Imagine you are a young person, figuring out your lot in life, and looking to your heroes for inspiration. Imagine approaching someone you admire, someone who made their name as a writer, and asking them for a little advice.
Now imagine being that author and completely disparaging that young woman’s possible choice.
Fortunately, you don’t need to imagine it because Outlander author Diana Gabaldon did just that on Twitter, responding smugly to an adolescent fan who was considering an English degree to help her on her way to becoming an author with, “English major = want fries with that? *fries emoji* Pick something that will give you money to write whatever you want.”
The fries emoji is what makes it so charming.
This is hardly Gabaldon’s first display of arrogant dictatorship over her fans. After all, this is the woman who compared fan-fiction of her work to having her house broken into (ironic given how much of Outlander is taken from Jamie in Doctor Who). Gabaldon’s journey to million-selling iconic author status is something she proudly repeats at any opportunity. It’s certainly an interesting one, although nowhere near as unique as she seems to think it is. Authors come from every walk in life and now with the legitimizing of self-publishing it’s become more democratic than ever. Of course you don’t need a degree in English to become an author, but in a world where a humanities focused education has become a political and cultural punching bag, Gabaldon’s words reek of elitism and further exacerbate a much bigger problem.
I have an MA (hons) in Celtic studies & English literature from a good university. My original plans for using that degree changed, as many students re-evaluate their plans and ambitions throughout the long four years of study, but I will always be thankful for what that education gave me. Exposure to a seemingly limitless array of literature opened my world-view beyond its narrow parameters and gave me the chance to see stories, cultures and ideas I never would have sought out on my own. Tutorial groups and essay writing forced me to think critically from a variety of perspectives, and showed me the necessity of immersing yourself in the unfamiliar. Deep dives into specific topics like queer literature of the 20th century and political theatre’s intersections with gender acted as gateways to philosophies and creators that irrevocably shaped me as a person. I would not be the writer that I am without those classes; I would not be the reader that I am without the skills I learned from those four years.
More than the skills that my degree gave me, what further education in the English literature field gifted me with was a sense of worth in my inherent interests and abilities. It’s one thing to be the geeky girl who prefers books to people, but it’s a whole new level to be given the ability to see the value in that. Now more than ever, media literacy and critical thinking is of the utmost importance. From fake news to accusations of paid off critics, we’re in the midst of a crisis that views education as unnecessary elitism while simultaneously moving the goalposts on reality. The versatility of an English degree, and the view it gives you of how the world is depicted, matters now more than it has in decades. To write that off as nothing but service station fodder is a fatal misunderstanding of how degrees work.
That brings me back to Gabaldon’s smug “fries with that” comment. I worked consistently throughout my time as a student. I served customers in a bookshop; I cleaned toilets and mopped floors in a dormitory; I plunged out vomit-clogged toilets and did door duty at my student union. I even did a couple of internships and volunteering gigs that involved clearing up children’s messes and more than a few spilled drinks. Work is work. Work should pay well and work should be respected regardless of its apparent worthiness in the eyes of a millionaire who came from money. Any working class kid can tell you of the security work brings, and of the smothering guilt of not working, no matter the circumstance. As someone with a freelance gig and nothing full time on my plate, it’s a shame I carry with me, even though realistically I know it’s ridiculous to consider it as such.
Besides, just because it’s not working out for me as planned, that doesn’t write off the entire field of study. My fellow English literature graduates include a theatre producer, a special effects technician, a lawyer, a few freelance writers, some teachers, several journalists, and some very diligent PhD students on their way to academia. From the Celtic studies side, I know some archeologists and public policy specialists. If you know how to look at the world through clear perspectives, you have the freedom and ability to enter a number of fields, as long as you can prove yourself. The humanities allows for that in so many ways.
I question my life’s decisions a lot. It’s hard not to when you find yourself in a position so unlike the one you spent years planning for. Circumstances change and fairness is never a player in that game. Regardless, I will never dismiss what I gained from my English degree, nor will I demean those who work where they can to support themselves. I hope that the young woman Gabaldon displayed such a lack of empathy for sees the kind words and support fellow humanities graduates have spread across Twitter. Whatever decision she makes, I hope she feels confident in her choice, and picks something that leaves her feeling fulfilled. To pick a degree solely on its money making abilities is a sure-fire road to misery, and if you end up flipping burgers for a while, it’s still a worthy occupation.
Would you like fries with that, Diana?