Being an English major and learning to deflect assumptions

I am an English major. Before you laugh or crack the ever-original joke about my promising future as a barista, I’d like to cut in and let you know that I’ve been working in the software industry for more than a year now. One of my biggest frustrations in life come from slightly different variations of this conversation:

Loose acquaintance: So, you’re graduating soon. What are your plans?
Me: I’m not really sure yet. I’m still job hunting.
Loose acquaintance: Right. Well, it’s hard out there these days. What did you major in again?
Me: English with a minor in Business.
Loose acquaintance: (now with a skeptical expression) Oh, so you want to be a teacher.
Me: No, I’ve actually been working in the software industry for more than a year now. I’m a technical writer.
Loose acquaintance: (now with a slightly brightened expression) Oh, so you’re going to be a programmer.
Me: No…my job is writing user-facing documentation. You know those online help portals that tell you “Click this, click that”? I write those.
Loose acquaintance: …Oh. You like doing that stuff?
Me: …Yes.

There are several things that frustrate me about this conversation, which I’ve had with a staggering number of people in the fast few years. Mostly it’s the number of assumptions:

You have to have a job related to your major:
If you studied engineering, computer science, or a similar field, it’s likely that you’ll find a job in your field after graduation. For many college students these days, a major is something you choose out of dubious interest or rumors of high-paying jobs, and college is something you attend more out of social expectation than an actual desire to learn. I’ve had too many people ask me about my major rather than my interests or even my past work experience during conversations about my future job prospects. I love reading and analyzing literature, but I’m fully aware that no one will pay me to do it at this point in my life. That’s why I gained other skills outside of school so that I’d be more likely to find a job after graduation.

English majors all want to be teachers:
Or, that they have nothing else to do but become teachers (or baristas). I do know many English majors who are currently working or wanting to work in education. I also know English majors who are currently working in journalism, with non-profits, or in the tech industry. I’m not saying that being a teacher is not a good decision (in fact, it’s one of the most necessary jobs out there), but the assumption that being an English major = becoming a teacher just irks me.

You work in software? But you don’t know how to program!:
This is something I hear often. For people outside the industry, it seems like the only jobs that exist in software are for software developers, and that my lack of knowledge about programming is an anomaly. As with every other industry, software needs other types of workers: salespeople, project managers, support technicians, and…technical writers. In fact, one of my greatest strengths as a writer is being able to sympathize with the average, non-technical user: I translate developerspeak into regular language.

Documentation is boring:
I love my job. But as with anything, it’s not for everyone. But I wouldn’t call it boring. My job isn’t solely writing simple, one-sentence instructions. I also think about how to structure the information properly, create screenshots and diagrams to illustrate my points, and consider how to make the information accessible, helpful, and clear to each and every user. Sure, sometimes my job is not too exciting. But every job has its moments.

I hope that this post saves me some awkward, frustrating conversations in the future. What are some assumptions people hold about your major or job?

Book Review: The Stand

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If we don’t have each other, we go crazy with loneliness. When we do, we go crazy with togetherness.

The Stand, by Stephen King

I spent a month reading The Stand (the complete, unabridged version). For some reason, it took me about three weeks to get through the first half, and only four days or so to get through the last half. This makes sense, though. The first half of the book deals with the outbreak of a superflu that desolates most of the population of the United States, and the individual stories of various sets of survivors. The second half of the book becomes much more engrossing as these survivors begin to congregate and interact with each other.

This was my first experience reading Stephen King, and despite the length of the book, I’m happy to report that I remained engrossed for most of it. I’ve generally stuck to the canon for my literary pursuits, but I’ve heard so many great things about Stephen King, and this book in particular, from my friends, so it was time to give it a shot. Although starting this particular piece a month before school may not have been the wisest move…I’ve finished The Stand, but I’m hopelessly behind on the reading list for my seminar class.

In any case, the basic premise of The Stand is instantly relatable, with the idea of a virus spreading quickly and mercilessly across the population. There is a huge cast of characters with enough variation that it isn’t too hard to find someone to relate to (although racial diversity seems to be a bit too much to hope for, other than Mother Abagail, who fulfills the stereotypical role of the wise, kind old black woman). The characters are different enough to keep their stories separate in your head, and it’s satisfying to see how they interact with each other once their plots finally converge.

The Stand has a wealth of topics to discuss, but for me, one of the most important issues is the representation of women. I tend to focus on the representation of women for almost every book I’ve read, and The Stand is no exception. The main female characters are Frannie Goldsmith, Nadine Cross, and Mother Abagail. For me, Mother Abagail seemed more of a plot device and a symbol rather than an actual character, so I’ll refrain from discussing her.

Frannie is introduced early in the novel, and is one of the characters that the reader is intended to sympathize with, a young woman who unexpectedly becomes pregnant and intends to raise her child as a single mother. At times, Frannie is resourceful, clever, and very empathetic. It’s clear that the other characters respect her and hold her in high regard. As a young woman myself, I found myself initially sympathizing with Frannie, who has to deal with her mother’s high expectations, as well as face other difficulties in the post-apocalyptic world of The Stand due to her gender and condition.

However, what simply annoyed me about Frannie was that she wouldn’t stop crying all the time. Some of these moments are understandable, but often she is simply weeping at every little thing. I realize that she’s pregnant and depicted as more emotional than the average woman, but it peeved me that the primary female protagonist is constantly depicted as crying at every turn and having to be comforted by her male partner.

In The Stand, women are dependent on men, Frannie being the most obvious example. Even Nadine, who at first appears to control men with her mysterious beauty, has to succumb to the desires of men to survive. When Frannie and Harold Lauder first encounter Stu Redman, it is clear that Harold views Frannie as his property, and he is wary of Stu stealing her away. While it disheartened me to read about the treatment of women in the book (including “the zoo”), I couldn’t help but think that it was realistic – that people would be reduced to savagery in the wake of such a disaster.

YES OR NO?: YES. The Stand is a long and sometimes heavy read. But there’s something in it for everyone: some science, some magic, and definitely adventure. I’m not sure if it’s a book I’d read over and over again, but it is definitely worth your time.

Reading very, very long books

I’ll admit it. I’ve been a bit lazy about blogging lately. But the main reason I haven’t published a full book review is because I’ve been trying to get through Stephen King’s The Stand for about a month now. It’s my first time reading Stephen King, and while the subject matter and tone isn’t right up my alley, The Stand is engrossingly detailed and meticulously thought out in its depiction of destruction. With the various epidemics that have happened worldwide since The Stand’s publication in 1978, the novel still feels relevant despite its dated and sometimes unrelatable references.

But it’s still so long. I’ve often wanted to give up on books simply because of their length, but there are many books (including The Stand) that I simply couldn’t give up on. Here’s some long (very long) books that I think are worth the time:

  1. Crime and Punishment: A challenge to read, because of its length, sometimes abstract subject matter, and huge cast of characters with long names. But it definitely altered my perspective on a major issue, which any great novel should do.
  2. The Count of Monte CristoA classic tale of revenge that actively shows the consequences of an all-consuming revenge.
  3. The Portrait of a Lady: While not quite as long as the other works on this list, I would still consider it a hefty book. Isabel Archer’s attempts to survive as an independent young woman in the Old World is still relevant to modern audiences.
  4. 1Q84: 1Q84 is so long that it’s often split into three volumes. I read it as one huge tome, which I lugged around to and from work for a month. I also remember staying up to read it on Christmas night, after presents had been opened and a plentiful dinner consumed. 1Q84 introduced me to the strange and fragile world of Murakami.
  5. A Song of Ice and Fire: People often say that this series overrated, and as someone who generally doesn’t delve into high fantasy, I’m not sure if I have the most expert opinion. I don’t watch the show, but I found that even after hundreds of pages, I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next to Jon, Arya, and Dany.

What long books do you think are worth the read? Have you ever given up on a book because of its length?

Productivity tips on Medium

By night (often late night), I’m a blogger. By day, I write content for a small software company. I take care of social media, blog posts, how-to articles, UI text, etc. If it’s written content in any form, I’m in charge of it.

When I sleepily trudge into the office at 8 AM every morning, my routine is to make myself a cup of Earl Grey; reply emails, user reviews, and support requests; and browse TechCrunch and Medium for relevant news. I have an account on Medium, which I only use for favoriting posts in case I need to find them later. I do my blogging strictly on WordPress.

The reason for that is simple, I guess. I’ve always blogged on WordPress (well, not counting my preteen Xanga days, I suppose), and it would be a hassle to switch over. Medium offers a crisp, clean reading experience, but there’s less opportunity for authors to customize layout and presentation, which has both its pros and cons.

I don’t explore a lot on Medium, but I tend to browse the top five posts for each day. The topics for these posts don’t vary much: the tech industry (usually with a focus on user-friendly design, Silicon Valley, and startups), entrepreneurialism, and productivity.

I’m always looking for ways to increase my productivity, so I tend to click on the latter. And they’re always a huge waste of time. It’s funny how something I look to as a resource to increase my productivity just ends up wasting valuable time.

The problem is this. Whenever someone writes a post about productivity on Medium, it goes the same way. It’s always the same advice:

  1. Sleep early and wake up early. Get at least 8 hours of sleep.
  2. Prioritize: do your most dreaded tasks first to make sure you get them done.
  3. Avoid checking social media and emails until the afternoon.
  4. Set daily, weekly, and yearly goals to work towards.
  5. Journal so you can reflect on yourself.

…And so on.

The problem I have with these posts isn’t that they’re not inspirational. They were inspirational to me the first few times I read them. But the more I read, the more skeptical I became, and I realized that this advice simply didn’t work for me.

I once read a post on Medium where the author said that they slept at 9:30 every night and woke up at 5 every morning, spent the first hour of their day doing all sorts of productive things (exercising, journaling, eating a healthy breakfast, meditating, etc.), before starting their work day by tackling their biggest project first, and not checking any emails until 2 PM. The post was riddled with sentences like “You think you can’t do this, right? The first few days are hard, but you’ll get used to it!”

The problem is, nothing works for everyone. Obviously you should take all advice with a grain of salt and adapt it to your own lifestyle, but I find that the advice around productivity on Medium is just so singular. It’s always wake up early, get lots of sleep, journal, meditate, eat healthy.

These things obviously work for many people. But not everyone is most productive early in the morning. I’ve certainly done lots of my best work late at night, in a quiet space in front of my laptop. And not checking my email until 2 PM would certainly get me in trouble with my boss. Not everyone is their own boss, working from home, free to structure their day as they’d like.

Trying to understand your own productivity in terms of someone else’s can be the biggest waste of time.