What are you going to do with that English major anyway?

I was talking to a colleague last night and somehow we ended up talking about a class he took for his Ph.D. I’ll tell you right now that if I had to learn about the history of rhetoric in the early middle ages, I’d probably chew my own arm off.

I’ve never wanted to get a Ph.D. Too much work, too much time, too much obsession. I got my MFA, which I mostly loved, and never looked back. But I think about my own choices when talking to my colleague. Or one of my buddies at the residency who was asking me what I thought about Ph.D.s.

“It’s not good for the writing,” I said.

“But I love the idea of spending all that time studying a topic,” said one of the other residents.

“But what do you want to do?” I asked the first resident.

“Teach. And write.” she said.

The odds of getting a full-time teaching job with a Ph.D. in English are brutal. You think teaching is a cush job, and it used to be. Lord knows Paternal Clause lived a pretty good life as a professor (although, I’ll be frank, it would have been a lot closer to the wire if my mother didn’t come from money, but that’s another story for another time). But universities are going to a corporate model. They are slashing jobs with benefits and are instead hiring adjuncts without benefits to teach one or two classes.

The adjuncts in turn have to work at a bunch of institutions to survive. They have no job security, no respect, no sabbaticals to work on their own projects, no health insurance. They go on welfare, they are evicted from their homes, they are barely holding on, or not holding on at all.

I have a few friends who have tenure or tenure-track jobs. I am immensely proud of them. I have all too many friends who teach at a bunch of places. DP has health insurance through his college, but only because he is grandfathered in. And they recently upped the number of credits for his classes without giving him an increase in pay. My grad school still pays the same amount for teaching one class that they did when I graduated in 2003. In case you are bad at math, as I am, that was ten years ago. Ten years.

This system is a mess. The students I work with didn’t even know what adjuncts were when I started raving about it last night. It’s the parents who pay for educations who have the upper hand. So my goal is to babble about it a lot to my student colleagues and get them all up in arms, or at least aware. We’ll see.

What did you do with that English major?

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14 responses to “What are you going to do with that English major anyway?

  1. It was a minor. I followed up with a Bachelor Education because it was only one more year. Not that I would ever become a teacher. No way. (or at least that’s what I told my 21 year old self)

  2. I was a Music Ed major, switched to English Ed, and upgraded to an MLS after a year of subbing. Much happier now, plus I get a living wage.

    I don’t understand a society that is disappointed in the basic education levels of the future generations, and yet refuses to offer respect or competitive wages to the people who teach those generations, and sees nothing wrong in funneling the majority of college income into athletics instead of, say, academics.

    (when i saw the title of this post, I immediately thought: “Marry them—they’ll starve on their own.”)

  3. I was originally a business major, because I knew from the start that I’d need a job that could pay the bills. This was born out of a very simple desire to work in air-conditioning while sitting down, in an office where I could wear pantyhose and afford lunches out and write stuff. This dream came true, though I worked like mad and had no life.

    I didn’t become an English major until I went back to finish my undergrad in my 30’s, after I’d married a man with kids who needed me to stay home with them. I was only able to indulge my love of books and non-business writing when I didn’t need a job to pay the rent. I would have never, in a zillion years, considered being an English major or teaching as a 20 yr old — I knew there was no money, no security, that I’d starve to death. And I’d already done enough starving.

  4. Did you know that I was an English major? For exactly a year! That was before I dropped out. But, like Carolynnwith2ns, I also did me one. That’s Prof Clause. He’s HOD now. Yeah, English. But we had to move all the way to X for such employment bliss. X, on the other hand, is the coolest country in the world, so no looking back. But I do miss you and wish you were here too.

    • Your mother was going to be an English major until she had to study Milton’s (or was it Pope’s?) prose. At least that’s what she told me when I declared my major.

      True story: I used to be pretty proud when I beat said English Major in Scrabble when I was a wee lass. It didn’t happen very often, even though English is Mr. Cougar’s second language.

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