Why getting an English Degree was so absolutely Important

I am very proud to say that I have a degree in English Studies from Trinity College Dublin. One of the most prestigious colleges in the world. This degree has become my trump card when telling people I don’t know about myself, especially with people who tend to dismiss me because (a) I’m blonde (b) I’m a woman and (c) I have a disability. I chose to do English because I was really good at it in school. I didn’t want to do computers or any course that was perceived as being ‘suitable’ or ‘useful’ for people with disabilities. (This is what my husband did instead of doing the courses he really wanted to do, primary teaching or accountancy). I was top of my English class, so it seemed like a logical move.

However, my choice to study English in College has been the subject of some very awkward conversations that usually go like this:

Randomer: So, what do you do?

Me: Well, I’m a PRO for a disability organisation. (Pause. Then wanting to sound intelligent, I say) But I also have an English Degree from Trinity.

Randomer: Wow, Trinity College. Well done you. You must be very intelligent.

Me: (bashfully) Oh I don’t know.

Randomer: (Impressed pause) That’s truly amazing. (Another pause, during which I can see a look of confusion creeping onto my companion’s face). So, what does that qualify you to do?

Me: Well, technically I’m a literary critic.

Randomer: A what?

Me: A literary critic. You know, like, I can read a book or a poem and tell you about the language, the intent of the author, and most importantly, if there is underlying sexual connotations. (Note to the uninitiated: there are always underlying sexual connotations. If you can’t see it, you are obviously not looking hard enough).

Randomer: Thank God you were born.

If you’re thinking that I should have been awarded a degree from the National College of Bullshit, you would be right. Because the English Studies course I read was amazing, a real ‘must-do’ for any lover of literature or aspiring writer. I was taught, and constantly surrounded by, geniuses who had written volumes of books and papers on topics such as Shakespeare, Post-Colonialism, Poetry, Irish Women writers and many more diverse and interesting topics. These were truly intelligent people and I felt like a dumbass. Here’s some examples of how this idiocy manifested itself during my college days:

  • My first tutorial: We were introduced to each other and then asked to name the last book we’d read. I panicked and, unable to lie, I dutifully revealed that the last book I’d read was Life of Pi. The lecturer proceeded to ask me what struck me about the book, to which I replied ‘The striking relationship between animal and human and the theme of interdependency’. Agreeing, she asked me to elaborate, to which I replied ‘you know, your man, and the tiger, on the boat together, not killing each other.’
  • We took a course called Old English. Old English is not like ‘hear ye’ stuff, it’s like ancient Greek, and we had to translate texts such as Beowolf (can’t remember the others, sorry). I spent hours translating them word by word, but it annoyed me when I read out my word-for-word translation while my classmate read out his/her translation, grammar and syntax perfect. I felt stupid until I discovered that my classmates had got their hands on the already translated version by Seamus Heaney (or some other translation). Then I felt ridiculously stupid.
  • We also read Chaucer and Marlowe, with their use of ‘u’ for ‘v’, ‘y’ for ‘I’, double Fs and all that stuff. But those texts were much easier than the dreaded Piers Plowman. I went to the lecture on Piers Plowman for clarification on the meaning of the book, only to hear something about sheep eating mud. Useful. Not.
  • It took me two years to figure out that rhetoric and discourse are just fancy-schmancy words for language. When someone spoke about post-colonial/feminist ‘discourse’, I would write in the margin, for the hundredth time that week, ‘look up “discourse”.’ Thankfully, I grasped these difficult concepts just before my final exams (and before writing a thesis on the subject of female discourse in Shakespeare’s plays).
  • In fact, the only time I failed an essay or exam was in second year, when I  thought I would  get away with using the same text for two questions, even though it specifically stated on the paper not to do this: ‘You must not substantially repeat material’. Well, according  to Roland Barthes’ The Death of the Author, what matters most is what the reader interprets from the text, not what the author intended by writing it. I therefore read, ‘Go on. Use the same material for two questions. They’ll never notice. Plus you haven’t read any of the other texts so you don’t have much of a choice.’
  • I often bullshitted my way through tutorials using only the blurb on the back cover as a guide. Come on, where are you supposed to get time to read 6-8 novels a week in between one of your twelve one-hour lectures? The most memorable occasion was when I gave a presentation on H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come. I’d read the first 300 pages but didn’t have time (ah, elusive time) to read the ending. So I gave the presentation and I’d finished giving my general interpretations when the lecturer asked the class: ‘So who got to the end, apart from Sarah and I?’ Silence. ‘Okay Sarah, why don’t we enlighten them?’ ‘Of course! Er, why don’t you go first?’ Laughter. ‘Sarah, did you read the ending?’ ‘Er, not so much, no.’ Endings are apparently important in an apocalypse class. In my defence, I only had sixteen weeks to prepare for this presentation, in between these twelve one-hour lectures. Come on, I’m not Superwoman.

Laziness and fabrication aside, I’m glad I had the opportunity to go to Trinity and study English, which was taught some of the most intelligent and insightful academics in the field. And if nothing else, being able to say you have a degree from Trinity seems to be a significant achievement. Now that I’ve exposed my deepest secret, I’m off to hide my parchment somewhere before it is pried off me.

Feck off. It’s mine now. I’ve earned it.

Kind of. *This blog was inspired by a fellow classmate’s Facebook status today*


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