Monday, September 19, 2011

Why not to major in English

So this semester, I’m teaching two sections of intro to the major, a course that is often a “service” course, but since we’ve just recently introduced a foundations component into our major, I’m one of the folks who are really piloting it as a key component of the curriculum. So functionally, nearly half of the class of 2014 in the English major may have ended up taking this course from me.

I’ve designed the course around three papers and a series of 20 written exercises. Some of these exercises are analytical stepping stones for their papers, some are creative-writing responses to texts we’re reading, some are reflections on their favorite pieces of writing, etc.

The standard analytical prompts (e.g. “choose a concrete image in this poem and in a 5-8 sentence paragraph, make and support a claim about how that image contributes to a specific theme in the poem”) have posed few problems, but the less analytical ones have been a mixed bag. Now, I stand by these different types of prompts.

Not only do I want to introduce them to the different tracks within the major, but I want to introduce some metadiscourse about the field, one being the idea that literature is itself a way to think through issues—analogically, polysemantically, allusively, etc—a claim advanced by Marjorie Garber in her recent book The Use and Abuse of Literature which we’re also reading in this class.

This last creative response (in your own creative text, re-work a metaphor found in one of the poems for this week, using the metaphor in a new context for different, though perhaps complementary, effect) seem to bring out the drama, though. One student’s response is a straight up journal entry about depression and the help she’s been getting. OK. But how do I grade that? Uggh (answer: I didn’t. I responded with a long, supportive note, and a request that she try something a little less personal for the assignment itself. Extension granted.)…

The one that really got me was a poem that reworked a Harlem Renaissance text as a poem about the power of positive thinking. Deferring one’s dreams, it seems is only the result of a poor attitude. Not, you know, centuries of virulent racism.

But then, at the end of the student's explanatory note (I ask them to contextualize their choices), I get a long rant on how this student just isn’t a fan of poetry. After all, why bother with burying your point in flowery language? To quote: “I believe all of the metaphors are a silly guessing game. Interpreting these poems because the authors were too complicated to express their feelings in a straight forward [sic] manner frustrates me to no end.”


And so my question: Why are you an English major?

No really. I believe that the skills we teach are important, and that the critical thinking skills we teach here are crucial, but when you believe that nothing less than artfulness is the obstacle to your sense of the language, why would you choose to be in a major that revolves, frequently, around artfulness of language?

More to the point: one of the goals of the class is to provide a clearer entry point into our field, and thereby work as a bit of affirmation for our new majors. But what about this student? Would it not be in everyone’s best interest to say to this child, “I really don’t think this is right for you”?

The student wasn’t in class today, so it’s quite possible that that last outburst was a parting shot before she withdrew from the course. While I usually don’t like to have students drop my classes, in this case, it may just be the best thing possible.


Anonymous said...

Heehee, there's a reason I went into social science! But I realized that in high school...

Sisyphus said...

Ew. My mom used to say that shit when I applied to English for my undergrad. But at least I was clutching a book to my chest and shouting, "Ma, you don't understand!"

I might not have been able to write about literature when I started college, but at least I loved reading and talking about what it could mean.

FairyTaleLover said...

This made me sad. So we should abandon metaphors? Are they only waste of time in the fast and shallow world of abbreviations?
Recently I talked with a friend who traveled to Cambodia and I said he could brush up his English a little bit (we are both from Slovenia, so this explains my rusty English). But his problem was different. Cambodians from 'his' village understand only VERY simple sentences. For instance: I go shop. I want beer. I go sleep. No present, future, past etc. And surely no metaphors.
We are loosing words! What comes next? Humanity?
Uh, now I want beer... Cheers!