I am disillusioned by college. Maybe it’s all the apocalyptic fiction I’ve been reading, but it all seems so obsolete. The courses, the tests; the stuff we’re required to remember, the stuff we’re supposed to write. Especially within the English major. Remember when I was all doe-eyed and excited, sure I’d spend the next four years reading and discovering and discussing all the beautiful fiction in the world? And now…now I’m just so terribly bored.
I’m not usually one to insult my favorite subject. But this major is becoming tiresome. I’m stuck, treading through the same sludge year after year. And I’ve discovered something: my entire major is pretty much covered in just three courses. We have British Lit, American Lit, and then Writing about Lit. That’s 9 credit hours. It’s not even one full semester. And yet that’s everything. The rest of the 80+ hour program is mere regurgitation.
Let me illustrate: In your first semester, you take a course called “Introduction to British Literature.” There you talk about everything from Beowulf to the WWII poetry of the 1900s. Then you just start churning through your other requirements to which that class was a prereq. That’s right: every upper-level class you take in the English major uses at least one of the aforementioned three as a prerequisite. Everything, and I mean everything, uses that as a foundation. Which would be fine if it was just some basis to draw upon while discussing OTHER literature. But, no, that’s not how it works. For every one of those basic courses you have to take at least two more just like it. For writing about lit, you have the basic introduction in 251 (or 252—I’ve never really understood the difference), then you take 295 which is the same thing, only they change the title to “Analytical Writing." It’s still the same concept: you write about lit. I signed up to take this from the same professor who taught my 251 course…. She used the same syllabus. Literally. I compared them.
But that’s not all. No, then you have a 300-level class; another something about analytical writing while considering fiction. And for both British and American Lit, you are required to take two more dedicated to more specific time frames, like “Modernism,” or “Victorian Fiction”—all stuff you went over in your introductory class. Plus, you’re required to take a Shakespeare course. And maybe that would be fine too, except you also have to take 12-credits-worth of electives, all of the topics revolving around more historic readings. Sometimes you hit the jackpot with a Lord of the Rings course or some feminist class taught by a refreshingly crazy liberal. But, still, it’s all just the same stuff, the same ideas, the same conversations over and over again. Each class is just another trip through Groundhog Day. And it’s a doozy.
The entire department is caught in this surreal neverland where nothing ever changes. It’s all so…lackluster. They’re so entrenched in the classics, in the “cannon” of literature: nothing new comes in, nothing is ever take out. They stick up their noses at new literature, they roll their eyes when someone disagrees with the popularity of Joyce or Whitman. It’s like they tell you to think for yourself, but only if those thoughts align with theirs. Aren’t I supposed to be blazing a new trail, taking the road less traveled, scoping out a new horizon? Are new ideas so terrifying? To the English department, yes. Forgive me, but most of them are pretentious pricks who look at the current world as some vile tainting of their precious past. I feel like screaming at them, ranting about how their precious “cannon” was created by elitists who felt like they had to further divide the poor from the rich. It’s the same people who decided to base English grammar off of Latin (two completely different, entirely unrelated languages) and look what that got us: a bunch of illiterate’s with no one really knowing quite how to explain it. But they’re so entrenched in the classics—in what someone else decided the classics should be—that they don’t see anything beyond it. We’re asked to spend four years with them, putting on airs, discussing why our definition of good literature is so much better than the rest of the world. Then we graduate and—what? No one cares. It’s not applicable unless you plan to be a professor or a historian, and even then graduate studies will mean so much more. Here, it’s just the same thing over and over. Like a skipping tape lending itself to a headache that won’t die.
The sad thing is there’s so many interesting things going on with literature. Maybe new lit isn’t equal to the past, but it’s something new. It’s something that matters now. We spend all this time looking at the rise and fall of different eras, and yet we ignore our own changing culture. There’s a whole future happening right now. Can’t we spend some time looking at that? Knowing where Oscar Wilde is buried doesn’t matter to me. That I’m expected to care more about Shakespeare’s love life than his effect on literature today doesn’t make any sense. You know what would be interesting? Even possibly useful? A class dissecting Twilight and wondering at its popularity. A course looking at the influence of the Harry Potter phenomenon. Or even something like Harry Potter versus Lord of the Rings. I want to discuss female writers today; how Austen and the Brontë sisters have been replaced by beach-reads and chick-lit. There should be a class about how the process of writing has changed—how Woolf gave herself panic attacks worrying over a new story to how, now, people churn out entire series in only a couple of years. There should be a class on literary bullying, how fiction has become an instrument for defaming cultures, positions, even people. I want to take a course on the digital culture and the way fiction styles and formatting are evolving for the shortening attention span.
Even if we have to look at the past, can’t we at least see it through the lens of current fiction? But we’re trained to look down on new literature. We’re taught that Shakespeare was the epitome of great writing and we can’t top that. We’re expected to consider the cannon closed. But why? Why can’t we have an ever-changing cannon constantly under scrutiny, with new ideas, new pieces, new anything. One where there is no right or wrong—because who can really say?—but just opinion. In fact, that should be a course: creating a new cannon where you decide what comes, what stays, what goes. There should be a best seller’s course, a class where you only read the just-published. Or look at the classics through modern fiction. Compare the two. Make things interesting. Already, I’ve read Frankenstein FOUR times. No one should have to do that. There are so many great books in the world, long gone unnoticed or just coming out. Literature is still alive.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the classics, I do. But I want to take my love of classic literature and see it expand through the present, preparing me for a future where words—new words—still matter. Everything in this major is…stagnant. I’m treading water right now, swimming indifferently through the same stuff. I feel myself lashing out, fighting it. Like a teen rebelling just because she’s bored. I’m sick of hearing about the same things, and so I pull away. I let myself hate them. I escape into modern fiction. I defame the purists. I write cynical papers. I rarely do my reading (because I’ve read it all before). Every comment and every paper is recycled—like the materials, the conversations, the professors. I’m becoming more and more lazy; the original fire and passion is fading. There is nothing new to sustain me. The English major needs rejuvenation.
Science, math, history; dance, photography, art; women’s studies, human development, sociology—everything else keeps changing, discovering, adding. Why is it that the English major, the one so hazy, so hard to define, is the only one stuck?