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. Continue reading