October 18, 2017 | Feature
The English Major
What happens to a dream deferred?
I have few memories of what life was like during preschool. Of course, there are some that are more distinct than others—for example, peeing my pants during the Pledge of Allegiance, or openly asking my teacher why she was so fat (unfortunately for her, I had no filter in preschool). But there is one memory that stands out more than the rest. Even more than peeing my pants, even more than my teacher’s shocked, reddening face, I remember days I spent in the corner of the classroom, by the shelves, reading books.
I think that’s how my love for English began. Reading wasn’t a scholarly interest, a means to a career, or a concentration requirement—it was just fun. Writing, its close cousin, soon followed. So from preschool to middle school, college prep to AP, and eventually, graduation to move-in, love and passion were the sole reasons I continued to study English. As an added bonus, people seemed to like it when I wrote: My friends gushed about my short stories, teachers happily recommended me books, and my essays were often well received. I came to believe English would be a part of my future. Of course, I wasn’t sure what kind of role it would play—something to do with the government, maybe, I answered stuffily when people asked. Or working with the media. I didn’t want to seem like I had nothing pragmatic in mind. But in fact, that’s exactly where I was: trying to think of ways I could get paid for a simple love of reading and writing.
This was the mindset I had when I arrived at Brown. But after only a few days of settling in, I discovered something relatively absent from my high school experience: a seemingly insurmountable wall between those who majored in the humanities and those who majored in STEM. All my life, I had never given any validity to those labels. It didn’t seem necessary: My teachers and peers simply called me “smart” or “a good student.” My love for English was a trait, not a defining characteristic. I assumed that a school with a very publicly advertised open curriculum would only encourage that mindset.
But suddenly, loving English seemed to hold a lot more weight than it used to. I realized that I was nearing an age where hobbies were supposed to start translating into real, practical careers, but being a generally good student all my life, no one seemed to have thought it necessary to teach me how to do so. In many ways, I felt abandoned. To my alarm, without the encouragement of friends who liked my stories, and teachers who believed in me without question, I had little ability to believe in myself. And for the first time, I began to feel a strange distaste for something I loved.
A few months into college, English was no longer a hobby. It was 80 pages of reading per class, per day, long essays about things that often didn’t interest me, and worst of all, loneliness from writing in isolation, especially while seeing other freshmen study for a bio midterm in solidarity. Even worse, in this new college world that I was getting used to, being an English concentrator made me feel something I had never felt about my academics before: shame. My friends (and their parents) seemed embarrassed when I told them about my intended concentration. Soon enough, that embarrassment rubbed off onto me.
I remember the first of many times I would feel it. I was finishing my first midterm cycle, churning out more pages and quotes in a two-week period than I had in my entire life. As I printed out my last paper, exhausted but satisfied, I bumped into someone I had met the first week of school. She asked me what I was working on. I racked my brain for the least boring way to explain it and decided on, “a paper on the symbols of love and tragedy in Shakespeare.”
I will never forget her response, which I would hear some iteration of again and again in the months to follow: “Oh. You must’ve had fun with that!”
I wouldn’t have used to word “fun” to describe my anxious cramming and page flipping, but at that moment, I didn’t have the will to object anymore. I realized that the paper that I had spent hours on was not a midterm to her: it was child’s play.
There is a select group of majors associated with high-paying jobs, and English is not one of them. This concept is tacitly understood by most members of society growing up, but college may be one of the first spheres in which it is allowed to visibly manifest. From the 130 million dollar renovation of Barus and Holley to the casual way a freshman is encouraged to “just try” CS15, we are surrounded by subtle signs of what is profitable and what is not. I did not, and still don’t, fault any person who studies for a lucrative future. Financial strain was an unignorable presence in my teenage years, and I strongly believe that wanting a stable living is not a crime. But this belief, combined with my interests, only laid more turmoil upon me: I began to feel true guilt and fear of being unable to support my family if I chose to study English. For a long time, I thought I was taking some kind of high road, rejecting the cliche of “selling out” for the sake of my dream. But as my family took on more loans, and Brown’s tuition kept rising, I considered that maybe by concentrating in English, I wasn’t noble, principled, or even honest to my interests—I was just selfish.
Eventually, this insecurity transformed into defiance: I wanted to prove that studying English could be part of a productive and meaningful college life. I intentionally chose more tedious essay topics, committed to numerous extracurriculars and leadership positions, and pulled many completely unnecessary late nights in a show of bravado and confidence. But even then, it wasn’t enough—as a single person, I had no power to change the general understanding of what studying the humanities meant. In the end, the only thing I did was burn out.
Impostor symptom is a pandemic in elite institutions, and it may be overrepresented in majors that are not deemed “worthy” of respect. For a long time, I put all the blame on others. I despised the dismissal of humanities courses, the career fairs that never fit my interests, the awkward conversations with my parents, who began to fiercely push back. For many, the pressure is undeniable. There are huge incentives coming from the outside to change, to mold, to alter course, and though humanities concentrators may never know the pain of cramming for three STEM midterms at once, I guarantee that they are intimately acquainted with this existential ache. Many, by the halfway point of college, choose to end it. And I have no condemnation for that, either, because it was also part of my experience.
By the beginning of my sophomore year, the pressures to abandon English were mounting. Perhaps the biggest factor that enticed me to change was my newfound interest in law, which gave much more validation to my studies, at least in the eyes of others. Interestingly, after pushing myself so hard in so many other ways, respect seemed to come to me without my making any real change about myself. To this day, I find the sudden shift laughable, but a part of me also wonders if I’m secretly relieved to have found a new avenue to financial viability.
With this new label, “pre-law,” it was much easier to find reasons why I didn’t have to be an English concentrator anymore. There were endless ways to explain why another concentration would prepare me better for the law, why this English class could be replaced with that one in Political Science, why I would be happier in another field. I made up reasons to avoid the thing I used to love. But even in my anxiety, stress, and hatred for English, I couldn’t make the break.
I am a junior now. Concentration declarations were last April. I remember logging onto my ASK account, and for probably the hundredth time, someone asked me what my concentration was.
Why do you want to become an English major, it prompted. Why did you make this choice?
I thought of all the blatant disregard for my work. I thought of the friends I would never take classes with, our education divided by a simple choice of concentration. I thought of my parents, still calculating tuition to the dollar and now pressuring me to go to Wall Street instead. Then I thought back to the bookshelves in the corner of my preschool classroom.
And like I always have, and maybe always will, I began to write.