Inside our higher education institutions, we are often asked to reflect on who we are, whom we want to become and how we wish to get there. I am chair of a combined department of English and modern languages at my university, which has recently engaged in a new round of strategic planning. Our current effort is in response to the appointment of a new dean of arts and humanities, who began serving in the position this summer.
As part of the planning process, I gathered data on numbers of majors and minors, the number and rank of instructional faculty, the range of courses we offer, and some ideas about where we’d like to be in three to five years. I also reflected on a proposed new mission and a list of values. It’s that list of values that also got me thinking about other values, particularly the market value of English and language study in the current political and economic climate.
It’s no surprise that our majors are often pressured to explain what they will do with their degrees or how they will lead to a particular job. Those of us who benefit from the privilege of teaching and advanced study in these areas also sometimes fail to provide a clear and coherent argument for the value of this study and its application in students’ lives and their future livelihood.
In response to those concerns, we should be able to articulate clearly the areas of study we offer and how the practices we offer translate not only to excellent understanding and performance in the classroom but also to preparation for the world beyond it. So I’d like to share a brief perspective on the value of English and language study in hopes it might be helpful to others who are also looking for ways to demonstrate why study in these areas matters.
The Three Areas of Study
In my view, we offer basic and advanced study in three interrelated fields: language, literature and culture.
Language. At the most basic level, we provide study in how ideas are communicated through language. English focuses on ideas communicated in written language and teaches students to read and write those ideas in introductory and advanced composition courses, including professional and creative writing. Other language courses in English concentrate on rhetoric (the persuasive aspects of language) and on linguistics (the structure, logic and development of language). Modern language courses focus on ideas communicated in languages other than the student’s first written and oral language and teaches students how to read, write, speak and listen to those ideas. The department also offers courses in advanced conversation and composition, as well as in linguistics -- such as those in the acquisition of first and second languages.
Literature. Beyond introductory and advanced courses in reading, writing, speaking and listening, we also promote the study of literature in a variety of genres, including fiction, poetry and drama, as well as related areas like folklore, film and comics. We offer these courses at the introductory level based on topic area, region of the world and time period. They may also focus on a particular author, historical period, region, topic, gender or race/ethnicity.
Culture. We also provide study in how ideas are communicated through culture. Language and literature are not created or consumed in a vacuum. As we study language and literature, we account for the many cultural influences that shape how language and literature have been developed and might be received by others. Those cultural contexts include religion, history, philosophy, politics, economics, globalization, science, gender, race/ethnicity and sexual orientation. As a consequence, English and language study can be understood as interdisciplinary fields, interested in a wide range of academic areas that contribute to and reveal themselves in language and literature.
The Four Habits of Learning
In addition, we promote study in the areas that I’ve outlined by developing student consciousness, conscience, conduct and confidence.
Consciousness. To be conscious means that we are awake to and mindful of ourselves and our surroundings. Through the study of language, literature and culture, we develop the habits of careful and continuing attention to the foundational roles that language, literature and culture play in determining our identities and our relationships with others and the world. In other words, the development of a “language consciousness” helps us attend to the choices that we and others make about the words we use, the names we assign, the definitions we rely on and the benefits that come from using language correctly, clearly and ethically. For instance:
- The development of literary consciousness helps us attend to the poetic, narrative and dramatic choices in our own lives
- Poetic consciousness helps us attend mindfully to the beauty, courage and wisdom available in everyday life.
- Narrative consciousness helps us awaken to the story of our lives and the degree to which we see ourselves as the authors of our destiny or victims of the stories others wish to tell.
- Dramatic consciousness helps us focus on the conflicts in our lives and the degree to which we decide to see ourselves playing a role in a comedy or a tragedy.
- And the development of cultural consciousness helps us see the variety of cultural forces that contribute to freedom and oppression in our lives.
In other words, we promote study in language, literature and culture to create an ongoing and heightened awareness of our relationships with ourselves, each other and the world.
Conscience. Given this improved and active consciousness, we then have the opportunity to activate and deploy our conscience to imagine the moral consequences of decisions we make. In the study of language, we evaluate the choices we make in communicating with others, in the names we call others, in the terms we use to define reality and in determining the needs of our audiences. In the study of literature, we evaluate the ethical dilemmas characters face in the stories, poems and plays we read.
To what degree do these characters deserve our admiration, our friendship, our empathy or our condemnation? And in the study of culture, we evaluate those human factors that have created more opportunity, understanding and hope -- as well as those that may have created less. There is no conscience without consciousness, and in English and language study, we are continually attentive to the moral consequences of choices available in language, literature and culture.
Conduct. An improved conscience resulting from heightened awareness leads to informed conduct. The degree to which this conduct leads to moral action is dependent upon habit formation. In the study of language, we are concerned about the appropriate and beneficial uses of language -- not just to serve the ends of the student writer or speaker but also for the student’s audience and community.
In the study of literature, we are concerned with the appropriate and beneficial actions of protagonists and their authors, on the quality of student responses and the degree to which the evidence and logic of those responses demonstrate friendship and responsibility to the words and story and characters on the page. In the study of culture, we are concerned with the cultural forces that mold human behavior and the human behavior that, in turn, shapes and reshapes cultural forces.
Confidence. Informed and successful conduct leads to the reduction of anxiety in the performance of assigned or self-initiated tasks. Our aim is to provide students opportunities to:
- be more conscious of themselves and the world; to understand the choices available to them in language, literature and culture;
- make informed and beneficial decisions in these areas;
- follow upon those decisions with appropriate action in reading, writing, speaking and listening; and
- be rewarded with a growing self-confidence about their abilities to be successful in similar and related situations.
Additionally, one of the more significant benefits of attaining confidence is the desire to gain even more awareness about the role of language, literature and culture in their lives. In other words, increased confidence initiates even further progress in consciousness, conscience and conduct, leading in turn to further confidence.
But does the acquisition of the habits and skills that I’ve just outlined make our students marketable? Young readers and writers are attracted to words, poems, stories, drama, other people and other cultures when they promote consistent habits of heightened awareness, moral understanding, right conduct and fearlessness. There is no guarantee, of course, that all university graduates of language, literature and culture will consistently demonstrate these four behaviors, just as there is no guarantee that business, computer science, criminal justice or nursing majors will demonstrate the skills and knowledge learned in their disciplines. But no other academic domains provide basic and advanced study in the distinctly central human inventions of language, literature and culture with the larger aim of improving consciousness, conscience, conduct and confidence.
Obviously, moral awareness, decision making, action and courage cannot be purchased, but they can be put to good use in the context of the market. Many graduates of English and language study find positions or continue study in such fields as the law, publishing, teaching at home or abroad, copyrighting, web design, translation, and human resources. Meanwhile, study after study of business leaders reveals that they wish the graduates they hire would be more responsible, read and write better, cooperate in teams, and make better decisions.
At the end of the day and into the future of work, what is necessary to develop is not only a valuable and marketable skill but also lifelong and creative learners who are awake to their lives and their work, trusted to make the right decisions about each, ethical in the tasks they perform, and confident in their responsibilities to themselves and others.
Laurence Musgrove is professor and chair of English and modern languages at Angelo State University. His most recent collection of poetry, Local Bird, is from Lamar University Press.
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