... all the trouble of a B.A. in English literature
January 3, 2013 1:26 PM   Subscribe

I'm considering taking online courses/doing a part time degree in English for interest reasons. Will this be worth it?

I recently finished a master's degree in engineering, but I have always loved English and long had the tug-of-war between science and literature. I don't regret going the technical path, but I miss the intellectual challenge and creativity of English courses (and feel like my capacity for sharp writing and even discourse has falling in the last few years).

During a particularly (s)low point in my last degree, I audited a Contemporary American Fiction course at my university and found it completely exciting and reviving. However, due to my time restrains and audit standing, I didn't write essays or exams for the course. With all the new year's ruminations this week, I've been thinking about pursuing this a bit more seriously in my spare time.

I've been looking into taking courses at online universities (like Athabasca), but they aren't cheap. I would obviously be starting with introductory courses and work my way up to more specific topics, so I could potentially move very slowly toward a degree if I found that I was really enjoying it (something like a 3-year, non-honours degree... but not completed within three years). I would probably just pick one credit at a time since I'm pretty green in the workload and time requirements for humanities courses.

Considering the cost and that this is merely for my interest's sake, would this be silly? Is there a different, more effective way that I could stimulate and cultivate this interest? I participate in book clubs and very casual blog writing, but I'd like direct feedback on my writing and ideas and a chance to develop more critical thinking skills. And it would give me an excuse to read more challenging fiction in my spare time. Any advice?
posted by Paper rabies to Education (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I can't see how pursuing something you're interested in is ever silly. You have the permission of this random Internet person to spend a little money on something that makes you happy.

You may find a more cost-effective option via an actual brick-and-mortar school that also offers online courses/degrees, rather than a strictly online school.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 1:33 PM on January 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

As an (undergrad) lit major, the most interesting and edifying parts of the class -- the professors (as individuals) and the discussions with other students -- can't really be replicated in an online setting. Also, all the courses I had that were at times meant for non-traditional students were definitely skewed to the "I just want my degree already" side rather than the "let's learn about literature" side, and I can only assume online courses generally follow suit. Personally, I think there's better (and cheaper) ways to accomplish your goals. But, hell, if you are genuinely considering this, I don't think a semester is going to break the bank so you might as well see for yourself if it is worth it.
posted by griphus at 1:48 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

Seconding SuperSquirrel -- yes, give it a go, but finding a bricks and mortar course might be more interesting than online. If you do have to use online, try to build a little online community with other people on the course.

But, in counting the cost, you really ought to add in the opportunity cost -- what else might you be doing with your free time?
posted by Idcoytco at 2:06 PM on January 3, 2013

I think you might see about finding a book group that reads "serious" literature, before spending money on some course. Personally, as a former English major, I don't love tearing books to tiny shreds in order to "learn" about them, but YMMV.
posted by Ideefixe at 2:09 PM on January 3, 2013

Keep in mind that some universities or institutes won't let you continue ad infinitum without actually applying and committing to a degree. I've found that some places, but not all. Other than that, I recommend it. Another option might be online writing courses from places like Creative Nonfiction, Gotham Writers' Workshop, or MediaBistro may give you a relatively low cost way to figure out if you want to do more, or more formally, while still having an outlet for reading, writing, and critique.
posted by cocoagirl at 2:12 PM on January 3, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm just here to reiterate that you are likeliest to get the experience you want in a real, physical classroom. Not an online class, which will be completely peremptory. Not a book club, where readers usually don't have enough group expertise to say anything interesting. And definitely not an online creative writing workshop. You want a classroom.

Is it out of the question to get a technical job with a university and take master's classes part-time?
posted by Nomyte at 2:27 PM on January 3, 2013

Hm, I only took a half-dozen English literature / literary theory classes, but the main things I got from them were good reading lists and some pleasant ego boo from written comments and grades. The texts, ideas, and problems were exciting, and I'm not dismissing the value of ego boo, but in large part, the people and the human interactions during class struck me as tedious and irrelevant.

Discussions with peers outside the classroom were another story, as was grad school in a related sub-field of a different discipline. Courses didn't matter much in grad school either, but the human interaction and in particular getting the inside scoop on how professionals think about their work (and others') was paramount. I don't think you're going to get that kind of stuff from online courses at all and probably not even from attending undergrad classes in person as a commuter.

So I suggest you (1) find some seriously well-read friends to meet for coffee/dinner occasionally, (2) Google up some syllabuses to cherry-pick, (3) don't just read texts but also interesting readers reading texts*, and (4) find places to express yourself such as a blog or Goodreads.

*This means read things like ... Or to put that another way, move as quickly as possible from reading fiction to reading criticism and theory, because that's most of what English as a discipline has to offer beyond reading for fun. Which is fine too.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 6:24 PM on January 3, 2013 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the input, everyone! I think I may have underestimated the importance of the classroom setting. It could be difficult due to scheduling restrictions, since I'll be working a daytime, possibly commuting job (ugh), but maybe I can find some night classes. I'll see what's available in the area.

The other reason why I considered online courses first was because I can't necessarily commit to a full degree, like cocoagirl commented, and those institutions tend to be a bit more lax about degree enrolment. Also, a technical job at a university isn't in the cards for me at this point, unfortunately.
posted by Paper rabies at 8:23 PM on January 3, 2013

If you're commuting, seriously consider getting one of the Great Courses in literature and treating that as an introductory course to gauge your own interest. If you find yourself reading further ahead and thinking deeply about it, then the more solitary self-directed online learning could work for you.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:34 AM on January 4, 2013

By commuting, I meant that you could then listen to the lecture series regularly during your commute, and then spend lunchtime doing some reading.
posted by viggorlijah at 5:35 AM on January 4, 2013

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