A Letter from the Chair – A Major that Matters

English Department Chair, Professor Mark Mossman

I have been thinking a lot this year about the courses our students take and what they learn when they come to Western.

I have concluded, maybe not surprisingly, that the English Major is easily the most important major option on this campus and, indeed, on any college campus.

This is so because, when you really think about it, the intention or purpose of the English major is all-encompassing—so much so that I often wonder why anyone would major in anything else.

And yet, often I still hear questions like, “What can you do with an English Major?” or, “What do you actually learn as an English Major?”

These questions are still asked by parents, friends, and sometimes even English majors themselves.

But this is all wrong. These questions come from a basic confusion about what higher education actually is. Indeed, a critical reading of this circumstance tells me that we should not even ask, “what is the purpose of the English Major?”

The correct question is, “what is the intent of the English Major?”

Shifting the question shifts the entire way of understanding higher education itself. We all must understand that a higher educational institution is not simply a job-training center. No, that is not what higher education is. Higher education is not about credentialing, acquiring skills sets, or something seemingly “useful,” which, by the way, is never an appropriate way to understand any kind of higher learning.

Higher education is about transformative learning, about developing and articulating critical perspectives on our world; it is about exploring the meaning and shape of the world, and it is about figuring out a deeper understanding of our individual and communal place in the universe. It is about the big and the important, about the deeply meaningful things.

In this context, the intention of the English Major is to understand both the useful and the good, both the beautiful and the just. An English major reads texts, analyzes texts, defines texts, makes texts, and in doing so the English major works on clarity in written communication, on taste in cultural production, on genius in poetic expression, and on truth in representation.

Thus in the terms above, an English Major is at the very center of a higher education, and so the one single answer to both of the questions above is a simple, “everything.”

What can you do with an English Major? Everything.

What do you learn as an English Major? Everything.

In terms of value and use, there is no major that is more comprehensive and useful. Period.

Incredibly, I graduated from college 25 years ago this May. I was an English major. And, as I finished my undergraduate education in Spring of 1992 and quickly began my graduate education, I heard these same persistent questions.

But I was able to hear the more local, immediate, worldly worry behind them—worries about a job, a career, student loans to be paid, and so on.

Correctly, I dismissed all of these worries as nonsense and vaguely inappropriate for what I really wanted to do with my life.

In 1992 I wanted a major that mattered because I wanted a life that mattered.

Sure, I needed something that gave me the skill sets to make it in the world (which English does), but I wanted something that also gave me the insight and critical acumen to make sense of the world and to change the world for the better.

And like you, I found the English Major.

And indeed, as this publication itself indicates, in majoring in English you have found a major that matters.