English Majors vs. Park Benches, or Further Adventures in Myth Busting

In continuing the discussion initiated by Laura Kopchick on “myths” surrounding literary studies and writing, I turn my attention to myths about English majors.

English majors are, of course, the butt of many jokes in contemporary culture.

Q: What’s the difference between an English major and a park bench?

A: A park bench can support a family of four.

Storyteller Garrison Keillor has made jokes about English majors a staple in his weekly radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, including a running bit about the Professional Organization of English Majors (POEM). (You can get a taste of the humor here, sign up for the Facebook group here, and buy some paraphernalia here.)

Jim Harrison’s 2008 novel, The English Major, recounts the story of a 60-year-old former English major, then English teacher, then farmer, who embarks upon a cross-country trip in search of the meaning of life.

The Washington Post review of the book states: “In one of the more ludicrous scenes, Cliff meets a 21-year-old waitress who agrees to take off her clothes for $300, if he’ll keep a distance of at least 10 feet. ‘You might be a farmer,’ she says, ‘but I bet big money you were an English major in college.’” Apparently even in works of literature, English majors get played for laughs.*

The two most common myths – and fodder for humor – about English majors are, I believe:

English majors are only trained how to lay around and read novels, and therefore have no marketable skills and will never get good (read: high paying) jobs.

English majors are shy, socially inept individuals with few actual life experiences or any measure of street savvy, who tend to live only in their minds or the books they read, essentially disconnected from reality.

The first myth is easy enough to discount. There have been many studies about the fact that the critical thinking and careful reading skills that are cultivated in English classes (and, liberal arts courses more generally) are precisely the ones that employers look for. English majors reportedly do remarkably well in both law school and medical school because they know how to pay attention to details and put information in context. As digital media continues to expand as a viable career option, the composition, technical, and technological abilities that English majors have will also continue to be valued and sought out. And, while the stereotype is that English majors “only” have the skills to become teachers, being a teacher and particularly an English teacher is still a personally rewarding and socially important job to hold (says this English teacher).

It is true that, for the most part and against pressure from college administrations, English departments tend to treat the study of literature, composition, rhetoric, creative writing, and digital media as subjects in and of themselves – rather than skill sets designed to guarantee that students get jobs. But, that doesn’t mean the skills aren’t gained and then implemented in post-graduate employment. (Anyone interested in learning more about what UTA English majors do upon graduation should attend an event hosted by the English Department in Spring 2010, featuring some of our alums discussing their employment experiences.)

As for the myth that English majors are people whose inner lives are shaped by their reading and writing, who stand at a bit of a distance from the real world, and perhaps are more likely to relate to the characters in books than the people around them … well, I have to admit that I think it is a myth with some basis in reality. However, I’m not sure it is a problem. Instead, I believe that being capable of entering into a fictional world, or appreciating the complex imagery of a poem, or authoring your own original work of fiction or poetry, or identifying social themes in film, television, or theater … or any of the other abilities that English majors develop over the course of their undergraduate careers, bring their own rewards, not necessarily ones recognized by our contemporary society, but ones that the writers that we love have been celebrating and cultivating for centuries.

* The review is quoted on the Amazon page for the novel.

— Desiree Henderson


  1. I loved that Desiree!!! (says the former English major // English grad student // English professor) You neglected to mention, however, how incredibly useful the skills of close attention to language and critical thinking are if one happens to find oneself on a witness stand, required to respond to questions from an oppositional attorney. I think that was the moment (for me) that I felt the deep pragmatism (if such a thing exists) of English Studies!

  2. Many myths abound on the lives of creative writers. Popular films focus on narrow aspects of creative writer’s lives: Plath (the plot culminates from breakdowns to suicide), Tom and Viv (Viv’s institutionalization from her husband and the final image evoking his coming breakdown), and Wonder Boys (the chaotic behavior of Grady Tripp).

    All characters mentioned above are products of myths about English literature education & depict former English majors as ill-adjusted citizens: those that become writers themselves.

    Creative writers bring their own versions of these myths into the classroom: Poe, Berryman, Lowell, Ginsberg, Sexton, Crane, Rimbaud, to name a few. It takes time in class to dispel the myth of the frenzied artist.

    There are many more examples of well-adjusted creative writers, but these stories do not make it as well into the popular culture of film.

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