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New York City
December 2003

So You Want To Be An English Major?

For senior Regina Udler, an English-computer science double major at Barnard College, it all began with Dr. Seuss.

Udler, a lover of Shakespeare, Gabriel Garciaę Marquez and Charles Dickens, said that reading Seuss books inspired her to pursue English as a major in college.

"I always liked to read," Udler said. "When I came from Russia, I learned English by reading Dr. Seuss books and I really fell in love with the rhyme. I was an only child and it was a way to escape."

Similarly, English major Laura Riley, who will graduate from Barnard this December, said she was first drawn towards the subject at a very young age.

"I think when I was little I liked to write poetry," Riley said. "I came into college knowing that I wanted to major in English. When I was younger I enjoyed reading, mostly poetry from the Romantic period and in Jamaica (where she"s from), they said it wasn"t poetry unless it rhymed. So then I didn"t know if I wanted to be a writer, but I liked writing and that was my reason for looking into schools with a strong English department."

According to Anne Prescott, an English professor and Renaissance literature specialist at Barnard College, learning how to write is one of the most important skills a student will learn by majoring in English.

"[English majors learn] how to write and [they gain] the intellectual flexibility that comes from reading a variety of texts with different attitudes towards life and from different cultures, past as well as present," Prescott said.

"An English major encourages the imagination, and the imagination is useful in virtually every part of life, even in the sciences." Contrary to popular belief, teaching is not the only career path for an English major. In fact, English is an extremely versatile major.

"That"s an illusion," Prescott said. "What can you do with an English major? The obvious answer is teach, but the secret is an English major can be used as the basis for so much else. There are some clear examples: law school, where knowing how to use language can help you get the criminal off or put the bad guys away."

"That"s not surprising, but what may come as news is the degree to which admissions committees for business and medical schools or banking firms downtown welcome literacy and look with favor on English majors, not just simply economics or biology majors."

This is the case for Riley, also a Latin American studies and economics minor. Upon graduation she hopes to find a career that will combine the skills she"s learned studying literature and business. She plans to look into positions with business news wires or in media relations.

"They have this poster up (in the English department) that says "Does Your Major Determine Your Career?," and I think English is one of the few majors you can use to answer yes or no," Riley said." It was easier to get internships in publishing or media than it would have been for some other majors, but I don"t think that it necessarily limits you to the literary world."

Most English departments will offer a range of classes, both lectures and seminars, on literature from all time periods. Beginning English majors will start off reading classic literature such as Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Chaucer.

"It"s important to start with the classics—Shakespeare and the Greek dramas—and also (to have) exposure to mythology," Udler said. "A lot of literature stems from it and being able to track back or at least compare the themes provides you with the necessary skills."

Some schools, depending on the programs, will allow students to focus on different literary time periods or other specialty areas like film, theatre or creative writing.

Although Udler plans to pursue a career in computers, she has decided to concentrate in theatre. Currently she works for a theatre agent designing websites, which she said, combines elements from both of her majors. Prescott adds a final note on the "pleasure" component of English.

 "Modern Americans like to think that something will be useful, and an English major is useful, but we shouldn"t forget that reading a variety of texts is a great pleasure.#

To see one of the career pathways for an English major turn to page 8.


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