At some point in high school, someone told me to choose classes based on what I like. There’s a lot of weight from even high school to choose carefully – setting yourself on this or that educational trail by taking or not taking particular courses (which later become pre-requisites for college courses, which are themselves pre-requisites for upper year courses, and on and on) can impact your whole career. Ignoring the thousand hypothetical futures I could have by taking course x or course y, I chose based on my actual aptitudes and interests.
That got me into english, and from there to the honours program. Both were an obvious choice for me – I’m a reader of endless appetite, and flinging myself into a pit of books for four years sounded absolutely perfect to me. Books are human desperation and human beauty, creating a space that’s both cavernous and minute, and I live for those perfect sentences that take your breath away, the ones that make you pause and exhale like “if only, if only…”
What I’m saying is, books are beautiful and I was thrilled to read them and write about them. I travelled to Scotland for a semester and learned that everything we know about Scottishness (the clan tartans, the noble highlander) is basically completely ahistorical, instead based on the feverish and aspirational fantasies of a well-heeled Englishman called Walter Scott. I returned from Scotland and hassled a beloved professor into agreeing to supervise my thesis.
The thesis itself was a lesson in project and time management. I was used to eight page essays that I could mostly skip through with style and some writerly flourishes. Substance wasn’t my strength – in fact, until that point I tended to write my essays first and research second. It’s shameful, I know, but there was always something out there to cite in support of what I had already come up with. That particular form of laziness worked well for shorter papers, but did not fly for a 30 page paper. I muddled through it, but learned that just writing nice sentences won’t get you through everything in life. Style is a wonderful thing, but you have to show your work for your style to really shine.
I graduated. I drank late night wines with my friends and swam in the lake. I did nothing of any career value. Then I wrote the LSAT on a lark (if my cousin could write it, so could I!) and got into law school. I won’t dwell on law school except to say that (a) a lot of people really, truly felt that law school beat their creativity and their uniqueness and their talent out of them in favour of law’s black and white conformity (b) a lot of people adored law school, myself included. Law school is brutal and beautiful. You’re surrounded by 100 of your closest friends at every second, even when you’re crying in the library at 2 AM on a Sunday night. UVic might be a unique beast, but I treasured my time there and found a lot of joy in the camaraderie and unity. My English degree didn’t help as much as I wished it did – legal writing is strict and pared down. No one cares that you know how to use a semi-colon; they just wish you would write two simple sentences instead.
I graduated, I got a job back in Kelowna. I work, and I work, and I work. Here’s how I use my English degree: every second of every day. Every one of my injured, sore, and angry clients just wants to feel heard – I write them warm e-mails acknowledging and thanking them for sharing their stories with me. I write settlement proposals and I negotiate – both of which involve transforming a stack of diagnoses and wage loss numbers into a human experience. Sally doesn’t just have thoracic outlet syndrome and tinnitus, Sally can no longer lift her granddaughter or hear her laugh the same way. Articulating the change in someone’s life is a careful and creative process, and I’m always honoured to use my English skills to advocate for my clients.
Overall, I’m incredibly grateful to my English degree and the skill set it gave me. Language is endlessly flexible, and I love having the tools to arrange and re-arrange words into the kind of sentences that spark joy as your tongue trips along them. In a corporate world, what better degree is there than one that allows you to illuminate meetings and create connectivity and warmth where facts and figures might otherwise reign?