February 15, 2019 Sarah E Merryman
It’s time to answer “The Question”: What is the point of an English degree?
When faced with this query, English majors sometimes find it difficult to verbalize the value of their education. That’s where ENGLISH 39900: Beyond English comes into play. This capstone course is designed to answer “The Question,” and all the other pesky uncertainties English majors face on a daily basis. The course is broken up into distinct segments, each designed to help students better understand where they fit in the world as English majors. Writing exercises help them articulate their interests, the readings showcase the many different ways English skills apply in the workforce, and peer discussions build up confidence.
So, was the class helpful? Here’s what three students have to say.
English Literature Major Dance Minor
Grace describes Beyond English as a space to discover how English applies to real life. She loved the diversity of the readings, with materials ranging from news articles, such as “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous,” to novellas like The Little Prince. However, it was the commencement speeches by notable figures such as J. K. Rowling that Grace enjoyed the most, because they explored ways her degree could open doors later in life.
Every unit of the course offered Grace something useful. She gained resume writing and networking skills, discovered ties between her major and minor, and even learned tips for “adulting.” Beyond English gave her the language to explain her major to skeptics and helped her take pride in her studies; she now has a fuller appreciation of how English promotes empathy, creativity, and perspective-taking.
Scattered throughout the course were writing assignments such as journaling and creating career maps. These exercises helped students consider what they wanted out of life and brainstorm ways to get there. Like many of her classmates, Grace’s path to English started in a completely different major. She began in Management, but, eventually, switched to English. Journaling allowed Grace to reflect on her journey at Purdue and to map out potential paths for her future.
In addition to being reading-intensive, Beyond English was very discussion-based. Every student had to contribute to the daily conversation, and, with only 11 students in the class, no one held back. Everyone enjoyed the honesty of the discussions and shared their thoughts without judgment.
However, the highlight of the course was a visit by Purdue English alumni Kristi Brown, Project Manager at Capital Program Management. Kristy had worked her way into the construction business from the ground up. She shared that knowing how to learn and taking the initiative to teach herself propelled her into important roles, such as managing the State Street Project and the construction of the new arch in front of Purdue Memorial Union – all without an engineering degree. According to Grace, Kristi’s experiences revealed the vast opportunities available to English majors. “[T]he English major is not a linear career path,” Grace says, “If we wanted a linear career path we would be in Engineering . . . I think that is what attracted me the most because I have so many options.” Although she intends to pursue graduate school in communication and dance, Grace isn’t ruling out other careers now that she knows, “If I want to, I can also lead a huge city project.”
Filled with dreaming and planning in equal measure, Beyond English offers a judgement-free space for English majors to assess where they are and where they want to be. Grace’s advice to students? “Be willing to find yourself within the course, and find your passions, and find where your future could lie.”
English Literature and Professional Writing Major
Political Science and Theater Minor
Liz Walker entered Beyond English discouraged and frustrated. Constantly trying to prove the value of English to others had left her disheartened, and the negativity was taking its toll. After three years of people questioning her major, she had started to doubt herself: “Had majoring in English been the right choice?”
Although she was initially skeptical, Beyond English turned out to be the right experience at the right time. Liz credits the course’s more philosophical readings, like “What Is the Point of College?,” with getting her back on track. She also credits the class with revamping her love of English and effecting a tangible change in her mentality. Looking at the bigger picture reminded her that the purpose of college is more than just landing a job. It is also about learning and growing as a person.
Liz recommends Beyond English because it helped her realize that there is no one definition of success, and that life does not transition predictably from point A to point B. Until her junior year, Liz had her life neatly mapped out with the intention of becoming a lawyer. It wasn’t until after attending a law seminar that she realized law was not the career for her. “Life is very fluid, and it’s not linear” she says. She admits to initially having a hard time grasping this, but that Beyond English helped her come to terms with it. The course provided Liz with practical tools to market her skills to the fullest extent. Participating in required Center for Career Opportunities (CCO) events offered her experiences she would not have pursued otherwise. She also found the down-to-earth advice in Adulting: How to Become a Grownup in 535 Easy(ish) Steps useful.
Liz also enjoyed the course’s different thematic sections. One section focused on the purpose of life, or as Liz put it, “being a basic human being.” Another delved into the practical questions every English major worries about: How can you use your degree? What place does Liberal Arts have in a tech-based society? How does the study of English fit into the modern world? A third looked toward the future: What comes after college? What does adulting look like?
“It was a unique class,” Liz says, “because even though it did deal with deeper theories and concepts . . . it was very relationship-based.” She enjoyed hearing from her peers and forging close relationships with them. Talking with other English majors reassured her that she was not the only one worried about the future. Months later, Liz and her classmates still chat over GroupMe and are trying to start a book club. Although she is still unsure where life is heading, Liz is okay with that. She no longer feels the need to justify herself to others: “I feel like I’m leaving Purdue very confident in my abilities.”
English Literature Major
For Rachel Muff, the highlight of Beyond English wasn’t just the content; it was also the people she got to know, starting with the class instructor. “[Prof. Pacheco] puts a lot of himself into the class and he encourages, like, a comfortable atmosphere . . . he makes it feel casual without being unprofessional.” This made it easy to for Rachel to get to know her peers to the point where she feels like she “could pick out a present for every single person in that class.” As a non-traditional student, she was inspired by the excitement of this new generation.
The course readings were another source of inspiration for Rachel. She especially loves this quote from Martha Nussbaum’s book, Cultivating Humanity:
“A child deprived of stories is deprived, as well, of certain ways of viewing other people. For the insides of people, like the insides of stars, are not open to view. They must be wondered about. And the conclusion that this set of limbs in front of me has emotions and feelings and thoughts of the sort I attribute to myself will not be reached without the training of the imagination that storytelling promotes.”
Filled with texts like this, the course helped Rachel articulate the value of reading, writing, and interpreting stories. The same skills needed to tell a story are also extremely valuable in the workforce. Employers want workers who connect with other people, and are disciplined, self-reflective, and able to take criticism – all skills found in English majors.
Prior to Beyond English, Rachel didn’t know what she wanted in a career. But, after spending the semester discussing the readings with her classmates, exploring career paths through research exercises, and verbalizing her experiences through a group podcast project, she emerged with a clearer understanding of her career interests. Rachel is currently applying for a marketing positions at the Wildlife Habitat Council and Utah Department of Natural Resources. She is also exploring the possibility of writing for medical journals. Rachel’s career interests are diverse, but she feels confident about her prospects and she expects that her classmates feel the same. “I think everyone walked out of that class with a higher self-esteem,” she said, “Everyone loved that class.”