There are a few things that pop into my mind as soon as someone says this to me. Some of them are possibly too indecent for a university blog. To be clear, it’s when this question is paired with a smirk, a roll of the eyes, or a scoff, that I get a little irritated. Of course, if someone asks me this question because they are genuinely confused about what an English student’s day looks like, or if they’re genuinely curious about it, I’m more than happy to answer. I’m an English major, how could I not answer in writing?
A confession: English majors do read a lot of “books” (usually people assume these to be fictional novels, and they quite often are, but not always). That isn’t all that we do though. Speaking from personal experience, I shift between wanting to read all day and not being able to, or, having to read all day and not wanting to. Another confession: English majors love to find a paradox in everything.
I’ve discovered that I became an English Language and Literature student because I love to read, and even when I don’t necessarily want to do it, I still love it. How is that for a paradox?
In one of my very first English classes at Carleton, a professor told me that when (notice: not if) you struggle to explain to others what you’re studying, just be honest and say: English students study texts. Seemingly simple. General. Broad. The answer is not meant to be transparently clear. This is because the discipline not only studies freedom of expression, but is freeing itself.
Studying English doesn’t just mean reading Jane Austen, although that can be important too. Studying English might allow you to discover elements of warrior culture around the 5th or 6th century by analyzing Beowulf. How does that reflect on modern capitalism in the West? What are the implications of tracing how the hero figure has changed over time and across space? What if we view the hero figure with an intersectional feminist lens? Studying English means examining political documents to understand how language can oppress people. We discover the past and interrogate how it has been constructed, and what that means for today and what it might mean for tomorrow. We read about people who are not ourselves and build empathy for them. Studying English has taught me that the English canon itself can be problematic in the way that it places at its center white, patriarchal, Anglo-Saxon narratives. In English, you’re allowed to call the discipline itself out. You’re actually encouraged by your professors to do so.
Studying English is being able to look at a text, and perhaps beyond texts at every encounter we have with others, to understand what’s being said, what’s not being said, and what should be said.
I return to the question: “So, you just read books all day?” Perhaps the most truthful way to answer is to document some of the thoughts I've had throughout my day as an English major:
I need another cup of tea.
I’m reading 4 different novels at the same time. Help.
*while in the shower* That thesis statement I made for Professor ----‘s class is definitely too broad.
Why do I have “cat, sandwich, barn” written in my notes app? I feel like it was important…Why would that be important?
This writing workshop is seriously healing. Why does it have to end?
Why does this syllabus not have any women writers?
Brit Lit. Brit Lit. Brit Lit.
Another group essay?!
SkipTheDishes tonight? *checks bank account* Maybe not.
I have 3 papers due this week, and none of them are for my English classes. How is that possible?
Chimamanda Adichie is amazing.
What even is an essay? Really?
I’ve watched films in English as “texts” to study. I’ve listened to my peers stumble as they attempt to read Old English aloud, all of us ending in fits of warm-hearted laughter. Being divided into small discussion groups is common. Context also means a lot, so we study a lot of history. Once, for a group project in my Canadian Literature class, my group created fake passports for our classmates to represent the people that migrated from Ireland to Canada in the mid-19thcentury. I’ve attended spectacular plays at the National Arts Centre as part of a Theatre workshop. I could go on for longer, but I won’t.
I don’t want to make any other (non-English) majors jealous.
Actually, as I come to the end of third year, I’m realizing how much I’ll miss being an English undergrad at Carleton. Perhaps that’s why I’m trying to document what it’s like to be one.
After going on a tangent, telling many stories, and topping it off with a declaration of my love for my major, in typical English-student style, I’ve somehow managed to not directly answer the question if we read books all day. Perhaps you can come up with your own answer.
After all, there’s nothing like a good cliff-hanger.
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