Why study English?

davidc“Why study English? You study English because you love to read. You’ll read anything: novels, blogs, poems, newspaper and magazine articles, comics, plays, film scripts, fan fiction, nonfiction, even the odd cereal box or flyer. Especially, you read stories. You love the way that words let you do the impossible, let you move through time and space, let you visit other worlds, let you live other lives, let you see through others’ eyes, let you literally read their minds, there on the page before you. No wonder you feel so close to the characters you read about. It’s as if you’re the one feeling their emotions, all their love and fear and longing and joy. It’s no surprise, then, that science tells us that reading, and especially reading literature, can help to make you a better person, more empathetic, more socially aware, and more emotionally clued in, which is nice. It’s certainly one reason to study English.

You also love to write. You enjoy words for words’ sake, their sounds and their uncanny playfulness: “Loafe with me on the grass, loose the stop from your throat” (that’s Walt Whitman); “The trouble you reported recently is now working properly” (that’s an entire story by Lydia Davis, called “The Language of the Telephone Company”!). You’re interested in the craft of writing, in the shape of sentences, in the structure of texts, in the difference between a story told from the point of view of an “I” or a “she.” Doing English means writing about writing, teasing out how a poem works, arguing for the significance of a short story, considering a play in the context of its time, explaining the relation between a film’s symbols and its themes, exploring the narrative drive of a video game (yes, “writing” means all kinds of things). English asks how any text says what it says.

You study English because you understand the power of words. You realise that, for a concept or idea to take a hold in the world, it must be put into some language. It must be communicated. You see how language shapes society, how lines can frame and colour a debate, how phrases can sway a people or a nation, how narratives can switch history on to a different track, and you want to have a say in this. You know the importance of representation, interpretation, contextualisation, and translation, and you know the risk of misinterpretation.

Employers love English graduates because they tend to be flexible, creative thinkers who are able to comprehend varying perspectives or critically read a situation. They have an eye for detail, are great researchers, and are able to express an idea or make an argument clearly and convincingly. English graduates are excellent data crunchers if the data are words. You could find yourself working in publishing, broadcasting, journalism, teaching, the arts, the civil service, politics, public relations, marketing, management, or an NGO. In the meantime, you will enjoy reading some remarkable works of literature, written by people with a unique vision of the world and the ability to share it, people like William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, W. B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, or Toni Morrison. They are the real reason to study English.”

Dr David Coughlan