Why Major in English?
Prof. Michael Wiley, Ph.D.
Professor of English
When I was an undergraduate, I majored in English because I wanted to become a fiction writer, and I figured that if I followed Matthew Arnold’s advice in Culture and Anarchy – that we should read “the best that has been thought or said” – I would improve my chances of writing something worth saying myself. I read a lot, from Beowulf to John Ashberry, and most of it was better than anything I ever could hope to say or think on my own. But reading, discussing, and writing about literature did change the way I thought and not only changed the way I spoke but gave me a voice. Encountering hundreds of places I’d never before imagined inhabiting, and meeting thousands of characters who did, said, and thought things that had been outside my experience, at once broadened me and gave me a place in the larger world.
After I graduated with a major in English, I bounced around for a few years. I worked as an attendant at a home for emotional troubled teenagers. I worked as a speechwriter for a politician whose politics I disliked. I taught English at an inner-city vocational school. I traveled when I saved enough money. And I wrote and kept writing – short stories, poems, plays, scripts (a lot of them bad) – and I kept reading – fiction, poetry, drama (because I knew that I still needed to learn more).
Then, I went back to school, enrolling in a graduate program in English (I’m a slow learner), and when I finished my degree, I felt ready to write – not the “best that has been thought or said,” but the best that I had to think or say. Now, in the thirteen years that I’ve been teaching at UNF, I’ve completed two academic books and three novels, as well as a lot of articles and book reviews. Matthew Arnold probably wouldn’t like any of them, but they make me happy.
Why, then, major in English? So that you can read, discuss, and write about “the best that has been thought and said.” And so that you can make something of it.