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Why English?

A degree in English prepares students to become ready for the world, resilient in times of change and trained in the most relevant skills needed for a rewarding and meaningful career. 

As chair of the English department, I share with you what drew me to the humanities and my reflections on the ways the study of literature, language, writing and media prepares one for life beyond the university. As a high school senior I knew that I wanted to be  successful and that I wanted to make a difference. But I was not sure what this meant. At college, I was exposed to writers, artists and activists able to imagine a different and better world beyond their own particular historical moments and cultural circumstances. This is when I discovered that imagination and knowledge are two of the most potent ethical resources we have. The ability to think differently about our own world and the world follows from the capacity of the imagination to reshape what is known and to create something new.

I gravitated to the humanities, and particularly to English, because I was an independent thinker. In choosing what many may regard as an unconventional path, you too will become trained in the competencies that make you among the most sought-after employees by a range of for- and non-profit organizations; the most desired applicants for top-flight graduate programs in education, law, medicine and information technologies, among others; and competitive candidates for advanced positions at institutions of higher learning. Most importantly, whatever career you pursue will be rewarding because you will be an expert in nuanced approaches to complex problems, innovative modes of inquiry and bold, inventive courses of action. As we seek to address pressing world issues, like public health crises, climate change, and racial violence, you are the one who will ask: Whose voice is not being heard? Who needs a seat at the table? How can we think about this differently? What structures and systems are continuing to create barriers for change?

Most of you will eventually work at jobs that do not yet exist. In fluid and ever-changing regional and global conditions, experts have shown that college graduates can expect several transformative changes in their work culture and several career changes throughout their lives. A degree in English is the best preparation for this landscape in which training for a single career is insufficient. English emphasizes the capacity not just to acquire a defined body of knowledge but to continuously transform the ways we think; it teaches us to adapt to new situations and challenges; it trains us to blend diverse subjects, skills and interests with flexibility and adaptability. It teaches us resilience. As new technologies and business models transform the workplace and new roles emerge as quickly as old ones die out, these skills are the ingredients of 21st century professional success. Our discipline understands, as Steve Jobs stressed, that what is most important is not so much what we know but how we think.

The UMD Department of English is committed not just to amassing or transmitting information—but to reflecting on how we learn and what knowledge means, which are the essential building blocks of a just society. Becoming part of our community will instill in you a profound understanding of what it means to be human; a deep appreciation for diversity of thought, people and experiences; an abiding commitment to seek multiple perspectives; and, perhaps most importantly, the skills to investigate the past, the courage to question the present and the ability to imagine the future.

Amanda Bailey,
University of Maryland English Professor and Chair