The Elements of English Studies

Brittany Stojsavljevic

Introduction

As part of the introductory English studies class I took during spring semester 2016 in a graduate program at the University of St. Thomas, I was asked a deceptively simple question: What should the field of English be teaching its graduates? The short answer seems obvious: English. The class itself focused on the history of English studies and critical lenses. But throughout the class we also discussed what texts and what mediums should be included in English studies, what skills should be developed, and how connected English should be to other fields of study. This question prompted me to consider what I had obtained from my undergraduate education, and also what I hoped to gain from my graduate education and into the future. For the midterm, our task was to consider everything we had explored this far, develop an English studies program, and explain why we made our decisions. In my answer to this question, I focus on what college graduates should be leaving their educations with through the lens of developed and desirable skills, and include interview responses from several people within my own network, from Ph.D. students to adjunct professors to tenured professors, on their own thoughts on how and why English studies should be taught.

One simple way of considering what skills are vital to graduates is to look at what the corporate world praises in the hiring of English majors. In fact, at a 2015 seminar on recruiting that the Association of Departments of English participated in, having clear communication about what graduates do professionally and what skills they need was one of their recommendations. Both a 2014 Huffington Post article, “In Defense of the ‘Impractical’ English Major,” and an ADE Bulletin article, “The Starbucks Myth: Measuring the Work of the English Major,” list critical-thinking skills, communication skills, and empathy as some of the top qualifications English majors enter the workplace with. All of those skills also have an added benefit, as “The Starbucks Myth” points out: they have lasting value and the flexibility to survive no matter what the latest trend becomes.

With the aim of maximizing the above skill sets, my proposed English department will be designated as English and Cultural Studies. I will concentrate on how each of the aforementioned skills can be developed through techniques already being used in classrooms by professors and provide information on why these skills are important from scholars.

Critical Thinking

            Critical thinking is a traditional domain for English departments, particularly within the last two centuries, if considered in light of taking a text and reading it critically to understand the various messages and themes a text can convey.

Brian Brown, who received his master’s degree in English from the University of
St. Thomas and serves as an adjunct professor there, teaches a course that centers on masculinity in America in which he purposefully sets out to debunk the impossible image of modern manhood. He selects his texts so that they have some touchstone to contemporary culture and so that his students will be able to relate to them. He typically uses clips from modern media, in addition to Sam Shepard’s Family Trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Fight Club is especially integral, he said, because many of his students have seen the 1999 movie, but do not fully understand its message without that critical lens. “Everyone loves [Fight Club] but they don’t understand it until they until they read it with the lens of how it affects the American male, and that really strikes home,” Brown said. He added that while McCarthy is certainly more canonical, he considers himself “counter canon.” He said, for him, it is important to find something his students will be able to relate to, which often is no longer canon. On the contrary, if he does teach something that is considered canon, he likes to pick something students often have already read, think they know, and change their understanding of it.

Alexandra Garner[1], who has taught at the University of Connecticut and Bowling Green State University, also centers her English classes on content that her students will care about, connect with, and then critique. She has taught Harry Potter, the Hunger Games series, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. “I wanted [students] to learn how to make connections and see certain themes and patterns across narratives,” she said. In that regard, she emphasized that the term “narratives” should be used broadly. Novels are not the only format that carries a narrative and certainly are not the only format that students encounter. Garner loops in poems, television shows, films, video games, music, and even fanfiction. “Narratives come in all shapes, sizes, and form, and they’re all worth studying,” Garner said. In specific, for her Hunger Games course, which she said was the most popular class she has taught, she took her students to see the Catching Fire movie that came out that semester; discussed the cultural and historic movements that influenced Suzanne Collins’s writing, including the Vietnam War; read Battle Royale (a Japanese novel that has the same plot as The Hunger Games) and The Lottery; watched episodes from the television shows Torchwood, Survivor, and Big Brother; and watched the movies Iron-Jawed Angels and Marie Antoinette. “We talked about politics, race, gender, socioeconomics. … We talked about so many things that they might have not gotten out of their own reading because we went into depth,” Garner said.

[1] [Garner received her bachelor’s degree in medieval and renaissance studies from Ohio Wesleyan University; her master’s degree in medieval studies from the University of  Connecticut; her master’s degree in popular culture from Bowling Green State University; and is enrolled to pursue a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon.]

At the heart of both Garner’s and Brown’s courses is the expectation that their students will look more closely at the content they consume on a daily basis. By expanding to works outside of the canon, they help their students to connect with the material and to not limit themselves to using those freshly attained or more substantially grown skills only in the classroom. Instead, they encourage students to be critical connoisseurs of all types of narratives no matter where they are encountered. Some level of theory fits into this model, preferably earlier on in the program, in order to grant a greater depth of reading comprehension.

This set-up also addresses some of the problems that Robert Scholes discusses for contemporary English studies in The Rise and Fall of English. He points out that “high” literature can no longer be read simply for the sake of instilling values because “high culture is not a guarantee of ‘sympathy, tolerance and understanding’” (19). He discusses this disconnect between what young people want—which is pop culture instead of “literature”—as one of the difficulties English studies faces today. However, if the goal of reading within the English classroom is not to simply be “well-read” and learn morals from that reading, but is, instead, to develop this critical lens, the doorway is opened for a wider range of types of texts.

Communication Skills

            Critical thinking flows well into the next skill: communication skills. Once students have developed thoughts about a topic or text, they need to have the capacity to sum up those thoughts in an articulate and concise manner in order to share them with others. As Garner summed it up, “The skills we teach … are thinking, articulating those thoughts, and successfully arguing for the way you think about something. The rhetoric surrounding your argument is as important as the language.”

The emphasis on communicating convincingly sits well with two other trends. First, the field of communications sits in a unique position in history. With the rise of the Internet and the advent of social media, it is easier than ever to procure a platform for any sort of message, and the ripple effects of that have been seen throughout traditional print publications. Due to the decrease of gatekeepers, it has become more important than ever to be able to say something interesting and say it well. Brown, whose primary job at the University of St. Thomas is as the director of publications—which include a traditional print magazine, an online newsroom, and social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—said that when he hires for his department, a strong voice is one of the primary factors he looks for. Moving toward a more rhetoric-based model also seems to be in line with what is happening in the field of English across the United States. Scholes writes, “Now, and the signs of it are everywhere, the pendulum is swinging back to rhetoric,” and that is happening precisely because of the growing importance of rhetoric in daily life (20).

While all the classes in this theoretical program would have a writing component in them, it would be helpful to have a class with a primary purpose that is focused on rhetoric skills. One way rhetoric could be studied is by examining successful and unsuccessful examples of rhetoric techniques in writing. Here a practical reason for sticking with canonical text exists: an argument can be made that one of the reasons that a work has become canon is because it is well written and at least has been vetted, whether positively or negatively, by multiple sources over time. As Scholes points out, “Rhetoric had been organized around a canon of methods, with texts used merely as examples” (111). Students can examine the techniques that are used by these authors and make judgments, with a plethora of research to assist them, on how effective they are. Scholes also reminds those who teach English that it is just as important to include “bad” examples of rhetoric. Employing this exercise also opens the door for students to review and edit each other’s work, which provides an additional benefit: stronger editing skills are an asset in and of themselves and also equip students to be better writers.

Within writing and rhetoric classes, students should also be experimenting with their own writing and communication skills. In that way, moving away from canon can be beneficial because it can help students see themselves as creators of content. “Presenting and showing students that literature is not just the stereotypical canon [and] that it can be written by anyone, that’s important. It’s stereotypical that that the Western canon is literature and everything else gets swept under the rug,” said Lauren Harvey[2], who has taught at the University of Arizona. Garner uses the Internet to make exactly this point. She teaches fanfiction, including having her students write drabbles and review fanfiction, precisely because it is the furthest a reader can possibly get away from canon. “It’s a rebellion against the canon for people who are not represented and from voices that are not otherwise heard,” Garner said. By inviting students to become immediate contributors, particularly through the new platforms and tools available, they are able to see the effect their writing has and develop lasting and strong communication skills.

[2] [Harvey received her bachelor’s degree in English from Ohio Wesleyan University; will receive her master’s degree in English and linguistics as a second language at the University of Arizona; and is currently enrolled to pursue her Ph.D. in English and linguistics as a second language at the University of Arizona.]

Empathy

            As the aforementioned Huffington Post article pointed out, a growing number of scientific research is saying that reading fiction has the potential to improve empathy skills. If we consider being empathetic as the ability to consider from other’s perspectives and the ability to entertain conflicting viewpoints, as Sheryl Fontaine and Stephen Mexal seem to in “The Starbucks Myth,” deviating from the canon becomes a way of possibly improving a person’s ability to be empathetic. As Garner pointed out, “You have to step outside male, hegemonic literary canon of work to see a variety of perspectives. … It’s important to students to see someone who’s not [upper middle class and white]—to see struggle, discrimination, and a perspective that’s not their own.” Karen Poremski[3], an associate professor at Ohio Wesleyan University whose specialization is in early American and Native American literature, echoed that sentiment: “If we’re going to live in a diverse society, if we’re going to get along and learn from each other, we have to be reading all kinds of stuff. … When you read, you have to put aside yourself, and you’re reading in the persona of some other character or narrator or someone who isn’t necessarily like you.”

[3] [Poremski received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland, her master’s degree from San Francisco State University, and her Ph.D. from Emory University.]

While this concept may seem like it works against earlier ideas in the critical-thinking section—that students should be able to relate to a text they are reading—the concepts actually work hand in hand. By broadening the texts that students are reading, they should come up against texts that have aspects that are familiar to them and aspects that are foreign to them, no matter what background they come from, because it is acknowledged that students come from different backgrounds and that their experiences are not uniform. To not do this, and instead stick only with canon, reinforces the concept that white and male is the norm, and that students need to adhere to that mindset to be successful. Frances Aparicio in an article for MLA’s Profession summed this up by saying, “Required readings and topics in course syllabi may not reflect the racial, ethnic, class, or gender experiences of many of the students, thus limiting their ability to identify with the course material,” which results in students who feel they are being “other-ed” leaving the department.

This also allows for students to interact with unfamiliar cultures and to read works that were written or translated in English but may not be considered “English literature.” Robert pointedly says that, “We can no longer take it for granted that the literature of England (as opposed to literatures in English) should be the center of English studies” (21). While teaching translations brings with it its own set of challenge, it also brings opportunities to discuss the machinations of languages, including English, and how the function of language reflects the values of culture. Harvey summed this up by saying, “There’s the whole issue of translation and losing some of the meaning, but there’s so much more there. … Talking about translation opens up the whole world of literature. It’s an international world, and that’s an important thing.”

With such an emphasis on culture and, as several people have mentioned, increasingly “global” work, it seems important that the English discipline continues to become progressively more interdisciplinary. Scholes makes the argument that English needs to partner more with history departments so students have an adequate amount of knowledge when they foray into a text. He also says that the history of English as a discipline and as a language becomes pivotal, which may lead to partnerships with sociology, anthropology, and history once again (119). A number of universities now have programs like these, including the University of Nebraska and Boston College. Garner said, in her own experience, interdisciplinary studies have helped her flourish: she focused on medieval studies in two of her programs, which were interdisciplinary in nature, and through classes in the English departments, she was able to discover critical theory. Collaborating with other departments allows for their perspectives and techniques to at least be considered and possibly integrated into an English student’s repertoire.

Conclusion

            By considering what skills students should graduate with, the work currently being done by English professor and students, and the critical theory written by other scholars, my proposed department, English and Cultural Studies, would be a mix of literature, language, and culture. It would deviate heavily from using canonical works, with an emphasis on having broad representation in multiple formats so students can both relate to literature and be introduced to new cultures and values. Critical thinking would be the primary concern of many of the classes, with writing as the medium to convey those skills. There would also be classes that focus specifically on communication, particularly through the lens of rhetoric, which would include analyzing writing and encouraging students to explore different techniques and platforms. Classes on the history of the discipline and the history of the English language would also be included. The department would work to contextualize culture and values both through classes offered in English, and use partnerships with other departments so connections can be made across disciplines. Through this mix of classes and techniques, graduates should emerge from the program with a robust range of practical skills that can provide immediate and lasting benefits to them in their personal and professional lives.

Works Cited

Aparicio, Frances. “Insisting on Race, Ethnicity, and Gender: Reflections of a Latina Scholar (Who Is Also a Professor of Spanish).” Profession (2013): n. pag. Modern Language Association. Web. 19 Mar. 2016. <https://profession.commons.mla.org/2013/11/08/insisting-on-race-ethnicity-and-gender&gt;.

Brown, Brian. Personal interview. 17 Mar. 2016.

Fontaine, Sheryl I., and Stephen J. Mexal. “The Starbucks Myth: Measuring the Work of the English Major.” ADE Bulletin 152 (2012): 36-46. Print.

Garner, Alexandra. Personal interview. 17 Mar. 2016.

Gregoire, Carolyn. “In Defense Of The ‘Impractical’ English Major.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 14 Mar. 2014. Web. 19 Mar. 2016. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/03/14/how-english-majors-are-ch_n_4943792.html&gt;.

Harvey, Lauren. Personal interview. 17 Mar. 2016.

Insana, Lisa, and Emily Todd. “Recruiting Majors in English and World Languages.” MLA Commons. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2016.

Poremski, Karen. Personal interview. 16 Mar. 2016.

Scholes, Robert. The Rise and Fall of English. Binghamton: Yale University Press, 1998. Print.

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