Illustration by Joaquin Kunkel

Coming Out as a Literature Major

What sets coming out as a literature major apart from other comings-out is that it really does involve a choice.

Nov 26, 2016

Of the many ways one can come out — as left-leaning, agnostic, queer, non-binary, pro-life, pro-Trump, etc. — openly describing oneself as a literature major ranks among the most daunting conversations I can think of. I should know; I have had The Talk. Or rather, I have had a series of Talks, and during each, I made the hints about my choice of major more and more explicit.
What sets coming out as a literature major apart from other comings-out is that it really does involve a choice. For all the gravitational-pull arguments I could make about the allure of books, I acknowledge that I could just as well have majored in a discipline I feel less passionate about, but one which might render me supposedly more employable. More on that inane assumption will follow. Since majoring in literature is a choice, it is something I should be held accountable for, something I must answer to and justify. Ultimately, it is my fault if majoring in literature derails my future.
Because pursuing a literature major really is a choice, the people around literature majors are free to react to the major in a variety of ways ranging from wild enthusiasm — a somewhat utopian ideal — to complete disregard. Accordingly, one strategy for a closeted literature major is to come out in gradations. I started the process with the innocent comment that I liked my IB English Literature course more than I liked my other subjects. Around that time, I developed some furtive literary crushes and started buying and reading books for pleasure. The size of my bookshelf grew throughout my last two years in high school, but I gave no reason for people around me to speculate that I might like literature.
When I took my first literature course during the spring semester of my freshman year, I could attribute my subject interest to a faint curiosity and a desire to hone a general exegetical skill set while still feigning interest in disciplines that are considered more concrete, like political science or sociology. If anyone had asked me why I was taking literature courses, I could simply have claimed I had no clue what I wanted to major in, that it was too soon to tell. I gave just those answers over the summer, even though I had already mentally committed to literature at that point. My pursuit of the major was still concealable, so I kept quiet about my interest in books and the world of the text.
I enrolled in two literature courses in my sophomore fall, which might have raised some eyebrows if I had told the people around me what I was studying, but it could still pass for a minor in the subject or as a self-tailored general education in the big books we all ought to read. At this point, I declared my major, but I continued to tell people around me that I was considering law school while deflecting questions about which undergraduate degree would get me there.
When I packed 30 kilograms of books in my checked luggage over winter break, I found myself having to eschew questions about what I was studying and how my degree could possibly warrant so many fiction books and so few textbooks. I convinced the people who asked that the structure of a liberal arts degree meant I could not tell what my major would be before the halfway point, thus buying myself six more months before I had to come clean about my already-declared major.
In the spring semester of my sophomore year, I ramped up my count of literature courses from two to three and started a Microsoft Word file with capstone ideas. I began to keep a running list of my favorite poems online, but I only conceded that I might lean slightly toward literature when I faced the question.
That excuse rung hollow when, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I had to wheel in an additional bookshelf to hold the 61 books I brought with me from Abu Dhabi. I started working in my local library’s archives over the summer and listened to 50 audiobooks in a month and a half, or roughly one per day. This flagrant abuse of a month-long trial with an unlimited audiobook provider and growing pressure to give some indication about my future made me realize my cover could not hold, so I told my immediate family that I would major in literature.
“But the job prospects are better than you think, and U.S. law schools love applicants who majored in literature,” I instantly added. This was a big step in verbalizing my major.
Having come out as a literature major, if reluctantly and almost apologetically so, I felt bold enough to select an all-literature subject package for the fall term of my junior year. Taking four literature courses, I began to look up potential graduate school programs and to search for research positions I could fill over the summer or publishing internships I could pursue while in New York. Thus planning for an arcane career far removed from the reality of life under capitalism, I prepared for a correspondingly arcane, hyper-specific capstone either on the cosmopolitan roots and tropes of nautical literature or on possible ways the modern epic might have arisen. As it grew clear to me that I would write something equally narrow for my capstone project, I wound up on the receiving end of jokes such as, You can always get a job at Starbucks, with increasing frequency. Still, the dying weeks of the fall semester mark a high tide in my gradual process of coming out: I can speak about my major to the people around me with a previously unthinkable openness and self-assurance. Even though I face occasional jokes about employability — Remember how NYU graduates ranked as the most employable ones? Clearly they didn’t count you in — simply because I am open about my literature major, I receive a degree of respect from people around me that I did not feel when I was clamoring to hide my interest in and commitment to the subject.
Much of that respect comes from my family. Even if they do not understand how a literature degree equips me for the job market, they trust my work ethic to serve me well and recognize the passion I feel for my subject. Yes, I have a diffuse memory of my father saying something like — Whatever you decide to do, steer clear of the humanities for my sake — when, fresh out of middle school, I told him I liked Danish more than math. He meant and did no harm, however; the advice he offered me assumed that I wanted a job that would afford me something akin to the suburban Danish context I grew up in. He rightly pointed out that very few humanities-related jobs exist in rural and suburban communities, giving me a reality check which I am thankful for. I am infinitely more grateful that my family recognizes literature as a major worth pursuing, not as frivolous, indulgent and pointless though these are three accusations often made against the academic study of literature, suggesting we merely made our hobby our major. I know not to take their open-mindedness for granted.
I also know, however, that the concern many people around me feel when I tell them what I plan to major in squares poorly with the reality of literature students’ employability. In reality, literature majors should face no stigma due to the academic path they choose to follow. Literature majors — and humanities majors generally — face higher rates of unemployment than other groups of students do, yes, but the causality underlying this fact seems questionable. Are literature majors categorically unemployable, or do higher education institutes simply matriculate too many humanists relative to the global labor market’s capacity? If the latter is true, pursuing a literature degree does not render students unemployable after graduation; it merely faces them with greater competition. In a community marked by heightened competition, the prospect of having to surpass other applicants should not keep students from the literature major from applying for jobs or graduate school spots, just as the strong competition should not keep college applicants from reaching for top-tier universities.
While no student, literature major or otherwise, should passively assume that she will find employment or further education opportunities after graduating, working under and excelling against the backdrop of great competition is second nature to many NYU Abu Dhabi students — perhaps, I might add, especially to literature students, who face snide comments from their peers and constantly have to justify their studies to their peers and to themselves. If you can cope with the frequent interrogations about what you are doing with your academic career and remain unabashed in your commitment to your literature major, chances are you can face a saturated job market and find the niche where you belong and where you are indispensable. When you do, chances are that position will not be at Starbucks, either; as Deborah Williams, head of NYUAD’s Literature and Creative Writing program, notes in a handout titled What Can You Do with a Literature Degree? at Literature and Creative Writing Open Houses, you just might become the prime minister of Canada.
Nikolaj Nielsen is a contributing writer. Email him at
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