English Major Skills in the Real World

This past week, the site Dear English Major retweeted a post about “The 9 Most Common Misconceptions about English Majors (And Why They’re not always True).” Go ahead and read it, I’ll wait! One point especially caught my attention: The skills you learn in English class don’t translate to the “real world.” This resonated with me because I realized that while I’m working in a highly technical field, the way I was taught to view documents (and the world) ensured that I can do what I do without the benefit of a science or engineering education (degree). Working with words is powerful!

Learning How Things Work

The processes of diagramming sentences and analyzing plot charts helped me learn technical processes that were beyond my often-sketchy scientific learning. Instead of learning rocket science or planetary science through equations or chemical formulae, I learned to piece together these activities by their sentence structure. In essence, I acquired my process knowledge through reading the “stories” of how things worked.

Engineers (and sometimes scientists) write cryptically, using a lot of complicated jargon, which is complicated further by a convoluted, passive-voice writing style. My way of sorting out many processes has been a combination of subconsciously diagramming the sentences–determining which words were nouns, which were verbs, which were adjectives, which were subjects, which were objects etc.–and then trying to decipher the “story” they were trying to tell. The words that I didn’t know I could look up in a dictionary, website, textbook, or other primary source.

Would it help me to know the equations behind how things worked? Perhaps, if they were needed. But for what I do for a living, most of the time the equations are not necessary. There have been a couple of rare occasions where the engineer has explained something like thrust traces, orbit changes, or heat losses that followed a formula of some sort; in those cases I have quoted the equation in the paper, explained the variables, and moved on.

While this might drive some of my scientific or engineering customers a little batty, it is in fact quite possible to do all that and still not be able to do the math. I’m not designing the rockets, after all, just explaining them for other people, many of whom also don’t know the math and (to be honest) don’t care.

Bottom line: the skills I acquired for analyzing sentences allowed me to translate science and engineering without being a scientist or engineer.

Getting to the “So What?”

When people complain about their high school or college literature classes, they often point to painful lectures or classroom discussions about the meaning, theme, or moral of a poem, short story, or novel. “Why do we have to learn this?” is a common refrain. However, while you might not need to explain the moral of Moby-Dick after college, the ability to explain the heart of the matter comes into play in other ways.

Engineers really love their hardware, for any number of reasons. Some enjoy the challenge of problem solving. Some are impressed by performance or design simplicity/elegance. Some are into technology for technology’s sake. Some enjoy a combination of all of those. When I talk to an engineer about their latest gadget/toy/software, they will start sharing all of the important aspects and statistics about it. How fast it is, how powerful it is, how it many parts it has, or whatever. After I’ve taken all those notes, I’ll come back to the English literature questions:

  • Why should other people care about [improved performance metric X]?
  • What will your invention allow people to do/accomplish?
  • What is/are the benefit(s) in schedule, time, money, or quality?

In other words, “So what?”

Often an English-literature-educated technical writer wants to know the moral or theme of a gadget’s story. They’re not trying to drag the engineer back into a poetry classroom, they’re trying to get at how their invention will benefit other people and why.

Just saying, for example, that a new rocket engine has a specific impulse of over 300 seconds might not move me or the non-engineering public (the audience for whom I often write). If you explain that specific impulse (also called ISP) is a measure of efficiency and that your new engine is getting more thrust with the same or less fuel than a comparable rocket, I can probably work with that. More efficiency means a rocket can lift a larger payload (satellite, crew, etc.) for the same or less cost. Start talking money, and even politicians will get it and, maybe, be interested in funding it.

Hidden Meanings, Symbols, and Other Vocabulary

English majors aren’t just fans of the thesaurus. We have an appreciation for and interest in how words can be used to convey many things in different contexts. Mind you, some folks (like the Deconstructionists) go to extremes and suggest that there is no way that two people can fully communicate because each person has their own personal definition of what words mean. My argument to my critical theory teacher and to the world at large, is that aside from such an approach being a load of horse dung utter nonsense, science and engineering are living examples of how it can be refuted. For example, one person can write down a process–a set of blueprints, a design schematic, or a scientific experiment–and others can reproduce the procedures as written to create the same (or close-enough) results in the real world.

My arguments with Deconstructionism notwithstanding, I am still interested in and aware that how words are used and in what context can greatly change their perceived meaning. A recent article in National Geographic touched on a subject I used for my master’s thesis: how the words we use to “sell” human exploration and settlement of outer space can affect the way different audiences perceive those messages. The NG article touched on the analogies or narratives used to describe space efforts, such as the European voyages of discovery in the 15th-18th centuries or their settlement of the American West in the 19th century. Words like “colony” or “settlement” can touch off all sorts of hot buttons in nations that were subject to European imperialism. And, of course, NASA has been making a slow transition from “manned” spaceflight to “human” or “crewed” spaceflight for decades now.

I don’t mean that English majors should be the political correctness police. However, what we can do is to identify problematic words in a given document and suggest alternatives that are accurate but not as likely to offend a given audience.

On a more upbeat note, literature majors are also good at identifying symbols. Being in the rocket/space business, I hear a lot about ascents. This conjures up other images in my imagination: ascending to heaven, the soaring of the spirit, the ability to rise above current problems, reaching for the stars, et cetera–all feelings that can reach and inspire other people emotionally in ways equations cannot. Or, on the graphics side, one might notice a Cartesian approach to space images: Western readers read left to right. Also, “down” is considered a negative direction (toward hell) while moving upward is considered a positive direction (moving toward “heaven above”). Working with graphic designers, technical writers can help subtly or directly convey images that reflect progress or improvement.

Final Thought

Compared to the numbers-based realities of science and technology, English literature can appear to be a bit “fluffy” in its orientation. However, human beings communicate via symbols, whether they’re letters, words, pictures, or equations. Your friendly neighborhood English major just happens to be trained in the use of the symbols we call words. Hiring one to help your company or organization communicate just might be worth considering.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
This entry was posted in education, philosophy, science, technical writing, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to English Major Skills in the Real World

  1. Going in the other direction, if I introduce myself at a networking event as an editor/proofreader, it’s common for someone to assume that I majored in English. Love it, write it, read it like a maniac, sure. But my degree is in Electronics Technology and my first post-university job was as a self-taught computer programmer.

    Did you ever notice how precise Spock is with English? And it’s not even his first language. English is a tool, and we should all strive to use it with the same precision as we use every other tool at our disposal, regardless of whether or not we majored in it.

  2. Beverley Scott says:

    Thank you. As daunted as I feel, leaving a reply to an English Major, I have noted some key words and concepts to use as prompts in my own reports.

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