Tuesday, January 21, 2014

On the Occasion of the First Day of the Semester

This morning I start my second semester toward getting an MA in English. I don't think I can overemphasize how well I know that this degree is not technically worth the paper it's printed on, much less the tuition that I will ultimately spend to attain it. Nor can I fully explain how thoroughly my first semester convinced me that I made the right choice by going in for the degree.

A recent online discussion in which I participated got around to arguing about "in-demand" graduate degrees, and "using" vs. "not using" a graduate degree for which good money is paid. I am grossed out by this kind of rhetoric when it comes to degrees of any kind. Education is a gift, and to talk about that gift in a way that only acknowledges its dollars-and-cents utility is repellent to me. What do I gain from pouring money into my brain? Only everything. How and when do I use it? Every day, in every way. Someone on the thread asked, point blank, why you would select a graduate degree that isn't "in demand," and I said, point blank, "Oh, gee, to learn? To improve one's life and mind?"

My choice to get an MA in English is, in a way, indefensible. I was raised by a very literate mother and I tend to read everything I can get my hands on; I've already read, just as a consequence of being me, fully half the books on one of my syllabi for this semester. Even if I wanted to, I can't teach with an MA, and (IN THEORY) if my career path is to be a novelist, the MFA is the "useful" degree, the terminal and teachworthy one, the equivalent of an MBA for a financial adviser. (Sort of.) A lot of people who would certainly know might say that there's little an MA can offer me that I can't get on my own, and that my time and money would be better spent on writers' conferences, library fines, even an MFA - but not on what I'm choosing.

If someone asked me straight out why on earth I'm bothering with an MA in English, I would acknowledge it was a fair question and then desire to explain at length. I want to understand literature better, which is a process I'm not sure is entirely achievable just through reading. I want to spend a few years learning (yay for learning!) in a structured way, because I learn better in structured environments than I do on my own. I want to meet new people, folks who love books and learning too. I want to take creative writing classes at the college level, dammit, something I've never yet managed to do. And, critically, my first semester stimulated me and made me cheerful in a way I couldn't have predicted and hardly understand, except that I want more of it.

It was a hard choice. There's some family baggage for me around graduate degrees and their tuition. I have a lot to say about it. (Obviously.) But in this space, the thing that I really want to say is that I don't think the decision to get a graduate degree should depend on its nuts-and-bolts utility. Certainly I think this is true in humanities fields, where utility is often irrelevant to the life of the mind

, but even in more practical disciplines, why not pursue a degree because you want to learn, because you want your life to be a little bigger than it was before? I believe it's folly to go after education with a concrete, utilitarian state of mind. How can you have any fun learning with such a rigid perspective?

I don't expect to "use" my degree in any more practical manner than every day, in every way. It won't get me a job or a promotion, and while I think it will make me a better writer, I might be able to get the same improvement with time and practice rather than tuition. I'm doing it anyway. Some people travel in planes, see the world with passports, but I walk into classrooms and bring my notebook.


Maleesha said...

I think it's great. I definitely want to do an MFA down the road when my kids are older. Do whatchu want!

twinklysparkles said...

This is the best post ever about what it is about. EVER.

Not that you would ever whore yourself out, but this post could be used by colleges to explain to anyone why a liberal arts/humanities degree has inherent value.

Fuck the naysayers Katharine. You done good.

Katharine Coldiron said...

Thanks, twinkly. Also, that's whoring I could definitely get behind. :)