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.


The Importance of Being Interested in Absolutely Everything

At the ripe old age of twenty-two, Kierkegaard wondered (with all the existential malaise befitting an uncommonly smart young person) if he was simply interested in too many things:

“Everybody would like their work in the world to be according to the measure of their abilities in a particular direction, in that which is most suited to their individuality. But what is that? That is where I stand, like Hercules, but not at the parting of the ways — no, here there is a far greater number of ways and it is correspondingly difficult to choose the right one. The misfortune of my life is perhaps that I am interested in far too many things and not decidedly in some one thing; my interests are not all subordinated to one thing but are all co-ordinated.” (1)

While I don’t want to seriously liken any of us to Kierkegaard (the quote is included here more for tongue-in-cheek reasons than anything else), I do want to suggest that the above statement is probably not all that unfamiliar to anyone who has been, currently is, or could potentially be a doctoral candidate. I don’t have any hard numbers to support this supposition — only the anecdotal evidence I’ve gathered from many conversations with graduate students and professors alike.

If you are among the academically-inclined, there is a very good chance that you grew up reading books voraciously, that you obsessed over something new every other week, that you never felt entirely satisfied with how much you knew, and so on, and so on. In short, if you are the sort of person to whom the thought of a career in academia is appealing, you have probably always been fascinated by an untold number of things that may only be tangentially related to one another. It’s a personality trait that can certainly feel like a hindrance when you’re trying to figure out what on earth it is you want to do with your life — I, for instance, tried four separate majors (Chemistry, Computer Science, Psychology, and Medieval Studies) before I eventually settled on my B.A. in English — but I would also argue that innovative academic research could not proceed without it.

As I mentioned in last week’s post, it has been pointed out that many graduate students in Ph.D. programs eventually come to think of academia as their only career option. While this tendency is more than understandable, it is also (assuming that what I have suggested above is true) completely antithetical to the spirit of ever-evolving interest and inquiry that draws many of us to academia in the first place. You are, in effect, doing yourself a tremendous personal and intellectual disservice if your sense of self-worth is predicated on acquiring that elusive tenure-track position after you defend your dissertation.

My advice, then, to anyone who still insists upon doing a Ph.D. despite the plethora of reasons why it might be a better idea right now to give something else a try, is this: do not allow the often unethical decisions made by university administrations and funding institutions to change what is a fundamental part of who you are as an intellectual. Do not lose sight of the fact that if you are intelligent enough and dedicated enough to succeed in a Ph.D. program, you are also intelligent enough and dedicated enough to do so very many other things. Perhaps most importantly, keep reminding yourself that your interests and dreams are malleable, and surround yourself with people who support that idea. If you don’t, it becomes easy to fall into that aforementioned trap of believing that the academic career for which you are training is the only valid option for you, and that going into any other field by choice or financial necessity would signify a failure on your part.

I hear you: it is incredibly frustrating that we have, over the past decade and a half (or thereabouts), reached a point where it is no longer advisable to pursue a doctoral degree if your chief intent is to teach and research at a university for a living. It is incredibly frustrating that university CEOs administrators have ceased to look upon graduate students as valuable contributors to the intellectual community, and now simply look upon them as capital instead — as “bums” to fill an ever-increasing number of seats. It is tempting to want to pursue a doctoral degree anyway, to thumb your nose at the excessively wealthy suits and prove through your work that you are more than just a faceless, funding-securing entity.

I implore you, though: if that is in fact what you end up doing, don’t let the degree or the desired profession define you. Disregard anyone — be it a cocky, self-absorbed peer or a well-established, respected professor — who makes you feel like you aren’t being serious enough about academia if you refuse to hide the fact that you are keeping your options open because you recognize that the hiring system is currently broken. Anyone who cannot see the value in having multiple interests is probably not worth associating with in the first place. And the moment you find yourself turning into that person is definitely the moment when you need to consider taking a break from graduate school, or even leaving it behind altogether; take it from someone who did just that, and is now much better off for having done so.

While there is a lot to be said for establishing a vocational niche for yourself in accordance with your abilities, I think there’s even more to be said for embracing your natural capacity to branch off in any direction, particularly in our still unpredictable post-recession job market. You may find yourself experiencing Kierkegaard-ish levels of angst some of the time, much to the consternation of everyone you know, but you are still (potentially) better off in the long-term than those who are unable or unwilling to redefine their interests if the need arises.