What “English” Means

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Last month I posted on my Facebook timeline about my recent award and presentation at the 2016 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Houston, Texas. Many of my friends and former professors liked my posts or commented a congratulations, but two of my classmates from high school went a step further. They took posts as a sign to message me about writing books.

The first classmate had lost a tremendous amount weight and now he wanted to tell his story and give advice and facts about weight loss. He asked if I had any advice on going about  writing that book. The second classmate followed up on a promise I made to him ten years ago in high school: that I would write a book about him.

This I did say back then, ten years ago, in high school, when everyone in my graduating class knew I wrote books and wanted to write books for a living. I wasn’t lying to get attention. I really did write three books and I really did want to write fiction for a living. But life happens and now I’m on a different trajectory in English. I’ve crossed disciplines, out of creative writing and into composition and rhetoric. They are in some ways vastly different fields.

But my friends think I still do some of that creative writing stuff. Specifically, they think I write and study books. At least that’s what I think they think.

Of course, I was happy to give what general advice I could offer to my first classmate about his self-help book, and I was happy to discuss the second classmate’s zombie apocalypse story. But I felt I was terribly ill-qualified to talk about either. The “English” they think I do is academic. I don’t study book publishing or creative writing. I study computer science education, digital literacy, and African American literacy. I study the public and private practice and discussion about these things and what they mean for education, politics, and people of color. That’s quite a ways from creative writing.

I can understand why the number of English majors are tanking in universities and why university administrators cut funding from English Departments, like at Purdue. One reason, other than the belief English degrees doesn’t get you a job, is that to the public, English means grammar, literature, and writing, and English majors do all of those things at once. I can understand this impression. With a few exceptions, I think these are the three areas public schools teach students. I’ve seen them. Grammar handbooks, literary analysis, vocabulary, some talk about argumentation. This is important work, but it doesn’t say what English Studies does. I admit, I’ve fallen into the trap of thinking English major means “all things English.” In high school I wanted to major in English, not realizing that majoring in English meant studying literature at my alma mater, not creative writing. Only until my master’s program did I understand the contours of English Studies. But I guess that’s the nature of undergraduate education: in some majors, you don’t learn about the structure of your discipline or that scholars are grappling with what counts as legitimate knowledge or what’s worth studying. You get a package of seemingly uncontested truths that prepare you for a job. You don’t realize there’s a war in heaven until graduate school.

I think even some grad students will sometimes fall into the public’s definition of English. I remember a couple years ago someone published an article that argued English was a useless major. A friend posted the article on Facebook and grad students from across English Studies chimed in. They argued that English is useful, that it does public good. But I shook my head at their arguments: the author of the article gave a narrow definition of English. The first thing my fellow grad students should’ve done was explain that English Studies is made of at least five branches: linguistics, technical communication, creative writing, composition and rhetoric, and literature. Even then, English Departments across the country structure English Studies in different ways. Technical communication may have a separate department from the English department, for example. But all five contribute to humanity in different and productive ways.

I don’t know. Maybe if we did a better job of defining English Studies, the conversations I had with my two friends would be different.

 

 

Published by aabyrd

I'm the instructor for WCATY's Media Studies in a Digital Age course for Summer 2015.

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