How To Succeed In English Lit Without Really Trying


In my sophomore year at Miami University (of Ohio), I made the decision to become an English Literature major. I didn’t choose it because I’m passionate about the role feminism plays in Restoration Literature or because I wanted to understand why Foucault is a part of the literary canon; rather, I chose it because I knew it’d be an easy row to hoe for a right-brained girl like me, leaving plenty of time for the important things in life (i.e. playing Snood and learning how to beatbox).

I was frequently told by friends and fellow Lit students that I was the worst English major ever, perhaps because I never finished (nor rarely ever started) the literature I was assigned in class. You might be asking yourself why I chose to major in English if I wasn’t planning on doing any of the work, and in your question you have found the answer: I wasn’t planning on doing any work. If you are inclined to do the same, I have some tips for you.  Read on to see how you, too, can succeed in English without really trying.

1. Learn how to bullsh*t

If you want to be an English major (and actually do semi-well), this skill is a non-negotiable. You must learn to spin intricate yet nonsensical webs of analysis that make it seem like you know what you’re talking about, though no one can be sure. The best way to go about this is to half-listen to your classmates, appropriate their thoughts and recast them as your own, and then use every ten-dollar word you’ve ever come across.


Teacher: “Who can explain the relevance of the pinecones in chapter 24?”

Lit Major: Wait. There are pinecones somewhere in this book? I thought it was about a dystopian society run by misogynistic robots… at least that’s what the cover would suggest. What was that last girl saying about pregnancy and grandfather clocks?

Teacher: “No one? How about you, Lit Major?”

Lit Major: Wipe that blank ass look off your face and pull it together. “Well, in their most natural form, pinecones resemble eggs, which could allude to the infertility of the protagonist. They also come into play several times in the chapter, and are always discussed in conjunction with the grandfather clock from chapter two… this might suggest the author’s disjointed relationship with the construct of time.”

Teacher: “Interesting take on that passage, Lit Major. Anything else?”

Lit Major: “Um, pinecones also come from nature and are most ubiquitous in the spring, which could symbolize some sort of rebirth for the ancillary characters… ?

Teacher: “Well done. Moving on, we can see in chapter 17 that blah blah blah…”

Lit Major: Booooooom. Back to Angry Birds.

2. The Period Trick

Let’s say you have a 15-page essay due tomorrow on the various works of Virginia Woolf.  It’s three in the morning and you’ve finally finished, but you’ve only got ten pages of analysis. Guess what: you’re done. Slap a conclusion on that sucker and call it a day (night?). But how?! Pay attention: Go to Edit. Select “Find.” Type in a “.” Select “Find All.” At this point, all of the periods in your document should be highlighted. Go to your font size, and change it from 12 to 16.

Say hello to your 15-page essay.

3. Make use of a thesaurus

Hear this now: no English Lit major can possibly survive college without the use of a thesaurus. Besides being able to verbally spar during in-class discussions, a successful Lit major must perfect the art of the analytical essay — an area in which you will only see the fruits of your labor if you abandon your everyday vocabulary lexicon.

Seeing as said lexicon is generally strengthened fortified through reading the literature assigned in your classes (which, being the slacker that you are, you obviously won’t be doing) you must warm to the idea notion of replacing weak inadequate words with better more purposeful ones. Here is where your thesaurus comes in.

Using normal quotidian words in your writing is the fastest way to be labeled as an idiot ignoramus for the entirety of your college career. On the other hand Conversely, using words people have never heard of will suggest that you are smart erudite and well-read scholarly. Not only will you fool bamboozle your teacher into thinking you read pore over the dictionary for fun, you’ll likely outshine your classmates with your huge Brobdingnagian arsenal of synonyms.

4. Use your time wisely

If someone told you that you had to physically read books — as in cover to cover — in order to graduate with a BA in English Literature, that person was either (a) an English teacher or (b) an overachiever. One of the things I learned in college is that English teachers are seemingly ignorant to the fact that you’re in more than one class per semester. They love to assign anywhere from 50 to 150 pages of reading as homework, which, assuming you’re taking a full course load, means you’ll be reading upwards of 200 pages per night. If you’re planning on having some semblance of a social life, there is a simple solution: don’t do the reading. At least, don’t do all of it.

Do you have a class discussion tomorrow on pages 1-150 of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Pick ONE chapter, read (or skim) it, and then spend five minutes thinking of something mildly interesting or intuitive to say about it. That way it looks like you read, and you’ll knock out a class participation requirement. The same goes for papers — choose a topic or theme that is contained in only a few chapters of a book, read those chapters, and you’ll be as informed as you need to be to write a well-thought-out essay.

And there you have it. Succeeding in English without really trying can be done by anyone lazy enough to give it a go — take it from me, Marielle Wakim (BA in English Literature, Miami University, Class of 2009; Masters of Professional Writing candidate, University of Southern California, May 2012).

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