‘An English major is not a luxury’

Lindsay Starck and Sarah Groeneveld Kenney, Department of English

Early in Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel “The Marriage Plot,” protagonist Madeleine Hanna worries that most English majors become English majors simply by default. “Because they weren’t left-brained enough for science, because history was too dry, philosophy too difficult, geology too petroleum-oriented and math too mathematical . . . these people were pursuing university degrees doing something no different from what they’d done in first grade: reading stories. English was what people who didn’t know what to major in majored in.”

However, this passage appears on page 21. Any English majors worth their salt know that a protagonist will eventually be enlightened. By the end of the novel, Maddie will see — as we see here in the English department — the value of her major.

Yes, an English major reads stories. But these stories are not the same as those we read in first grade. The best stories are those that challenge us, shock us, confuse us, unsettle us, change us and demand that we respond. Literature is not easy. Its purpose is to make a familiar world feel strange and new again; to expand our sense of empathy; to “arrest our attention,” according to Saul Bellow, “in the midst of distraction.”

Although English literature is steeped in histories of oppression, colonization, sexism, racism and other forms of violence, it has also been a vehicle for the subversion of dominant ideologies and histories. How does one design an “English” major when the English language has been both a colonizing force and a power that enables writers like black lesbian poet Audre Lorde to transform “silence into language and action”? What does it take to responsibly teach texts that are both problematic and poetic, unsettling and beautiful, worldly and transcendent?

As our department revises the English major to better address the experiences and needs of our current student body, we seek a curriculum that embraces literature as that which, in the words of poet laureate Tracy K. Smith, “allows us to be open, to listen and to be curious.” But how do we remain open to texts that challenge us? Can a willingness to listen be built into course learning objectives? How do we foster empathy in addition to critical insight? These are the questions that drive us.

We recognize that English majors can be many different things: poets, book lovers, activists. They might become grantwriters or teachers or editors, yes, but they might also become lawyers, web designers, engineers, physical therapists, social workers or business moguls.

Whatever path they choose, they know that the English major has provided them with essential skills to guide their way: creative and critical thinking and writing, research methods, argumentation, collaborative problem-solving, close reading, project management and leadership. Most importantly, the major will have empowered them to strengthen and hone their own interpretations, opinions and voices. “Powerlessness and silence,” as Margaret Atwood writes, “go together.” James Baldwin puts the same idea differently: “You write in order to change the world.”

Our fall courses provide opportunities for students to be changed by words and to write words that change others. Language and Power interrogates the destructive and creative histories of multiple Englishes. Feminist Memoir simultaneously critiques and celebrates this complex social movement. Readings in African-American Literature explores the confluence between individual talent and social identity in the advancement of the African-American literary tradition. Creative Writing classes (poetry, creative nonfiction, screenwriting, playwriting and fiction) encourage students to reimagine and shape their own stories. Courses such as Cinema Arts, Environmental Literature, Reason and Romanticism, Contemporary Post Colonial Fiction and many others invite students to explore the canon while also challenging them to explode it.

Our new major, like our old one, will be designed as an easy double major or minor. It will offer courses rooted in the passions of our faculty. But it will also remove boundaries between literary studies, creative writing and composition and test boundaries between cultures, geographies and centuries. What do you want to see in the new English major? Let us hear your voice; we’re listening.

Audre Lorde once claimed that “poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.” We agree, and add: the same is therefore true of an English major.

This article was originally published in the April 26, 2019 issue.