And yet, the moment she went looking for it, there it was. 

I should mention that she was a strong candidate for a lot of reasons, and that it’s much more than just her soon-to-be degree that secured her this position. Dream jobs often require a lot of work, and she has certainly put her time in. Nonetheless, it is by carving out experiences for herself and looking beyond what she thought was possible that she came to find what she might have otherwise missed. I can remember a time, many years ago now, when she was pressuring herself to pursue sciences because she thought that that’s what she should have been doing. I think it’s safe to say that she chose well when she chose what she was most passionate and excited about. 

I should also mention that I’m not only graduating from my undergrad as an English major this year but pursuing a Master’s in English this September. As a result, I have been fielding even more questions about what exactly I’m going to do with yet another degree in English Literature. It also means that I’ve spent a lot of time talking to students and professors while trying to be thoughtful about what studying literature really means to me. Out of all the professors I spoke to, one of them was particularly attentive to the issue of funding. I’ll be the first one to admit that the funding for programs like English is not optimal, especially when you compare it to other graduate programs. That being said, this professor was encouraging me to think about pursuing a thesis project, especially if I managed to get it funded. She stressed the rarity of having funded time to devote uniquely to research: to reading, writing, and thinking. Among other things, our conversation reminded me of what a privilege it has been to not only pursue post-secondary studies, but to pursue them in the field that I have. To have the time to read and write and think has been one of my greatest joys. 

Ultimately, what I’ve learned from my professors, my peers, and from my last four years as an English major is that if you have the immense privilege to have this time to study, you might consider pursuing what makes you feel most fulfilled and excited. It seems that that’s exactly where the magic happens. 

HC Queen's U contributor