English Departments Fail

It’s not a secret that the humanities is always in line for termination. Arguments have been made on both sides for and against this. Being a part of this world, whether as an undergraduate, graduate, or faculty member means having an argument at the ready about why anyone should bother with your field and others like it.

It took four years of participating in an English department to understand fully what about my curriculum need major revision. Aside from committee meetings and job security, the curriculum of a department is its most important asset. A successful set of classes means that we get to keep our department funded, and professors who are not contracted through the university long-term get to keep their jobs. It also means a slew of other things, but I won’t bore you with those details. Essentially, departments are like offices within a company, all of whom are responsible for their own production of revenue. More students equals more money. More money makes a happy university.

An interesting, results-oriented, and modern curriculum may be the answer to everything. English departments fail when they become irrelevant. Curriculum focus on analysis of canon-text which includes mostly outdated materials. Every English major is exposed to Shakespeare, Chaucer, Wordsworth, and others – as the list goes on. Recognizing the literary canon is an asset in the literary community, but too much focus on the materials of the canon leaves little room for new thought and productivity. Shakespeare is wonderful. One of my favorite pieces of all time is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But Shakespeare has been analyzed to death.

Graduate departments aren’t what they used to be. Have fun obtaining a Ph.D. in anything before the year 1800. The point of a Ph.D. is to make a careful analysis of text with your own original point of view. Then you must produce a book-length text of your own from this analysis that is based on an original argument. It can be a daunting task to unearth original ideas, but if you can do it, bravo.

I’m not sure if anyone told you this, but being a student of English has nothing to do with reading old texts. An English student is an investigator, a philosopher, and a writer. Being able to be those three things means you have a better chance of finding a job in a literary field.

An English program should be centered on analysis of modern texts that utilize literary theory of all kind. The best class I have ever attend, and the one that I got the most out of, was the class that taught me how to analyze and write a paper. It’s disgusting that it took me four years to know how to write a thesis or a good paper. That should be the goal of the department from day one. You shouldn’t even be allowed to exist until you’ve learned how to identify and write a compelling argument. The modern texts I’ve discussed are a great outlet for this. A newer text creates a more productive discussion, and it creates relevance for both the field and the texts being read.

With changes to a curriculum that includes a more updated approach, we can turn to our opponents and say, “How can you be rid of those ushering you into a new era of media study?” All media – printed text, video, music – is considered text we study now. None of it is off-limits to our analysis. We won’t fade into obscurity. Rather, we will be the critics of our age, and perhaps the written word and the English department won’t die with this new generation.

 

The case against entitlement

You will reap from life what you sow. You will be a professor if you work diligently to understand what that means and requires. You will be a doctor for the same reason.

Obtaining a degree does not entitle you to a job. It does not entitle you to status or money or wealth. It does not entitle you to anything.

I come to you after reading One Case Against Removing The Liberal Arts From Universities, an article that was particularly motivating.

The basis of this article was to refute claims that the Liberal Arts are an irrelevant part of the University. This is a hilarious sentiment. Universities were founded on the basis of teaching specialized areas of knowledge, most notably to the clergy and officers of the government. You were educated if you had status and a job the required you to be educated.

The perception is most often that the liberal arts are an ancient tradition of hoo-haw that spoils our brains and doesn’t promote practical thinking. It isn’t as valuable as math or science.

And yes, math and science are what men of the first universities would have learned. They needed to be able to calculate measurements and formulate opinions based on those calculations. This would have been more accurately considered as learning new technology than learning math and science.

Scholars also would have been taught philosophy, as philosophy of more than a hundred years wasn’t such seemingly a frivolous pursuit. It was considered the same as today’s psychologists speculating behavioral problems or meteorologists predicting the weather. The difference is, we understand these concepts better. We understand them differently, and therefor they become archaic.

Truthfully, literature is a relatively new concept compared to mathematics. We measured before we wrote. We needed writing to record those measurements. Writing of language begins in many cultures as a means of recording labor and quantity. Literature as we know it doesn’t emerge until much later, after its inception. The oldest manuscript in our possession is Beowulf, but between the writing of Beowulf and the fifteenth century, surviving manuscripts can be more rare than a white Bengal tiger walking an American beach. It is from the 15th century on that the invention of the printing press and the resurgence of classical thought form the body of work we study today.

I can talk about this until my face turns blue. So I’ll stop.

The reality is that my experience at a university is only relevant because of the amount of work I put in and the opportunities I took to gain experience. What mattered wasn’t my A in 20th Century British Literature. My experiences with organizations on campus mattered.

Therefor without my humanities degree, I might not be anyone special. I might not have any valuable skills.

Tell me, English major, what do you do all day?

Sometimes I wonder if other human beings believe that all I do is sit in a classroom of five or six other fellow English scholars and discuss why curtains are blue in chapter six of x story. I have been outright scoffed at when it was revealed that my degree will be in English. To practical human beings, we are the lazy facet of society, not quite crazy enough to be artists but still very much of a similar caliber. Artists are the shot guns and we English people are the pistols.

People argue the value of art, but no one denies the value of beauty. We care so much about beauty that we’ve dedicated entire empires of commerce to it. We complain about the altering of it in the media. We obsess over the lives of those able to achieve it. But more often is Kim Kardashian discussed in the news than Margaret Atwood. If Atwood had Kim’s ass, how much do you want to bet more people in the media would pay attention to her? But Atwood is still pretty sexy in that picture, isn’t she?

What is the value of the English degree?

If you have absolutely no imagination or drive, there is absolutely no value in an English degree. But the same is true for an entrepreneur. A business doesn’t thrive without diligence and innovation. Neither does the literary community. I won’t tell you to get any sort of degree if you are incapable of imagining a path for yourself that requires it.

The value of the English degree for myself is the first stepping stone to my future. I want to be a writer. But being a writer is not a good day job. I don’t enjoy poverty, as I suspect most people don’t. Therefor it was the closest I could come to my dream career without starving. This first stone was one of several in a series.

So we come back to what it is I do all day.

I read. I really do read alllllllllllllll day. Some of us write too. Some of us play dungeons and dragons. The truth is, we are a diverse bunch. And we spend an ostensibly long time learning about how to read rather than what to read. The purpose of our education isn’t just to have read the most classics offered on Amazon. The purpose of our education is to require us to comprehend what we read, and then to funnel our eureka moments into a feasible argument that supports our theories.

Even English majors complain about having to write papers. Unfortunately, I have no sympathy for these particular people. Becoming an English major is a guarantee that you are going to spend a good portion of your time theorizing ways to not have to write six 20-page papers all due on the same day. I knew this well when I signed up for this major.

As I come to the close of my undergraduate education, I see it as a whole entity. I don’t just sit around reading books all day. I sit around imagining. I read. I think. I connect. I imagine. I stimulate my mind with the possibilities of all of the information I am capable of obtaining. The only difference between myself and a medical student is, I can pretend to be a doctor in my books and get away with it. All I need is knowledge.

And therefor, to be whatever I choose to be, I need knowledge.

I don’t write in a vacuum. I don’t have an exclusively placed cabin in the woods where I can escape to. I don’t sit with a pipe in front of a fireplace reciting Shakespeare to myself.

I imagine.