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Davis, California

Saturday, September 18, 2021

Column: Major issues

I was in Berkeley last weekend and my somewhat douchey friend (a biochemistry major) started talking shit to the people in his study group.

“At least we’re learning something useful. What do English majors do? Write compare-and-contrast essays on Shakespeare? How’s that supposed to help the world?”

The study group guffawed appreciatively, but I kept silent, out of respect for my friend’s manhood. In any case, I had to catch the shuttle back to Davis.

Another time, I was sitting in a barbershop, chatting with an elderly Asian man. The man asked me what I was studying, and I said “English.”

His smile went 180, and he simply said, “That’s weird. You seemed like a smart kid.”

As evinced by those interactions, being an English major is difficult in its own right. I brace myself whenever people ask me what my major is, not because I’m ashamed of my chosen field, but because people make snap judgments and betray condescension strong enough to make my Smug Alert go haywire.

English majors are stereotyped as lazy and intellectually inferior, willing to trade a viable future for a four-year collegiate cruise. English is seen as simple, useless and a complete joke when stacked up against a “real major.”

To an extent, I can empathize with that stereotype. Fewer people pursue a degree in English, and consequently, the field’s not as competitive as it could be. The nature of the English curriculum is also more conducive to strong academic performance, as the grading scale is more subjective. In an English class, you can make multiple equally valid arguments. In science and mathematics, your answer is concretely categorized as right or wrong and the gray area for open interpretation is minimal to nonexistent.

However, the problems with the prevailing stereotype are legion, to say the least. People claim that English has no real-world applications and that it’ll be impossible for English majors to find a job once they finish college.

As an English major, you’re engaged nonstop in critical analysis and making connections. To quote novelist James Wood, literature makes us better noticers of life. It also makes us better writers, thinkers and communicators. Analyzing literature helps us understand the motivations of real-world interactions, as well as the importance of what’s said or not said.

After studying English for two years, I’ve become better at lying and shaping conversations through subtle differences in word choice and nonverbal cues. The ability to manipulate interactions and words is like having a second cock. Anytime you unleash your linguistic load, it’s the best.

You can’t tell me that my field is useless.

And you also can’t tell me that I’m doomed for entrenchment in the unemployment line because of my major. Statistics paint a lackluster picture, but they are misleading and easily rendered obsolete. Statistics attempt to categorize people as individual units, without considering external variables or distinct personality traits.

On your UC application, you had the chance to write a personal statement. It wouldn’t have been fair if admissions boards had decided to evaluate you solely on statistics. Maybe you were watching Titanic with your girlfriend the night before the SAT and she dumped you after you told her that Jack could’ve lived by making a raft of cadavers and stealing their residual warmth.

In a similar vein, it’s not fair to judge an English major on the sole basis of what they study. Yes, there are stupid and lazy people in the major and maybe one day they’ll formally recognize me as their king, but that’s beside the point.

I don’t take a critical stance against science majors by saying their field is predicated on nothing but rote memorization and mindless regurgitation, because thinking critically is also an important aspect of being a science major.

If you’re smart and capable, you’ll succeed regardless of what you study.

But that doesn’t mean you should shy away from judgment. Judgment draws the line between who sucks and who doesn’t, and it is therefore indispensable. But if you judge someone, judge them by who they are as an individual, not just by what they study.

Studying English isn’t lazy and intellectually inferior. Making a blanket judgment against it is.

BEN CHANG will engage you in awkward conversation at bcchang@ucdavis.edu.


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