Book Reviews

Book by Robert Prescott
Review by: Craig M. McGill
Academic Advisor, Department of English
Florida International University

On a daily basis, I am asked what one can do with a BA in English. The question, so common and loaded with emotive implications, even inspired the opening number for the hit Broadway musical “Avenue Q.” Many assume that the only path for English majors leads to teaching in the secondary school system, and students expressing a love for literature and writing often are dissuaded—even forbidden—from building upon these passions by parents who feel their child should choose a major more “enterprising.” 

In Why to Major in English If You’re Not Going to Teach, Robert Prescott offers a convincing response to the perennial question about the prospects for the English major. He refers to the following U.S. Bureau of Labor (as cited by Fogg, Harrington, & Harrington, 2004, p. 8): Of degree holders in English, 42% work in private for-profit companies, 14% own their own businesses, 10% are employed by government agencies, and 7% hold jobs in the nonprofit sector; furthermore, 27% work in education (but not necessarily teaching), 17% have chosen not to work, and 3% cannot find work. Although most graduates find successful ventures outside of teaching, the perception clearly prevails: An English degree lacks practical value. Perhaps this opinion remains popular because most people—English faculty members and students included—do not articulate the tremendous usefulness of the skill set as used in nonacademic realms.  The short shrift given to English as a major may also reflect the career trajectories of faculty members that markedly differ from those considered by students of English. Prescott advocates for increased promotion of the practical application of English skills learned by undergraduates: “When we look out on a classroom, we are only seeing our students for who they are in the moment, not for the successful working people they will someday be, and thus we are not helping them see how their work with us is tied to their future careers” (p. 1). 

Prescott demonstrates the utility of English in a thorough examination divided into three broad sections. In section I, he explores the job market and the critical thinking, open mindedness, oral communication, interpersonal, writing, research, and computer skills learned through the courses of the English major. Section II highlights his examination of marketable skills gained through literary study, composition, creative writing, and internships. Prescott uses section III to show the bridge between English skills and careers, discussing important uses in the creation of targeted resumes, facility to research jobs and companies, and the ability to align skills, education, and experience with job descriptions. 
Through well-organized and highly readable prose, Prescott explains the practical links between academe and the work environment. He illustrates these connections through multiple case studies and shares the hard work of others, refraining from indulging in self-exultation. Perhaps most important, the less grandiose stories about English student success feature very tangible outcomes to which students can aspire. 

The book has small drawbacks. While showing clear evidence of English skills successfully promoted and implemented at liberal arts institutions (e.g., Bradley, Hanover), the book fails to provide commensurate evidence of its perceived relevance at large research institutions, where limited one-on-one interactions among students and faculty members seldom feature conversations on the value of the English curriculum. Also, at times, the author, so focused on selling his argument, overstates his case and loses some credibility. For example, after explaining (convincingly) the reason English majors make good insurance agents, financial advisors, and realtors, he suggests that they enjoy significantly less success in sales. He then indulges in unfounded speculation that puts him on the defensive. Repeatedly, Prescott makes broad, sweeping generalizations about all English majors: “English majors want_____.” With this overreaching, he inappropriately places students into an artificial English-major allegiance. Finally, the last chapter describes a “Highly Incomplete English Major Hall of Fame,” a relatively uninspired add-on that weakens the ending of an otherwise outstanding book.

This book—suitable for anyone working with students in the liberal arts— equips advisors to suggest the many different directions students can, and do, take with an English degree. When convinced that their only options lie in teaching and law, students need to hear the words of Antonio Machado: “Travelers, there is no path. Paths are made by walking” (p. xi).

Why to Major in English If You’re Not Going to Teach (2010) Book by Robert Prescott. Review by Craig M. McGill. Dubuque, IA. Kendall Hunt. 156 pp. $32.00. ISBN # 978-0-7575-8130-4
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