So You Want to Be an English Major?

College Advice


A new school year approaches, but how does the college English classroom differ from the high school classroom?  Below we reveal what instructors expect from students at the university level.

The Typical High School English Class

A Focus on Comprehension Skills

Many instructors focus on ensuring that their students have understood what they have read.  Thus, they will ask “What did the ghost say to Hamlet?” or “Can you paraphrase Macbeth’s speech in your own words?”  College instructors generally assume you have read and understood the text, and looked up any words with which you were unfamiliar.  Unless the text is particularly convoluted, they’re not going to spend time explaining the literal sense of the text, nor will they have you read the text together aloud, unless they are going to have the class analyze a specific passage.

Discussions of Personal Reactions

Many discussion questions ask students to identify with the characters and react to the story.  This method is supposed to engage students, the theory being that if they relate to the characters, they’ll be more likely to enjoy the text and want to discuss it.  Some college instructors open class by asking for personal reactions, but this is because they are hoping students will then set aside their personal hatred or love of the characters so the course can focus on other issues.  Ultimately, it’s not very interesting from an academic standpoint if you think Petruchio is an awful human being.

Discussion of Themes and Symbolism

English majors don’t discuss themes or symbolism.  All that time you spent discussing what the color red means in a text?  Think of it as training wheels.  The instructor was teaching  you how to look for details in a text and close read it.  However, there’s not much you can do with an observation that “the red means violence” or “the grey sky reflects the sadness of the characters.”  English majors make arguments about how the texts work and what that means in the larger context of the time period, genre, etc.  It’s difficult to write a six-page paper about the fact that an author mentions wings or boats a lot.

Research Papers

Many instructors assign research papers so students can begin to learn how to find scholarly articles and incorporate them into their own work.  Generally this means students make an argument and then use their sources to “prove” it.  In college, you’ll be expected to  make an original argument (not one your secondary sources already made) and respond to your secondary sources–whether that  means you take their work and extend it into a new area or challenge their work.

The College English Class

Assumption of Knowledge

Unless you’re enrolled in a writing course, many instructors will assume you know the conventions of writing.  Some English departments have embraced composition and rhetoric as a way to make themselves seem useful to the school and ensure they receive funding, but other English departments see themselves as teaching just that–English literature.  After all, you have to write in the sciences and in history and in plenty of other fields, but no one asks the history department to teach composition.  This means that you’re largely on your own in figuring out how to use proper grammar, how to structure an essay, how to write concisely and clearly, etc. unless your instructor is interested in teaching writing.

You’ll also largely be expected to figure out the conventions of the field without anyone telling you.  That is, simply by going to class and reading criticism, you are assumed to be learning what kinds of comments and arguments are considered useful and valuable, and which are not.  Few instructors will explain directly what they are expecting as far as this goes.  Even essay prompts may look something like “Write an eight-page paper about Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.”  You’re supposed to figured out what is interesting to write about, what kind of topic is appropriate for a paper of this length, etc.

Original Arguments

In college courses, when you write a response to a text, you’ll want to make a claim about how you see that text working and why it is important.  That is, you might have noticed that a poet uses a lot of dark imagery, but so what?  Why does it matter?  What does it tell you about the larger context of the poem?  How does it help you read the poem in a new way?

You’ll want to try to place your argument into a larger context.  That is, is the dark imagery of this poem typical for the genre or the time period?  What does the poem do differently?  Is the poem perhaps responding to another work or to some sort of trend?  Imagine the poem is playing with Petrarchan imagery at a time when Petrarchan imagery was all the rage.  Why does the poem do this?  What is the effect?

It’s not enough simply to notice something is occurring.  You have to discuss why this occurrence means something and place its meaning within a larger framework.

Political Implications

A lot of scholarly work being performed currently is political, meaning humanities scholars might be discussing how we view and talk about race and gender, how we respond to refugees, how discourse shapes policies, etc.  Other work engages with the academy itself and suggests ways the academy can challenge and influence public perception and policies, or attempts to re-envision what kind of work the academy or the humanities performs.  As English departments face budget and staff cuts in favor of more lucrative STEM programs, many scholars try to assert their relevance and usefulness by writing politically.  You may be encouraged or expected to do the same.

Krysta 64


7 thoughts on “So You Want to Be an English Major?

    • Briana says:

      I had exactly one English class in college where the professor thought it was a brilliant idea to stand in the corner and not lead the discussion or participate in any way while we, the students, led the discussion ourselves. I heard nothing but “I hate this character! He’s so annoying!” from half the students for most of the semester. It was probably one of the most unproductive courses I was ever in…and it was an upper level English class where I think people should have known better. It can be a good starting place to get people comfortable and talking, but I was really not paying tuition to hear about whether other people liked the main character. 😦

      Liked by 1 person

      • theorangutanlibrarian says:

        hahhahaha well that’s a bit of a problem to say the least- though I did have plenty of classes where it was tutorial based aka students just discussed things for an hour, I don’t think I ever had a class where more than 5 minutes was spent chatting about whether we liked it or not. Very fair!!


        • Krysta says:

          I don’t favor classes where the instructor stands back and lets the students lead just because the instructor is the one who has years of experience with the content. If I am a student and I just read Thoreau or Shakespeare or Morrison for the first time, how on earth do I know what to talk about without any guidance? What if you don’t know much about Transcendentalism or Elizabethan drama or anything else pertinent? Where do you start without guidance? You’re paying for the instructor’s expertise, right? Not to have the blind leading the blind, which is what it can feel like in a class without any instructor direction.

          Liked by 2 people

          • starkreads says:

            That is such an important point to make! I’m currently studying to become a highschool English teacher in a country where English is taught as a second language and I ask myself often what the role of an instructor is; guidance – as you suggested – seems to be the most appropriate answer. I know I used to be discouraged from analysing literature, because I truly struggled with where to even begin! In college, things are a little better, but there is still a lot one must figure out on their own. Which, to be honest, isn’t always that bad, but instructors are there for a reason: to help you figure things out.

            That was a very interesting read! 🙂


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