McArts Degrees: The Explainer

Answering what would seem to be a straightforward question.

January 9, 2014

On Christmas day, while driving an elderly cousin I rarely see to my brother’s for the evening festivities, I found myself trying to come up with some interesting news about my life.  She was reminded that I graduated with my Master’s degree last year and asked about the program I had taken.

I am embarrassed to say that I still struggle with this question; back in 2010 when I started the degree, I wrote a post indicating the same, and I haven’t made a lot of progress since. Not that I don’t know what my degrees are – I remember clearly that I graduated in 1998 with an honours degree in Psychology and in 2012 with a Master’s degree in Cultural Studies. It’s explaining what that latter degree means that I continually find challenging; it’s a ridiculous admission, since I both have the degree, and work in the Faculty of Graduate Studies answering inquiries about potential graduate programs. Shouldn’t I be able to explain my own course of study better than any other?

With Psychology it’s easy – everyone knows what that is. Well, actually, they don’t – and I used to constantly have to field questions from people asking me to diagnose their co-workers and loved ones with various psychoses. But people *think* they know what it is, so to say that you graduated with that degree doesn’t result in any quizzical looks in response. But Cultural Studies? It’s a more nebulous field, and outlining the papers I wrote and readings I did doesn’t actually explain much.

In fact, I occasionally find myself really uncomfortable telling people that I wrote papers on porn and Star Wars and horror movies and Jane Austen and Beowulf. It all seems so…fluffy, somehow. It makes me cringe to think that someone is going to make a comment about my “McArts” degree, a phrase I constantly see in the comments section of education-related articles in my local newspaper.

What exactly *did* I graduate with? Why did I do this? How can I justify the fact that I was assigned a lot of movies to watch for the vast majority of my courses? Every once in a while, I feel like I signed up for an “easy” degree, because I feel like any description of the work I did cannot possibly illustrate the importance of or challenges inherent within what I was studying. How does watching Fight Club (hegemonic masculine violence!) and Stardust (beauty! cross-dressing! performativity!) result in making the world a better place?

And then I feel guilty, because I *know* that what I studied matters – and that it has fundamentally changed who I am as a person, and how I look at the world. I guarantee you, I never would have been involved with SlutWalk, nor even understood what it was all about without the feminist theory I learned, and the subsequent study of media representations of female sexuality and docility. So in that respect, my degree has had an effect on my political beliefs and activities to date.

But so what? I learned a few things. I protest. It’s comforting to know that it was money that didn’t go to waste. But I still don’t have some pithy way of explaining why those “McArts” degrees are useful – and what *precisely* I did for 2.5 years, other than read novels and write notes in the movie theatre while watching Scream 4.  

And how to explain this to my elderly cousin? At 83 years old, she didn’t have a computer, and doesn’t seem to read much for pleasure – though she had at least read Pride and Prejudice when she was in school. How to explain that no, I am not like my other cousin David who studied Entomology, nor did I continue with Psychology. It’s about understanding how the media forces us to look at the world in a certain way, and learning to unpack our belief systems to understand whether they are sound.

But I suppose the bigger question is, why do I feel so compelled to justify any of this? Why am I so personally affronted by this “McArts” comment? Why am I belittling my work by feeling it was “easy” because my texts weren’t massive tomes with numerical formulae and latin phrases (though Beowulf had some pretty archaic English happening)? As so many writers address, there is a crisis in the field of Arts: if we’re not curing cancer, the degree doesn’t seem to have the same perceived value. I can appreciate that studying in a field you love, simply out of interest is important, and that pure research is laudable, but I still feel a little twinge every time the question of “what did you study for your master’s degree” comes up.


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