In this post, Dr. Clemons considers the practice of literary studies today, a question she is exploring with her students this semester in Foundations of Literary Study.
I opened my Foundations of Literary Study (English 300) class a few weeks ago with a difficult question: “What does it mean to study English in the academy today? What do we study when we study ‘English’?” In part, I did so to frame our discussions for the semester: the class introduces students to the “research methodologies…[and] literary theories…[needed] to read and respond to poetry, fiction, and drama.” At the same time, I also wanted to prepare students for the inevitable, uncomfortable moment, typically at a family holiday meal, when someone asks, “So, what are you going to do with that English degree?” Barring a quote from Avenue Q to fill the awkward gap, I wanted my students to have an answer.
But I wanted one, too. Because thirteen years after hesitantly declaring myself an English major, I’m still not always sure what it is I’m doing.
Take the list our class developed of “Things English Majors Study.” At first, the answers were pretty typical. Shakespeare made an appearance. Twice. But then the list got much more interesting (if I may say so). Remembering the MLA’s mission statement we read, students added “folklore” to the list. Then “Business writing.” Then “Poetry writing.” Followed by “How to teach writing.” Then a tentative “Rhetoric?” During a lull, I asked them to think about courses they’d taken or seen listed at FMU. This netted quick responses of “African American Literature” and “Gender Studies” and “Literary Theory” and “Film and Mass Media.” One person offered enthusiastically, “History of the English Language and Grammar.” Someone else groaned. By the end of that discussion, the list covered most of the board, and I asked the question again: What does it mean to be an English major?
My students are still ruminating over that question. (I’m giving them until April.) Here and now, though, I want to consider the temporal part of this question: What does it mean to be in English today? That, to me, is the difficult part of the equation. Perhaps six or seven decades ago, one could comfortably state that English majors were people who read and were “cultured” in the classics of literature. They spent their time considering the major questions of literary study–What does this piece mean? How does it convey this message, and does it do so successfully? What makes this piece a Great Work? Frankly, these were not the reasons why I grudgingly signed on to get a BA in English. I was lucky enough that, in a cornfield in Ohio, I was allowed to ask the kinds of questions I wanted to ask, because these other approaches, this “Cultural Turn,” was what made it all worth it to me.
Instead of looking at the canon, I finished my honors thesis on Science Fiction (the good and the bad, I might add). Similarly, although I took Shakespeare, I also took Mass Media (because how do we get Shakespeare these days, except through Kenneth Branagh?). While I enjoyed the seminar-style Modernist Poetry, I loved my Film and Violence course. And although it’s impossible to hate a course on PostModern Southern Religious Writers, my course in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory changed how I read Flannery O’Connor and Graham Green. Today’s “English” field is no longer stuck within the text but is cutting across multiple, related fields. Our departmental website’s homepage is a testament to this fact.
Further, today’s literature is not passively, privately consumed years after it was produced. Today’s literature–even literature written “before the internet”–is a visibly living part of the fabric of our culture. While this might have always been true, literature and its effects are trackable not just by which major critic is reviewing what, but by the girl on the street tweeting about her newfound love for Whitman (hey, it could happen. Somewhere.). Today’s top authors don’t just do the lecture circuits and then retire to their mountain retreats in New England (admit it: that’s what you picture): They go out, they talk to people. They get new ideas from their readers. They use what little fame they have for activism or they just geek out, sometimes with their fans.
Nor does reading only encompass sitting alone in a coffee shop. Facebook links up communities of readers. You can track what’s on your BFF’s virtual shelf with multiple apps. Amazon’s algorithm can pick out your new favorite book. You can listen to your favorite book on your iWhatever. IMDB can help you find when the movie or TV rights got sold, and you can debate on Tumblr who should be cast, complete with sample pics. If you’re really brave, you can stumble your way into the world of fandom and write your own version. Don’t like how Darcy treats Elizabeth? Fix it by adding an explanatory scene. Or have the Lizzie hook up with Iron Man when the Avengers crash the party thanks to a time traveling trope–the story is yours. (And then email it to me, so I can examine what social function this story fulfills for the reader and writer.)
In recent months, liberal arts schools have been working to show the public why we exist or what can be gained by doing what we do. Most of them, rightly so, point to studies that show what employers want is not easily quantifiable skills, but training in communication, critical thinking, and problem solving. This, we argue, is what the liberal arts, specifically English, gets us. Being an English major in the 21st century means learning how to read the world and, more importantly, respond to it.
This, of course, is a very long answer to give when you get the “English major, huh. So what are you going to do with that?” question. Feel free to edit it down and make it your own. Start a tumblr. Create a Facebook page. Write a post for our departmental blog.
And if you’re one of my students in ENG 300 this semester: I’m still looking for responses to another question: “What does it mean to study English in the academy today? What do we study when we study ‘English’?” I hope that by the end of the course, you’ve found not only your answer, but your own way to express it as well.