In defence of English degrees and doing whatever the hell you like.
This morning I saw a tweet from bestselling author, Diana Gabaldon, about her advice for aspiring authors who are choosing a university major. On the subject of English majors she said: “English major = “Want fries with that?” Pick something that will give you enough money to write what you want.” And ever since I saw that I have been stewing for a number of reasons.
Before I start, I want to say that this post is not really going to be about Diana Gabaldon. I don’t have any strong feelings against her. I’ve never read any of her books but I’m sure she is a very good writer. We all say silly things on the internet now and then so what I mostly want to discuss is why the idea in her tweet seems problematic to me.
The first part of my problem with this message is something that a lot of people picked up on. Why are we perpetuating the idea that working in the service industry means you are unsuccessful? Or that you should be ashamed? I have many friends who studied a variety of degrees including English who currently work in retail/hospitality/service roles and are very happy. Working at McDonalds does not automatically make you unhappy. It does not make you unsuccessful or worth less than someone working in an office or as an engineer or in education. Sure, these roles may not be the end goal for many of us, but there is absolutely no shame in working hard to support yourself while you try to get to where you do want to be. If the service industry isn’t where you see yourself in the future, that’s fine. You’re still getting some amazing work experience and gaining really valuable transferable skills for your future aspirations. You’re proving that you can be reliable and loyal to an organisation. You’re proving that you can deal with difficult people and solve problems quickly and efficiently. You’re proving that you can work in a team and with a positive attitude. That doesn’t sound so easy now you think about it, does it? What bugs me is that elitist ideas like the one in Gabaldon’s tweet prevent young people from studying what they enjoy at university. It equates money to happiness and success. It make hundreds of thousands of people feel like they’ve invested time into an essentially useless degree. It made me feel like my choices were less valid. And frankly, that is a load of shit.
I studied English and Screen Studies at university (the screen studies part probably makes me even less useful in Gabaldon’s eyes) and am an aspiring writer myself. I chose to study English because I love books. I always have. I love reading and language and spelling and talking about books with my best friends. I chose this degree, not because I saw it as limited or as something that would only enable me to be an English teacher or something similar, but because I saw it as limitless. And my career to date reflects that. Since graduation, I have not worked in the service industry (although there is nothing wrong with doing so!). Instead I have worked for the NHS, an insurance company, as a teaching assistant, in the charity sector and in marketing. I could have chosen a million degrees (maybe not a million, maybe like… 5), but I chose English and Screen Studies because it was something I’m interested in, care about and could see myself doing well in. If you’re going to study something for 3 or 4 years, don’t pick something you can’t stand. Don’t study law or medicine because you think you’re going to fall into a well-paid job. Pick something you actually like, carve out a path that interests you and find a way to fit your writing ambition into the in between bits.
As much as I loved my degree, I can admit that, unless you’re studying to be an engineer or a doctor or something that requires a specific degree, your choice of degree doesn’t really matter. It’s not a magic slip that you hand in to an employer in exchange for a pay rise. It’s all about what you do with your opportunities. University in particular is the best time to gain skills and experience. Students’ unions make it so easy for you to join clubs, volunteer, write for publications and generally do amazing things. Of course, not everyone is able to go to university – and not everyone wants to – but my point still stands. If you know where you want to go in your life, volunteering, starting your own project or taking advantage of what’s around you can be the key to getting there. So do whatever the hell you like, chums, life’s too short not to.