Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has warned that choosing subjects within the humanities to keep career options open may not be an effective strategy. STEM-trained standup Eleanor Tiernan has some logical AND creative thoughts on this.
I’m with Education Secretary Nicky Morgan when she claims that people are wrong to presume that studying sciences will offer little possibility for sideways career movement. As someone who earned a degree in civil engineering only to abandon it for a career in comedy, I’m a quotable example of Morgan’s comments. Studying a STEM course didn’t limit me from becoming a lazy, feckless burden on society.
Thankfully I’ve encountered zero prejudice within the arts community for having shilly-shallied around infrastructure and transport for 10 years until what I call my actualisation. That’s when I relinquished my human form and sort of fell into the shapeless lump of subjectivity I am today, surviving only on compliments and crisps.
Becoming a comedian was the logical next step for me following my STEM training. After learning how to solve mathematical problems, I now use these skills in my day-to-day comedy work. Writing jokes can be a painful process, partly because there is no correct way to do so. Without a place to start I find myself staring for hours at an empty page, exasperated, hoping for inspiration to strike. Thankfully I have appropriated an old maths technique that, while not always leading to a perfectly formed gag, gives me a jumping-off point, meaning I don’t feel so inept.
Just like a maths problem, I take the topic I want to write a joke about, e.g. rainbows, and on a page, write down everything I know to be true first. Rainbows are semi-circular. They are made up of seven colours. Leprechauns reside within them. Then, as if I am writing a mathematical proof I ask myself: “Based on what I’ve written above, what else can I say is true?”
“Much like music, maths is both a logical AND creative subject. The laws of mathematics are like the musical scales students must practise over and over until they are second nature.”
It is here that possibilities to connect rainbows to other things arise. Are there other rainbow-shaped things? Who leaves the pots of gold at the end there? What else is made up of seven things? Are there facilities within rainbows for leprechauns to use?
It’s important to remember that the question is “What can I write next?” and not “What should I write next?” This is the crux of a huge misunderstanding about maths, which much like music, is both a logical AND creative subject. The laws of mathematics are like the musical scales students must practise over and over until they are second nature. Then once they are ingrained, the possibilities for experimentation begin.
This isn’t the only help my STEM background has been in comedy. Engineering is more than a job, it’s a way of looking at the world. When describing a scene my instinct is to describe the geometry of it before anything else. In particular, civil engineers are trained to design solutions for such unsexy problems as sewage collection and waste management, not exactly the stuff of MTV.
There are many laughs to be found in the unsexier aspects of life. Part of my comedic identity is to be preoccupied with absurd details and pointing out impracticalities. Engineers are ruled by practicality. I can only assume that the STEM training I received has informed this point of view.
There is something I disagree with in Morgan’s comments, though. In reference to studying the arts, she said: “These figures show us that too many young people are making choices age 15 which will hold them back for the rest of their lives.” Whoa there, Morgan! It’s one thing to encourage people to think differently about STEM but quite another to assert that studying arts is an impediment to living.
Firstly, to pit STEM and the arts against each other in such a way is outdated. Upholding this imaginary competition between the two is to remain stuck in the old left brain/right brain prejudice. Children are asked to choose between logic and creativity even though both are vital for inspiration to take hold. To have real ambition for students we must abandon such trivial distinctions.
“What can a Tory government possibly have to gain from undermining the arts? Jeanette Winterson says: ‘If art, all art, is concerned with truth, then a society in denial will not find much use for it.’”
Secondly, how hugely unfair to ask that teenagers begin to think strategically about their careers before they have had the chance to sample a few different options. It burdens them with the demands of the economy, which isn’t their problem to solve. Put our needs before your own, teens! Isn’t it the responsibility of community leaders to shape the world into one where people can live satisfying lives?
Why would she do this? What can a Tory government possibly have to gain from undermining the arts? Jeanette Winterson says: “If art, all art, is concerned with truth, then a society in denial will not find much use for it.” The fewer artists a society has then the fewer uncomfortable truths will be told. That’s not what the Tory party want… surely?
If Morgan is convinced of the broadness of options that STEM courses provide, then presumably she’ll be happy for students to do as I have, i.e. study science and engineering only to leave and pursue an artistic career. And the arts would surely benefit from the problem-solving abilities that more STEM graduates would bring.
I look forward to seeing the work of people who have taken her advice. How invigorating it will be to see art exposing the specific unfairnesses of Tory policies borne out of the combined creative-cum-logical thinking of STEM artists. The cuts to university grants in the recent budget seem like a good place to start.
See Eleanor in Edinburgh: Don’t Cry For Me Eleanor Tiernan, 6-30 August (not 24 August), The White Horse, 8.30pm (Fringe venue 296).
Or catch her preview at Leicester Square Theatre this Sat 18 July at 7pm. Enter code: dontcry2for1 for half-price tickets. Click here for more info.
Eleanor Tiernan... stand up, writer, actress, sister, introvert. Almost no street smarts whatsoever. Avoids the bandwagon if possible.