Most of the time, when you tell people you’re doing an English degree, they look at you blankly and ask: “What on earth are you going to do with that?” Fear not! We spoke to two graduates to find out where an English degree could take you…
Former teacher Frank McAveety is a member of Glasgow City Council and was formerly a member of the Scottish Parliament. We paid him a visit in Glasgow’s City Chambers to find out how his English degree got him into politics.
Why did you decide to do an English degree?
I’d actually left school in fourth year to take up an apprentice electrician’s job but I realised about three months into it that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I had been pretty good in English and other written subjects in school and I had a very charismatic teacher. He persuaded me to come back to school for a crash course in fifth year and then to go to university. I put an application into Strathclyde University and fortunately they accepted.
Did you enjoy it?
I had a good lecturer, he pioneered a Scottish literature course that opened up a whole host of literature that perhaps wasn’t always fully available to people. It was quite exciting. I was a classic Glasgow student, I travelled from the house to university, so I never had the adaptation issue that a lot of people who lived elsewhere might have had to face. I had a network of friends, I was very active in sports and got involved in the university paper.
Did you know what career you wanted to have?
Not really. I was exploring different options like trainee journalism, opportunities in social work and teacher training. I was good at communicating and good with young people, so I thought I might be suited to teaching – that’s how I ended up there.
But then you made the move into politics?
Yes. I was brought up in a family where you would engage and discuss these things. You were politically aware rather than openly politically active. So as well as being a teacher, I started becoming active in party politics and I was offered the chance to stand as a councillor. I always had enthusiasm for both, so I spent a lot of hours trying to be both.
What do you feel you’ve gained through doing an English degree?
A capacity to dissect information quickly, an ability to analyse information and identify the key message and a capacity to communicate. With the use of internet and email, and now with the crossover of things like Twitter, the ability to condense fairly complex issues into very precise points is an advantage.
Would you recommend an English degree?
If you have a passionate interest in literature, poetry or drama then of course you should. Whether it leads to where you think it will is more difficult to define because there are certain crossroads in everyone’s lives where circumstance and opportunity present themselves and you make a choice. My experience in both teaching and politics is that those who are able to find a way to express themselves eloquently and with passion are the ones people listen to. However, you shouldn’t just do it while thinking ‘can I get work out of this?’ If you’ve got that level of infection and enthusiasm then people will respond to you.
Dr Eleanor Bell
Dr Eleanor Bell is a senior English Lecturer at Strathclyde University. She is also an academic, involved in research about Scottish literature and is author of several academic books. We met up with her to find out why English was the degree for her, and why teaching isn’t all that bad.
So, how did you get to the job that you have now? Was it difficult?
Getting an academic job is never a straightforward process. I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Dundee, with a year out in Oklahoma. Then I did a masters degree at the University of Wales over two years, a phD at the University of Dundee and then a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Strathclyde. I’ve been teaching full-time since then.
Do you enjoy teaching?
I think teaching is challenging and hard work, especially when you’re lecturing to large groups. You’ve got to psychologically prepare for a lecture to 200 students. But it’s also really rewarding. You really have to know your stuff. By teaching, you learn what you know about your subject. I think there’s a lot of truth in that.
Why was it that you decided to do English at university?
Towards the end of school, my degree could have gone several ways. I was interested in science and did some work experience in pharmacy. I thought I was going into that but after spending a week at the Royal Infirmary, putting pills into bottles, I thought, ‘No. I think reading books is much more fun.’
What would you tell people who are thinking about doing an English degree?
I can see how it would be useful in all sorts of ways because studying English really helps you hone your critical skills. I don’t think it’s for everyone. A lot of people might feel put off doing a humanities degree because it’s not seen as being a ‘serious’ or ‘legitimate’ area of study but it can get you into all areas of life. I think you just have to be true to what you want to study and follow your ambitions and interests. Come along to open days, and get prospectuses. Have a good look at different universities – getting the right university is important, not just deciding what to study.