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English Department

Fall 2013 Newsletter

Victoria Szydlowski (2011)
English Majors in the World

Hearing the hollering for and against the English major, I will address this stormy discourse. If I don’t, it may be imposed onto this essay regardless of my intent. I am in a unique position to join this discussion since I was both a neuroscience-psychology major and an English major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Both parts of my education were aimed at discovering a bigger, weirder, ineffable “pap of life” through science’s third-person objectivity and literature’s first-person subjectivity.

I was blessed with professors who did not restrict the study of English to the traditional pedagogy of the humanities, but encouraged my interdisciplinary curiosity. For my capstone thesis with Dr. Kirby Farrell, I combined cognitive psychology, neuroscience, and literary criticism in an investigation of the function of humor in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I cannot claim to have been successful, enlightening, or conclusive in these interdisciplinary forays, but I am thrilled that I was allowed to ask a difficult question. I felt no pressure to corral my wandering thoughts. If I couldn’t understand meaning, I could explode it, working with and in the mess.

Often I am met with contorted faces when I tell people what I studied in college, their faces doubly contorted out of general disdain for English majors. They are hypocrites. I see what they do and what I studied in Dr. Farrell’s English classes as getting at the same “thing.” Look at the parallels: English majors study the personal to understand the universal, and scientists design randomized controlled trials to measure results generalizable to future patients. Depending on the study methodology, scientists draw conclusions from the data. Depending on the style and form of text, literary critics perceive universal themes within a text.

I currently work in comparative effectiveness and evidence synthesis research. The research evaluates clinical evidence and synthesizes the results for the research question. Much of my work involves medical literature and narrative synthesis. This is the most overt parallel between my studies as an English major and my current job. Of course, being an English major has taught me that there is far more in a text and in life than overt parallels. One doesn’t read to hone critical thinking skills for work. One reads, then critical thought becomes the medium in which one works. To study English is to become aware of the ambivalence and artifice of language that transcends literary texts and enters scientific research.

Allow me to paraphrase the thesis of those who would remove English from higher education: English literature is esoteric and pragmatically useless, whereas science is applicable and useful. This is a false dichotomy. Hopefully my arguments in the preceding paragraphs serve as due diligence for that assertion.


University of Massachusetts Department of English
170 Bartlett Hall, Amherst, MA 01003 .  umass.edu/english . 413-545-4339