Sunday, 27 January 2019

A Creative’s Confession: Why my degree isn’t as ‘real’ as yours

As an English and Creative Writing finalist, I am very experienced in the element of justifying why my degree is just as real as Maths or Chemistry. Yes, I only have 7 contact hours a week. Yes, I only have 1 exam. Yes, sometimes even I think the whole thing is a cop-out - because it doesn’t feel like work work when I’m sitting in a cafe, or in my bedroom with the fairy-lights on, deciding whether my character would really say that. If you catch me eye-rolling when I am questioned about whether I think I’ve spent my £27,000 wisely, it’s probably because I’ve realised that, actually, you’re quite right. Essay-writing has taught me to always have a balanced argument - whether they work with your agenda, or against it.
This summer, I went on a big family holiday to the South of France. Among the 16 of us was my wonderful oldest sister, Rowan (yes, my dad likes trees). She is a senior GP and partner of a surgery. Her equally wonderful husband, Karl, also joined us on holiday. They met at university, but not med school - Karl studied Fine Art. Now, I, for one, have always sucked at drawing and painting. It’s sad, but just something I truly, truly am never meant to do. So, despite also being a creative, I couldn’t get my head around Karl studying the subject for three years. I became the enemy. I asked him, perhaps more condescendingly than intended, what he actually learnt and whether he thought it was useful. Whether he thought his degree was ‘real’.
“Hazel,” he said, without batting an eyelid, “I can’t tell you why my degree was useful. But I can tell you that I will never look at art in the same way again. What I see is something fundamentally different to what you, or anyone else who hasn’t taken that course, ever can.”
I don’t know about you, but when I heard that, I was pretty impressed. He was basically in the magic circle - of art.
Unlike Rowan, who spent hours on end learning and revising case studies and complicated names and amazing stuff about medicine and our bodies, Karl didn’t learn facts. He evolved a mindset.
In one of my first seminars at the best university for creative writing in Europe, I had to go outside, find a leaf or similar piece of natural material and write a poem from its point of view. I’m not joking. I was not the only person in the class thinking - are you serious? as we traipsed round outside like the living breathing stereotype of mindless poets. Since, I’ve been careful to be modest and sceptical in regards to what we are paying our £9000 a year for. Because our cohort is so small, I’ve even thought that we haven’t actually improved that much. We can’t take harder exams now. We don’t know the answer to more equations. We can’t crack codes that we couldn’t before, or defy gravity. What we have learnt is not tangible. It is not physical or measurable in an exam. In this way, it is not ‘real’.

Only this year have I realised that, just like Karl, it’s not what we’ve learnt, it’s how we see. How we write. Not what, how.  Just as Karl will look at a painting and see something completely different to what I see - for the rest of my life, I will view writing, words and language in a completely different way to my pre-degree self. I cannot express that in an essay or a lab report. You just have to believe me.
I can’t speak for other arts students, but I imagine it’s not dissimilar to film, theatre, philosophy etc. in terms of how we see our art and how we have learnt about ourselves and our creativity. There is no real way to compare us to each other, let alone to vocational or more traditionally academic subjects: no real checklist of information we can now repeat.

Now science students: don’t get me wrong, I admire you. Seriously. All those hours of lectures, all those exams... it’s insane and you’re likely going to be rewarded with a fat salary for the rest of your life. Of course I’m jealous. But I think what I’m trying to say is: there’s no point comparing our degrees. Contact hours? Seminars or lectures? Reading week? Homework? None of it matters. Because the outcome is so fundamentally different, that of course, the route to get there is completely different, too. What you’re learning may be more directly linked to an obvious career, but we will be there too with our magic-circle insight. The world needs both of us: creatives and scientists, and everyone in between. Cheese aside, it’s about appreciating - and admiring - our differences, not defending your course as more valuable. For real.

Love, Haze xxxx 


1 comment

  1. Hello, Hazel. I was given this blog post to read by your boyfriend's aunt. I blog at 'What Mel Did' (

    I LOVED this post. A refreshing read without being ranty, but which got the point across so eloquently.

    I was reminded of my then 7-year old son who was confused at some of the pretension surrounding art in our near circles. I bought him a big ol' art book and wrote in the jacket: "Art, my darling, is whatever you perceive it to be."

    The line then in your post: “I can’t tell you why my degree was useful. But I can tell you that I will never look at art in the same way again. What I see is something fundamentally different to what you, or anyone else who hasn’t taken that course, ever can.” brought a tear.

    My son now reads English in London and I forwarded this post to him. He said he felt even prouder of his degree-that-isn't-a-degree after reading your post!

    Just wanted to let you know the above.

    My best, Mel


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