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Removing the English major’s “scarlet letter”

August 6th, 2010 emcarp11

Yes, I am an English major and, no, I don’t plan to be a teacher.

I know that most English majors can sympathize with me about how disappointing it is to constantly hear: “So, what can you do with an English major? Basically just teach, right?”

I think teaching is a respectable career – in fact, my older sister is an elementary school teacher – however, it isn’t the only career option for English majors.

While it may seem like we English majors simply sit around reading classic novels and fluffy poetry, we actually study the art of language. In examining literature, we hone our logic skills and sharpen our own writing. We examine not only what authors say, but also why they say it and how they say it.

And, believe it or not, all this nerdy passion for language comes in quite handy in professions that don’t involve classrooms. Public relations is a perfect example. If there is anything I have learned in my six weeks of working at S&A (other than where the light switch is), it’s that language is everything in PR. When you are writing press releases, reports, and blogs everyday, you have to understand language and to be able to use it judiciously. Being an English major predisposes you to the importance of language and trains you to use it more effectively.

Still skeptical? Maybe this will help: Take the book The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I know, I know…the best I could come up with is a boring, old 19th century book by a guy who didn’t seem to understand how to use a period before a sentence reached a page in length? Most people get through a page and a half before pulling out the Sparknotes.

Despite how archaic The Scarlet Letter may seem, it actually is a great example (and even has some public relations lessons to boot).

The book follows the story of Hester Prynne, a woman living in Boston when the Puritans ran the town. She not only commits adultery, but also gives birth to her lover’s child, leading her to be ostracized by her community. To make matters worse, the village forces her to wear a red – sorry, I mean scarlet – “A” on her chest to brand her as an adulteress.

Although society condemns Hester, Hawthorne presents his tale in a way that challenges his reader to sympathize with her. He does not hide that she is guilty. Instead, he encourages us to understand Hester’s situation and to forgive her. Through his language and his narrative expertise, he shows that Hester is courageous and genuine rather than just a sinner worthy of contempt.

In a roundabout way, Hawthorne acts as Hester’s PR agent (apart from the little fact that she is a fictional character and all). He helps us see what she really is, rather than what society assumes her to be.

By studying Hawthorne’s work, there are parallels to be drawn about understanding your client’s perspective and giving targeted audiences the “view” they need to understand it as well. Hawthorne teaches us that PR is not about lying or covering up someone’s guilt, but about communicating the truth through language.

So, the next time you pick-up The Scarlet Letter, or maybe just the Sparknotes, look out for Hawthorne’s PR skills. You’ll quickly see that even a dusty, outdated book about the Puritans can prepare an English major for much more than just a career in teaching!

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