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Literary Conversations

English degrees, what are they good for?

by Jessica Harrington

I have often wondered if creativity is something one inherits, as they would a late grandmother’s ring, from the previous generation or is something we are genetically born with, like a small stature or pale skin. Is it that a creative persons brain perceives things in such a way that their imagination is on continuous over-drive, or is it a skill we are taught like addition and subtraction? For me I feel it is a mixture of inheritance and genes. My mother was an artist and poet, my grandmother a beautiful writer, my uncle an amazing musician and songwriter. I have learned from all of them, yet I knew I was like them since I was a child, always creating and expressing myself through written words. Writing has always just been something I have done; I have never had to work at it the same way as I do with math and science. This natural “talent” has dictated my academic ventures, pushing me to major in English, a degree most seem to view as useless as a bathing suit in a snowstorm. At first, I was surprised by people’s reactions, “Oh, an English major? But what do you plan on doing for a career, are you going to teach?”, “Oh, a writer huh? Good luck with that.” I now expect the concern, confusion, and scoffs as to why I spend so much time and money on pursuing the academics of a subject that, according to the naysayer’s, surely promises a bleak existence post-graduation. I could not disagree more; I see my only problem lying in choosing what direction to go once I graduate. I can pursue law, business, editorial work, publishing, marketing, or, like many writers dream, spending months at a lake house in my office, with views of the breathtaking landscapes, writing another best selling novel. Ha! If life could only be so perfect. I will most likely work for a publisher and write for myself in my free time, an existence I think I can cope with. In the meantime, I am thankful for the good fortune I’ve had in being able to learn from professors I have great admiration for and they are the ones who are helping me become a writer, the writer I aspire to be. They hone my skills, help me organize my thoughts, and teach me tricks of the trade to develop my craft further. Although my creativity has always been present, many of my classmates have not had such an easy road. The same professors that have helped refine and improve my ideas have helped other students figure out how to come up with ideas, guiding them in how to draw inspiration and feel emotion. A good analogy would be that an English professor is similar to a Sherpa, the first guiding their students up the mountain of literature and creation, the latter up the peaks of the Himalayas, both being long journeys requiring the knowledge of a wise, experienced person. Despite the valuable lesson these professors can provide, I would not call it teaching creativity, it is more like helping students discover their creative sides. Whatever you future goals may be though, an English degree is a good place to start. To quote an article I cannot remember the title or author of, English degrees teach students how to think, a trait that is highly desirable to future employers.

About The Haberdasher

Created by writers for writers, The Haberdasher, or le Hab, is your Peddler of Literary Art for Northern California and beyond. In addition to writing tips and literary debates, we also feature critical reviews and author interviews.


6 thoughts on “English degrees, what are they good for?

  1. They’re apparently not good for making $$$:

    Posted by KK | January 23, 2012, 5:25 pm
    • KK, I think English major’s could change the game, and equalize the playing field if they work hard enough. There are markets out there that haven’t been explored with ingenuity yet. Back in the 20s and 30s Americans use to eat up Pulp Fiction (fiction printed on cheap paper), and sold it for a dime, a quarter, etc.. Today, we have a medium at our disposal which is cheaper than any type of paper. We have Kindles, and Nooks! In order to create a market for “Pulp Fiction” printed for Kindles and Nooks, we’d have to realize what steps we need to take, and purse the cultivation of a market that takes pride in original work (the kind of narrative that you can’t find through cable, satellite, and internet).
      Another area where English majors may cultivate more opportunities for themselves is through local publications. There already exists a market for fresh, locally grown produce in Chico, so why not fresh, locally grown fiction, poetry, and prose? Sure, we have the CN&R, the enterprise record, the Orion, and the Roadrunner, but those or platforms that support journalists. We need something similar for writers, and English majors. We also need to realize that it takes more hustle to sell our goods and services, then just starting a blog, or opening a books shop. We need to organize and cultivate our own symbiotic culture of writers, English majors, and people who need to read.

      Anyone have any other ideas?

      Posted by David Puerner | March 30, 2012, 8:00 pm
      • By creating more opportunities for literary discussions perhaps? Both online and in person. And by supporting local publications, like Empirical ( or California Northern Magazine ( Showing up for local literary events, whether at Lyons, Butte College, CSUC, the 1078 Gallery…. But, maybe that’s simply preaching to the converted, so to speak, rather than reaching out to “the people who need to read”? Interesting conundrum.

        Posted by The Haberdasher | April 2, 2012, 5:09 am
      • @ The Haberdasher

        Getting involved is definitely a first step. I’d never heard of Empirical, or CNM so thanks for the tip. I’d actually never began to get involved until this semester (unless you can count tumblr). I personally, am going to make an effort to support as many “literary minded” events in the future as I can, and you can call me on that when your club needs people to show up!
        In my intro to economics class last semester, they said “incentives work.” I’d hope that the “converted” would be eager to show up and participate in local events without anymore incentive then the notion that they’d be bettering themselves, and their community, but I’m not sure if that sentiment is shared ubiquitously. It took me a long time to realize that Chico had a somewhat thriving literary culture. I can think of two of my own friends who need to be “outed” so that they can start participating in their own hopes and dreams.
        Anyway, I was wondering if we could set up a competition in Chico? Maybe limit it to Butte College. Maybe have it as open as possible. I don’t know. But What if there was a prize incentive to having people write? Let’s say you guys put up a 50$ prize for a month long competition. You could have a 40$ first prize, 10$ second place, maybe a slew of honorable mentions who’s work you feature on The Haberdasher, I know I’d compete in something like that. You’d have to figure out how you are going to collect, and judge entries, but I’m sure you could figure that out. So, run the competition for a month, feature great entries on your blog, and take a step towards creating a microcosm of literary culture, and tradition in Butte. Why not?
        Some of the magazines I’m subscribed to charge people some money to submit their work for review. If you followed suit, and made the prize hefty enough to make entry look like a good gamble, then you could even use the competition as a fundraiser. When I checked in at your both a couple weeks back, the “attendant” (for lack of a better word) said that you were interested in maybe creating a physical publication. Maybe a competition could be a means to an end in that pursuit.

        Good luck with everything,
        David P

        PS- the incentive/prize might lure some never-before writers into giving it a shot! Also, the entry fee will make it so that people only submit their best work, and will limit the amount you’ll have to judge.

        PPS- please let me know what you think!

        Posted by David Puerner | April 2, 2012, 11:34 pm
  2. Can creativity be taught? Maybe not, but I do think it can be inherited. If we took a baby (this may be the tequila talking), and left it in a place where it could grow up free of human conditioning, we might see a very interesting creature. But whether or not that human was seen as being creative or not, would be up in the air.
    None of us grew up in a vacuum. We learned to navigate society, through conditioning, and then at a certain point through consciousness. The world that came before us is something we inherited. Isn’t it? Without the culture we grew up within, the history which lead to that culture, and the society we are reacting to now what would we be? Would we still be creative?
    I like the idea of the Sherpa. It feels right. They’re not teaching us how to be creative, they’re helping us learn to make an impact.

    Cesar Chaves once wrote that “After thirty years of organizing poor people I have become convinced that the two greatest aspirations of humankind are equality and participation.” I think this can be true for any major, or aspiring whatever, but especially for english majors. Now a days you hear so much about a “community” when it comes to writers, and I have only this semester taken any steps towards understanding what exactly that means. I’ve always been “creative” as well, but by participating in my own writing on a communal level, and by approaching all genres/authors/ideas with reserved judgments (maybe writer’s equality), I feel that my myriad Sherpas have lead me to a place where I feel excited.
    In a major where an outsider may condemn most of us to a bleak future of mediocrity, I think it’s important to feel excited. And really, it’s a body high isn’t it? maybe most of us create, participate, and commune because we’re all chasing a high that (for us) you couldn’t get anywhere else. We’re not planning careers from the starting gates, we’re placing some kind of “faith” in a culture we have been fortunate enough to inherit. We just landed in the right time in history for this to be an option.

    Posted by David Puerner | March 30, 2012, 8:14 am

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