Why English

jamesA Message from the Chair

Many thanks for considering English as your concentration. In this letter I offer an account of what we do in the department, by way of persuading you to move from consideration to election!

The Department offers a collegial and supportive environment, both socially and intellectually. Many of our course sizes are small by design; our advising system focuses on the person; in 2010 English concentrators rated their College experience more highly than those of any other concentration, in a broad comparison group. You are also coming to the nation’s premier academic department, as judged by the authoritative National Research Council’s 2010 report.

What, however, do we do?

We read literary texts because literature is where the meanings are. So how do we get at those meanings?

We teach students what imaginative works mean, by teaching how they mean, by teaching how meaning is embedded in form. Accordingly, we transmit the skills of interpretation. These skills can be articulated in a graded way, starting from micro and heading to macro. Thus:

(a) the ability to elucidate the detailed formal properties of literary works, both their style and structure; we do this on the assumption that cultural commitments are most compactly, most luminously, perceptible in the shape of artifacts;

(b) the ability to think about individual works within appropriate generic categories: cognition in this discipline involves recognition, and the good reader must recognize what kinds of meaning are likely to be available in a given work before she can understand what meanings are available there. That recognition is, by and large, a recognition of genre, or textual kind;

(c) the ability to practice cultural poetics, or an understanding of how the formal qualities of a work reflect and/or inflect a culture at large (including analogous art forms, such as music, architecture, and fine arts);

(d) the readiness to reflect on the philosophical premises of literary and textual practices; and

(e) the capacity to apply these reading skills within historically wide yet also specific cultural horizons. We cover more than 1300 years of literary production.

111611_Bible_class_200.jpgIn addition, English has always been a great and successful university inter-discipline, taking on a remarkable mix of formal analysis, ethics, anthropology, politics, philosophy, theology, literary history, language study, and textual study (among other disciplines). This is why English is the crossroads of the Humanities. English Departments are functioning well not when they diminish those tensions by staking out one, bounded intellectual territory. Instead, they locate themselves relationally, always ready to undertake some serious cultural travel.

What transferable skills will students take away from the English Concentration?

In the West, university literary study of vernacular languages is of recent date (it’s just over a century old). But the history of literary pedagogy is very much older than that, being part of basic education from at least the fifth century BCE. Throughout those millennia, literary education has always justified itself by transferable skills. Those skills have, traditionally, been fourfold: critical interpretive reading; writing; speaking; and ethical understanding. All these have always been regarded as essential skills for the active life beyond the contemplative academy.

A moment’s reflection confirms the central need for sustained, critical, interpretive reading in many professions (law and medicine spring most readily to mind). The very interpretive skill that we teach is often a matter of life or death, freedom or its loss. It’s no wonder that schools of law and medicine prize English graduates. It’s no wonder that English concentrators go on to a wide range of rewarding careers after, and due to, their undergraduate study. Faced with mighty and mesmerizing forms of public manipulation, it’s no wonder that readers capable of critical thinking are in high demand.

Glenda Carpio TeachesThe greatest transferable skill is a life-long love of books. Textual interpreters are philologists; that Greek word means “lovers of the word.” Any English Department that does not produce lovers of the book has failed. Our students accrue the immense treasure of life-long companions of the best kind. To become absorbed in a great literary work is to join a community united by passion. It’s life changing; it’s ballast when times are bad, and a source of the deepest, renewable companionate pleasure when times are good.

Please do not hesitate to be in touch with me, the Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies, Kelly Rich, or with the Undergraduate Program Administrator, Lauren Bimmler, should you wish to discuss the concentration further.

All good wishes,

James Simpson