English majors remain beholden to subjectivity


Ansley McNeel, Staff Columnist

We all know math is hard. Even for people who find it satisfying to finish a difficult problem, it is widely acknowledged that STEM subjects are of a clearly impressive baseline difficulty. While this holds true, it’s also worth acknowledging that English and humanities are at least equally difficult.

As an English major and creative writing minor, I feel that I am never done with my work. There is always another paragraph I can add, a grammar mistake I can fix or an interpretation to which I can add nuance. In this way, I believe that it is harder to feel a sense of accomplishment or finality in English and writing-based classes because there is no universal finish-line.

When I write papers, I often start by creating a brief outline of the essay’s path in my mind. From there, I write a vague introductory paragraph because I know that I must allow for the chaotic and short period between conceptualizing an idea in my head and physically writing it down on paper. This common writing process shows how the fluid nature of a writing assignment encourages a constantly changing finish line. Instead of writing an outline, adding details or finishing the essay as it is, most strong writers know that they must go back to their introduction in order to populate their analysis with newly discovered ideas throughout the course of the writing process. Writers do this to achieve a higher degree of specificity and quality in their writing. There is also a higher level of analysis exhibited when a writer follows both the text and the whims of their own analytical mind, instead of strictly adhering to their own individual interpretation.

With these methods of writing, I have found that my process of work is almost always cyclical. I write a paragraph and then I must immediately change all preceding paragraphs to reflect these variations. When I find a word that has been repeated too many times, I must comb through my entire essay looking for interesting synonyms that may replace that specific word. If I realize that I have written too little for the page requirement, I must then dive deeper into the words which I have already explored, or delve into the source text in search of another interesting tidbit that might add to the work. If I realize that I have written too much, I must select the paragraph which contains the least compelling argument, the least interesting nuance or the least applicable content and delete it. This is ordinarily done after I have sunk time and energy into perfecting the existing parts of my work. It is exhausting to chase perfection on an assignment that is graded in a subjective manner, only to realize that it will still feel like what you did was not enough.

All of this is not to say that STEM classes aren’t difficult. Of course, I recognize that I abhor the subjects which force me to do math, science or applications of those subjects because they are so challenging.

I still find myself relieved when I am taking at least one STEM class per semester. These classes allow me to feel done with my work at least once per day. I can turn in a problem to TopHat for my physics class and rest well knowing that I have earned a certain score on my homework for that night. I can double-check my final result and see that a number that I have calculated works when I plug it back into an equation. My grades are released almost immediately after my exams in these classes because my answers are either right or wrong. These classes do not operate on a gradient. There is a question and there is a right answer. I know exactly where I stand, even if I am not doing well.

In my essay-based classes, this is not the case. There have been times where I have turned in work that I perceive to be the best of my young career, only to receive poor marks. After I have turned in work that I see as wholly undeserving of praise, there have been days in which I was asked to remain after class to discuss how strong my work was. There is seldom a consistent indicator of how my work may be received.

In my advanced poetry workshop class from last semester, I actually wrote my final project paper about this topic — about how “beauty” and “worth” are perceived in literature. My professor, Marream Krollos, raised the following questions: why is it that students have no problem with purchasing poetry collections written by poets such as William Wordsworth, but when it comes to modern poets, they refuse? Why is it that we place such worth and value on some artists and are unwilling to consider other strong artists as their equals?

These questions have haunted my literary thoughts, and I can see no other answer other than that beauty and worth are perceived in different ways by each individual. What I see as worthy and lovely is not what you will see as worthy and lovely. Our conceptions of what is worthy can be shaken and reformed by the cultures around us, whether that be an FYS professor who asks each student to avoid passive tense, a high school teacher who disliked any version of “to be” phrasing or anything else which might define what is “good” in a paper.

When we do not all share the same perspective of what is much less beautiful, then how are writers ever to feel that they are truly done? We can always re-read the text, add nuance to analysis, or find another way to answer the same question. How are we to feel accomplished in our everyday assignments? The simple answer is that oftentimes, a writer is incapable of feeling finished with their work.