Caitlyn’s “English is”

Caitlyn McCain, English 215 Teaching Assistant

Looking back on what I wrote about English as a freshman, I realized that I gave it a very textbook answer. In some ways, that too, is an element of English: formality. However, over the course of my college degree I’ve learned that English allows a person to expand her skills, her mind, her imagination: of all the things that make up English, one’s own genius is at its core: your own ability to make English your own.

True, at the center of “English Studies” is literature and writing. Novels, poetry, drama, non-fiction—you name it, there is a class on it. Understanding how to work with literature, and how to write effectively makes English useful and enriches one’s own experience with it. English taught me everything I could want to know about citations and critical thinking and writing. It taught me how to engage as a student, or interpret a text, or the best ways to convey thoughts and feelings through words. However, what I missed as a freshman was myself. I approached the field of English like an assignment. I thought that if I did the reading, highlighted and annotated passages, and wrote the paper well that somehow my understanding of “English” would evolve and deepen. In fact, the opposite is true. By treating English as merely a discipline, I disregarded the primary element that gave it life: my own experience.

English combines “suppositories of culture” with the people who encounter it. Without the active heart and engaged mind of the student, English is dusty books and fading critical statements. It never comes to life. Around my junior year, I finally realized that by reading and writing without my self, I was missing out on what truly makes English “English.” In my first essay about English I wrote: “People devoting themselves to an English major are opening themselves up to higher thinking, deeper reading, and improved understanding of what came before them and how those ideals remain significant to them.” That’s all true. But even as I wrote it, there was a distance between my self and my studies of what I loved. I’d yet to make it my own, to take ownership of it, and to engage with literature and writing on a personal level.

English is culture, and ideals, and philosophy all bundled up in books that will last through time so future generations will know where they came from. It is the study of language, how it works, how it doesn’t, and the best ways to say things with exactly the right words. It’s about learning how to think deeply and read actively. English is about studying your world through the lens of texts, and applying contexts of the time period to gain a richer understanding of your own (or someone else’s) experience of the world. English is definitely all of that. However, it’s also you.

English is your own experience of a text, your own relation to it, your own feelings and thoughts and how you convey them. However, it’s also taught me about myself—as a reader, a writer, and a thinker. Once I learned that English isn’t a subject outside of myself, but rather, one that includes me and my own thoughts and words, I truly began to engage with it. I found confidence in my writing, and in my own voice. I trusted myself to interpret a text, or to have legitimate ideas of my own, rather than repeating what I’d heard someone else say for fear of being “wrong.” English is essential to who I am as a student and a person, and is far beyond a textbook definition. English is everything a critic can tell you it is, but never leave yourself out of the equation.