What do you do with a BA in anything?

I’ve talked about arts degrees before. When you have an arts degree, you are allowed be slightly mocking about it, the same way you’re allowed make fun of your own siblings.

But if you genuinely seriously suggest that an arts degree is a waste of time – that a three- or four-year course of academic study involving research and study and writing and learning is a waste of time – then. Oh. Then I get grumpy.

There are two pieces in the Irish Times today that I’ve been ranting about over on the twitters. One is about the uses of an arts degree, which has lots of statistics and figures (useful information to have, certainly), but seems to entirely leave out the question of whether liking (or even, not hating) your study and work actually matters. The other is a piece by a concerned parent of a college student who thinks her daughter, who’s doing a degree involving 15-20 contact hours, needs more structure (and, oh, that lecturers are very well paid and have lots of holidays and sure what else are they doing).

Breathe in, breathe out.

I guess I’ll start with the lecturers, first, because it’s an extension of the ‘teachers do nothing!’ attitude that so many people misguidedly have. Classroom hours, or lecture hall hours, are the result of a lot of work, and result in more work, and this work doesn’t magically disappear once the students go on their holidays. (At both levels there’s also a huge amount of admin work, often some pastoral care stuff, and your own ongoing professional development. Academics are also, of course, engaging in their own research.)

So when you go to college, you’re not sitting there being spoonfed. You’re getting an intense hour or two hours; everyone in the room should have put in additional work and/or need to do so afterwards. Yes, yes, arts students can sit around drinking coffee in between lectures if they like (and indeed I did a fair bit of this myself), but they’re also going to find themselves working late into the night or at weekends. It’s the system – there is just so much of the stuff that you have to go away and read yourself or discover for yourself or process for yourself. And it’s often less outwardly visible than being in a classroom or lab from 9-6.

I think that side of it is why there can be a lot of disdain for arts degrees (the piece in question is about a law student, but it tends to follow a similar structure – lots of independent work – even though we tend to see law as more worthwhile). No one is making you suffer (at designated times in designated places). You have both great freedom and great responsibility, to misquote Spiderman. There seems to be a mistrust – which carries over into the working world – of this, a sense that you can’t love something or find it satisfying and yet have it also be hard work. It’s an either/or situation – except it really isn’t. You can love your degree and still have it be stressful and difficult and sometimes a struggle to work at; you can love your job and still have a sense that it is work and have many aspects of it that you wouldn’t do were it ‘just’ for fun.

The piece about the uses of arts degrees really doesn’t address the issue of liking your course or even future employment; the idea seems to be that all third-level education is good for is getting you a job in an area that is looking for people at any given point. College degrees are, by and large, broader qualifications than ‘this person can do this job’, particularly at the arts and humanities end of things, and this is no bad thing – three or four years is a long time to devote to intensive study of something with only a single pathway at the end of it. But arts degrees aren’t a way of killing time, either; I do think they’re training. Training for managing your own time, meeting deadlines, working independently, getting to grips with complex new (to you) ideas, analysing and criticising texts of various sorts, engaging with what experts have said on a particular subject, arguing your case in what is hopefully an intelligent and clear fashion. They’re not an easy option, certainly not if you want your 2:1 or first. But I would argue they’re a far better option for many people than studying something simply because Corporation X or Research Lab Y has said it wants more people in this field and look they’ll give you a job!

(Not to mention the fact that despite that article’s claim about employers wanting science and engineering types, it also includes figures that indicate arts, humanities and social sciences types have lower unemployment rates than the science-y folks.)

What do you do with a BA? Well. You learn. Isn’t that what colleges are for?

12 thoughts on “What do you do with a BA in anything?

  1. I completely agree, especially when you list the wide range of skills that are built up in the areas of learning, communicating, formulating arguments, writing, meeting deadlines etc. I also enjoy your point about the enjoyment that can be gained from following the subjects of your choice. I remember the joy I experienced in my courses that I was able to study the things I found most fascinating. I also know people who regret being pushed into college subjects that were thought to be more useful for employment instead of exploring the areas they really wanted to. Yes, especially in straightened economic times people might veer towards more clearly employable subjects but I am a believer in people being able to create opportunities for themselves and transfer skills once they are energetic, capable and enthusiastic about the education they have received.

    • >> I also know people who regret being pushed into college subjects that were thought to be more useful for employment instead of exploring the areas they really wanted to. <<

      Me too. And those subjects didn’t necessarily end up being worth it, or as worth it as they’d thought, once they finished.

      But from the pragmatic side of things, because I do have a pragmatic streak despite the artsy tendencies… you also need to think about the quality of the degree you want. Do something you’re passionate about, and it’ll show in your results and in your references. Do something you hate and you’re much more likely to drop out, or to get a mediocre class of degree, alongside the general despair!

  2. God forbid you do a degree in one that isnt teachable though. Ive had interviewers dismiss the Celtic Studies side of my joint BA, despite it getting better grades than Economics. To my face. Not pleasant.

    • Always I am reminded of that J K Galbraith quote, “The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable.” The amount of respect economics gets as though it is infallible is pretty darn crazy; I think because it has numbers in it people go ‘oooooh’.

      Crazy interviewers. Sigh.

  3. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » What do you do with a BA in anything?

  4. I agree with everything you’ve written here. But I would add that I think Universities should be obligated to offer training skills to Arts students in particular. We know the “extra qualities” that comes with doing an Arts degree, such as time management, independent working/group presentations etc however, this often doesn’t translate into the “real world.” And I think with so many Humanities-based students leaving Ireland or working in menial jobs post-graduation, Universities should be offering training courses alongside Arts, to make English Lit or Celtic Studies or whatever more adaptable. Things like ECDL, Project Management courses (ILM/CAPM), RSA – these should all be offered to students. Maybe not even for free – at discount prices.

    I just feel that there is very little career guidance for Arts students and that’s why this climate of “oh, it’s a transitional degree” – meaning you have to go on and do a M.A. or something to really find your career path.

    Universities are increasingly becoming more and more business-like. I can understand parents thinking “what am I paying for?” when their child has 6-9hrs a week (like I did) and then graduates into a sea of hopelessness. University Heads of Schools have a responsibility to move with the times – as businesslike as Uni can be, so too should the skills taken away by students. And with Humanities, it’s all the more important. That way someone like me who graduated straight into the recession with an Eng/History BA may have had better opportunities than waitressing – if I had certified computer skills that jobhunters recognised. Or a digital media certificate. Or First Aid. Suicide Awareness. ECDL… The list of these minor yet important courses goes on and on.

    • *I just feel that there is very little career guidance for Arts students and that’s why this climate of “oh, it’s a transitional degree” – meaning you have to go on and do a M.A. or something to really find your career path exists.

    • Oh gosh, I could do an entirely separate blog post (and may do) on ‘things that need to be added to/fixed in arts degrees’! (Although I see ECDL as a very very basic thing – it’s almost always done before college here – but officially-recognised digital media skills are something that could be so easily and usefully incorporated into arts degrees and there’s a tendency instead to leave it ’til postgrad.) Marketing skills would be so useful, as indeed general business skills would be – not so much as a have-to-do-in-order-to-get-your-degree, but as something made available and accessible to arts/humanities students.

      There is a difference, though, between making these things accessible and making them part of an academic degree. I have mixed feelings on non-vocational degrees that include things like work placements, for example – counting that stuff alongside assessment of academic work feels a bit apples-and-oranges.

  5. I think the so-called “lack of structure” at college is actually a good thing. Learning to manage your own time and to study when there’s nobody standing over you insisting you do so are skills in and of themselves. I think that mother is rather missing the point by basically saying “I’m afraid my daughter may be socialising when she should be studying, so she shouldn’t be given so much time to study on her own.”

    Apart from the fact that she may not even be correct about what her daughter is doing, if she is right that her daughter sees any time she doesn’t have class as “free time”, then she probably deserves to get lower grades than the students who are prepared to spend that time studying. And I don’t think she’s going to learn to work independently by having her time more structured.

    I actually knew people even doing the Dip who, after we had our last supervision, were like “ah sure, I can just let my students watch videos now when I don’t feel like teaching because I don’t have to worry about somebody turning up to supervise me” and I was thinking “what are you going to do next year? You won’t have anybody supervising you then, but your students will still need to get the course covered in time for their exams.”

    I probably sound rather uptight here, but it does get on my nerves when I have Leaving Cert. students say things like “we’re going to fail x subject because Mrs./Mr. Y never MAKES us study”.

    • >> Apart from the fact that she may not even be correct about what her daughter is doing, if she is right that her daughter sees any time she doesn’t have class as “free time”, then she probably deserves to get lower grades than the students who are prepared to spend that time studying. And I don’t think she’s going to learn to work independently by having her time more structured. <<

      Indeed. Oh, that mother (if she is a real person) sounds a bit of a helicopter parent. And I do get it, it can be a shock to the system to find yourself not in a classroom all the time, but if you treat every moment outside a lecture theatre as free time, it’ll show in your results, absolutely. And there are people who do get a shock when their first-year results appear, but it’s part of the process of figuring out the standard you should be working at (or are working at).

      The ‘making people study’ thing is so irritating, and I dislike it when it’s parents either. Leaving Cert students! They’re not six and needing to be explained how homework works, for goodness’ sake. They’re the ones sitting the exams, and while they should expect that their teachers are teaching the curriculum and providing appropriate advice, and that their parents understand that they need to study (and sadly these things aren’t true for many students), to expect that someone else is going to ‘make’ them do work that’s in their own best interests and no one else’s… oh, don’t get me started. (But I will say that there’s also an unsettling trend of this creeping into third-level, and certain jobs, where people treat it like school and act like sulky teenagers who haven’t chosen to be there and to fulfil certain requirements to the best of their ability. Aaaaagh.)

      • If I were to tell you there were people in the Dip acting like they hadn’t chosen to be there, continuing to talk after the lecturer entered the room, asking stupid questions just to see how the lecturer would respond and so on, would you believe me? I was thinking “you’ve just come from facing a class full of students yourselves. Can you not show the lecturer the respect you expect your students to show you?” We’d one lecturer, who was actually pretty awesome and responded to that with “it’s nice to see some of you are on the same level as your students!”

        And the average age of the students in the Dip must have been around the mid-20s or older – I was 23 and I was one of the younger ones – so they didn’t even have the excuse of being young.

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