One of my biggest pet peeves is when people make fun of people studying humanities when they have zero understanding of what studying humanities actually means. If I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard someone say something to the extent of “English papers are easy! Just write about how something is a penis and you’ll get an A!” or “All English majors do is read too much into things”, that alone would probably cover a semester’s tuition. Hell, even the penis one alone could probably get the job done. I’ve had this rant written for around a year now, but sat on it, thinking “I’m sure everybody’s heard a pissed off English major at least once… Nobody needs to hear that again”, but lo and behold, this past week there was an incident (an incident!) that made me realize, nope, I was wrong. People do need to hear this rant. I’ll be getting to this later, but first we need to all get on the same page, so let’s take a look at what English majors actually do, ever so briefly.
Then the fucking claws are gonna come out.
Sometimes a Tree is Just a Tree
To put it very simply: the English major is the discussion of how meaning is created through connections between the text and context depending on the critical methods in use.
If you missed that, then fucking go back and read it again. I’ll wait. Now, obviously, this is where people who have the “reading too much into things” misunderstanding get lost. While such connections can easily be rather abstract ones, it doesn’t take much effort to sort out the legitimate analysis from the bullshit. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t just use random elements as symbolism for whatever crackpot theory anyone thinks of. A paper on Lord of the Flies arguing that killing the pigs is symbolic of the boys’ loss of innocence might seem a little bit like “reading into things”, but backed up with analysis on closely reading the unusually sexual diction in the pig killing scenes, it makes more sense as a legitimate analysis. A paper arguing that Piggy and Ralph are gay lovers backed up with analysis on how the conch shell is a penis and those two characters are the only ones interested, nay, obsessed, with holding the conch shell and blowing the conch shell, on the other hand… it’s pretty obvious that someone’s just making shit up.
So, no, it’s not about reading too much into things, and it’s not all about penises. But to be fair, where do you draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate analysis? What’s to say the latter argument is less valid than the former, aside from how ridiculous it is? Well, to some extent, that’s where a lot of critical debate centers, and is the focus of a lot of study. For example, on the one hand, we have Formalism, or New Criticism, which asserts that the meaning of a text lies solely within the text. No analysis about historical, social, or any sort of context the text comes from is valid here. This is the sort of stuff you did in English classes in high school where you were given a poem and had to analyze the use of metaphor, consonance, antistrophe, paronomasia, or zeugma (I don’t know what most of those are either. That should tell you something.)
Of course, you can only get away with relying solely on New Criticism for about fifteen minutes before the professors tell you you’re going to actually have to do some work. Scholars such as Stanley Fish have written paper after paper about how much New Criticism sucks, and make some very good points. Fish argues that all language inherently has meaning derived from societal and historical context, so the notion that meaning lies solely within the text is invalid, and you have to take the search for meaning elsewhere. This is when you have to research primary and secondary sources, as well as literary theory. So, basically, English majors read lots and lots of essays, and generally don’t write about every imagined instance of sex in Shakespeare or Jane Austen. We write about every imagined instance of sex in Oscar Wilde, which is totally different.
Sometimes a Penis is Just a Penis
So everybody actually gets what the English major is now, right? Probably not, because, going back to my rant, some people just do not get it.
Basically, I was with a large group of people and people were making fun of what other people were studying. At first, this was basically just physics and chemistry students having a go at each other, until it turned ugly when, with an air of complete authority, someone bashed the entirety of humanities with “it’s just reading too much into things”. First of all, this is a lazy joke. Everybody has heard it before a million times, and there was never anything creative about it to begin with. It’s like saying chemistry students care too much about how bonds form.
Except it’s not, because it takes it a step further. It is not just a boring joke, it is an insult. I wouldn’t have a problem with jokes about the English major, but statements like this are not jokes. They’re simply insults that uncreative people think qualify as jokes because they lack the capacity to understand what they’re making fun of. It reveals more about their character and their intelligence than what they think they’re making fun of. It becomes an unwitting demonstration of a complete inability to be analytical in an abstract way. In short, making fun of people who study humanities just because they study humanities can and often does actually just make you sound like an idiot.
Now, I imagine that at least a few people who’ve actually read all this (or didn’t bother) will probably dismiss everything I’ve had to say because they see me as a pissed off English major, and will rest comfortably on their science major throne. I don’t say this to stereotype, but rather because I’ve had frustrating conversations with people like this time and time again who act superior or privileged because they see their field of study as objectively superior. These people should probably know that I’m a double major in English and Biology, so you can’t take that claim against me. I study science too; the difference is that I don’t act like a dick about it.