• To B.A. or Not to B.A.?

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in WBN News & Events     Comments No comments

    Today on the WBN Blog we welcome a new columnist, Jenna Cooper. Every Monday in “First Drafts,” Jenna will report to us on what it’s like to be an aspiring writer trying to navigate the literary world. DD


    If only being an English major meant reading books and writing poetry in the sun.

    If I could repeat my college years, would I still pursue a B.A. in English to benefit my writing?  After much internal debate, my answer is “yes.”  However, one major drawback to majoring in English for a creative writer is spending those four years immersed in all things literary … from an academic point of view.  Other than that, upper division English courses teach you how to research effectively (often through trial and error), force you to tighten your prose, and make recognizing literary techniques second nature.  Writing a stellar thesis or literary analysis requires creativity and mastery over fundamental skills in the craft (i.e.—omitting useless words, choosing active over passive verbs, etc.).

    Yet in order to meet degree requirements, you might find it difficult to squeeze in a creative writing course.  Why?  Many English programs don’t mandate creative writing courses, and when you’re expected to prioritize academic classes, oftentimes creative writing classes seem impractical.  If you seek growth as a creative writer, be aware that English literature courses will teach you more about analyzing literature than actually writing it.

    Due to the emphasis on dissecting rather than creating, can an English degree set you back in your creative writing?  It depends.  Some professors show no sensitivity towards mistakes and assume that your K-12 education prepared you for college writing and that you screwed up because you’re lazy or inadequate.  Caustic professors are not for the faint of heart and can disconcert even thick-skinned writers if they grade them poorly because they don’t subscribe to the professor’s pet literary theory.  If you feel vulnerable when it comes to writing, you might want to avoid professors notorious for discouraging their students.  I knew some smart, confident English majors whose favorite authors acquired a taint because their professors belittled the students’ writing.  Also, if you think you need a “boot camp” approach to writing classes to grow as a writer, remember that you can find challenges without an overly critical instructor.  A professor that has a supportive and objective approach to teaching the craft can help you progress far more than a professor with great credentials and a snarky attitude.

    If you want to get the most out of a B.A. in English, my best advice is to take a variety of courses.  I got hooked on 19th century literature with “gateway authors” Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and I felt most secure in my knowledge of that era when I started college.  I wanted to go into Victorian Studies in grad school, so I took a lot of classes on 19th century literature.  Now I can wax at length about George Eliot or Thomas Hardy, but I can’t tell you much about literary giants such as Jonathan Swift or Kurt Vonnegut.  Big mistake.  I missed out on opportunities to grow in my knowledge and craft in an environment loaded with resources—faculty members, peers, and literally tons of books.  That’s not to say that outside reading or fellowship with other writers lacks merit; just that colleges and universities have a high concentration of diverse literary pursuits.  Focusing on a specific genre, time period, or theory can help to establish you as an expert early on in an academic career.  However, for novice writers who have non-academic aspirations, broadening your exposure to different styles and forms contributes far more to your “literary toolbox.”

    In the end, you’re the expert on what teaching methods and classes best suit your needs as a creative writer.  Going the English major route doesn’t mean you have to “give up” creative writing in college, but it does mean that your focus in school will be academic rather than creative.  For the ambitious writer who makes time for creative writing classes, getting a B.A. in English will give you more flexibility in deciding what to pursue after graduation and a more holistic understanding of literature.



    In addition to writing for WriteByNight’s blog, Jenna Cooper writes for BE Mag and a blog called FemThreads.  Aside from writing, Jenna served as an AmeriCorps Member from 2008-2010 and will start her M.S. in Information Studies in Fall 2012.  She graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas.



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