Wednesday, November 18, 2009


English majors -- you know what I mean?

A few select characteristics probably come instantly to mind to describe the average, ordinary English major: word person, a bookworm, big vocabulary, good at Scrabble, and so on.

But to those of us who majored in English at HSU there are three very distinct and easily recognizable subcategories. At HSU, the major is split into three pathways: Literary Studies, Creative Writing and Language Arts Instruction. We can tell one another apart from a mile away.

Language Arts Instruction majors were tomorrow's middle school English teachers, down-to-earth, pragmatic and prescriptive, ready to enforce the "rules" of English.
Creative Writing majors were artsy, unstructured poets, as dramatic as invaders from the Drama Department, with more creativity and instinct than technical knowledge.
Literary Studies majors (of whom I am one) were either railing against the canon in favor of women's/cultural/ethnic/queer studies or alternately, they were lamenting the lost classical canon and reading Beowulf for fun.
I'm a variation on that theme: I began by lamenting the lost classical canon while still enjoying some of the marginalized voices we studied (for example, Sherman Alexieand Naguib Mahfouz), then began finally to recognize what we were doing as cultural studies, which as it turns out, I love.

But I continued to be turned off by things like post-structuralism's endless hair-splitting and annoyed by the emotionality of the politically-correct mob that ruled in some of my classes.

At least I can say with authority that I don't like George Eliot or Trollope, but that I do like Dickens and Melville. And happily, I never once took a Shakespeare class.
Midway through, I discovered Linguistics. It was like finding a life raft in the middle of the sea, because linguistics makes sense.

I began to minor in linguistics, while unofficially and secretly, I began to major in it -- as best I could considering such a major doesn't exist at HSU. I took sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, history of English, language analysis, and grammar. And I interned in each one so I could take it twice.

Even in grad school, I have continued my underground major --applied linguistics, viewing everything I learn through the lens of discourse analysis, bending everything I learn about composition theory toward my goal of teaching ESL.
And now that I'm in grad school, English grad students are once again divided into easily recognizable groups. You think you know English grad students? OK, yes, it's true, we are the ones using words like recursivity and genre in ordinary, non-academic conversations, for example, at the laundromat. Words like intertextuality and intersectional actually mean something to us.
But among us English grad students, there are two distinct types: Master's in Literature and Master's in Teaching Writing.

The MA Lits are drinking hard liquor and quoting poetry in public places right now.

And right now, the MATWs have in our satchels great stacks of freshmen composition papers we're doomed to read. We occupy a special level of hell where paperwork keeps multiplying no matter how late you stay up reading it. We are like Sisyphus if his boulder were made of reams of paper covered in type.

Among English grad students, we're the pragmatic ones, hungry for practical ideas for teaching writing.

We are kept from being utterly boring by our fascination with any combination of these major theorists: Lev Vygotsky, Mikhail Bakhtin or Kenneth Burke. Yet, it hurts our brains to float for long in the rarefied air of theory when we long for practical applications.

MA Lits, on the other hand, thrive in the airy realm of theory.

So people like Phyllis Schafly think they know English majors? It's not as simple as that.

Many thanks to all the sites I borrowed these illustrations from.

1 comment:

Vista de Peyote Cafe said...

yeah, but you probably still can't beat me at Scrabble!