I bet anyone who is not an English major and sees the title of this post is scoffing just at the idea that we actually have work to do at the end of the semester. “Oh, bullshit, so you’ve got to write a two-page paper.” “Oh no, you have to revise something you already wrote, boo hoo!” Well, shut up. We don’t have it nearly as easy as you think and I’m going to tell you why.
English (Literature) Classes
I’m a Creative Writing major with a Literature minor, so I’ll be addressing both areas within the blanket “English” field. (I’m lucky that my school divides them so I can have both.) We’re starting with literature.
This (well, last) semester, I took a really excellent course in the history and evolution of the English language. We studied Old English, read a bunch of Middle English, learned about how the language became standardized and how some assholes who thought they were better than everyone else wrote down a bunch of arbitrary rules that we are still held to to this very day. Ever get yelled at for ending a sentence with a preposition? Well, that’s because these jerks said, “It’s literally impossible to do in Latin because the prepositions are built into the words, so it must be wrong to do it in English!” when they wrote their book. Oddly enough, the very next sentence in said book ended in a preposition. Go figure.
The format for this class’s final was similar to many other literature courses I’ve taken. We have a research paper due on the last day of class. The research papers vary in length depending on the level of the course, but sources are important. When my professor assigned the paper (disputed usage in Modern English–I wrote about “all right” vs. “alright”), I was pretty excited because I’m a nerd so I started doing some fairly basic research right away. This was about a month before the paper was due. A few days before the paper was due, I started doing hardcore research–finding all the books I could and collecting them together and taking notes, writing down just about every quote that looked remotely useful. I spent about three days doing hardcore research into this. Really. Three days of research to back up my claim that “alright” has evolved to have a meaning of its own and written communication would be clearer if Standard English allowed it. Okay? Then a day actually writing the paper. Then a three-day break before the actual exam for the class, in which we had to describe in detail the grammatical use of any particular word in a short passage we were given. I’m assuming most of you haven’t ever studied Latin or German, because they’re not all that common anymore. So please go identify all the Genitive nouns in the previous paragraph. After that, describe the tense and mood of all the verbs in the first paragraph. And quick: what part of speech is “the”? Okay, so that was part 1. In part 2, we had to read a passage of written English and identify which century it was from and be able to defend our positions. A few of those were obvious, but really, there are only minor differences between 17th century texts and 18th century texts. You have to know exactly what to look for. We were not told exactly what to look for, so we had to figure that out on our own. (The same goes for 18th and 19th century.)
Another common literature exam tactic is the “identify this quote” game. List of quotations from everything you’ve read this semester. Provide the piece it’s from, who said it, the context it’s in, and the importance of the quote. Do that 30 times. Oh, and your professor doesn’t give a fuck about your carpal tunnel syndrome–you have two hours.
Creative Writing Classes
This is the one that people really don’t think requires any effort. I mean, how can you do an exam in creative writing? You can’t, really. You have to prove that you learned something in the class by writing or revising a creative piece. No other way to do it.
Taking a poetry class? Find every poem you wrote this semester. Revise it according to your professor’s comments, which are impossible to read because he hand-writes them and has shitty handwriting. And you better make some pretty significant changes to those poems, and they better be related to what you’ve discussed in class. Be prepared to completely re-write half of them.
Scriptwriting? I did that this semester. Write a screenplay. And a stage piece. They’re due on the same day. Good luck.
Fiction? I love writing fiction. You’ve probably written at least one story over the course of the semester. Maybe you’ve written a few stories, or one long story. You’ll probably have to revise it. So let’s say you wrote one long (30 page) story in third person omniscient. And let’s also say that at some point you realized that third person omniscient is a horrible way to be telling this as a short story and you should do something about that. Suddenly you need it to be in first person. You realize you’ve never written anything in first person. In fact, you have no fucking clue how to do it. So you do some research by reading things in first person that you really love and you think set good examples. And then you realize that you weren’t paying much attention to exactly how the point of view was used in the story and go back and re-read it. Do that for a while before you’re ready to sit down the night before it’s due and actually re-write however much of your story you need to. Realize that the 15ish pages you wrote aren’t condensing. In fact, this group of six pages is now exactly 10. You didn’t even get to the point that you wanted to get to, but now it’s nearing 3am and you have to wake up early tomorrow to drive 10 hours to your brother’s graduation.
Things to keep in mind when it comes to creative writing: you need to know a lot of shit to be able to make up a story. I reached a point in mine where a character drops a piece of plexiglass onto the cement floor. If you want to do it right, you’ve gotta go find a piece of plexiglass and a cement floor to drop it on so you know exactly what sound it makes. And you need that kind of detail for every single thing you put into your writing, whatever genre it is. Does one of your characters have a flower in her hair? What kind of flower? How exactly do you want to describe the color? Are there speckles? Go learn the anatomy of it so you can refer to the “stamen” and not look like an idiot. Because have you ever read a book or a story or a poem or watched a movie or TV show and said, “wait a minute, I know something about this field and that is NOT how it works!”? I know I have. So be prepared to either know how everything works or look dumb. (And if you’re writing science fiction, you’ve really gotta know the science behind the stuff you’re making up. I’ll be doing a self-taught crash-course in zoology this summer just because I made up a monster one day.)
Still think your finals are harder?
I can’t really say whether they’re harder or not. I haven’t been any other major for a while. I’m sure your finals suck too. That isn’t my point here. My point is more that, for whatever reason, English majors get a ton of shit for not ever having to do actual work during their entire college career and that’s not true. We do work. Especially if we care, and I care a lot. Math and science majors aren’t the only ones who collapse on their bed at the end of the semester and realize, fuck, it’s been over a month since I got more than three hours of sleep at a time.
(Oh, by the way, this whole rant? That’s why I sorta disappeared for a bit. Sorry ’bout that. It should be better now. I’m gonna go to sleep, though. And then I’m gonna take a day-long nap.)