Why an English Department?

The English discipline centers on literature, which is absolutely wonderful for those who enjoy reading, analyzing, and connecting books, but Interdisciplinarity refers to an argument against the need for such studies: Why does anyone need an English department when they can read literature on their own time? As stated by Moran, the problem with trying to legitimize the study of English is that “English…is generally accessible to those working outside the discipline in a way that, say, particle physics or differential equations are not” (19). On one hand, I find it hard to argue with this reasoning. Couldn’t an interested reader pick up any of the pieces of literature we’re studying in class this semester without having to go through the trouble of writing essays and worrying about grades? Why is this course necessary to my education?

To try to find an answer to this question, I thought back to my experiences in English classes so far. When reading a piece of literature, there is always one thing that is seen as vital – beyond writing essays, answering quiz questions, etc. – and that is discussion with the group. In high school, this was often led by the teacher who assigned the book. If I was to pick up Romeo and Juliet at the age of fourteen instead of being prompted by a teacher to think deeply about it in a freshman English class, for instance, I would have missed many of the themes and nuances that make Shakespeare’s text an important and influential work. In Reader and Text, this element of discussion is even more beneficial to reading literature because the students as well as the professor are able to actively contribute their unique perspectives (for everyone is at a higher level than we were in high school, and we are usually willfully attending the class). When talking about books with other people who are interested in literary studies, it is much easier to not only understand the text in question, but to see it in a variety of viewpoints. The interpretations that my peers make are sometimes wildly different from my own, which helps me broaden my own thoughts about a book.

This is why we need English departments, and why the study of English is not completely accessible to all; having a group of learned people to support you as you try to read a piece of literature is undeniably valuable. Just as it’s difficult to grasp concepts about “particle physics,” to refer back to Moran’s words, without the explanation of experts and guided learning, it’s hard to understand how literature might have an impact on oneself, society, history, or other texts without being exposed to the thoughts of peers and professors.

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