The Evolving English Degree (I.E. What you *can* do with a BA in English)

A long time ago (2007) in a community college far away (about 20 minutes from my house), I took a class trip to attend a Broadway production of Avenue Q. The opening number of the play was “What do you do with a B.A. in English?” Given that I was about to finish my associate degree in English I found this song highly amusing, partly because it was true…at the time the play debuted.

The truth is I’m not a big fan of the classic English degree. I, a holder of a B.A. in English, should clarify. I hate the English Literature degree. When I was finishing my community college days (I was a “attend community college for two years then transfer to a four-year school” student) I realized that, while I enjoyed reading old books and writing papers on them, I was not getting any real world skills. Unless you want to become a literature professor, knowledge of Chaucer and Melville will not help in a workplace setting. I wanted to continue developing my writing skills; however, I did not want to spend my valuable class time sitting in a circle talking about old books. I could attend a book club instead and save thousands of dollars.

Fortunately for people like me, colleges are seeing the need for non-literature based English classes. Writing as a professional skill is actually rather critical in the workplace. Mainly because of the following adage:

When writing skills are needed, it is often a lot easier to teach a writer (technical/business/niche workplace skill) than it is to teach (technical/business/niche workplace) people how to write.

The University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) happens to be one such college. Their English degree consists of two mutually exclusive tracks: an English literature track, and a communications and technology track which develops skills applicable for both print and electronic media. Media students will use in the workplace. Going to UMBC and getting an English degree on the latter track was an easy choice for me. I found writing about the latest trends in technology infinitely more useful than writing about old books. Colleges all over the country are implementing similar additions to the English major. Additions reflecting the need to develop writing skills that directly apply to workplace settings. Considering the new challenges and opportunities in image brought forth by online and  social media, these additions are critical.

So when I say I have an English degree I mean just that – an English degree, not an English Literature degree. My workplace toolkit is not The Divine Comedy. I actually don’t have much classic literature experience at all. The English degree I hold is adaptable, it allows me to write my way into a job. Literally. My first real (and still current as of this writing) job after college involves maintaining a website for a medical device business. Although I did not know anything about medical equipment when I started, within a month I knew everything I needed to know because of the writing and analytical skills I developed. Now I can tell you how to hook up an ECG, or the difference between a otoscope and opthalmoscope. And all the while I write to convince doctors and healthcare professionals that they should buy this cool equipment from the company I work for. Obviously my medical experience does not permit me to perform an exam or open heart surgery. I am not a highly trained healthcare professional that attended years of brutal medical school. I simply fill a niche, yet essential role.

And there are tons of those roles out there. It is what technical writers do.

That is the awesome thing about being a technical writer. I can adapt. I wield a mean pen and do not need to quote ancient authors. I am not sure where my future careers will take me, though I am confident that I will be able to write my way into an enjoyable position. I acknowledge that on the grand scale of college degree usefulness English Literature is not bottom of the barrel. However, I will argue that an English Literature degree is archaic in today’s digital age. The English degree will always continue to be relevant as it quietly adapts to a constantly changing world. Eventually, the world will begin seeing this.

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2 Comments

Filed under Technical Writing, Writing

2 responses to “The Evolving English Degree (I.E. What you *can* do with a BA in English)

  1. I like your thoughts on combining the practical (“real world skills”) with the skills learned from a Literature degree. There are many proponents of both sides of this, and I am one who believes that both are needed to be an effective communicator—technical or otherwise. I also like your italicized quote “When writing skills are needed, it is often a lot easier to teach a writer than it is to teach people how to write.”

  2. Pingback: Unlearning the Essay | Ars Arcanum

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