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Hello, Most Beautiful Forum Members:

 

I thought I would start a positive-like topic to keep us happy during our time of stress.

 

Why did you all study English? (And by all means: brag a little. This is also about why you deserve to study English.)

 

Back in eighth grade I was kicked out of Honors English. Nothing could make me do my homework. Why do homework when I could play Final Fantasy and Kingdom Hearts games without end?

 

Throughout high school, I played video games with strong narrative arcs and wrote stories like video games starring my friends. During my junior and senior years, I was allowed back into Honors English, but I still would not do my homework. At one point during junior year, my teacher left a message on my parents' answering machine because I was failing the class.

 

Strangely, throughout high school, I was really into foreign languages. I took French and German all four years, yet the passion for language I felt there only tied back to English at the very end of my high school career. My AP English Composition teacher (the same lady who was failing me junior year) suddenly presented English in a new way that made it more than it had ever been before. In my earlier classes, it seemed, success in English depended upon a student's ability to do worksheets. If you were in regular English you had one sheet for homework. If you were in Honors, you had three. Work ethic: that was what English really was. Yet at the very end of my high school career, English became something else. All those silly hormones I had been building up, all the angst I felt at being the typical outcast (as well as being the only gay "out" at a reasonably-sized high school), found expression at last in the writing exercises we had to do. English went from being my least favorite to my favorite subject. (A point of pride: I was the first student to get a 5 on the AP exam that my teacher ever had, which was a shock to her since I had been, essentially, such a horrible student.)

 

And suddenly, the interests I thought had nothing to do with each other--video games and foreign languages--seemed to have everything to do with each other.

 

If someone had told my sixteen-year-old self he would want to be an English professor one day, he would've roundhouse-kicked that person in the face. Yet as soon as I took my first literature course at university, and especially after I read Toni Morrison's Beloved as part of that course, I became ecstatic about that decision, and ever since then, I have only become more attached to this field with every work I read.

Edited by zanmato4794
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I was always naturally good at reading. By age 6, I was reading chapter books and I could spell my older brother's weekly spelling list without even seeing the words initially. I read 1984 for funsies in high school and I actually had nightmares in which acid was being poured on my boyfriend at the time as I watched his skin melt off because I wouldn't give up some mysterious tape that had incriminating evidence about his family on it. From there, I decided to go in to English education to prevent the breakdown to language and therefore the cumulation of power into one or a few individuals. About the same time that I decided I didn't enjoy working with high school students (thank you, required internship hours!), I discovered the Wierd Sisters from Macbeth and all their historical witchy gender implications. Boom. Done. Sold.

Edited by jhefflol
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Great topic!

 

I started out the same way most of you did, most likely -- started reading at an early age, preferred books to sports for the most part etc. I also started writing poetry at a very early age as well. In rhyme, no less. I can still remember the first few lines of a poem I wrote when I was ten: "A deer stood by, flickering its nose / Its tail taut, its body froze." Not exactly Pulitzer material, but hey, it rhymed and even had meter! Throughout high school, my writing of poetry turned into writing of lyrics, as I was in a few rock bands along the way (and I thought I could sing). I also played piano, drums, and dabbled in a few other instruments, also writing songs. I was a bit of a lazy high school student, but English and English Literature were by far my favorite classes. I recall only getting Bs in them, but I can remember saying to others at the time something along the lines of "I may not be an ace student, but I guarantee this material will stick with me more than for most of my fellow students." And I was right.

 

My life took me in a bunch of different directions in my late teens and twenties, but through it all I kept my reading of literature and writing of poetry as a major avocation, to the point that I became relatively "successful" as a poet. It was after I immigrated to the U.S. five years ago that I discovered (thanks to the erstwhile support of my wife, and her parents who are both professors) that I could, in fact make my avocation a vocation. I'd had a couple of vocational degrees, but formalizing my love of literature and poetry has been one of the best decisions of my life, and these last few years have been among my happiest. It just feels good to be on a long and fulfilling path. I don't think any of us would be doing this if we didn't love it, to some degree...and that's certainly the case for me. I could easily get into deeper, more personal details as to why I came to this decision in my thirties, but suffice it to say that experience is indeed a great teacher as well.

Edited by Wyatt's Torch
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(taking English to mean a wider "literature" definition; hope I'm not a sore thumb!)

 

Another early-reader here, hyperlexic around two years old. My parents are both from very rural, uneducated backgrounds; my mom was sixteen when she had me. But even though they divorced shortly after, both my dad and my mom were extremely dedicated to making me better off than they were. There were two junior colleges in the city and my dad has always been notorious about dumpster diving - he was giving me calculus books to study before I was in middle school. Another consequence of being rural, my mom didn't get a computer until I was 13 - and we never didn't have dial-up while I was there. So, even with the internet, all I could do was read. And before it, reading was all I wanted to do.

 

I read every book in the library of both my elementary schools and my intermediate school (5th-6th grade). I wanted to do it for middle school, but it was way bigger and I only got the wrap-around wall section and three of the rows. I always had the most Accelerated Reader points. For most of high school, I gorged on manga/Japanese comic books in addition to the "books" they had in the library (I'll eternally despise whoever came up with Tayshas and why they think reading the shittiest YA imaginable should be more valuable than every other type of book).

 

None of the classes in English really made me love English on its own - none of the teachers really seemed that into it, even though it was "advanced." The one defining point was in 10th grade, where we were given a list of short stories and picked one to analyze - I chose Akutagawa's "In a Grove." It must have been luck he was on there, because the teacher had no clue who he was. But that was my small taste of real Japanese literature for a while.

 

So I went to college for computer science, because I'd been good at programming already; I stopped reading so much these two years. Then I had a very affecting personal tragedy when I was transferring over to a four-year university. I started reading again, a lot, mostly for escapism and mostly escapist fiction. Kokoro by Soseki became my first entry point into "real" literature, by chance. The one World Literature class I had been taking was the only one that semester I still did well on, because it's the only one I could still care about. So I switched to English.

 

I initially had a kind of weird year of exclusively reading Japanese literature (besides coursework) - more than a hundred books - because I couldn't not. When I wanted to read something, I would just think, "there's a Japanese book for that." But that cemented it as my area of interest. Literature is my chosen field because everything I learn has relevance to it. I read non-fiction in other fields very often, but I know that knowledge is always building upon my understanding of some facet of literature - it's especially more obvious with Japanese literature (like my current binge on kimono). Reading and learning are what have always made me want to be alive.

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I figured I'd be a scientist, sociology to be specific. Math and esoteric theory? What's not to love? Anyway, I was reading Marx in my junior year for a soc theory class and we were assigned to read Death of a Salesman in my Am. Lit survey class (I was minoring in English because I rather fancied myself a creative writer). The Gundrisse + Death of a Salesman = light bulb time. Fast forward to my poetry class, after getting my BA in soc and while chasing a BA in English, creative writing emphasis, and one of my many "discussions" with my prof about getting all didactic with my audience. Light bulb time again. I connected the rhetorics. Instead of chasing a PhD in soc, I'm getting it in English. Still into soc stuff, to the point where I pretty much consider what I'm doing the sociology of literature. Kind of Terry Eagleton-ish. So here I am. And I still have "discussions" with my former prof about didacticism and audience in poetics.

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  • 2 weeks later...
So, it has been longer than "the next few days"--but thanks again, zanmato, for the discussion prompt!
 
So, why English? (Or, "why English literature?" since that's more my focus, and I don't want to give rhet/comp short shrift.) A bunch of reasons. I love the actual technical process of literary argumentation, the (for lack of a better word) "puzzle-ness" of it: there's something breathtaking about watching someone take a bit of text from here, a snippet of text from there, seeing them amassing piece after piece of detailed textual evidence and building up these seemingly disconnected shards of language into a carefully built, coherent whole that shows you something you didn't see before. I love the openness of literary study to different methodologies, from detailed, übertraditional textual criticism to more theoretically-centered (or at least more explicitly theoretically-centered) approaches. I love the capaciousness of it, how it greedily absorbs other objects of inquiry into itself. Want to use literary texts as a lens through which to examine historical, philosophical, anthropological, or scientific phenomena? Be our guest! 
 
Really, though, it's because even shorn of all the analysis and accretion of criticism the things we study are (this is subjective; I'm sure historians would say the same about the past!) still fundamentally interesting, entertaining, and (yes, it's ridiculously subjective, but still) beautiful, in and of themselves. Aside from their usefulness as objects as inquiry, all of them--poetry, plays, stories, novels, essays, movies, TV shows--are just plain fun to consume.
 
I'd also be curious to hear what draws people to the periods/genres/issues they work on, too. So, then, why do I study medieval literature?
 
Well, like the broader question, it breaks down into the "reasons" and then the actual reason. Given my love for detailed argumentation, I love how medieval literature can lend itself to very technical approaches, how so much can turn on minor details of translation or linguistics or manuscript evidence. I love the simultaneous familiarity and strangeness of medieval lit, how you can read a poem and hit something as (seemingly) universal as a fart joke in one line and then something in the next that is completely inexplicable without recourse to habits of mind and patterns of thought that are utterly foreign and removed from our own experience. I love the underdog-ness of it, how medieval literature gets no love, generally. I love the ways "the medieval" is endlessly created and recreated in contemporary discourse, fashioned into things and toward ends that have little to nothing to do with the actual Middle Ages. I love that, by being a medievalist, you are perceived as being ridiculously specialized when in fact you get to teach a full one thousand years of English literary history. There are personal things in there, too, that echo with zanmato's story. As a fresh out of the closet fifteen year-old, I bought a copy of Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality at a used bookstore, and it had a profound effect on me--which is funny, because now I disagree with a lot of his argument. But at the time it captivated me; I stayed up all night reading sly erotic poems written by unknown (to me) medieval monks who totally wanted to do each other. While that was a looooong time ago now and I had another, entirely unrelated career in the interim, I remember so clearly that weird rush in the blood, simultaneously being overawed by Boswell's seemingly magical ability to marshall convincing evidence based on detailed philological (not that I knew what the word meant at the time; I just knew the man could read Latin, which seemed so damn cool) argumentation but also feeling like, in some weird way, these men were long dead yet speaking almost directly to me.
 
And all that's well and good. But honestly? 
 
I study medieval literature because, if you choose a reading assignment at random from one of the syllabuses of the classes I've taken in the last four years, there's a not inconsiderably better than average chance that it involved giants and/or a dragon.
Edited by unræd
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OMG unræd you are my favorite. Also, if you ever end up coming to Berkeley and talking to my mentor (you know who I mean) please, please, PLEASE make a joke about dragons and giants being your true motivation. You will make her so happy. <3

 

I actually second most of what you said - particularly the puzzle-ness of medieval lit. And I don't have time to write a long story of my own right now. But I will say - I resisted the lure of the English department for many years, mainly because of buzzwords like "unemployability" and "impracticality," before I discovered Anglo-Saxon England and fell in love. But at the end of the day I'm really good at writing essays, at piecing together analytical and verbal arguments that require a pinch of creativity. Ultimately, I figured it was better to aim for being a brilliant student of literature than a mediocre student of a more monetarily practical discipline.

 

I'm pretty into the crazy animals in manuscripts, myself.

 

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Is the teeny flying mole in the top corner not the cutest thing you've ever seen????

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Love the new profile pic, 1Q84. In fact, I just finished writing a paper on "Lycidas" this morning. "Blind mouths" has to be one of the best conceits in the English language.

 


I'd also be curious to hear what draws people to the periods/genres/issues they work on, too.

 

That's a good question. I came to academia from a creative writing standpoint, in that I wrote and published a bunch of poetry before I realized that I could actually spend my life studying the discipline. Since almost all of my poetry is "formal" in that it is mostly written in traditional forms (sonnets, villanelles etc.), I suppose it follows logically that I would have an interest in the nature of form and meter. Sonnets have always been my "specialty," as it were, from a writing standpoint, and a research seminar on Shakespeare's Sonnets in particular had a major effect on me. Not only were both professors (it was co-taught) fantastic (and both became LOR-writers)...the content was somewhat transhistorical, delving into Petrarch and even Ovid as traditional inspirations for Shakespeare. My proposed course of study is something of an extension of that, though at once more specific and more broad (if that makes any sense). But it all seems to work together, in my mind.

 

I also happen to love a lot of Early Modern writers simply on their own merits. I truly enjoy a lot of Milton, and my love of Shakespeare extends well beyond his sonnets. I have a healthy appreciation for Donne, Spenser, Sidney, Jonson, Marvell and others as well. Having said all of that, I'm a generalist at heart, and it will be a little sad to exclude some of my favorite periods / genres from graduate study, but at the end of the day, if I can spend my grad school years focusing on transhistorical prosody, grounded in the early modern era, I'll be happy as a clam. Assuming clams are, you know, happy.

 

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(I think it's safe to say that these clams aren't)

Edited by Wyatt's Torch
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And then there are all the medieval influences on Shakespeare....... (Chaucer!) :P

 

It's very true! But judging by the number of wonderful medievalists on this forum alone, I'm glad I'll be representing the period just afterward...

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It's very true! But judging by the number of wonderful medievalists on this forum alone, I'm glad I'll be representing the period just afterward...

 

Yeah, it's funny -- everyone I talk to has said that we medievalists are a rare breed, but I know so many personally that it seems hard to believe sometimes! On the other hand, there are only 4 grad students out of like 50 in my school's English department who list Old English as a specialty, so maybe I'm simply prone to stumbling over the few of us who exist...

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Reading these in grade 3 really, really got me into English:

 

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Maybe I should just use this post as my SOP and be done with it!

 

YES.  My Teacher is an Alien scared the living shit out of me when I secretly read it in some dark corner of the public library that my tiny little elementary school in downtown Winston Salem, NC used.  That series was fucked up. 

 

Yes, Wyatt, for how much of a minority we are, us medievalists seem to love crashing all the threads on GC.  I reaffirm unraed's post wholeheartedly.  I study literature for a million reasons, none of which are good.  Science is so awesome when you read about it in science fiction or read science from 1,000 years ago, but then you start to read the real stuff and its boring and hard.  If "real" science (pffffffff) was more similar to 12th century alchemy or to Star Trek that's what I'd be doing right now.  Or if I could get away with doing analyses of the poetics of scientific writing on invertebrate mating practices or tectonic plate movements instead of doing labs, I'd be all over that.

 

I also study literature because its impractical and useless and I have a lot of political beliefs about the importance of "useless" things in a capitalistic society.  On the other hand, it's practical for me because I'm trying to make a living reading books instead of being a wage-slave.  And because a B.A. in English isn't that sustainable in the Rust Belt (where I currently live).  Also my dad said I should be a plumber and I was a disobedient little shit -- I said I was going to be a poet and, for my day job, write erotic novels for suburban housewives to get off to to make up for their incompetent and oppressive husbands.  This eventually expressed itself as a scholarship package at a faraway college.

 

Unraed almost exactly described my basic, theoretical interest in the Middle Ages.  I fell in love with dream visions and hagiography in particular -- I was into science fiction and surrealism already, and these medieval texts seemed to outdo any modern text when it came to blurring the lines between dreams and reality.  I fell in love with the notion that matter was accidental and changeable in relation to the Creator's weird plans as well as the philosophical implications, tensions, and contradictions of the notions of authority and asceticism in monastic texts.  Also, medieval ideas of natural history and etymologies are just so wonderfully weird.  Also: Chaucer.  And marginal pictures of Asshole-Bird-Men (pardon my specialist jargon) getting trumpets rammed up their butts.  And Bernard of Clairvaux being a melodramatic fop whose biggest accomplishment was getting the Virgin Mary to spray breast milk into his mouth.  And Jesus' side wound.  And alliterative poetry.  Also, studying Europe before Protestantism came and ruined all the fun, before absolutist monarchy, before the free market and John Locke and Adam Smith (may they burn in eternal hellfire), before the stupid and incessant fetishization of individualism and the so-called "Enlightenment," before the Victorians and their boring doilies and all the other stuff I was supposed to read in school that made me regret majoring in English and not, say, French or German or Spanish or Philosophy.     

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I love this thread so much.

 

It's easy to forget exactly why you study English when you're so bogged down in the semantics of it all. I jumped from science into the discipline (I went into first year thinking I would do a PhD in Immunology, which clearly didn't work out). It was a pretty drastic switch, after a lot of jumps all over the place; I went into science, then transferred to political science, then environmental geography, then history, and then finally stuck with english and loved it. For me, english was finally the subject where you could study the individual, rather than the collective. I enjoyed history, but I didn't enjoy military history, which was what early undergraduate courses were mainly on; I wanted to identify with the individual, and english gave me that opportunity.

 

Also, I took a Victorian Poetry class and learned about J.S. Mill and his depression and how he pulled out of it using Romantic poetry after a childhood stunted by utilitarian learning. I really connected with that.

 

For me, english isn't so much a potential profession as it is a completely soul-consuming lifestyle. In my multiple majors, I've never met a group of individuals more passionate about what they study. Also I'm not sure why this is, but for some reason I've always found english majors to be exceptionally kind individuals. I think it's simply because we study trauma and suffering all day long; it helps you appreciate others on an entirely different level. Cruelty won't get you far in this enterprise.

 

So - to answer the question: why? In some way, I think all disciplines point towards the answer to 'the meaning of life.' Biology gives you a breakdown of biotic organisms, chemistry deals with the molecular, physics grapples with cosmology, business teaches you about chasing money. None of those were satisfying to me. English, in some way, bridged the spiritual; I like to think that the imagination is one of the last holy places in our secular Western world.

 

I don't think that I'll ever fool myself towards thinking that I can understand purpose, or meaning, or whatever you might call it, but at the end of the day, I'm exceedingly proud to have chosen this discipline to try and grapple with all of life's questions. I love the inclusivity and the kindness; the simple, revolutionary idea that all stories are relevant are something that I hope becomes more and more common as the literature department ages. I sincerely believe that by studying the stories of others you can become a wiser and more well-rounded individual - you can connect. You can understand. You can relate. In a sense, literature is therapy, at its best; and I simply love watching individuals tell the truth about their lives, or fictional characters, etc. There's something so thrilling, fun, and exciting about a discipline that deals entirely with the imagination, and it's somewhere I would love to reside for the rest of my life. Is this madness? Maybe. All I know is that for me, it's been insanely worthwhile and fulfilling, and I couldn't be happier in a subject.

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Also, all of my family and friends told me that I couldn't do it (from claims that the economy is crap so why go into it, to the idea that the discipline is useless, to the idea that I would hate it in a year and drop out). So I went ahead, became an english major, and did it myself. And it was pretty much the greatest feeling in the world.

 

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Edited by queennight
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I don't think that I'll ever fool myself towards thinking that I can understand purpose, or meaning, or whatever you might call it, but at the end of the day, I'm exceedingly proud to have chosen this discipline to try and grapple with all of life's questions. I love the inclusivity and the kindness; the simple, revolutionary idea that all stories are relevant are something that I hope becomes more and more common as the literature department ages. I sincerely believe that by studying the stories of others you can become a wiser and more well-rounded individual - you can connect. You can understand. You can relate.

 

Wonderfully put!  I think this is probably the most difficult thing to teach, but I think many people who study literature are in some ways better prepared to approach texts than many students of, say, philosophy or history, that I've met.  Literature, more than anything else (at least that I can think of), is the form of expression that forces you to suspend your own preconceptions, opinions, thought processes, etc. and try and surrender yourself to the voice of another.  To me, this is an important skill -- to be able to approach a text, a situation, or another human being and just listen and try to understand before you let your own ideas or opinions get in the mix; to approach something and try to understand it before judging it is something way more people need to learn to do. 

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So, my path to "English" (Comp/Rhet) is different than most. Marketing major, dropout, career in industry. The last few years of work I made a living as a writer (top ten lists, sports writing, random internet content, site design, app content), and decided I wanted to go back and finish my degree. Lucked into a professor with deep roots in the field who opened my eyes to all the cool stuff being done in comp/rhet programs. I want to teach, not just do research, and I want to teach all the fun stuff with real world (and disciplinary) applications. I love tech writing and digital rhetoric. I like encouraging students to blog, tweet, pin, and post as supplements to classroom discourse. I want to look for different spaces and places to compose (augmented reality, infographics). The theory is fine, and I know I need to be grounded in it in order to teach, research and publish, but mostly I want to be able to get my hands on young writers and show them that "English" isn't just close reading, argumentative essays and literary criticisms.

 

Also, I want a job after finishing.

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