No, Studying English Literature Was Not a Waste

“Well … that was a waste!”

This is an open letter to every baffled customer who has stated the above (or some variation thereon) upon learning that I have not only one, but two degrees in English Literature.

I understand your confusion: when you casually ask me what I am studying in school and when I will finish, you do so under the assumption that entry-level retail is the domain of high school graduates or those currently pursuing college diplomas and university degrees. That someone could have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree and still be working in retail is simply unfathomable to you. Widespread underemployment among young degree-holders is still a relatively new phenomenon that does not gel with the old “go to university, get a well-paying job” adage that you and so many others hold sacrosanct, so I can forgive you for that awkward moment of silence we both endure when I tell you how many degrees I have.

What I cannot completely forgive and wish to address is your conclusion that what I did during my first seven years in university must have been a “waste” because it did not directly and immediately translate into a job that utilizes my skills as a researcher and writer. When I smile sadly, shake my head, and say “that’s not how I see it” as I ring in your purchase at the cash register, what I mean is this: I did not study English Literature at the university level — initially, that is — because I thought of it as a means to career-oriented end; I studied it because it made me think in ways that few other academic subjects had ever done so before, in ways that will affect me for the better until the day that I die.

My first semester in university was miserable — partly because I missed my family, but mostly because I did not feel as though anything had changed. The idea of university that I had built up in my head during my final two years of high school was a naïvely optimistic one, full of difficult, probing questions and smart, competitive peers. When I instead found myself bored to tears in introductory science classes that rehashed everything I’d learned the previous year, listening to dull professors reading out their Power Point slides verbatim, surrounded by hundreds of classmates who seemed more interested in their MSN conversations than anything else, my dismay could not have been greater. I stopped attending lectures. My grades tanked. I considered dropping out.

And then things did change the following semester when I took the second of my two compulsory first year English courses. My instructor was a young, energetic Ph.D. candidate who stood out in stark contrast to the English professor who taught me during the previous semester — both in terms of the way he taught, and in terms of what he taught. I cannot recall the name of every novel we studied during those sixteen weeks (it was, after all, a class I took more than seven years ago), but there are at least two that I can remember vividly: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. With those two texts alone, we considered, among other things, the hubris of creation, the depths of depression, the capriciousness of memory, the atrocities of nations. More importantly, we considered these ideas in dialogue with one another. The answers were seldom held out to us on a silver platter in the form of a Power Point slide; we had to think critically about questions and engage with one another on a level that went far beyond anything any of us had experienced in high school, where so many of our peers actively loathed reading and learning. It was a welcome, completely unexpected change.

I hope you noticed the shift from “I” to “we” in my previous paragraph — because that, for me, accounts for much of what made the rest of my university experience so intellectually fulfilling. The study of English Literature, if it is to be done well, cannot occur in a closed-off, isolated crucible; it is almost always a conversation between two or more individuals that is wholly reliant upon convincing argumentation and effective communication. In the years following that revelation — even as I flip-flopped between majors — I honed my critical thinking skills, learned how to articulate my ideas clearly and concisely, had my mind repeatedly blown by the insights of brilliant professors and peers, and made friends that I will forever love. Somewhere in the middle of it all, I found myself caught up in the grand idea of turning the experience into a long-term career in academia. Was it disappointing that the plan did not pan out as I would have liked it to pan out? Incredibly, yes. Was the whole endeavour consequently a “waste,” as you suggest? Emphatically, no. Those experiences did not occur in a vacuum; they are with me always, and I am happier for them.

What I would tell you in person, if I had more time to work with than a retail transaction typically allows, is that I do not believe a degree’s worth hinges upon the sort of job one can acquire after graduating — unless, of course, we are talking about professional degrees that are designed with the intent of preparing students for specific careers, in which case the waters become a bit muddy. I would also encourage you to not extrapolate blindly, as far too many of you do when you take to the comments sections of online articles and decry the decisions young adults make to take so-called “useless” subjects in the humanities that “doom” them to low-paying “careers” in the service industry, citing as evidence people like me who take those jobs temporarily because earning a living while figuring out the next step is better than being unemployed.

That Person Who Sold You Something in a Store, B.A. (Hons), M.A.