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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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Old English

Monday, August 07, 2006

With his sensitive finger monitoring the pulse of English Studies in the British university, John Sutherland wonders in Guardian Education whether what was "once the most venerated of disciplines," namely English Literature, is "headed for the dustbin of academia."

A glance at my old university prospectus and degree classifications shows how the times have been a changin' even whilst I have been at university. When I signed up to my undergraduate institution, I was inspired by a prospectus that showed pictures of (attractive) girls reclining beneath oak trees, reading The Mill on the Floss. When I was interviewed (a practice now stopped), I was asked some general questions about what poets I liked and why I liked them. I suspect that my answer was similar to that John Sutherland observes: "they will blandly inform you that they 'really like' Sylvia Plath as if that was all that needed to be said, critically." Despite this, some one must have taken to me as I managed to get a place to study for a BA in English Literature.

But when I emerged from the "production line" after three years, it was as a graduate not in English Literature but in "English Literary Studies." My department, and my degree, had been rebranded and, implicit in the name change, expanded to embrace all materials, not just textual, towards which "literary" approaches might be directed. Along with this change, leaflets and brochures dispensing careers advice and advertising graduate posts in corporate banking suddenly appeared in prominent positions by the photocopiers. Although I stayed on to study further, according to Prospects, some 58% of my contemporaries did not, preferring instead mostly to enter managerial roles in commerce and industry, to teach, or to occupy clerical positions. The buzzword now is the "transferrable skills" English graduates possess, their critical and writing faculties applicable equally to the writing of reports and policy documents as to the deconstruction of the proto-feminism of Jane Eyre.

One eye on their careers, A-Level students consistently choose to study English at university, and it remains one of the most popular courses. With vice-chancellors eyeing up the top-up fee income, it seems unlikely that English departments are going to close any time soon. But the question Sutherland asks is whether the intellectual nature of that discipline, which "was once the queen of the curriculum: the chemistry of the humanities," is going to survive intact. If English departments are now principally proving grounds for our future civil servants and industry moguls, it seems hard to justify studying Henrik Ibsen's minor plays, or Sapphic Modernism; rather, perhaps we should focus attention on the semantics of report writing, on the art of the press release.

For the time being, as a postgraduate, I have a stay of execution from such infections of the real world of economic sense. That some quality (and some would say, not without some foundation, irrelevance) of the Leavisite hey-day of English remains at the postgraduate level is indicated by the fact that my PhD is still classified as "English Literature." But even here, the fact that I am treating Dawkins and Maxwell in the same thesis as Byatt and Amis indicates the sea-change that has occurred in my field. With language at the centre of all human intellectual activity, English Studies - for that, I now feel, is the more appropriate title - is best placed to pursue the interdisciplinary approach. English Literature is not so much heading for the dustbin, as being recycled.


Posted by Alistair at 10:17 am


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