My Minors in English Lit

I did two English lit minors, one in undergrad and one in grad school. I hated them both because the way English literature is taught is very different from the way we teach in Hispanic Studies. Every professor had a very convoluted, incomprehensible theory he or she used to connect all 15 or so novels we read in a semester.

One professor, for instance, had this theory that Virginia Woolf wrote so much about the body that her novels themselves were a physical, human body. I’ve often been accused of having a pedestrian way of thinking that’s incapable of processing abstract ideas. It’s probably true because I just don’t get it. How are novels a body? What does that mean? And most importantly, who cares? You can say it about anything. Spoons are a body. Pork chops are a body. Obligatory diversity seminars are infrastructure.

Another professor advanced this theory that Christians in the US were preparing a nuclear apocalypse. The novels we read had nothing in them about either Christians or nuclear weapons. I strained every ounce of intellect I had and still didn’t get it.

So I switched to the literature of the subcontinent, and it was blissful. No weird theories, no incomprehensible snark. The books were taught the way we teach in Hispanic Studies. What was happening in the country when the novel was written? Why was it happening? How is it reflected in the novel? Which parts speak to you and why? Which characters are memorable? Books were books, not body parts or hints at a nuclear holocaust. Professors would come to class and talk about their favorite books and why they loved them.

For the PhD exam, I had to read a large list of 19th-century British books and connect them to the literature of the subcontinent we’d been reading. It was so great. The professor made me speak for over 2 hours, making sure I didn’t miss any connections, any repeated metaphors, any important literary influences. In the end, I was elated and wanted to read more. Which I believe to be the whole point of teaching literature.

11 thoughts on “My Minors in English Lit

    1. That means you studied it in the day of the Partisan Review, and before Marxist theory was displaced by this soft stuff!

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        1. Thank you! Zero damage here, I was just on the edge of it, did not even lose power. I kind of wanted to see a bit more of it, actually, but better safe than sorry…

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          1. “Zero damage here”

            Good to hear! Most of my memories of hurricanes are gray skies and intermittent rain for a while. The biggest scariest tropical storm I was in ended up being a one night thing that didn’t even get a name (which is what people called it; the storm without a name – but did a lot of damage).

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  1. You have unfortunately had some weird professors in English lit.

    I studied it in Israel the way you teach in Hispanic Studies (if I understand your meaning).

    We have probably studied ‘deconstructionists and gender theorists’ , yet the latter only added to my enjoyment since studying English literature was my way to discover a culture, being especially interested in class, gender and ruling ideologies of the past.

    As for Virginia Woolf, attended the first lecture of a seminar on her novels, decided I was not interested in Freud (and hated engaging in such analysis) and promptly switched to a seminar on the state of American society, its history and ideology, and their reflection in novels. Was the best seminar I had ever taken.

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  2. Hmm. What I noticed the most about English classes was that they were less scientific. People cared more about the biography of the author and about the emotions of the characters, identifying with them, diagnosing them, took it all so personally, were more book club-like that university course-like in their approach, I thought.

    When I became a professor I taught more in the way we do in Hispanic Studies and students, who had been brought up in English, found it cold of me. Emoting was more important than analyzing and I didn’t get this at all. Now I sort of do, if students haven’t read for pleasure before, you have to give them this experience first.

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  3. When I was studying English lit, I had those too. I remember distinctively, a complete pessimist T.S. Eliot obsessed professor! And in America lit, we had an American Herman Melville obsessed prof too. Problem?! I enjoyed every minute of it.

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