What is English? This gnarly (and arguably preposterous) question has a complex history that I have asked you to think about in your provisional answer to the question. In your writing and in this post we have been using the term “English” to refer to a field of study—a body of material (literature, writing, texts), method (ways of reading or approaching texts) and theory (the questions that arise in the practice of criticism or the assumptions that underwrite particular methods, or a theoretical approach, such as structuralism).
So, where to begin? You might start, as many do, with Wikipedia:
In the past an academic degree in English usually meant an intensive study of British and American literary masterpieces. Now, however, an English Major encompasses a much broader range of topics which stretch over multiple disciplines. While the requirements for an English Major vary from university to university, most English departments emphasize three core skills: analyzing literature, a process which requires logic and reflective analysis; creativity and imagination with regards to the production of good writing; and an understanding of different cultures, civilizations, and literary styles from various time periods. Prospective English Majors can expect to take college courses in academic writing, creative writing, literary theory, British and American literature, multicultural literature, several literary genres (such as poetry, drama, and film studies), and a number of elective multidisciplinary topics such as history, courses in the social sciences, and studies in a foreign language. To the end of studying these disciplines, candidates for a Major in English attain skills in rhetoric, literary analysis, an appreciation for the diversity of cultures, and an ability to clearly and persuasively express their ideas in writing.
Alternatively, as I suggested, you could read what others have done with the question, including Terry Eagleton’s chapter What is Literature. Or Listen to Eagleton discussing the questions about the literary in his new book, The Event of Literature (Yale 2012). Or Consider the history of English studies, browsing the resources of professor Rita Raley’s web page The History of English Studies.
Another path is to examine the table of contents of anthologies that define the field of study at the level of the course syllabus—a more instructive path, perhaps, than the Wikipedia, or at least the next step in a genuine path of inquiry leading out from the question. I will use here the example of the Norton anthologies of literature: American, English and World. (Of course there are also anthologies published by Norton on poetry, African American Writers, and so on, designed for courses that have a narrower generic or thematic approach.)
The Norton Anthology of English Literature is using mostly historical periods to divide the material into digestible units. The Middle Ages, The Sixteenth Century, The Early Seventeenth Century, Restoration and the Eighteenth Century, Romantic Period, Victorian Age, Twentieth Century. You can link to the web page and pull up the Table of Contents. Close readers will also note that the volumes in the set are organized not only by century but also by other categories that refer to a period (“Medieval”) a political era (“Restoration,” or the reign of King Charles II) an intellectual and artistic movement (“Romantic”) or a queen (“Victorian”).
The Norton Anthology of American Literature (4 Volumes) organizes the material chronologically: to 1820, 1820-1865, 1865-1914, 1914-1945, Since 1945. Consider the Table of Contents for The Shorter Norton Anthology of American Literature. This condensed survey text selects from the selected works in the multi-volume edition (already a selection in and of itself) and organizes literary history chronologically, as well as by author and by theme. It starts with transcriptions of oral creation stories from the Iroquois and Pima to the early writings of exploration and puritan writings all the way to a selection of poems by Sherman Alexie and ’s short piece of fiction “Sexy.”
The Norton offers one representation of a consensus in the field of study “American Literature.” I have used this edition, and the longer version, in my courses, and have offered comments to the editors on texts that I think might be included or discarded. I say this to remind you that a table of contents is a dynamic list that changes as the field is shaped and reshaped. The Norton American Literature is now in its eighth edition, after all
There is also The Norton Anthology of World Literature that appears also in a Shorter World Anthology (in this case, the Third Edition). Have a look at the table of contents to this volume and see how time (chronology), space (nation, hemisphere), genre (orature, lyric poetry, drama).
These anthologies are a good starting point for students interested in literature and literary history. If you don’t have them, pick them up and read in them over the summer months. (They are cheap on the used market.) One can build a broader range of literary and cultural reference and experiences as a reader when you have copies of this anthology on the shelf.
As we talked about in class, and as you explored in your writing, the bodies of writing and texts that now fall under the purview of “English” as a field, and of the English major, cannot be reproduced in a ten course undergraduate major. Still, the anthology represents a consensus—an always imperfect but useful configuration—of literary history that is worth knowing. It is also a convenient way to discover texts that will lead you to other texts and writers who you want to know.
You might consider a handbook for English majors. Here is an example of an “English Handbook from the College of William and Mary“
Remember that last week when we looked at the Keene State College English Department web site you first encountered the way we have organized the English major. The “Courses” page and the four general program objectives that we ask that you study during your four years with us at Keene State College.
Production and Reception: The program teaches how historical, social, and cultural contexts shape literary works-including those works produced by cultures whose humanity and identity have been devalued, denied, or dismissed;
Language and Poetics: The program introduces students to the major genres of literature, rhetorical and literary strategies, and the ways in which literary works relate intertextually.
Criticism and Theory: The program introduces students to historical contexts and critical theories that shape literary analysis and inform scholarly debates in the field of literary studies.
Reading and Writing: The program teaches careful reading, the use of literary vocabulary, an orderly critical approach, and the use of writing for a range of purposes.