What is English?
English is a multifaceted field of study. It is not a static field that can be confined to one category, it is structured more like a great oak tree; with its roots in traditional literature and branching off into many different forms of study. What branch feels most sturdy to you, what feels right to build your nest in, is up to the individual
While it is called, “English” many of the materials studied are multicultural. According to the University of California’s Department of English webpage, the concept of “Global English” is a highly debated topic, on whether or not English as a universal language is a good thing or a tool of colonialism. Though there is also the translation of foreign languages in which English majors can study as well. There can be this beautiful interaction and appreciation for literature between cultures, and while it’s debatable whether or not English as a language should be used to unite them, as a field of study it definitely achieves that.
While literature is a key facet of English studies, it is one of the countless topics one can choose to focus on. Some schools tend to focus on a rigid structure for studying English, offering basic courses centered around the conventional notion of the field. Some schools like the University of Maine, offer a much more fluid selection of courses to English majors. With classes like, “Writing About Film,” and “Modern Fantasy Literature,” which are both available to undergraduate students at a 100 level. Students can find the creativity that is so essential to the arts but is often lost in courses that focus too much on the technicalities.
The University of Maine also offers a course called, “Navigating Borders,” which explores the multicultural aspect of literature. While it is important to find an area of the field you enjoy, it is equally as important to not get tunnel vision. English literature is about more than American centered stories, it has the ability to reach other cultures without sacrificing the unique qualities about their forms of storytelling. Courses like these allow students to see the global aspect of English without forcing the texts to adapt to colonial standards of literature.
So because literature is expansive and broad in all of its forms, it’s also difficult to know what exactly constitutes something as literature. In Terry Eagleton’s “Introduction : What is Literature?” Eagleton says, “A piece of writing may start off life as history or philosophy and then come to be ranked as literature, or it may start off as literature and then come to be valued for its archaeological significance.” Literature is an art, and that is difficult to define. The great debate of, “what is art?” can be applied to literature just as easily. Is something classified as such because it has been written, or does it need historical significance? Eagleton touches on this as well, “Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some have literary thrust upon them. Breeding in this respect may count for a good deal more than birth.” Some texts are written with the intent of it becoming a great work of literature, others just happen upon it. There is no set structure for the art form and no clear cut path to follow. There is one thing that is certain, and it’s that it is an art form. Being able to write a good piece of literature, whether academic or narrative, takes talent that not everyone possesses. Though, what constitutes a work as, “good” will forever and always be up for debate.
English can be loose in form as described previously, but it can also be rigid. There are fields such as, “Professional Writing,” one can major in here at Keene State College. This minor is described as a, “minor is designed to help students to prepare for writing in workplace contexts and for civic purposes.” This form of English studies has a much more structured feel to it than say a “Creative Writing,” minor which helps students, “develop an essential skill in ways applicable to any major and offers students a means of pursuing their own interests in the field.” This description is much vaguer than the previous minor, but they both have so much in common in that they are both different forms of art, having a deep connection to the styles and techniques infused in the English field of study.
English also has the ability to stretch across generations of time. Those who focus on Medieval literature, for example, are able to understand that way of living in that time period through the works produced during that time. Whether it’s through historical accounts like Eagleton mentioned, or through fictional stories written during that time period. There is something to be gained about the culture during that period through the texts produced.
While there may be preconceived notions about what English is, the field is actually a lot more fluid than one would expect. Through English, cultures are able to connect to one another and reveal intimate details about different ways of life in a way no other field can. There is room for everyone in English from different backgrounds to personality types. A much more structured person could still find their passion in a career of writing in academia, and a more creative mind has the opportunity to flourish as well. It is difficult to define English, but one thing that remains true is its ability to connect to anyone.