In the Defense of English Majors
The long story on why I think people who study English and Literature can fix many of the problems we are currently and will continue to face in technology.
Back in the day, when I was a wide-eyed naïve freshman in college, I had big dreams of saving the world. I knew, or, so I thought, I would go to college, take it all in, move on to law school, and graduate into a role as a great defender of equitable public-school education by tackling education policy. Having always gravitated to the humanities, I declared my major in English and defended my decision with the notion that mastering language would allow me to understand, create, and dismantle arguments; ultimately preparing me for my future career. I believed law school would teach me everything I needed to be prepared for my profession and studying literature would prepare me for law school.
As an aspiring lawyer, it was a questionable argument, but it was sound enough for my parents to tag along with the idea. While they were hesitant, they figured it was a pretty decent plan since I had always been a reader and writer. However, they quickly became skeptical after the reactions they received from many of their friends when they told them their daughter was an English major. From the classic “ohhhhhhh good for her” (that really translated into “oh she’s not smart enough to be a doctor?”) or “well she’d make a great teacher” to even the bold few who went far enough to say, “just be sure she marries someone rich.” But the most audacious reaction come from a father of one of my brother’s classmates. When he asked what I was studying in college, I promptly and delightfully answered that I was an English major, to which he said in all seriousness, “then you’ll have learnt the most important question to ask people now, right?” When I looked a little confused, he responded with “would you like fries with that?” and laughed hysterically. I wasn’t sure if I was in shock or if it was years of my mom teaching me to be polite, respect my elders, and not to take anything someone dumb says seriously, but I just stood there without a single word. This English major, spending a fortune to be a first gen in the US college student, had no words.
That reaction however seems to be the reputation English majors have somehow acquired. I even found myself regretting my educational decisions constantly and wondering why I wasn’t a woman in science just to prove my worth. I started to qualify my decision with that ugly four-letter word: just. “I am JUST an English major, but I am planning on going to law school.” I would watch people's faces ride a visible emotional wave that would roll from “oh” to “oh wow” within seconds.
After graduating into a treacherous job market due to the recession, I spent a few years hustling in the ‘real world’ but ultimately decided to go back to graduate school, but it wasn’t law school. I had found a new path that spoke to me more than any legal future did. I had discovered the world of design and it felt like all of my random nonlinear past experiences could only lead me here. I returned to school because I wanted the hard design skills and I chose a program that focused on training these techniques by teaching us how to think, which for me, was unexpectedly intuitive. Not because I was automatically an extraordinary designer, I was a beginner trying to keep up with very experienced people [and also had crippling and self-sabotaging amounts of imposter syndrome], but because being just an English major prepared me for the best career that I didn’t even know existed.
The reality is, English majors, bibliophiles, language academics, and even those comparative literature students, they all come from a system that teaches and amplifies their ability to learn, understand emotions, comprehend multiple viewpoints, and consider complex ideas. They listen to and create stories, internalize and express empathy, craft interactions and experiences, and establish ethics. This education solidifies the importance of language, interdisciplinary knowledge, and ability to connect the dots using critical thinking; all quintessential aspects of solving problems and the essential skills in almost all modern professions.
After graduating for a second time, I entered the world of design, which now more and more also means the world of technology (and vice versa).The more time I spend in it, the more I realize how much I lean on the skills from my English studies. This is because this new era of design is on the precipice of possibilities. It teeters between science and the “soft skills” of the humanities, bringing these perceived opposing subjects into a binding marriage.
I recently attended a panel discussion about the integration of technology in our everyday lives and the importance of ethics in the creation and execution of its functions. The panel was all women (hurray!) of all different ethnicities (even more yay!) working at a major tech company and yet, when they went around discussing their achievements, a very accomplished woman said that wretched four letter word again, that she was just an English major. Right there as a leader in her industry and sitting on a panel with her peers, she said she didn’t come from a technical background. Which inspired me to consider, why isn’t an English background a technical background?
I started digging around and found that a technical background is not categorized by being associated with science or technology at all. It simply means having experience solving problems in a specific craft that requires a skill. This defines any good English major, from their mastery in analysis to their studies in writing. Language is after all, a system. It comes with rules, has a process, and takes practice whether it is reading or writing. Great writing is a result of an iterative process which then reaches an audience. Sculpting language is like putting together a puzzle. It requires the consideration of all the pieces and how they fit together. These pieces, these words, can result in a masterpiece and even more so, have the power to put all other systems into motion.
Technology in many ways is divisive and reserved for a select group of people. From those who create it to those who have access it, more and more people are pushed out of this round of evolution. The divide is a result of generations of systematic privilege. To combat this, we have to take steps forward but also in many ways, sideways. One such step being, tech companies should hire more English majors. As tech companies become reliant on user research and user experience design as they attempt to perfect their AI and build for the future, their teams have to include people who are critical thinkers, researchers, writers, and empathic with the ability to understand multiple points of view all at the same time. They need people with emotional intelligence and moral grounds who can cross cultures and languages to tell excellent stories.
I understand being able to be an English major is definitely a privilege, especially one that seems like a risk when college is obscenely expensive. The cost of education is one factor which has resulted in a steep decline in enrollment in English departments around the country for more technical skills in the past ten years. I also know that I decided to go back to graduate school which ultimately may have been more convincing on my applications that led to my employment in design and technology. However, many university English departments are revamping their curriculum in order to have their students be competitive in different markets. I think it is important education evolves with the times and I do hope more departments shift their curriculum to include more technology related/based classes: maybe coding, maybe systems design subject matter, but I hope they still maintain the skills they teach now. I also implore tech companies to think about hiring more English majors, because at it turns out, being an English major prepares you for any job, which is just extraordinary.
(originally published on December 10, 2019 on LinkedIn)