Malaysia’s Misconceptions Towards English Literature Students

English Literature Students

For me, misconceptions are like a contagious disease. It spreads fast and vast, releasing its wrath upon innocents, leaving behind a trail of destruction in its path. People may ignore it when it doesn’t involve them but when it does, it becomes utterly damaging. Your life path may be altered, and it would bring a sense of dread to every decision you make for your future. It happens anywhere at any time, just a touch and you would succumb to its destructive manner. You cannot escape it and the only remedy is to enlighten ourselves about it so we can fight against it. Malaysia is not excluded from having misconceptions and as a University student majoring in English Literature, I have experienced my fair share of it. It is something I had endured throughout my degree life. Taking this into account, I decided to hold an interview with my friends, who are English Literature students as well, to further study the what, the why and the how.

With a Zoom call, we discussed the issue of misconceptions directed towards us, English Literature students. This article would be written as a collection of their answers. Firstly, I started the interview by asking their experience with misconception. What are the misconceptions they have heard, as English Literature students, when it comes to their major. The response was eye-opening, showing the unfair misconception the Malaysian society directs towards English Literature students.

English Literature Students


Career Opportunities

Whenever we tell someone we are English Literature students, they would assume our career when we finish degree would be teachers. Everywhere we go, there will always be people telling us, “Oh you’re going to be a teacher then?” and that every English course is equal to TESL, Teaching English as a Second Language. It is undeniable that there are some who are looking in that direction, becoming a teacher after they finish their degree but it is not the same for all. It is degrading to narrow English Literature students to one job scope, simply because it is relatively related to it. In other words, society thinks we don’t have other job options with our degree. 

Sometimes, even worse is when they assume that we wouldn’t be able to get a job with a degree in English Literature. They would question the use of a degree in English Literature and make us feel small about our major. On the contrary, we, English Literature students, are able to apply to a broad spectrum of job scope. We can be successful in any job we want to do. 

In addition to that, many people also believe that even though we can get a job, it would not be a good paying job as compared to professions like Doctors or Lawyers. It truly highlights the materialism and capitalism within the society and it is unfortunate that only the degree that generates the most money matters. 

Assignments Are Easy

This misconception typically circulates among students. They would assume that English Literature has it easy in terms of the assignments given. They would say things like, “You just read and write, what is so hard about that?” or “It must be easy for you, unlike my course” and they would belittle our course by comparing it to other courses, like Medic. Some even labeled English Literature as a course that “everyone can easily get the dean’s list award for every semester”. English Literature may seem easy but truly it is not because it requires a lot of critical thinking, reading and writing. We learn theories, history, politics, culture, social issues and many more. We have to relate the works that we have read into relevant context at the time the work was published and discuss the way it reflects society at the time. We also have to relate it to contemporary issues within the current generation and how we, as society, have changed over the years. It is more in-depth than what people think it is. It is complex in its own way and people should never underestimate the course because it can be way out of someone’s league. 

No Diversity In The Study

For me, my personal experience with misconception on our course is whenever I say I am an English Literature student, many people would say “You study Shakespeare then?” and think that we don’t learn any other authors than Shakespeare. At UM, the literary works that we are exposed to are very diverse. We don’t just read western literature but also eastern literature and local works that are written in English.  Every course has its own spectrum of what they study and what the majority of society sees when they look at the English Literature course is just the tip of the iceberg. 

No Good Future/Life

It is similar to the career opportunities but here we would like to add, we have heard many people say being an English Literature student would neither give you money nor a bright future. We wasted our degree because at the end, it doesn’t bring us any respectable work, which would result in us having a bleak future. Which is absolutely not true because learning English Literature is akin to learning about life and that is important. You get knowledge that others don’t have because you are able to expose yourself to stories from all over the world at different periods. Some even find strength and solace in the books they read and that itself can change their path and future. They can find a reflection of themselves in the book’s characters which allows them to feel less lonely. The prejudice Malaysian society has towards English Literature can be very upsetting. It makes them blind to the great potential we have to offer as English Literature students. An English Literature student should never be shameful or feel like they are wasting their degree. We are definitely not useless. 

After the long discussion, I then move on with the interview by asking them the next question. 

English Literature Students

Reasons Behind These Misconceptions 

Lack Of Awareness And Exposure

The reading culture in Malaysia is not as strong as other countries and that can contribute to the lack of awareness when it comes to literature-related courses. It may be the reason they tend to question the importance of literature in life. People labelling the English Literature course as a course that “everyone can get dean’s list for every semester” or “you don’t have a bright future with this degree” highlights the lack of knowledge among Malaysians in this field. Just the way they are aware of the many branches available under Medic or Engineering, they should be aware of the branches under English as well. It seems that in general, Malaysians’ awareness is only limited to TESL. 

Furthermore, Malaysian are not exposed from a young age to the literary world. This is probably caused by the expensive price of books. For many people, reading is quite at the bottom of the list when it comes to picking a hobby due to the fact that it is quite an expensive hobby. 

Other than that is the small number of students majoring in English Literature. I believe it to be one of the main reasons why people are less educated about it because they don’t have people around them that can expose them to the course. 

Glorifying The Outside/Western Culture

These misconceptions also occur because they think that we are worshipping outside cultures or languages than our own, more specifically, the western English speaking countries. For example, we’ve heard a lot of people saying “Why do you want to speak the language of the colonizers?” and they would justify their ignorance about the course using that excuse. They believe in the need to ‘bring us back to earth’ and ignorance towards English is the way to keep our culture and language alive. This is probably caused by their upbringing and how the society’s conventional ideas form their opinions. 

Lack Of Acknowledgement

In Malaysia, a lot of the educators emphasize on STEM subjects, an abbreviation for Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths subjects. In many schools, not many teachers take English seriously because they think, compared to the STEM subjects, English subject doesn’t promise a bright future. I have even encountered people who said they were made fun of at school for speaking in English, by both students and teachers. They think people who speak English are ostentatious. This kind of mindset is what destroys the opportunities for English Literature to be introduced extensively and being taken seriously. They glorify STEM subjects too much and simply disregard subjects other than that. They believe that “literature” has little to no application in the outside world. 

Lastly, I asked my coursemates on how they would enlighten Malaysian society regarding our course and try to eliminate these misconceptions as well as the ways we can make society respect English Literature students a little bit more. 

How To Enlighten The Society

Explain The Vast Possibilities 

We can try to explain the vast possibilities English Literature students can dive into and that there are a plethora of opportunities out there, in terms of career opportunities. We can achieve whatever we would like to achieve with our degree because there is no limitation to our knowledge. Let them know the importance of it and how through Literature, we can change the world and spread awareness regarding humanity. We can also educate them on the impact English Literature can bring to the public and how through it, we can find peace and relaxation, just as Pablo Picasso said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life”. 

More Exposure In School

English literature should be an integral part of the English subject and it should be clearly stated. Teachers should be more open about talking in English and by being an example, students would follow them. This would help with eliminating some of the misconceptions and this is especially important in secondary school because by then, students are contemplating the options they have when they pursue their studies. With the correct information, students would consider English Literature as one of the promising majors they would like to pursue. Teachers play a vital role in introducing more arts and humanities courses rather than putting the emphasis on STEM courses only. This would help in reducing the misconceptions about the course from school. 

Educate Malaysians About The Benefits Of Being Bilingual

Malaysian society has to get rid of that mindset that speaking English is equal to showing-off or betraying our native language. By showing them the advantages of speaking more than one language, hopefully they can start to respect other languages, together with our native language. To add to that, we choose to learn English Literature because it is our passion, not because we were forced or we didn’t have other choices. Being an English Literature student is a choice I make because my interest lies in literature, history and arts. We pursue it because of our deep passion and it is actually brave of us to pursue our passion in English Literature in a world where youngsters are constantly pressured to take courses that can make more money because having a successful life is defined by how much money you have in your bank account. We are clear in what we would like to pursue and we are proud of our major. 

The responses showed the need to grow as a society when it comes to the humanity courses. Despite the pessimism in certain responses, there is a strong determination within everyone to help enlighten the people, with a glimpse of hope that things will be better in the future. Patience, persistence and dedication will be our weapons in fighting against these misconceptions. With time and the right exposure, society will eventually come to appreciate the skills and talents we, English Literature students, bring to the community.

If you enjoyed reading this article, head on to The Cool Bears for more!

Azra Khalisa
Azra Khalisa
"Young in limbs, in judgement old..."







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