Welcome to Nottingham University’s School of English. Good to have you here. I know the journey here has taken quite a few years, and involved a lot of intensive examinations, so have a sit down if you like. Or don’t – maybe you’d like to wander round and explore a bit. That’s fine, too. We would ask that you don’t annoy the Vikings, or upset the Romantics, without good reason. Either will result in me having to mop up afterwards, and whether it’s blood or tears I really don’t have the time, what with term about to start and all.
I realize you’ve only just arrived, but I’m afraid this blog post is going to ask you a rather rude question. What are you doing here? We’re delighted to see you, but introspection is sort of par for the course (if you’ll pardon the lousy pun) round here. So why are we here? What’s the purpose of studying English at university? Or maybe “purposes” would be a better word. (Get used to pluralizing, by the way. As you may know, it’s big in the humanities these days. Histories. Englishes. Feminisms. No-one ever failed an exam by making any given noun plural, just to be on the safe side. Sorry: safe sides.) There are a few that spring to mind, which I’ll outline below, and maybe you’ll find them persuasive – but I’m actually more interested in your thoughts on the subject. Leave a quick comment below the line, or if you fancy scribbling something more substantial, email it to the blog. It’d be great to start this year with some posts explaining why you came to university to study English.
Fun may be the aspect of our subject which brought the largest number of us to it, at least initially. Being excited or intrigued by literature, in whatever form, is a big part of our common experience. Looking out at a lecture hall full of a couple hundred students, I’m always comforted by the thought that most of us have shared that feeling you get from a great book. It’s a paradoxical sharing, of course, because we’ve shared it whilst isolated from each other. Curled up on a sofa, stretched out under a tree, huddled in the corner of a pub, luxuriating in a hot bath; we’ve all had that experience of being lost in a book. Fun is less a justification for English as a subject of university study, and more a cause for gratitude that we’ve managed to con the rest of society into regarding our private game as a legitimate pursuit. And get degrees out of it. We might do English simply because it’s pleasurable. There are enough things to be frivolous about in this world, but pleasure is not one of them. It’s a serious matter.
Transferrable verbal skills
It’s a less immediately attractive term than “fun”, but it’s another reason for doing what we do. The academic study of English involves taking apart the working of language and rhetoric, to see how they function. It also involves the continual practice of rhetoric, as you try to persuade someone of your point of view in an essay, articulate your vision of a play through direction and set design, or demonstrate your reading of a text in a verbal presentation. People claim that English doesn’t train you for any career, unlike Medicine or Law. On the contrary, a vast proportion of the working world is made up of English students’ skills. Writing reports, presenting ideas persuasively, picking out the important details from a letter, rephrasing an email so it fits the intended audience perfectly: these are skills you might pick up without even noticing during your time in the School of English. It helps that you’ll be reading thousands of pages of the finest stylists in the language, and then reading literary critics who are themselves mean rhetoricians, before composing your own thoughts in carefully honed prose. Style rubs off on you after a while, and the English course reading lists are the mines of style.
You may find pleasure a little flimsy as an excuse, and verbal skills a bit bleak. What about cultural literacy? This is the ability to navigate the world of literary symbols and references which saturate our culture. Literature doesn’t stay where it’s put, it seeps out into adverts, into political speeches, into slang terms and newspaper editorials. We continually borrow the plots of films and the characters of novels in order to interpret and explain the world around us. Being an expert in the source material allows you to appreciate the images which underlie the media landscape. It also enables you to rework those images to your own advantage: to cap a Shakespeare quotation with a better one, to see through a glib comparison or take apart an analogy. It’s like looking at a website, but seeing the code which animates the images and embeds the links. Studying Shakespeare, Milton and Dickens – not to mention Batman, Frankenstein and Twilight – lets us understand the root of the images we see around us every day. And helps us reshape them for our own purposes.
Just a few ideas. You may find they chime with your own reasons, or maybe you have a totally different motivation. Either way, we’re eager to hear – please do leave a comment below, or send us an email if you’d like a write a quick post of your own explaining why you’re studying English. Incidentally, if any of our students from last year’s Studying Literature course are reading this, we’d also love to hear the reasons which brought you to the School of English, and how they might have changed over the last twelve months.