Wednesday, March 14, 2012
Being an English Major
After this semester I have two more courses and then I'll have completed my B.A. in English. I'm three classes away from each of my minors, but that's about half the work left. Finishing my Bachelor of Arts though (at least my major part)? I could not be more proud.
The strange thing about majors is that by the time you feel like you're in the midst of it, you're almost done. This Shakespeare course is by far my most challenging yet (and yes, I'm writing this blog post to avoid working on a paper for said class...).
My paper is on a small scene from Richard II and has to explain why this seemingly insignificant scene actually holds great significance for the play. Writing papers on Shakespeare is a double-edged sword: you could literally write on anything. You could create an entire dissertation off of one act in a play and easily write a paper on one scene. The language is so rich that it leaves a multitude of avenues to search.
That's the problem though, because since you can write on anything, it's horribly stressful to narrow your focus. Also, you're turning in a paper to a brilliant professor who can smell your bullshit all the way from Wisconsin. This professor is the first one since my freshman year I've respected to the point of mild fear.
I complimented her on her Vera Bradley bag and informed her about the Vera Bradley expo held annually in Indiana and her whole face lit up. It gave me way too much satisfaction to tell her about a purse sale. I am brilliant at bs-ing but I find it hard to bs Shakespeare. It's easy to get carried away and lose sight of your thesis.
This brings me to my main point: what does it take and mean to be an English major?
Most will ask you, "Oh, so you want to be a teacher?" When you calmly explain that you hate children and have no patience for lack-luster writing, they look at you like you're insane...which you are. Why would you chose a major with such a broad career path coming along with your diploma? Great question.
My major has taught me more than how to write an analytical or argumentative paper (DSHA high school did that amazingly for me already, thank you very much) or carry on a forty minute discussion of so-and-so's motives in the multilayer plot.
Not that I can't do these things though; I can write brilliant papers over two days and squeeze out a decent one in a matter of hours. I've learned plenty in the fiction writing realm that has helped craft and mold my writing more than I could have ever achieved on my own. I can do close-reading, tie books together across decades and genres, understand poetry relatively well, analyze and critique my own writing, and annotate the shit out of books.
At the end of the day though, these skills will not make you a successful English major. As horrible as it sounds, the key to being a great English major rather than a good one is your ability to adapt. You need to be able to change and do a little song and dance at the drop of a hat.
For Creative Writing:
You cannot develop too close of an attachment to your creative writing or you'll die in critiques. Workshops are a helpful tool and the more you scoff at them, the stupider you'll appear to be in front of your classmates. Creative Writing classes are a vicious place filled with people who are in constant competition with you. A good teacher will keep this at a minimum, but most have their own inflated egos about which to be concerned.
Don't be too kind in workshops for others. Your honesty is as valuable as theirs. Saying however, "Your writing sucks, what the fuck is wrong with you?!" would not fall under the category of "constructive." Acting like you know what you're talking about is not enough; be knowledgeable about the craft of writing so your critiques won't be shit. If you're a pansy people won't respect you and if you're an ass, you'll be shredded once it's your turn.
Most importantly, focus on the teacher's criticism above all (unless you're convinced they're an insane dick, which in that case you're kinda fucked) since they are most likely in the Writer's Workshop if you attend Iowa or at least in a writing graduate program. These programs are beyond subjective and egotistical, so if your instructor can survive that without raging alcoholism, it's likely they know what the fuck they're doing.
For Period Classes:
By this, I mean Renaissance, Old-English, Victorian, and whatever shit James Joyce comes out of...yeah. Chances are you'll hate one or a few of these types of literature. Main obstacle of these classes? They are required and you are thus required to give at least a slight fuck. Don't take a class titled The Canterbury Tales if you hate that shit since you will be expected to give a huge fuck. If you don't? Suffer through generic Old-English classes, where you can gloss over your hated for those God-awful tales.
Also, if you hate classic--and thus supposedly brilliant--authors, keep your mouth shut in the classroom. Want to ostracize yourself? Then speak up, my dear. Otherwise, play along. No one want to hear you say that you hate James Joyce and think he's an arrogant prick. And guess why? Because he's famous and you're not. You're also not a professor and thus anything you say is considered sub par. Of course there will be that one ass in your course who will beat the crap out of you every time you speak, so don't give needless ammunition.
Never ever pretend you're an expert on the time period because you're not. You won't impress your professor; you'll seem like a stereotypical asshole hipster English major know-it-all. We all learn this the hard way at one point or another and it's a huge blow to your writing self-esteem when you realize you're not the shit.
Any Other English Course:
The key to surviving English classes is being able to mold your writing style to that of your instructor's. Your professor keeps stressing a certain point that they have in some article in some literary journal you'll most likely never read? Find a way to sneak it into your paper. Professors love nothing more than to have their egos stroked and reading their words regurgitated but restyled slightly is like a sick English-gasm for them. For real, it's kinda gross how much they crave that intellectual stimulation.
Papers matter...and they don't. The bulk of your grade will be determined by this unless you have some awesomely easy class with a huge participation percentage. Yeah, you can get away with writing a paper the night before, especially if you already know what you will write about. There are few things more painful than pulling shit out of your ass and it gets tiresome. So if you have no idea what to do, don't be an idiot. You'll hate yourself when you get it back and want to yell back at the teacher's comments on your paper.
Above all, accept a lot of your peers outside of your major will not respect you. You gain life skills you'd never expect in English classes, but they don't know that. You can argue your way through the most ridiculous circumstances, convince people of significance that does not exist, and become the ultimate people-pleaser. It's not about selling out, it's about survival. And if you make it though an English major, I think you've survived a hell of a lot, especially if you come out of it with a bit of your sanity and not too many damaging addictions.
Anyways, that's my advice and outlook on being an English major not only at University of Iowa, but pretty much any liberal arts college I'm assuming. And being a semester from finishing my major does feel sweet...even if I don't know how the fuck to crank out this Shakespeare paper...
Sorry in advance, professor.