A friend on Facebook recently linked a New Yorker article, "Why Teach and Study English?" I did like Adam Gopnik's observation, "The reason we need the humanities is because we’re human. That’s enough." But I had to stop myself reading the comments section. I don't think anyone is ever happy with the justification for English Lit. Sometimes reading these kinds of articles puts me in an uneasy mood for the rest of the day.
After all, we can really only speak of our own experience. Why did I study English Lit.? Why do I teach it now?
Simple. I want to find out more. There are so many books and stories out there and so much to understand about how we engage with those books, why those books have been written, who the authors were, who the publishers and binders, editors and readers were, how our relationship to literature changes and why.... well, you get the idea. I'm curious. It was, appropriately enough, "Beauty and the Beast" that ultimately hooked me into the profession.
Suddenly, all the stories of Beauty and all the beasts spread out before me and I had to know more about them.
In class, students talk about loving books and that's important too. It's always fun to teach Jasper Fforde, whose Thursday Next novels are a book addict's ultimate fantasy series. But I've heard from students who went on into publishing and teaching etc who tell me about how they've utilised what they learned about children's literature, fantasy and fairy tale and sometimes ask for more. And that's the difference. It's not just about loving books and wanting to read books - it's about wanting to know more. It's about having more questions than 'who was your favourite character?'
Why teach and study English Lit.? Because we're curious. We don't want to just READ all the books and discuss them, we want to know more about them - about where they came from, who wrote them, why they were written, how they survived the centuries, what influenced them, what they've influenced... again, you get the idea. The impact of all this curiosity can be as simple as encouraging people to read new picture books to children or as wide-reaching as challenging the cultural influence of the Grimms (okay, the latter is a personal, pet project!). After all, in the university, we're teaching the editors, the journalists, the authors, the librarians, the teachers etc of the future. We're helping to tickle their curiosity so they'll seek out new ideas, challenge old preconceptions or simply tell a friend that there's this weird old Italian story about a woman who thinks skinning herself will make her young and isn't it odd how that still resonates into today's culture of botox and chemical face peels?
One of the most entertaining aspects of my current research is realising how so many of our contemporary obsessions were obsessed about long ago in story. I still meet people who think fashion is something that has only recently evolved. So I tell them about the time the Devil married Silvia and she harassed him for new clothes every year as her old ones went out of fashion. It's a sixteenth century tale.
I'm currently researching fashion magazines and I'm learning so much about how they changed the relationships between women and the way women went about their lives. They were filled with such promise of liberating their readers... I keep wondering what happened?
Speaking of that research, it's back to the book pile with me. So much more to learn!