The Value of my Education: What Do You Do with an MA in English Literature?

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Me and my dad on my graduation day. He doesn't wear suits that often.

Imagine this.

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?

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great essay, and I completely agree that your academic life should be about your passions rather than your future income. I hope that what DG was trying to say was that there’s no set path to becoming a rich and successful author, and nor should there be.

    She’s certainly wrong about pursuing a career that will give you “money to write whatever you want.” You don’t need money to write. You DO need an income of some sort to get you through the first few years when you’re not earning much, but if you’re prepared to live on a shoestring it doesn’t have to be a large one. As long as you can support yourself (or support the family unit if you’re the partner who takes care of childcare and other unpaid roles) does it matter how you’re doing it?

    I was once in a huge book signing with over 100 authors, including DG. Her line stretched across the huge space we were in. I sold four books. I was delighted, and told her so, because I was a newbie who hadn’t expected to sell even one, and to sell four when the attendees could choose from another 100 or so authors was encouraging. I hope the young fan DG was tweeting at will go on to understand that whatever path they choose, it’ll be hard work and the rewards may not be in piles of $$$–but they’ll be rewarded all the same.

  2. I’m sorry, but I have to agree with the author. My English degree with a teaching certificate and honors colloquium in teaching writing has done nothing for my career…ever. My first teaching job paid so poorly the bank loan officer investigating my claim that I couldn’t afford to begin paying my student loan back yet, took one look at my meticulously prepared paperwork and shoved it back across the desk at me. He told me I had 2 choices: either get a second job, or “get a real job.” When I explained that I had gone to college for a degree in the teaching of English, he laughed and said that with what they were paying me, it wasn’t a job so much as an expensive hobby. He’d give me a 6-month extension, after which I needed to start paying back my student loan. So after that school year was done, I went to an employment agency and asked them to find me “anything but teaching.” I spent 8 years as a sales executive. Yes, I hated my job, finding it boring and repetitive. But it paid much better than teaching. I met a guy, we got married, I got pregnant. After 4 kids, we stopped having them. When the youngest was in grade school, I went back to school, got re-certified, and started applying for teaching jobs. I was told by many that subbing was the way to get noticed. It was…by the students in the 8 different high schools I’ve subbed at over the past 15 years.

    I’ve done daily subbing, and long-terms for as much as 4 months. I’ve always done all that was required of me, and then some. The students proclaimed me as their favorite teacher. Some told me they’d never had anyone offer them any help in writing, but I was the first to actually teach them how to improve. Parents thanked me for helping their kids finally graduate.

    Now it’s been 15 years, and I’m still subbing. I used to get the occasional interview, but the jobs would always go to the newbies with the ink not yet dried on their diplomas. Now I’m older than teachers who are retiring, and no one interviews me anymore. I know teachers with masters degrees who are earning only slightly more than I earned that first year, as aides, because they’re hoping for a chance to finally get a teaching job. So I work a second job as a tutor for 12-15 hours per week, at a center. I work 13-hour days and I’m exhausted.

    Do I still value my English degree? I guess. But sometimes, late at night, when I’m too tired to even sleep, and unhappy that I have no time to write anymore, I wish I had taken my dad’s advice and gotten a “more useful degree.” Being educated is a good thing, but as a society we don’t value education. We only value vocational training-type degrees. Being able to think clearly is a skill I passed on to my 4 kids, but thankfully only one of them refused my insistence that another degree, anything but English or teaching, would be a better choice. So my daughter is now the one who can’t afford to buy food or gas unless she charges it, and who is racking up major credit card debt trying to pay her bills. And she just got a second job, a retail job, for when she’s not planning, grading, or at her school.

    So don’t be so hard on that writer who scoffed. She’s one of the lucky ones, but just like for every 10,000 kids who dream about making a good living playing basketball, there’s only one Michael Jordan…for every 10,000 writers who dream about making a good living, there are many, many of us whose royalties won’t even buy a cup of coffee. And we work too many hours at “bread money” jobs to have the time to write or promote. Sigh…

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