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English Major by Kelley Burnett

Kelley Burnett, PSU student and Writers in the Schools intern, has been asked to share her thoughts on being an English major. Here is what she had to say..

English Major
by Kelley Burnett

When I first went to college I was determined to avoid declaring a major for as long as I could. I took a lot of required general education classes. Then, when I needed to start focusing my study and choose a major, I changed my major all the time, struggling to find an area of study that held my attention. First it was Human Development, then Early Childhood Education, then General Psychology. After about a year of those classes I decided to change my major to Studio Art and take ceramics and photography, then declared a Photo-Journalism major, then a Liberal Studies major, so I could continue taking any class I wanted. (In addition to switching my majors, I’ve also attended four different colleges…in four years…)

Two summers ago I moved up to Portland and transferred into Portland Community College, eventually dual enrolling at Portland State University. Reverting back to my original plan of not having a major, I decided to take classes that seemed fun and different from the classes I’d been taking; thus I enrolled in English classes.

(Brief back-story: my mother was a high school English teacher, and though I had been told I was a good writer, and I loved to read, I would not take any English classes, I think because my mom would require book reports out of me during the summer if I ever complained about being bored. She would also choose the books for these reports, so I may have developed an aversion to literature after having to read Tolstoy all summer when I was fourteen.)

I took an Introduction to Poetry class at PCC, and a few other English classes called Film as Art. I found myself writing better and better papers for these classes, attending readings of local authors, and wanting to read books suggested by my professors outside of class. My bookshelf expanded, and I pulled out all the old books my mom had tried to make me read when I was younger. My interest in literature continued as I began to take upper-division English classes at PSU. I realized that being an English major helped me find classes that exposed me to good literature; I then realized that literature was essential for me, helping me create a better understanding of the world around me; helping me understand and appreciate art, and better understand people. Most of all, through reading literature, I was able to study good examples of writing, and use those examples to refine my own writing skills and get inspired to write stories and poetry. Writing has been a great medium for me to be creative and expressive in ways that I had not experienced through any other artistic medium or area of study.

Now I am a senior at Portland State, graduating shortly with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English. Some of my favorite English classes were: Contemporary Memoir, where we read many short memoir pieces as well as This Boys Life and The Duke of Deception, by the brothers Tobias Wolff and Geoffrey Wolff, respectively, and Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick. After taking the Contemporary Memoir literature course, I enrolled in a memoir writing course, and thoroughly enjoyed that writing form. In another favorite course, Contemporary Literature, I read and studied the novels Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. English majors are required to study several different types of literature, so I have taken English courses focusing on topics of gender and race; for this requirement I am taking a class focusing on the works of bell hooks. We are also required to study literature from different time periods, so I took a class about Shakespeare’s comedies, and a course on the works of Mark Twain (which may be my absolute favorite class). This term, my last undergraduate term at PSU, I am taking Intermediate Fiction Writing, Literature of the 1960’s, as well as a few other classes for my degree requirements. Thinking back about the various English courses I have taken, I think that I enjoyed them so much, and stayed with the English major because the experience of reading and discussing a novel in a group setting, led by a knowledgeable instructor, is a great experience, and different from just reading books on my own. Also, I was required to write quite a few papers for these English classes, and that helped me really understand that writing concisely, clearly, and writing persuasive theses are essential skills for critical thinking. In addition to academic writing, the English courses I took helped me write creatively, giving me ideas and examples of expertly crafted forms of writing, deft phrases and word choices, as well as beautifully rendered plots and characters.

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