What is English?: A Whole Lot of Reading, Thinking and Writing.

Part 1: What is English?

According to Merriam-Webster, the word “English” is an adjective used to describe the language and people of England, it is a noun for the “language, literature, or composition when (in) a subject of study” and it is a transitive verb “to translate (or adopt) into English (9).” It all sounds fairly straight forward, but when the word “English” is in conjunction with the word “Major,” the floodgates of uncertainty open. In the history of education in America a common element was always very prevalent when considering the status of a well-educated individual, it was whether or not they could read. For instance in the 18th century, secondary schools were slow to develop “because children could learn to read in common schools (elementary schools), and reading was considered sufficient education by many citizens.”(Powell, 2011). Arguably, the amount of content that could fall under what to study as an English Major is limitless, but there is a way to narrow it down to allow for a more tangible sense of understanding. The English field of study can be narrowed down to three major components, reading, thinking and writing.

The first component, reading, is possibly the most difficult topic to discuss. What should an English Major read? Some individuals will give specific examples with little variation in what they consider to be literature, others would say anything and everything, all text is important. An English Department at any post-secondary institution has a primary concentration on the study of Literature. The weight of literary knowledge varies from specific disciplines at different schools. Louisiana State University (LSU) has prerequisite courses for any English Major; however, those students pursuing creative writing, will take less literature courses, and are obligatory to supplement with their writing classes to fulfill the Major requirements. Additionally, there are schools like Bowdoin College in which part of completing an English Major with a concentration in writing is to complete all courses necessary to fulfill the requirement of a British and American Literature discipline, as well as additional writing courses instead of supplementing (6, 7).

While defining an English field of study is challenging, nothing is more challenging or seemingly impossible than trying to compose a definition of literature. Literature is likely the most controversial focus in the English discipline with many forward thinkers and plenty of backward thinkers. Terry Eagleton is a man that observes every aspect of the debate, and tries to make sense of the criticism around the question, “what is literature.”

It is true that many of the works studied as literature in academic institutions were ‘constructed’ to be read as literature, but it is also true that many of them were not. A piece of writing may start off life as history or philosophy and then come to be ranked as literature; or it may start off as literature and then come to be valued for its archaeological significance. Some texts are born literary, some achieve literariness, and some have literariness thrust upon them.” –Terry Eagleton

The passage above is an accurate depiction of the debate with regards to literature. Is a novel written with the intention of being studied for imagery and metaphor more important and have more merit for debate and critique than a journal entry written by an American explorer in the early 19th century? What’s not interesting about reading the opinions of a person experiencing unchartered territory for the first time? A journal entry can just as easily transport a reader into a different era as that of a thoughtfully written 18th century novel. So which example will have more value as being considered Literature, or are the two examples equivalent?

British and American Literature were mentioned, and are very traditional and historical eras of literature, but that does not necessarily mean that they should be removed for the sake of being repetitive. One way in which to break down the concept of literature is to separate it into categories such as genre, of pertaining to poetry, fiction and non-fiction novels. Another component would be the period in which a certain text is written such as Medieval or Victorian era. Traditions is another category that can go on to include the more original foundations of literature like British Literature, but also has a Multi-Cultural aspect that includes the texts from cultures spanning the globe. In addition to genre, period and traditions, there are different themes that can include the typically thought of British literature, but take into account scientific writing or women writers as specialized themes.

Another area of conflict is in regard to discourse. Eagleton goes onto to encourage the debate of what characteristics of a text constitute literature. He uses examples of comic books and cookbooks. Why would they not be considered Literature? Which individuals choose what constitutes literature? More people in today’s society might find the story plot of a celebrity’s autobiography more interesting than the work of the Bronte sisters and their novels full of descriptive imagery and old English discourse.

It is thus quite possible that, given a deep enough transformation of our history, we may in the future produce a society which is unable to get anything at all out of Shakespeare. His works might simply seem desperately alien, full of styles of thought and feeling which such a society found limited or irrelevant. In such a situation, Shakespeare would be no more valuable than much present-day graffiti.” –Terry Eagleton

The possibility of Shakespeare’s body of work not being considered literature is an important lesson into the insight of discourse. What if in generations to come that Shakespearean style is too complex and what is considered to be more important bodies of work surface? Will Shakespeare be shelved and categorized outside of literature? The discourse used, will more than likely not reappear in day-today usage, and therefore begs the question, why is it read? Shakespeare’s writing is interesting sure enough, but is not the scientific experiment that resulted in the cloning of Dolly the Sheep interesting too? Once some body of text has received the literature stamp of approval, what is to stop future generations from crossing it out? What if as years pass nobody wants to study the work of Shakespeare and his texts hold no interest of the evolved people? Will his work no longer be considered literature? Or will it still be literature, but just unimportant literature?

In the future something as collective as a commonplace book of political slogans or inspirational song lyrics could come to be considered literature over the prose and poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson. As culture collides with English, it may appeal to future generations of learners to study the history of elections and the power of words over the masses.

Another prevalent component to the English Major is that of thinking. After reading a text, whether considered to be literature or not the thinking process takes over, and in that process an individual studying English should be able to analyze or discuss a text, and make critical assumptions to form an original thought.

Discussion of criticism is apt to be considered a rather introspective diversion. But it is a fact too often forgotten that the real content of the school and college subject which goes under the name ‘English Literature’ is not literature in the primary sense, but criticism . Every school student in British education is required to compose, not tragic dramas, but essays in criticism.” –Chris Baldick

In the passage above, Chris Baldick is implying that reading literature is not nearly enough to be considered well-educated in the field of English. One must demonstrate the ability to comprehend what is read and criticize it appropriately. The word criticism typically has a negative connotation, but it does not necessarily imply that a reader has to disagree with any particular position or story, but instead create their own inquiry as to what they can derive, and use information from the text to defend critiques of their opinions. The term method, being able to relate to material, a character, or a conflict, and theory, finding conflicts in text, and making assumptions are invaluable components of the critical thinking process.

Included in the component of thinking are the studies of Linguistics and English as a Second Language (ESL). At the University of Wisconsin, Madison the English Department offers English Majors in the discipline of Linguistic or ESL (5). These can be thought to be included in the thinking component of the English Major because in order to master these disciplines one needs to study and think about how they relate to text. True, there is reading material and practice to attain the knowledge needed, but to put those skills into practice requires thinking and analyzing language. For instance, Linguistics will have a student thinking about syntax, morphology and phonology in a written dialogue, and critically analyzing where the aspects of the human language are found. Similarly, the Study of ESL requires an individual to make connections in their native language to the English language. Additionally, understanding how words are composed can aid in the dialect and comprehension of other unfamiliar dialects.

The writing component of an English Major is what culminates reading, thinking and writing into one Major. A discipline in writing for an English Major often designated specifically for the purpose of writing is the rhetoric element, or the act of persuasive writing. To be a good Rhetoric writer one must first be able to read and think about a text. LSU is an institution that offers a discipline of Writing and Culture for an English Major. As in any English Major, there are the prerequisites of studying literature, but a major specifically designed for the cultural purpose will likely stray from heavy influence of the more traditional texts considered to be literature. Instead, the description of this Major at LSU invites the student to read a variety of texts and draw conclusions about how that text could be used in a rhetorical argument, and how social aspects can affect the text of a certain region (6).

Apart from making arguments, an important part of the writing component is the knowledge of how to actually write, whether in the form of a letter, essay or citation. It is important for an English student of to have a working knowledge of what plagiarism is, and how to avoid it. When making an argument, and using the written ideas of another, it is extremely important to be well practiced in what is qualified as correct and incorrect ways to use their ideas. For instance, adding a passage to make a connection is allowed. However, a student must be careful that they are expanding on the thought of another and not owning it whether in agreement or disagreement.

Something as simple as the proper use of grammar and vocabulary is important in the writing component. Additionally, if a student is going to pursue a career in any type of creative writing, it is important to ensure a comprehension of descriptive language. Additionally, being familiar with different types of discourse used when writing an article or journal entry for a newspaper will always be beneficial to the writer. When writing a novel with a complex protagonist, the use of imagery and analogy can draw a reader in.

By taking the English Major, and breaking it into the components of reading, thinking and writing, all of the cores of the subject appear to have been addressed. Some components such as analogy and critical thinking can be found in more than one component, and it is important to recognize their presence in each piece. For example, it was mentioned before that linguistics and ESL are components of thinking, while others may argue that they are components of reading or writing, or possibly should not be considered valuable disciplines of the English Major at all. The study of English is so evolved that it comes down to a matter of opinion.

An academic subject is never at a standstill, it is always moving in one or more directions.” –DJ Palmer

As Palmer says, what is believed to be the study of English in the twenty-first century will not be the study of English in the twenty-second century, or will it?


Part 2: Proposed English Major

1. 100-level Introductory Sequence, Combined Introduction to English and Literary


2. 200-level Grammar/Linguistics

3. 200-level Writing Workshop

4. 300-level British and American Literature

5. 300-level Poetry Analysis/ Transcendentalism

6. 300-level Literature elective (i.e. Medieval Literature)

7. 300-level Literature elective (i.e. American Indian Literature)

8. 300-level Non-traditional Literature (Reading Film as Literature, Adolescent         Literature [LSU])

9. 300-400 level Creative Writing/Advanced Writing Workshop

10. 400-level Literature and World Culture

11. Advanced Sequence I

12. Advanced Sequence II

The suggested list of courses above is what I believe to make up a good English Major. I decided to combine the introductory level English with Literary Analysis because if a person is a freshman entering the English Major, then chances are that they should have some secondary background and interest in the subject. One would like to believe that if an individual did not do well in their high school English courses that they would not pursue it as a field of study in their post-secondary education. I feel that a course in grammar or linguistics should be required. Grammar especially because I cannot believe some of the posts that I read from non-English Major students in other classes, and the grammatical errors in their writing. While an English major may not have those difficulties in their writing, I feel it is important to be able to recognize them in others’. I do feel that grammar should be an option, but if not chosen, then a course in Linguistics should be considered. These two options supply some formative aspect into the English language that I feel any English major should have an interest in. Similarly, I believe that a basic writing workshop would help any English Major whether in the discipline of Literature or Writing, to help prepare them for the amount of writing that will be expected for any English class.

Next there’s a series of 300-level Literature courses. While the topic of “what is Literature” is very vague, I feel like exploring those opinions should be reserved for the Graduate level. There is so much text in the history of the world that there has to be a starting point with some directional guide. Nobody ever said that studying British Literature in your Major means you cannot explore other literary possibilities in your free time. I see the various literature options as a place to begin. As Terry Eagleton mentions in his essay, some books were written with the intent of becoming literature to be studied, therefore the theory is that there must be something in those stories worth reading, and if you do not find any of it to be worth reading, then it must be worth debating (2).

The only course that I’m not one hundred percent on board with would be a more advanced Creative Writing course. Perhaps instead of Creative Writing some type of Advance Writing Workshop should be offered. The only reason that I included Creative Writing specifically is because one can easily read what would be considered a creative passage of text, but it is another experience entirely to have to compose a creative text.  A Writing English Major typically enrolls in multiple Literature courses, and I think an interchangeable advanced writing course would be beneficial to Literature English Majors.

Finally, I agree with Keene State College’s two-part advanced sequence courses. I think that in culminating a field of study, there needs to be a reflection of material learned, and additional components whether theoretical or historical that an individual in their final years of study should need to consider and convey their gained knowledge (8).


  1. Powell, Sara D. “History of Education in the United States.” Issues In Education. Third ed. Boston: Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011. 42. Print.
  2. Eagleton, Terry. “Introduction : What Is Literature?” N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Sept. 2013. <http://www.dartmouth.edu/~engl5vr/Eagle1.html&gt;.
  3. Baldick. Chris. The Social Mission of English Criticism, 1848-1932. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983.
  4. Palmer, D.J. The Rise of English Studies. London: Oxford UP, 1965.
  5. http://www.english.wisc.edu/undergraduae
  6. http://english.lsu.edu
  7. http://www.bowdoin.edu/english/curriculum/index.shtml
  8. http://sites.keene.edu/english
  9. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/english
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