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EXPERT COMMENT: From Shakespeare’s Stage to the Digital Page: Why Study English Literature?

10th May 2018

Katy Shaw, Professor of Contemporary Writings at Northumbria University, makes the case for studying English as a subject at University and beyond.

Picking a degree course can be a daunting task. Everyone seems to have an opinion, and if your own mind isn’t made up yet, those other voices can be confusing. English Literature is often the victim of some lazy accusations when it comes to its status as a degree course.

‘English is so easy/boring/pointless, it’s all just reading/essays/Shakespeare’ (delete as applicable). Well there is a pretty clear response to these naysayers and it starts and ends with the fact that an English Literature degree has always been, and still is, one of the most popular degrees with students and graduate employers alike. Moreover, in the twenty-first century English Literature has expanded rapidly in response to the changing conditions of the contemporary world, and now enjoys an impressive combination of academic kudos, high student satisfaction and diverse graduate destinations.

So let’s start at the beginning – what is English Literature? Most of us will think we know the answer to this question. We have probably read and studied books as part of the courses necessary to get to this point in our studies, have opinions on texts already, or even own a ‘classic’ piece of literature or two. But if you would like to study for a degree in English Literature then you need to prepare to have your assumptions about the subject challenged. The important difference about studying English Literature at degree level is that we will ask you to define what ‘English Literature’ actually is, what it has been, what it is now, and what it can do for us both as individuals and as a society in the future.

An English Literature undergraduate programme will take you on a whirlwind tour of literary legends, big texts and famous names. But it will also expose you to new writings, different voices, and original experiences far away from the confines of your day to day life. It will let you explore a variety of literary forms – from short stories, to novels, drama to poetry – and encourage you to think about form as a political choice for a writer. Examining texts by authors writing in English from around the world you will also confront the problem of using the term ‘English Literature’ to define an ever-growing global field of creative works.

Importantly, your studies will address the purpose of literature, its function in society, and its role as an agent of change. Throughout your time as a student of English Literature, you will read the work of a variety of authors who have played a significant role in developing the discipline and examine the role of literature in shaping social, historical and political movements. Hopefully, the texts you study will not be texts that you would have otherwise encountered. And that’s the point. As academics of literature, your tutors will work with you to challenge the way you think about literature, and the role it and you can play in our contemporary world.

The contemporary is an important context for your studies – you will be engaging with literary studies in the new millennium, a period which has witnessed an explosion in the variety and function of modes of writing in the English language the world over. From innovations in recognised forms such as the novel, poem, play and short story, to developments in blogging, new genres, digital writings and new media, modes of writing have dominated initial developments in post-millennial literature. The publishing industry has also changed, with technological advances giving rise to the dawn of the e-book and corporate sponsorship igniting debates about the usefulness of literary prizes and festivals. So who decides what becomes part of the ‘canon’ of contemporary English literature? Well that’s the exciting part – you do.  As researchers of the now, English Literature students form part of the process of creating a twenty-first century canon of English. You’re are at the cutting edge - which is an exciting place to be.

English Literature is also a sociable subject – doing a degree should never mean three years of silent reading in a library. You will be encouraged to debate in classes, to speak about your thoughts and feelings on the texts we study, and to listen and value the opinions of others. The ability to form and communicate a compelling argument is a key skill in an English degree. We help you to develop this through oral assessments, group work and social activities designed to hone your creative practice and presentation skills. In addition to essays, you may also be assessed through creative work, reviews, research papers, posters, discussion forums, portfolios and journalism. Supporting you to experiment in writing across different forms and for a variety of audiences, we ensure that you graduate with a wealth of experience in critical and creative encounters with texts.

And don’t just take my word for it - check out the raft of major companies that are also singing the praises of English Literature degrees and their graduates. The transferability and relevance of these skills enable our graduates to adapt and evolve in the rapidly changing socio-economic and political contexts of the modern world. It is no coincidence that the CEOs of many Fortune 500 companies are English graduates. Harvard Business Review recently profiled the increasing trend for top corporate companies targeting English graduates in their recruitment strategies. The financial industries have also stepped up their targeted recruitment of English graduates. Goldman Sachs recently revealed that English students were among its second largest cohort of recruits, and that the company has begun holding special recruitment events aimed at English-related subjects at under and postgraduate levels. This is because English degrees create individuals who are uniquely placed to offer innovative approaches as a direct result of their training in applying new ways of thinking to complicated contemporary problems. These core competencies are key to helping companies better understand the people who consume their products.

Employers love English Literature students because a degree in English Literature trains you to be an independent critical thinker, someone who can process and communicate diverse data in creative ways, an individual who is reflective in practice, and analytical in approach. More importantly, English graduates are global graduates – thanks to their studies, they have the intellectual prowess, leadership ability and world-class standards to understand the importance of breaking down relevant boundaries and to shape shaping and redefine the perceptions of others. As a direct result of the diverse curricula of their degrees, English Literature graduates are global scholars with global horizons, who are flexible and adaptable to the changing contexts and demands of the modern world.

If you want to see how flexible an English Literature degree can be in opening new careers and professional pathways then just check out the alumni page of any university website. Literature graduates end up doing all kinds of brilliant things in weird and wonderful places. My own past students now work for companies as diverse as NASA, Apple, Whole Foods, Oxfam and Instagram, some have gone into teaching, HR, media and journalism, government, law and many have established their own businesses or become successful freelancers. Others have chosen to extend their students and are currently reading for a Masters or Doctorate in English Literature. They also return to their former universities and speak to our current undergraduates about employment options, how to secure work experience and networking opportunities to help the next generation of students get a foot on the career ladder. English Literature graduates are the best advert for an English Literature degree – they are living, breathing testaments to the fact that it’s not all Shakespeare, essays and reading. English graduates excel because English degrees equip them with the experience necessary to take on tomorrow. They are self-motivated time managers with carefully cultivated skills that employers value, and thanks to their creative communication skills, they can make their perspective the centre of the debate.

Learning from the past, in the present, for the future, the study of English Literature opens you up to new ways of thinking, reading, and writing. Thanks to the rich role of literary studies in social engagement, the discipline has a powerful role helping students to shape our society, empowering you with the skills to respond to your own time. Breaking down borders in a world where borders seem to be back in fashion, an English Literature degree equips its students with a tool-belt of strategies, theories and methodologies to navigate contemporary society. In an era obsessed with fake news and rumour, it has never been more vital to talk about the power of stories, the complexity of writing, and the potential contribution of studying English Literature to the well-being and development not only of the you as an individual, but to our twenty-first century world.

This article was originally commissioned for the Englishand Media Centre’s emagazine and will appear in the September issue. You can read it online here.


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