Monday, April 23, 2012

Guest Post: I'm Proud of my BA in English

Good morning everyone! We have a guest post today from Kaarina Mikalson. You might remember Kaarina from my post on the brightness of the future. I have had the great good fortune and privilege of getting to know Kaarina for the last three years. She is graduating with a humanities degree. Here's what she has to say about that.
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In just a few weeks, I will be graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English. I will set aside my modesty for just a moment and confess that I am pretty proud of myself. Not that I am alone in my success–I have many friends who have worked harder than me to obtain their own degrees. And I certainly didn’t do it alone. I received support and encouragement from my family, friends, and, most significantly, the wonderful professors and grad students in my departments. All the same, I approach graduation day with much relief and much pride in my accomplishments.

So it is still a little galling how many people readily cast doubt on my accomplishments. First and second year students still struggling to choose their own path are always reminding me just how useless they think the liberal arts are, disparaging my choice as well as their own. Strangers and family friends impolitely question my life choices, asking the old familiar question, “And what are you going to do with that?” Recently, I took the time to explain the awesome work I do as a research assistant to a family member, only to be told, “Oh, that’s just busy work. Nobody really cares about that.” Only a few days ago, I argued with another family member, who insisted that you gain no practical skills by completing an arts degree, and all it really is is a piece of paper marking you out as mildly competent.

But if there is one thing my undergraduate degree has helped me develop, it’s confidence, and as a result I can confront these criticisms without backing down. Reflecting on the last four years, I have no regrets, and I can recognize the value in what I have done. Besides, any good liberal arts student knows that what we do have are critical thinking skills, and I can use these to see through the negative criticisms flung my way. Younger students most likely speak out of nervousness and self-doubt, and maybe what they need is an upper year student who will encourage them and support their choices. Many people have different values and priorities than me, and perhaps in blatantly questioning my life choices they are genuinely interested in hearing my ideas. Some people’s criticisms are just a projection of their own anxieties. And that comment about busy work? Well, as far as I can tell, that was just plain rude. If you can think of a good retort, let me know.

What I find most interesting about the debate surrounding university education is how focused it is on academics and career training. Many of those outside of universities easily forget that studying and teaching is not all that goes on there. A university is a community full of smaller communities. When you enrol, you have so many opportunities to learn and engage outside the classroom. I have many friends who will take a bit longer to finish their degrees because they were coordinating whole seasons of theatre, managing campus bars, fighting to lower tuition fees and reduce student debt, organizing fundraisers, founding orchestras, and working as activists for the environment, for women’s rights , for LGBTQ rights. Some even find ways to balance all these other interests and their full class loads in order to complete their degrees on time. If our degrees gives us access to these kind of opportunities, then who can say they aren’t valuable?

Of course, these kinds of communities exist outside of the university, but the university enables and supports this kind of engagement. And though we graduate and leave the classroom behind, I am certain that these students will continue to engage with these communities. I have alwas been more academically inclined, and my activities outside the classroom have been minimal. All the same, I have received tremendous opportunities, including being accepted into the digital humanities community and learning a whole new range of skills. Because of all this, I approach my graduation with hope, pride, and absolutely no doubt in the value of my degree and the institution I receive it from.

Kaarina Mikalson
Dalhousie University/University of King's College

5 comments:

  1. Being committed to the arts is one of the finest things about being educated. When I say committed to art, I mean the art of expression, the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the art of assuming a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the tradition of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the tradition of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible, for taste, for discrimination, for expressing what it means to be human and the spirit of humanity and for mental courage to speak our thoughts amongst our intellectual peers and mentors.

    Congratulations Kaarina!

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  2. The discussion of how "valuable" an Arts degree is seems to never go away, and many people can't seem to disentangle the notions of value and "career preparation". But I doubt that it's any comfort to know that we white haired folks heard exactly the same "what are you going to do with that?" questions when we were undergrads.

    In some work I've been doing recently, I've had a chance to talk to lots of people about career preparation and Arts degrees. While the studies showing that people with Arts degrees catch up in earning power to people with other more obviously vocational degrees about 10 years out from graduation, long a staple of self-justifying propaganda for Arts professors, are getting old (from the mid-90s, as I recall). It would be useful to have more recent studies. But in this work I've been struck by the number of employers who say that what Arts degrees are supposed to provide---communication skills and in particular the ability to write coherent sentences, the ability to take a broad view, flexible research skills, logical acumen, analytical ability, creativity, etc.---are what they really want in employees. (They'd also like it if you can keep track of the difference between expenses and income and add a column of numbers, of course.)

    So ... some would find it distasteful to do it, but I think it would be more than worthwhile for people teaching in Arts programs to make sure that students know that an Arts education doesn't just provide a chance for personal growth, but also that it's "practical" in Grandpa's sense of that word. For one thing, being able to explain that fact to Grandpa also puts you in a position to explain the worth of your skills to prospective employers and so makes your training more practical still.

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    1. @ddvd: I could not agree more!

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    2. @ddvd: Thank you! So well said. I heard the same question back in the late nineteen-fifties and early -sixties. Four years after earning my BA in Eng. Lit. I was making more money than almost anyone I knew. It was in a field totally unrelated to English literature, but I know that the confidence I gained in working toward my degree had everything to do with my success. Having proved something, I suppose, to the doubters, I then quit the lucrative job & made a very different kind of life for myself, feeling grounded and happy. The older I get, the more I appreciate the choices I made at university.

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  3. I completely agree with all that has been said, particularly the value of explaining the worth of your degree. Now that I am job hunting for the first time with a degree under my belt, I have been thinking about this a lot. My mother, who works as a biologist doing environmental work, told me that she has hired English majors and explained to me why she did and what made their education and skills attractive to her as an employer, even though they may lack experience with scientific work. This was wonderfully helpful for me. I think if we had more discussions about the value of arts that were constructive rather than despairing, than students, graduates, and employers would all benefit.

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