Sunday, 26 March 2017

Is an English Degree Useless? | Responding to Outlander's Diana Gabaldon

Dear Poodles,

I'd like to get something off my chest (figuratively). A few weeks before, Outlander author Diana Gabaldon replied to a fan on Twitter asking advice on her selection of a major. She claimed she was an aspiring writer hoping to study English to which Gabaldon tweeted: 

English major = “Want fries with that?” 🍟. Pick something that will give you enough money to write what you want.

As an English undergraduate in my third and final year, I took serious offence. I may just be overly emotional since my last ever seminar as an undergraduate was this Friday and so the next time I see my lecturers and friends will be on the day of our graduation but. that. was. not. okay. I'm more disappointed with Diana Gabaldon than angry because I love her Outlander book series (the two that I've read so far) and I used to thank her every other day for blessing the fictional universe with the character of Jamie Fraser.

To add insult to injury, Gabaldon decides to explain herself (badly) on

ENGLISH MAJORS, in 140 CHARACTERS (or less) So, yesterday, as I was driving from Santa Fe to Scottsdale, I (cont)

Everything wrong with what she said:

> The insult to food service industry:
For some employers in this industry, the job is their main source of livelihood. 

> Highlighting that two of her children completed English degrees but one took a nursing degree soon after and the other is a successful novelist and comic book writer despite not viewing the degree 'of value [...] to someone who wants to write for a living.' 
While I am an aspiring writer - have been since the age of ten - I did not necessarily choose to study English because it would make me an overnight bestselling author the second my graduation cap was flung into the air. That's not what happens. Nor does it happen to any other degree - unless you have an internship secured at Penguin or KPMG in the months prior (good on you).

> Suggesting any occupational degree is better than one in English because the practical skills are desired for employment. 
The critical and analytical skills that I have honed at university mean that I can read or hear a piece of information from the news or social media and form my own judgement. My ability to skim/speed read or balance reading several texts play to my advantage when it comes to deadlines as a journalist or presenter. Knowing also how to tailor my writing in an email or letter or over the phone comes from assignments set up as blogs, essays or blurbs.

> Boasting the 'five university degrees' between her husband and herself and the abundance of choice her children had before going to college. 
It's clear that Diana Gabaldon comes from a privileged background and that's grand and all but many students do not possess the luxury or funding to be so carefree. In the current political and economic climate, university fees are only getting more expensive making the choice of 'the degree' even more important (and stressful).

> Thinking the content of her dabble in an English minor from the 70s has remained somewhat similar to English degrees in 2017.
After three years at it, I can proudly say that my degree has been one of the most valuable things I've done so far. I'll explain how. Yes, we read three or four novels, plays or poems a week that range from the Medieval, Renaissance, Postcolonial (my favourite) and modern age but the exposure to the 'cultural history' as Gabaldon phrases it is far greater now in a world that is demanding more diversity in literature and institutions alike. This representation varies across universities but it is the one that I attended in East London that made me 'woke'. A popular term originating from the 2013 'Black Lives Matter' movement, 'woke' is used to describe someone who thinks for themselves and is aware of how racism, classism and sexism affects our daily lives.

Some of the best books that I've discovered came through my degree (and I'll update this post-graduation). They are:
- Dreaming of Baghdad by Haifa Zangana (about the psychological trauma of Iraqis under Saddam's regime)
- Things Fall Apart by China Achebe (breaking racial prejudice surrounding rural Africans)
- The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai (which highlights the beauty and difficulty of migration).

Was anything she said right?

Diana Gabaldon should have saved herself the trouble and just replied to the aspiring writer in 140 characters that no degree guarantees immediate stardom (if I just did it, she can). An English degree is as useful as any other degree. The world needs scientists and engineers just as much as it needs historians and artists. 

I've always known that writing is a precarious lifestyle but if you've made it, YOU'VE MADE IT. However, having spoken to and being friends with several rising authors through my Instagram account, they frequently advise to have a stable job unless you're happy to eat takeaways for a long time. That's all sound, USEFUL, advice but discouraging a fellow writer from studying English is not. Especially when for many, the desire to write stemmed from a love of literature. How can you separate the two?

Study English. Or study what your heart (and reason) wills.

*** Did you study or are you studying an English degree? What did you make of Diana's tweet? ***


  1. I followed this conversation while it was happening and was also less than impressed by either her initial tweet or her ultimate explanation of what she "really" meant by it. Of course you don't need to be an English major to be a writer, which is what she ultimately went with, but her initial tweet was 100% about how being an English major is going to leave you unemployed or with a "bad" service industry job.

    The reality is that a lot of employers are looking for experience these days. Sure, *just* having an English degree might not get you tons of jobs, but that's true for a lot of majors. Get experience. Join clubs related to the career you want. Network. Get internships. You'll be fine and the critical thinking and writing skills from your English degree will serve you well. (Briana @ Pages Unbound)

    1. Thank you for your comment! That's what I felt was problematic about her response. It sort of became a space for her to degrade a degree whilst she answered the fan's question in the very last paragraph. And I agree with your comment about experiences: it's true for all degrees.

    2. I saw this through Instagram. I see you are still in your studies & I want to encourage you! I was an English & philosophy major in undergrad and EVERYONE told me I was buying a one way ticket to living in a box. The degrees taught me to think critically and creatively, to communicate effectively, and to present my thoughts clearly. This is something severely lacking in the real world. I see dozens and dozens of emails every day misspelled, unclear in what they are communicating, and you would be amazed at how much of each job is researching the root cause of a problem. It is much like writing an English paper: start with thesis, investigate, present your findings. Forbes has frenquently cited English as one of the ONLY non STEM majors aside from Human Resources that actually pay off, with careers topping out at 90k. If you want to make money with your degree, you are more than qualified to go into technical writing. If you are interested in traveling, you are qualified to teach pretty much anywhere in the world since so many places are desperate for teachers. The sky is the limit. If you would like to chat more my insta is @wildmtn
      Best wishes & great post!!!

    3. Thank you for your kind words. I think all degrees have their individual value. I certainly pride myself on the skills from my own whilst admire other skills from other schools of discipline - but never in a condescending manner. We are the best mix of different people. All the best to you too.

  2. I majored in English, and there isn't a single job I pursued after graduation (from retail to food service to insurance sales to editorial/writing/publishing work to early childhood education) that did not respond positively to seeing my degree on my resume. Every employer or potential employer has reacted positively, because an English degree is useful in basically any career or job since it teaches widely-needed and extremely valuable skills in communication, among many other things that we could probably go on and on and on listing here together. ;) To say that spending years studying the literature that has shaped the cultures of our world, political climates, religious to devalue what she herself now does as a living. Does she not think she is making valuable contributions to the literary world? Does she think so little of what she has done that she doesn't think her works are worth being studied by students? I just don't understand how she can't see the power in literature that delves beyond art (which in itself is powerful and essential) and into the core of who we are. Gah! /rant

    PS I may not be a full time author at the moment or even in full time writing/editorial work, but my degree also gave me the educational status to get to work with the preschoolers I love so much right now. Plus I wouldn't trade the knowledge and experience I gained in college, either. That too is worthwhile, no matter what sort of career(s) I pursue in my lifetime. What I learned in college has helped me in all of them as well as daily life.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I absolutely agree with you. Plus, as a soon to be graduate your experience has made me feel even more confident. Thank you and I wish you the best of luck in the future. Those preschoolers sound delightful!

  3. Hey, don't be disheartened by Diana's comments, just keep doing what you love and I am positive success will find you. By the way great instagram account,it really provided me an opportunity to discover some of the most awesome books.

    1. Thank you! I wish the same for you. And I'm so glad to hear that. :)

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  5. No major is useless. I majored in English in undergrad and yes, it did not train me for a specific job but it helped me organize my train of thoughts, it helped me improve my English ( I'm French), and most of all, I loved it ! I discovered so much about history and litterature and it made me want to convey my love and passion for the anglosaxon culture around me. It's crazy to see how people can discourage you from studying what you love. Even my high school teacher were disappointed when I chose this major in Uni, wanting me to do something more "prestigious". I now am an English teacher for 12 to 15 year-olds in France and I do not regret my path. 
    Sure, a plan B is important to support yourself, but that's no reason not to study what you love, especially if it helps you in your writing career plans. You can work on your book project on your own, but even talent requires work, and this major helps improve your style, grammar and as you said, communication skills which are important in any job and which are often lacking in people's most basic writings.
    Plus, nurturing creativity and imagination is essential in a world that's emphasizing practicality.
    Anyway, I should stop my ranting now haha. But though I understand her need to warn the person about the potential financial problems engendered by the choice of this major, she could have done it differently.

    Great instagram account by the way ;)
    Great job !

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