What do you do with a BA in English?

What do you do with a BA in English?

Summary: Why does this make me think of my oldest son? He's an English major, of course!

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Avenue Q is just about my favorite musical of all time. Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson edges ahead sometimes depending on my mood, but I can't help but think of my oldest son whenever the first line of Avenue Q's theme song starts leaking from a set of earbuds (which happens with remarkable frequency in my house):

What do you do with a B.A. in English, What is my life going to be? Four years of college and plenty of knowledge, Have earned me this useless degree.

Why does this make me think of my oldest son? Because he's an English major, of course! Well, a Professional Writing major, but still, his minor in theater adds some extra bang for my tuition buck, right?

Removing my tongue from my cheek briefly, I have to tell a quick story about one of my other kids. He's 16 and just had to write a research paper and give an oral report for his English class. He got a B on the written portion, but a D on the oral portion because he didn't look at the audience. He was appalled. "How can I look at the audience when I have to be looking at the board?" he exclaimed.

I naively asked why he had to look at the board. "How else am I supposed to read my PowerPoint?" he responded.

I should have known.

All of a sudden, that BA in English with a minor in theater started to look awfully attractive. I can't think of a more important "21st Century Skill" than communication, whether written or verbal. A bit of theater? Gee, maybe he'll be able to think on his feet and improvise and actually glance away from the projector or his feet and talk to his audience, whether that audience is in a boardroom or a lecture hall. There is nothing more disconcerting than watching a business leader reading from notes or delivering a death-by-PowerPoint presentation, droning on about slides that I could just as easily read myself on a set of handouts. Disconcerting because by the time someone is in a position of leadership, they should be able to speak extemporaneously and yet remarkably common.

Kid #3 (the 16-year old) should be so lucky as to have some experience on stage and I could have hugged his English teacher for calling him out on his public speaking. Only a tiny minority of our students graduate high school (or college, for that matter) with the ability to deliver an effective presentation. We should get rid of standardized tests and just make every high school senior give a 15-minute oral presentation on an infographic they prepare with an accompanying slide deck. Anyone who reads their deck or loses their audience before the 15 minutes is up doesn't get to graduate. It's not exactly a "standardized" test, but talk about outcomes-based education!

I don't know what Kid #1 will do with his BA in English (OK, writing...whatever!). Maybe he'll write the next great American novel. Maybe he'll be a marketing rockstar. Maybe he'll write for ZDNet. Maybe he'll be the next Sondheim. It doesn't matter. The more I think about it, the more I wish my doctors had been English majors. Maybe they could at least fake some bedside manner and communicate clearly with their patients. Honestly, an engineer with a BA in English could rule the world. There aren't too many people who can bridge the gap between engineers and users with a truly effective grasp of the English language in all of its forms or present technical concepts without making audience members start gnawing their arms off to escape.

It isn't too much of a stretch to say that a degree in English (or communications, or whatever) might just be one of the more useful and relevant degrees a student could obtain, with applications across a wide variety of disciplines. The point of college remains to learn to think (and master beer pong, of course); that can happen with a degree in biophysics just as easily as a degree in the humanities. That liberal arts major, though, just might have better job prospects in a knowledge economy than the biophysics major who avoided English and public speaking courses like the plague.

I started out as a biophysics major in college. This lasted until I took organic chemistry. I quickly switched to public health which, through a part-time job, morphed into a degree in information systems with a focus on statistical computing and healthcare IT. Interestingly, though, the single class that was more useful to me than any other, where I learned things that I couldn't have learned from a book or online, was a public speaking class.

Useless degree? I think not.

Topics: Health, IT Employment

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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14 comments
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  • At a guess

    You'd become a zdnet blogger ;) Is that a bad thing? Well...
    ego.sum.stig
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    • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

      @filters Sweet, thanks! How'd you know I came to this education blog looking for a solution to my engine filtering needs?
      jmwells21
  • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

    Um, what? Sorry, but becoming a better writer won't make you a better speaker or better at giving presentations. They're two very different things. I've known plenty of people that were plenty eloquent in writing that couldn't string two words together in a conversation and vice versa. If anything, I learned more about giving presentations in my Technical Writing class than any of the ones actually in the English department (A powerpoint+verbal presentation with only pictures and a title will do that). For the most part, school's don't care if you can communicate verbally, as long as you can get the message through on paper, and honestly, in today's world that's probably the better skill. People are more and more likely to talk through text (like this) than to actually verbally communicate anymore, especially us techies.

    Also, I wouldn't want my doctor's to have flowery speech. There's a reason those types don't typically go into technical professions.
    Aerowind
    • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

      @Aerowind
      You say "school's dont care?" I claim my chocolate fish for spotting your deliberate mistake.

      Mistake's.
      Ken.McAllister@...
  • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

    Starve.
    terry flores
  • All the world's a stage...

    Thank you for this excellent article. As Shakespeare once said 'All the world's a stage, / and all the men and women merely players: / They have their exits and their entrances; / And one many in his time plays many parts". Excellent communication skills and the ability to 'play your part' well are paramount for success in all occupations. This is something that you are, perhaps, only fully aware of when you stop and think about what skills really get you ahead in life...knowledge in all of its forms is, without a doubt, vital but knowledge without a tactful and capable medium to transfer it is inadequate. By the way, learning how to make a presentation isn't just about verbal communication - it's about learning how to select, filter and competently present information as well as how to 'market' oneself. Don't techies need these skills too?
    Star3211
  • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

    BA in English?
    "I want a Double tall no whip skinny latt?? please "
    That or become a OWS protester.

    Save money tell him to get a job, lean a skill, go into the military and worry about college later. A BA in English would be great latter in life when one can afford to pay cash.
    Richardbz
    • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

      @Richard B

      "lean" a skill and "latter" in life? Perhaps, good sir, a BA in English is not so worthless.
      kimt321
  • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

    A BA in any of the humanities should be regarded (as it has been historically) as a program geared towards providing the individual pursuing such studies with a broad perspective on life and an open and flexible mind. The central problem with universities is that they have essentially become factories for super-technicians of various kinds. The professional schools within the university have become the giant tails that wag a very small dog. <br><br>In my view (as someone whose first degree was a BA in French), anyone entering a BA program should be under no illusion that it will lead directly to meaningful employment. That was the case more than 30 years ago when I graduated with mine. It's no different now except that perhaps the broad messages about the value of a university degree need to be refined so that some of our more naive students understand the implications (risks AND rewards) of expanding their minds in the pursuit of a bigger view of the world, without any promise of financial gain.<br><br>So now what? I got a masters degree, then a post-graduate degree in public administration so I could earn a good living. Would I change the choice I made when I was 17? Heck no!
    Peter Malcolm
  • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

    GO ABROAD AND TEACH ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE AND LEARN THE LANGUAGE OF THE COUN TRY WHILE THERE. OR YOU COULD SPEND A JUNIOR YEAR ABROAD AND LEARN THE LANGUAGE OF THE COUNTRY WHILE TAKING ENGLISH LIT COURSES AND APPRECIATE HOW THEY LOOK AT ENGLISH, AMERICAN, AUSTRALIAN, INDIAN, NIGERIAN, ETC LITERATURE.
    INDEED, DEFINITELY INCLUDE IN YOUR COLLEGE YEARS A YEAR OF STUDY ABROAD. AH, YOU COULD DO COMPARATIVE LITERATURE AND SEE HOW FAST AN INTERNATIONAL COMPANY WOULD OFFER YOU A JOB. YOU CAN THINK OUTSIDE THE BORDERS OF YOUR COUNTRY AND BE AT LEAST EMPATHETIC WITH THEIR WAY OF LOKING AT LIFE. MR JAN VAN ASSELT
    janvanasselt@...
  • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

    If all you want from your education is a narrow skill set, go to ITT tech or some other trade school (like med school ;-) ). A university is geared to much higher aspirations. As far as an English major's prospects in life, I recommend a Google search of "college majors of CEOs." Read any of the articles that pop up. You naysayers may very well be surprised.
    Citizen Gkar
  • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

    Being a BA in English, with an MA in Teaching and a PhD in Education Administration, I'm about to retire after a decent and fulfilling life in private and public education, grades 4-18. It has served me well as I've morphed from classroom teacher to building administrator to regional educational district grant writer and program developer to Professional Development Director, with lots of variety all the way along. Watching eager kids soak up learning, and not so eager kids struggle with finding themselves, and now working with teachers who are watching their profession come under attack from all sides has been a very rewarding career. I started college in physics, and moved to English when I realized I'd rather labor over interpreting Matthew Arnold's poem, "Dover Beach", than struggle with a triple integral in calculus. Never looked back.<br><br>And working with tech directors from all over New York, it's amazing to see how many technology leaders, and very good ones, were English Teachers. Bravo to the Arts.
    Brian63
  • RE: What do you do with a BA in English?

    This is what I did with a BA in English. I became a high school English teacher, found out that teaching was a great way to learn. So, I got an MA in Educational Technology and a PhD in Educational Leadership and now I'm looking for work. Any suggestions?
    nelliemuller