Response to the Teague report
There’s been a good deal of talk about the best way to save English studies. I feel, however, that we need just as much to ensure that the program remains robust and viable.
For the most part, I agreed with the Teague report on English studies. Four pages in, the report outlines these skills imparted by a college education:
“• to write clearly
• to speak articulately
• to read closely
• to evaluate and present evidence accurately
• to use quantitative data precisely
• to apply reasoning correctly
• to engage with artistic creation and expression imaginatively
• to work both independently and collaboratively”
I condensed these to three: to learn how to think, read, and write about texts. The foreign language requirement was interesting, as was the quantitative data requirement, but both of these are better handled by their respective departments. Students should also, of course, be encouraged to think creatively, but ideally this would spring forth naturally from their studies. Trying to force creativity usually produces mediocre work.
The goal of any college education is at least partially about learning critical thinking skills. Every student has a responsibility, if they are to deem themselves successful, to do so.
Therefore, every class in the curriculum, regardless of its content, should have at its core improving students’ critical thinking skills. Students in English courses should not accept anything at face value, but research further and engage with their texts and writings about them.
There should be several levels of this. The introductory courses in the curriculum will mainly teach familiarity with the various works that serve as the foundations for those that come after. Later, more specialized courses will impart more in-depth knowledge, and with it, the ability to come up with deeper and hopefully new insights into the works studied.
This does not change, even in modern times. Pop culture demands another form of analysis, but at the core are these same skills. Digital works raise new questions, of course, about authorship, audience and context. Learning how to think critically about writing, however, works for any writing, no matter whether paper is involved.
We live in a world dominated by words of all kinds. Some of them aim to inform, or to entertain, or to provoke emotions. Some of them are little more than decoration. Some of them are trying to sell you things, or convince you to give things up. It’s crucial that people, in order to not only survive in the world, but become better citizens of it, learn to distinguish the differences.
This is where reading comes in. Many people don’t think about it, or define reading as merely parsing words and definitions of whatever language they speak. There’s more to it than that. It requires taking into account multiple meanings of words, which operate within several connotations and denotations. It requires determining intent and context.
The English curriculum should teach all this. It should ideally delve into the history of how these methods came about, which are most commonly used today, and why. There are many ways to read a text. Students should become familiar with as many of them as possible.
The primary method of doing so should be by studying literary works. This does not necessarily mean a canon-based approach. Literary texts, for the most part, become literary because they reward close study and deeper exploration: as the Teague report states, “observation and deciphering through narrative techniques, internal clues, and external references that beckon the curiosity and intelligence of readers.” They demand more than a mere surface examination.
The exact texts included, of course, will vary, and more will be added. With older texts, a lot of these decisions have been made; it is, however, more difficult to determine this for newer works. Some factors to consider for these include craft – a literary text should be well-crafted – and impact, on the public or on other writers, preferably both.
It is, of course, important for students in all disciplines to have technical mastery of writing, but for those who choose to major in English, it is paramount.
Ideally, students will have learned to write fluently in their prior schooling. This does not always happen, unfortunately. Therefore, English courses should ensure, as early as possible, that students possess the following skills:
- The ability to write with purpose, with arguments that reveal thought and effort.
- The ability to write technically accurately, using proper spelling, grammar and punctuation. Some of our professional schools already have this as a requirement.
- The ability to write concisely, without becoming wordy or over-embellished.
These skills can be adapted to whatever medium ends up prevailing, whether print or digital text. The Internet predates just about every scare article about how it’s eroding people’s writing skills, as do all of its sites and applications. It’s a medium. What matters is what’s put into it.
The English departments at universities matter. They are some of the only institutions that keep the tradition of literature – and its study – alive. The publishing industry cannot fulfill this function; its primary motivator is what sells well, and it’s experiencing its own cataclysmic problems. There is little point, however, in sustaining weaker, less robust versions of the departments. Technological innovations can be incorporated, as can newer texts, but the methods of study must remain sound and have critical thought at their core. Only then can departments continue to fulfill their mission.