What It’s Like to Major in English

“Sometimes blue curtains are just blue curtains!” is a common complaint about English classes, especially the ones you take in high school. People often see English as impractical and pretentious, largely due to how it’s taught in high school and in first-year university courses. As an English student going through the honours program, I often find myself subjected to questions from friends and well-meaning relatives, and most of them boil down to, “Why bother?” 

This article is the second installment of a series in which UVic contributors answer questions about their majors. The first article on anthropology is available here. Without further ado, here are some things you should know about English at UVic.

 

What is your year and major?

I’m in my fourth year of a double major in creative writing (specializing in fiction and poetry) and English with honours. The English honours program involves a few extra seminars as well as a final thesis, but overall the basic requirements are the same as a major: one first-year course, three second-year courses and then a motley of third and fourth-year courses covering all the major eras of literature.

 

Why did you decide to major in English?

I took two English courses in first year with the intention of going into English, based on my longtime love of the subject. Unfortunately, I had a bad experience in the second one, and nearly dropped the program to focus on writing. During the summer between first and second year, though, I was invited to join the honours program, and the invitation intrigued me enough that I took the honours seminar (ENGL 310). The class was amazing, and I’ve been in English ever since. 

On a more practical note, English is incredibly versatile in terms of jobs if you aren’t sure what you want to do after school. It teaches you critical thinking and writing, which are applicable to basically any job. It’s also a great way to dabble in a wide variety of subjects: I’ve read philosophy, learned lots of history, and come to understand the origins of narrative tropes that recur in contemporary pop culture.

 

Best class in your program?

If we’re talking English honours, ENGL 310 is hands down the best and most useful course I’ve ever taken. It’s a seminar, so you get to know your cohort really well, and the professor who usually teaches it, Mary Elizabeth Leighton, is an angel. 310 is a year-long course in which you learn how to analyze literature effectively. It’s intense—first semester involves writing a 1000-word essay every week—but absolutely worth it.

Otherwise, my favourite course has been Modernist Poetry (ENGL 435) with Luke Carson. He is incredibly helpful, and his lectures are always interesting. 

 

Something you wish you’d known before you started your degree?

I wish I hadn’t worried so much about rushing through my degree. Because of the double major, I’ve wound up having to take an extra semester. As it turns out, graduation is intimidating enough that I’m grateful for that bit of extra time!

I also wish I’d known not to be so hard on myself. University isn’t about already knowing everything; it’s a time to challenge yourself and meet people who challenge your lived experiences. I’ve learned so much from the people in my classes, and for that I’m incredibly grateful. 

 

Words of wisdom for people getting started? 

Have fun with it. English rewards you if you put in the time and effort, and those things only come from caring about the topics you choose to engage with and write about. And remember: it’s not the end of the world if a prof disagrees with you. Professors have their own biases and shortcomings, same as anyone else.

Also, don’t be that person who talks over everyone else. English is about learning from each other; we all bring our own experiences and knowledge to every work. 

 

But are the blue curtains only blue curtains?

Not every detail matters, so quit worrying. English is more about tracking patterns and noticing the way different words and passages speak to one another to create a whole. You’re inevitably going to miss details based on your biases and predilections; that’s what makes English so exciting.

(Blue does traditionally denote sadness in the English canon, though, so your high school teacher wasn’t completely wrong.)

 

I hope this article answers any questions you might have about English and the people who choose to study it! Stay tuned for more “What It’s Like to Major In...” in the future.