Tuesday, June 22, 2010

What Do You Do with a BA in English?

By external measures, I’m slowly inching toward becoming a Real Adult. So far I have a bachelor’s degree in English, a full-time Real Job, and an apartment in which I not infrequently empty the trash.

I work for a well-known, long-standing, national/international charitable organization, which means I get to feel good about myself when people ask what I do. It’s particularly effective because I look like I’m about seventeen, so the conversation usually starts with “How is school going?” and progresses to this:

At this point, people picture me doing touching, altruistic things like bandaging the wounds of orphans and rescuing kittens from hurricanes. Sometimes an urgent text message or ninja attack will cut off the conversation here, and the person can continue thinking of me bathed in the white light of selflessness.

Otherwise, we proceed to Step 2. “Really? What do you do there?”

Even after this exchange, I usually come off all right. I mean, I could have been answering phones for Big Bubba’s House of Assault Rifles and Animal Testing, but in this job I can help both the needy and my fragile sense of self worth.

A few months ago, though, I ran into my very excellent 11th grade English teacher. He asked what I was up to these days, and I prepared for the veneration to which I have become accustomed. My teacher, however, skipped directly from Step 1 to Step D.xiv:

I did not have an appropriate answer.

So I crept home and continued validating my life choices as before, but with more vehemence. “Keeping this journal is writing! Look at me as I use my degree!” “Wow, that was a great e-mail about cleaning the office fridge. I am totally building my portfolio!”

Then one day, as I was putting off loading the dishwasher by trying to read the entire internet, the full and blinding glory of the Information Age struck me like a truckload of very shiny cement:

“Hey, blogging counts as writing, doesn’t it? I mean, there’s words and stuff.”

Even better, new technology has provided a lot of important-sounding terms with “publishing” in them—self-publishing, e-publishing, desktop publishing, people-DO-TOO-read-this publishing—that I can now apply to myself.

Extra Credit: What do you do with a BA in English?


  1. To paraphrase the old song "...if it weren't for self-publishing, I'd have no publishing at all -- gloom, despair and agony on me!"

    Another delightful, insightful treatise.

  2. You done good!
    Mighty proud to know ya-

  3. I have a B.S. in Math, but the concept is the same. It's hard to find self-esteem in washing dishes and clothes that are just going to need to be washed again tomorrow. My kids' accomplishments are theirs, not mine, and I refuse to live vicariously through them or expect them to make me feel worthwhile. One thing that has helped me is that J. K. Rowling was living on welfare when she wrote the first Harry Potter books. Would she have been better off spending her time working a "real job"? Would the books have been worth writing if she had never found a publisher? My answers are "no" and "yes". We can't know what external recognition we will receive, but we can choose to spend our limited number of hours on this earth doing what is important to us.

  4. Thanks, Stephanie. That last bit is quite profound, and very true, I think.

  5. I'm so glad I stumbled upon your blog via Reina. I'm also a recent English grad with a BA working full-time in an office.

    I'm glad someone else thinks about things like the commonalities of cheetos and what the cashier at the supermarket will say to the other cashiers when I'm not around.

  6. GMB, thanks and congratulations--you are the first person to comment on/follow this blog whom I don't know in real life! That's fame-and-fortune goal #1 MET!