The Myth Holding English Majors Back (Is Not What You Think)

Why most English majors self-sabotage their chances at a satisfying, lucrative career

There are plenty of myths being perpetually passed around the English department.

(And I don’t mean the kind that would excite Northrop Frye.)

These myths too-often form how English majors self-identify. You’re probably heard most of these this week:

  • “Want a job? Don’t study English!”
  • “English majors are bad at math.”
  • “English majors are snobs (and rightfully so)”
  • “All English majors are great at punctuation and grammar”

Those are all pretty annoying (especially the punctuation one – I love writing, but I’m an awful proofreader).

The most d***ing myth of all, though, is what attracts many of us to the field of English in the first place.

The Myth of the Lone Genius

Picture a writer. Now picture that writer working.

Did you imagine someone working alone? I did. When I think “writer”, I think of someone working alone in a dark room, sitting at a desk with a typewriter, some notes, and a single candle to light their work.

What I picture is an extreme cliche, but it’s also reflective of how a lot of English majors see themselves. The media supports the myth of the lone genius as well. (Just think of Dr. House, who is so good at what he does, he has license to be misanthropic. That’s basically how writers are often portrayed.)

cranky house

Because many of us are introverts, we seem to build this self-mythology that our skills and talents will someday be recognized for the greatness they are – naysayers be d***ed. We don’t need to sell out or even work for the support of anyone who doesn’t immediately “get it.”

Unfortunately, this is as dangerous as it is false.

As writer and artist Austin Kleon points out, even famed loner Emily Dickinson needed more than just her work:

Even Emily Dickinson needed to connect.

She just had to do it through words.

”Her letters are beyond brilliant,” Christopher Benfey, a Dickinson authority who teaches at Mount Holyoke College, told me, “and you can’t really understand her as a poet and a writer without seeing that she approached this form, alongside her poetry, with equal energy and commitment.”

Dickinson wrote poems for specific people in her life and mailed them — she even sent “more than two hundred letters and two hundred and fifty poems” to her sister-in-law Susan, “even though they lived next door to each other.”

Buying into this lone genius myth can lead us to believe we don’t need to learn collaborative skills. However, employers would rather have those who can navigate a workplace than those who are technically proficient at their jobs.

This Time article says it all:

As much as academics go on about the lack of math and science skills, bosses are more concerned with organizational and interpersonal proficiency. The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed more than 200 employers about their top 10 priorities in new hires. Overwhelmingly, they want candidates who are team players, problem solvers and can plan, organize and prioritize their work.

Wait, what?! Employers don’t want brooding, sullen writers whose genius is so powerful it demands to be recognized? They don’t want employees who can cynically pick apart why studying business is immoral? Who would have thought employers would want people who actually function well in group situations instead of the lone wolf.

Fortunately, the article notes, college students aren’t completely without hope:

One thing that does appear to make a difference is internships, according to a Harris Interactive survey of more than 2,000 college students and 1,000 hiring managers on behalf of textbook company Chegg: more than 80% of employers want new grads they hire to have completed a formal internship, but only 8% of students say interning in a field related to their major is something they spend a lot of time doing. Instead, the top extracurricular activities are hanging out with friends, working in an unrelated job and eating out.

(By the way, this statement is very close to the thesis of The English Major’s Guide to Getting a Job.)

The question then becomes this: if you’re an English major who wants to be employed someday, what are you going to do in your spare time to develop the “soft skills” employers want? How are you going to overcome the lone genius myth, embrace collaboration, and stop self-sabotaging your chances at a great career?

Better still, are you creative enough to write your own myth – one about an English major who is not only brilliant at writing or reading, but can expertly collaborate with colleagues?