“So, what can you do with that?”
“Ah! You want to teach then?”
“You pay… to read books?”
“Well, so long as you enjoy it I guess.”
These are actual responses from ‘human beings’ I’ve had upon telling them I study English Literature. There is, and has been for as long as I can recall, a notion that Literature is a ‘waste’ of a degree, that it won’t help you in the ‘real world’. People who hold this idea tend to all have one thing in common: they know nothing / very little about what a Literature degree entails.
As someone who does know their fair share about a Literature degree, I thought I’d share a little.
So, a little background history on my experience on a Literature degree. First off, I was not an avid reader growing up, I was almost the opposite in fact. I really disliked reading, nothing caught my attention enough and so I struggled to concentrate. I have however, always loved writing, which would help me later down the line. During secondary school, I didn’t really like English but due to decent writing skills, I managed to get a high grade in my GCSE. At this point in time, I wanted to go on to study Law. When it came to choosing my A-Levels, I choose English Literature & Language combined because a few teachers advised me it would help towards my ambitions in Law – not quite sure how, but there you go.
College is where I began to finally enjoy English and I was engaging with the class and getting good feedback. At this point, I had decided Law wasn’t for me. As I was enjoying English so much, particularly writing, Journalism began to look like something I might enjoy. For university applications; I applied for Journalism courses and got accepted onto a great looking Music Journalism programme. It all took a turn a week before I was due to complete the second stage of enrolment. I had a sudden realisation that I didn’t want to do this. I didn’t want a career in Journalism. I had to make a decision, and I had to do it quick. I knew I enjoyed writing, a lot, and I had begun to enjoy reading. So, I applied through clearing to a Literature course.
Fast forward six years, and I have an upper 2:1 BA in English Literature and I am about to finish my Masters. Along the way, I have learned so much more than I expected and I have come to seriously, deeply love and value Literature. Here’s a few of my responses to those who might sneer, or just be puzzled by this.
You are not restricted. One of the great things about Literature is that it doesn’t restrict you to one single career path. This is my usual response to those who seem to believe that Literature has no career prospects, when in actuality, it is because there are so many that it may seem this way. There’s the obvious; teach, journalist, publishing, author. But you learn such a wide variety of skills whilst studying Literature that this opens up doors to other career paths. You learn how to analyse, you learn how to research, you learn meticulous attention to detail, you learn how to manage projects, how to curate, how to use archives, how to write, how to speak and present, and so many more. I think it true, now more than ever, that our youth don’t want to be tied down to one job. We want to explore the world and all the options it has for us, and a Literature degree really works with this mindset.
It’s not just reading books. The most annoying opionion on Literature degrees to me, is this idea that we are a fancy-smancy bookclub. As a matter of fact, in my experience, the text itself often has the least amount of focus in a seminar/lecture! It can be frustrating at times; you spend every waking hour trauling through Ulysses, desparately powering through for your seminar on it next week. Only to spend one quarter of the time actually looking at the text. This is because the context of the book tends to take centre place. You look at the time the text was written, the life of the author if relevant, the genre of the text, and so on. Then, once you have all these things, you turn to look at them in light of the text. It is only when it comes to your assignments that you may fully focus on one or a few texts that you have chosen to write on. (This more so than any of the other points will be dependent on personal experience and will differ from university to university).
You learn a bit of everything. My favourite thing about my experience as a Literature student is the scope of knowledge it has given me. I have learned about subjects from Ancient history, technology, gender, psychology, science, theatre, wars, Darwin, geology, law, philosophy, religion… the list could go on. These will vary in the detail you learn about them, for example, the Industrial Revolution took up several lectures whilst Geology was on one seminar’s worth of information. But you get to visit so many areas that it keeps you engaged, it allows you to perhaps find a certain area you are really interested in. And, it makes you a master of small talk.
You see things differently. Literature, and the humanities on a wider scale, teach you about life and our experiences of it. Once you begin to see the way in which aspects of society influence Literature and by extension, the author, I think it makes you more aware and either more appreciative or more scutinous of your own surroundings. In my experience this was particularly true when looking at Literary Theory. Literature, as corny as it may sound, can really teach you a lot about life and your place and impact on culture and society.
So, it may not be clear cut what career a Literature degree sets you up for. But, you will learn a lot about the world and about yourself, whilst developing skills which can be applied to almost any career path. To add, who are we kidding? Do these people really think that no Law, Medicine or Maths students have ever had career anxieties? Incorrect.
There’s more to life than your career. Study whatever the hell you want.