What To Do With an English Major Besides Teach

I became an English major in college somewhat by default. I had wanted to be a nurse since I was a child. I was always fascinated by medical things and read lots of Cherry Ames Student Nurse books, and there didn’t seem to be many other viable and acceptable career options. You had to be something when you grew up and nursing seemed like the thing for me. My choice at that point had nothing to do with aptitude.

When I entered Messiah College, I fully intended to do a two-year pre-nursing course and go to nursing school. But then came the brick wall of freshman biology. I had never really liked science in high school and had limited aptitude for any kind of advanced level science, so why I thought I could do the science required to be a nurse, I’m not sure. While I was struggling with freshman biology, I was doing well in English composition. Also, the more I got involved in college activities, the more I began to dread leaving Messiah after two years to go to nursing school (I think it had something about not wanting to change schools yet again). So at the end of my freshman year, I changed my major to English. It didn’t hurt that my best friend was also an English major.

Of course, I made that switch without really thinking about what I would do with an English major once I graduated. If I became an English major by default, I certainly went into teaching English by default. There wasn’t any other option at the time that made any sense. With the encouragement of a professor who had far grander dreams for me than I had for myself, I briefly flirted with the idea of going into literary criticism, but gave that up because of how difficult it would have been to establish myself and make a decent living (not to mention that I don’t think I ever really had it in me to be a literary critic). I took all the necessary education courses, did student teaching, and following graduate school got my first full-time job teaching English at the same high school that had been so difficult for me less than ten years earlier when we returned from Africa.

I lasted as a high school English teacher for three years – more than long enough to know this wasn’t something I wanted to do long-term. As long as I could work with kids who were well-behaved and interested in learning, I enjoyed teaching. But I absolutely hated and was not good at the classroom discipline part. I chewed a lot of Rolaids in those years to calm the severe anxiety that manifested itself as a constant upset stomach. Dale and I got married the summer between my first and second year of teaching, and so after three years, I had the perfectly legitimate reason of pregnancy for resigning.

Following Dana’s birth, I stayed home for a while but then started looking for other employment to supplement our income. Dale changed jobs resulting in a significant pay cut and of course we had already lost half our income when we no longer had my teaching salary. During the years between the births of Dana and Derek, I worked part-time as a grading assistant at Messiah and as manager of the college post office. I liked working in the post office and enjoyed interactions with students and faculty, but I also became restless, feeling like I was somewhat underemployed and not making good use of my master’s degree in English. As I wrestled with what I might do instead of continuing to manage the post office, I consulted with the chair of the English Department at Messiah. He loaned me a book with the hopeful title of something like What Can You Do With an English Major Besides Teach? While the book didn’t launch me immediately into an exciting new career, it did open my mind to other possibilities.

I had already been serving as the volunteer editor of a very small Brethren in Christ publication and wondered whether there might be other writing and editorial possibilities in the church, so I wrote to the denominational editor to ask for his help. He referred me to Carlton Wittlinger, the academic dean at Messiah, who was finishing his comprehensive history of the Brethren in Christ Church and needed someone to compile the index. I took a partial leave of absence from my job in the post office to do the work – painstakingly creating separate 3 x 5 cards for every entry and then sorting the cards to create the index. This was in the days before computers that would have made the job ever so much easier. I never did another index, but the job marked the first of many paid and volunteer denominational editing and writing assignments and helped to launch me on a viable career other than teaching that made good use of my English skills. In 1981, I was asked to edit a quarterly denominational peace and justice newsletter, and 32 years later, I am still its volunteer editor, shepherding it over the years through a name and format change to Shalom! A Journal for the Practice of Reconciliation and through various denominational restructurings and changes in personnel that sometimes made its existence seem really tenuous.

PRTF_StorytellingIn the late 1980s and early 90s, I also worked part-time first for my home congregation and then for the denomination. In 1992, when the denominational position was phased out, I was hired part-time to develop two children’s mental health newsletters for Pennsylvania. That position also morphed over the years, and from 1997-2012 I worked full-time. I formally retired in 2012, but I still have a part-time contract with the state to continue editing those two original newsletters and work on a few other projects. In addition, last year I completed a free-lance contract with a children’s mental health center at Georgetown University to write stories about children with emotional and behavioral challenges who received services in their home communities to help prevent placement in residential treatment facilities, and I have a new contract with Georgetown that I’ll be working on over the next couple years. I also recently succeeded one of my favorite Messiah professors as editor for the Brethren in Christ Historical Society which involves editing the Society’s journal and newsletter and managing other publications.

I have not missed my teaching career one day since I resigned almost 40 years ago. There were brief moments when the kids were young and I needed to earn some money for our family that I thought perhaps I should apply to be a substitute teacher. But as soon as I reminded myself how much I did not like teaching before and imagined what it could be like to be a substitute teacher in the typical high school classroom, I quickly abandoned that idea as crazy, delusional thinking on my part. And certainly, over the past 20+ years, I have found my niche in editorial and writing work, with enough opportunities and creative challenges to stimulate my mind and keep life interesting. If I were entering college now to prepare for an editorial and writing career, I might not major in English; maybe something like communications or journalism or one of those really specific majors available nowadays would be more relevant. But I think I am proof that a good basic education as an English major is excellent grounding for something other than teaching.


5 thoughts on “What To Do With an English Major Besides Teach

  1. Convergences and divergences. Another accidental English major here, although my first career path (influenced by the Jungle Doctor series) was to be a doctor. But, I ran into college Chemistry with Prof. Wolgemuth…I got a D, and that was the end of any aspirations to be a doctor. So I migrated to English. Likewise, I was encouraged by one of my profs, and even invited to return to Messiah to teach. I think I would have stayed in that career, had it not been for a leave of absence for child rearing, and then no opportunities at the time to return. So I cycled into other ways of using English, but ending up in the health policy field. Unlike you, I returned to teaching at the end of my career–and still count teaching English as the thing I most enjoy.
    You have gone much farther with your English skills–in writing, editing and contributing hugely to the intellectual life of the church. Well done.

  2. My College Major, decades ago, was Bible & Religion with a History/Social Science Minor. I graduate from College during the dark days of WW II. That stood me in good stead my twenty years as a missionary. Before going to Africa though the remainder of WW II I was a bi-vocational pastor of a small church in the San Joaquin Valley of California, and as such taught school, with War Emergency credentials in two different districts (one year each), and thoroughly enjoyed it. I can be a strong disciplinarian, and then that was acceptable. When we retired from missionary service I thought I wanted to teach in Grade School again. Fortunately, the Church & the Board of Bishops didn’t allow that to happen. I could never have made it in today’s disciplinarian climate. Nuff said.

  3. How cool to see the path that has wound its way through your life to bring you to where you are! I love writing and have been encouraged to seek opportunities. I haven’t a clue where to look or what to do so instead, I just write and share with my friends. 🙂 Good enough for me I guess.

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