Sarah Cassidy: The Importance of the Humanities with an English Major

Edited By: Joy Jiang


It’s not surprising that I interviewed yet another Victorian; perhaps, I’m predictable and redundant. Truthfully, students of Victoria College are a talented, well-read group of intellectuals. It shouldn’t be dumbfounding to realize many creatives attend the college, considering the brilliant minds Victoria College has cultivated throughout the decades: Margaret Atwood, Northrop Frye, Jay Macpherson, and other notable alumni.

The majority of my close friends are in the Life Sciences, and very few are in the Humanities. So, when I meet a student studying English or History, and I realize they are neither pretentious nor boring, I am adamant on being friends with them. That is how Sarah and I became friends. I held onto her because I knew meeting another English major who liked Shakespeare as much as drinking and partying would be scarce.

Sarah Cassidy is a fourth-year student at Victoria College, majoring in English and a double minor in Italian and History.

What has been the most difficult part of commuting and belonging to a college community?

By far the worst part is missing out on a lot of social events, which means missing out on making a lot of connections. Beyond just networking with people in my program, I miss out on making new friends. Now in my fourth year, I’ve made few close connections, and the only friends I did manage to make was due to being a frosh leader in second year when I stayed in their residence. Most people say college is one of the best experiences because of the fun times you have, but by not being immersed in that environment, I’ve definitely missed out on it. The actual commute itself is not that bad, though definitely time consuming. There are many clubs and extra-curriculars that I’ve had to pass up on doing because I’ll come home too late.

Reflecting back on your undergraduate years at UofT, what would you have done differently in academics, extra-curriculars, interpersonal/intrapersonal relationships?

Not a whole lot in terms of academics, except maybe not stress so much on getting every single reading done on time. I tended to worry so much about the readings that I wouldn’t pay attention to the assignments. In terms of extra-curriculars, I most certainly would have joined more things sooner. I’m now part of the Varsity and the History Society, but that took until third and fourth year. I was unwilling to sacrifice my leisure time, which was silly because I’ve been having so much fun with these extra-curriculars, and they look great on a resume. I also wish that I would have just hung out on campus more, even to do homework. I’m trying to do that more now. It’s nice to be in the university environment. There’ve been times when I chose to go home right after class instead of getting a coffee or a bite to eat with some friends because I just wanted to get the long commute home over with and watch Netflix alone in my room, which, again, is ridiculous. Fostering relationships is way more important, especially when thinking about mental health. I tended to focus on academics and never sacrifice even a little in that category but sacrificed my friendships and family, secluding myself and stressing myself out. I’d rather take a slightly lower grade point average if it means nurturing the relationships in my life.

Undergraduate students tend to receive a lot of skepticism in pursuing a liberal arts degree. What is the value in acquiring a liberal arts degree, and more specifically, the humanities?

The negative stigma surrounding my field of study is unreal, unfortunately. I think this is because we live in a technological era. If this were Roman times and I was studying rhetoric, I would be applauded and respected. Also, a lot of people don’t want to study something that doesn’t guarantee them a prestigious, well-paying job. They don’t see benefits of studying something beyond this, which is sad. A liberal arts degree gives people more than just workplace skills, it gives you character. Vic’s mantra is something like “studying translates into character,” and that’s always stuck with me throughout my years here, because it’s true! When you read the Brothers Karamozov or learning the Greek myth behind Ambidexter, you’re studying humanity and its plight, you’re studying the minds of the greats, of [those] who came before you and what they had to go through and say [sic] about it. It’s incredible, and I’ve always said that even if I end up in a job outside of my field of study, I will never regret what I took in university. It has made me a better person and opened my eyes to the world around me. Also, it’s what I love, and if you’re not doing what you love, then what’s the point?

Arguably, UofT offers the best liberal arts education in Canada; however, there are many limitations and shortcomings in how humanities courses are taught. In your experience, what should be changed or improved in your subject post, or humanities courses?

A major thing would be the amount of work you have to do alone. Throughout my years at university, I can’t remember doing a single group project. I remember being in high school and hating group projects, but they help you connect with people in your program and they sharpen your skills. I’ve noticed that a lot of humanities students lack social skills or are typically loners because they are never forced to interact with their peers. Most careers involve teamwork, and it would better prepare us for our futures if there were more group projects. This would be my only real complaint.

Since you are entering the workforce after graduation, how will your liberal arts degree aid in securing a job if “English degrees are useless”?

People seriously underestimate the power of language. Being a good writer or oral speaker can help you immensely with putting together a well-organized, well-written resume or cover letter. It can help you in an interview. So many people these days lack really basic grammar and spelling skills. No matter how impressive and useful your degree might be, if I was looking to hire someone and they couldn’t manage to have a spelling-error free resume, that would seriously put a damper on my view of them. English helps so much in every aspect of life; it’s essentially communication, and good communication is part of every job.

What course was the highlight of your undergraduate experience, and why?

That is such a hard question; I’ve loved so many courses at UofT, but I’m going to have to pick my early English drama third year course with Matthew Sergi. This was a classic case of an amazing professor making seemingly boring subject matter absolutely riveting. I had only picked the course because it covered a certain requirement for my English subject post. I went in there thinking it would be the most boring course I’ve taken yet, and quite the opposite happened. Sergi is an unorthodox teacher, for sure. His methods helped me really engage with the material. When he asked us to write an essay, he didn’t mean write a paper on something someone has already written on and has no real relevance anymore, he meant write something that has not been said before, and you better have a reason for writing it. He pushed us to be original, to dig deep into the texts we were reading and it turns out a lot of us found things that had really never been found before. He also graded our papers using these half hour long, one on one sessions with him. We would bring in two copies of our papers, one for him and one for ourselves, and either we could read our papers to him, or he would read it out loud to us. This way, if something needed clarifying, we were right in front of him to give it. As a result, I worked a lot harder and genuinely loved the papers that I generated. Also, he was into drama as well as English, so lots of our class time was spent doing reenactments of the plays just to see how ridiculous some of them were. He even gave us an option to do an extra credit assignment which was acting out a play in a group and presenting it to the class. These were hilarious.

What is one thing you’ve learned from studying the humanities at UofT?

One thing? You want me to pick one thing? I guess something major I’ve learned is the power of storytelling. I began this journey because, since I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. I used to write stories all the time as a little girl and one day I promised myself I would be published. I was taking English to learn how to be a better writer, but I got so much more than that from it. I learned the stories of so many other writers, as well as historical stories. I know stories from profs and students, and they’ve all inspired me so much to continue my storytelling.

Image Courtesy of Sarah Cassidy