Leave My Silly Little English Degree Alone
I’ll be the first to admit that St Andrews social life can be lacking at times. But there’s somewhere I never fail to find entertainment. Upon meeting someone new, all the better if it’s your Eton-bred posh boy type, I’ll start my study. Casually I quip about my painful reading list or morning trek to the Scores and watch as it hits them, and the cogs start whirring. I’m one of those. The strayed too far from the concrete of North Haugh type. Jesus, I probably didn’t even have a crystal growing set as a kid. What kind of primaeval monster? Imagine taking me home to your family of Oxbridge alumni. It’s the stuff of horror stories and the fear is palpable on my poor victim’s face. “Ah, English?” they compose themselves. “Fancy being an English teacher then?” And there it is, reader, the funniest joke ever told – I do hope you’re giggling.
Now don’t worry, I’m always quick to assure them that if I do choose that path, I will ensure their darling Fergus fails his class test. After all, I’m nothing but fair. Like most English students I’ve met, I was truly incredibly fond of my English teachers (hi Miss B!) and so it’s not an unfounded characterisation. But I can’t help but wonder if the association goes beyond just my wardrobe choices. They don’t leave us hanging though and the hilarity doesn’t stop there. They evidently have the expectation that I can’t ever expect success or at least a decent salary. “In it for the money?” Comedy gold. And have a perception that It’s not a real subject (whatever that means) and so isn’t worth their time. Truth be told, it’s become a joke of mine also, brandishing my ability to swindle a degree out of a skill we’re taught at 5. But this is no mere alphabet I’m learning, and my life’s studies weren’t always such a joke. Call me naïve, but I didn’t realize the stereotype when I laboriously filled out my UCAS form with my life’s readings. I unashamedly love my subject and worked hard to secure a place to study it. Forgive me if I’m a little sick of defending this fact on already blurry nights at The Rule.
You can laugh, but I do think people underestimate English as a subject. I would bet that most of the aforementioned subjects only forfeited English in their last year of school. So clearly, they thought it was important then. Similarly, I didn’t have to choose English. The whole premise I’m working with here is that STEM shouldn’t seem any more impressive, so don’t disappoint me here. But I wasn’t bad at Maths or Science by any stretch, I just didn’t love them. I do love English though and forgive me if I’m mistaken, but I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. I’m also most definitely not taking the easy way out as they like to suggest. Sure, I’m not locked in a lab for hours on end, but I spend more hours in the library than I’d like to admit, and I think most students would cry at my reading list. I’ll spare you the boredom of listing my degree’s attributes, more for my reputation than anything, but they are there. And I think this isn’t any clearer than when I’m listening to a teenage boy tell me that I need to engage with “what’s really going on in the world”. Because I think literature is the closest, we really get to engaging with our collective humanity and purpose. And I think we would all be better for it if we read a little bit more. But hey, of course I’m going to say that.
I can’t help but think these insults wouldn’t fly if directed at everyone’s favourite Women in STEM. It would be unspeakable for a man to call any of them stupid or unemployable in the ways they have me. But here’s the thing, women don’t have to enter male-dominated spaces to be treated with respect and I don’t have to deny everything traditionally feminine to be seen as successful. The stereotype is there, I get it. But I’d like to be passionate about my subject without being seen to play into a stereotype or expectation of me as a woman.
I also don’t think men in the humanities are treated in the same way. They’re firmly labelled as sensitive and artsy and just a little bit capable of overhauling the whole world order. An English degree comes with the soft boy starter pack, or so I’m told. And boy will they not let you forget it. While my own experience studying English has been marked by others’ distinct labels of it as useless, theirs is often wildly different. Have you ever heard a man talk about Kerouac? I’ll save you the stress, but you’d be forgiven for thinking they’d discovered Atlantis. Maybe it’s the feminist in me, but I’m sick of men being applauded for what women are criticised for. I can still defy gender norms from Kennedy Hall. In fact, watch me.
Now, not to end this without a literature reference, there is a method to my madness (I’ll give the scientifically inclined a moment to google that). But when we all inevitably face the doom brought on by our short-sighted technological failings – I’ll be there with my preciously hoarded common sense and perspective, pried from years of writings stacked up in the King James’. And more importantly, a degree that I genuinely loved studying and in no way felt forced into. But sure, have fun with your lasers and I’ll pretend to believe you when you say you’ve wanted to study biology since you were two. But anyway, that’s a chat for another time.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew