My English Degree Broke Me, But I Can Fix It!

As I may have mentioned, I recently earned my Bachelor’s degree primarily in English Literature. There were many points throughout my undergraduate career where I realized this was a poor choice for me, mostly because of where I chose to study it. While UMass is a great school for engineering, computer science, business, and any field that actually generates money, the English program wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. Of course, the year after I graduate, the program moved to a shiny new building and out of the condemned, climate-confused Bartlett Hall. But that’s not really the issue here.

The issue I had with my English lit education is that its primary role in certain cases was not to encourage critical thought, but to lecture students on how and what to think. At least, that’s how I perceived it, and therefore that’s what I got out of it.

Unfortunately I have the annoying inability to remember full scenes (which makes writing creative nonfiction interesting), but a strong example of this stands out and continues to bother me. It was a class called Victorian Monstrosities, taught by an old guy who was really into his own ideas. Quintessential English professor (you know, the kind that use the word “pedestrian” as an adjective). This class was one of many situations in which I felt like the weird kid left out of an inside joke that everyone else understood. I don’t remember what he said, but the way he spoke about the things we read was mind-numbing at best. After a while, I gave up on trying to read and understand the books myself and just wrote essays out of my notebook. I wrote three different essays on the same paragraph of “She” and still got B’s on all of them.

What really turned me on to the issue here, and in turn broke me, was one of the papers I got back. I don’t remember what it was about, and I’m sure it’s long since disappeared. But I remember feeling like I had done well on it because I had put a lot of thought into it. I remember feeling proud of the analyses I made and the effort I had put into writing them. However, when I read his comments, I remember that the majority of what I saw was him crossing out my words and inserting his own words, which were just more complicated forms of saying the same thing I had said. That’s when I realized that all I needed to do in order to ace this guy’s class was use his buzzwords in my essay. So I did, and it worked perfectly. That, my friends, is what broke me.

This is the exact opposite of what an English education is supposed to do. But as a result of this kind of learning, I became less argumentative and more submissive to the whims of lecturers. No wonder reading and creative writing were so painful for me for such a long time, I was always being told in school that I was wrong. And as a neurotic perfectionist, being wrong is as good as being sentenced to death.

But I’m starting to learn. I can acknowledge now that I am a more critical thinker than I was in high school. I can read a book and instead of simply saying that I liked it, I can identify what I liked and why the author made those choices. The thing is, though, I didn’t come to this realization until six months after I graduated. That’s because education is a process, a slow gradual climb toward something that’s, in theory, better than what you started with. And I learn better by experiencing things, not by having an old guy in a bow tie write “good job” when I use his words in an essay on Heart of Darkness.

Maybe I’m slow, or stupid, or just not as good as everyone else. But I’m learning, and in the end that’s what counts. Even if I never get into an MFA program, I don’t ever want to stop learning.

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