Why study English? In defence of a discipline

Heads of Australian university English departments are set to advocate for their discipline. oldtasty

Last month, heads of English departments in universities across Australia formed a new peak body to advocate for the discipline of English. In part, the Australian University Heads of English (AUHE) group was formed to restore a sense of unity and direction to the discipline.

The formation of this group is consistent with global moves to defend particular disciplines, and indeed the humanities more broadly, in a quickly-changing higher education environment.

In recent years, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, there has been a good deal of talk about the state of the humanities – with the dominant view that crisis, if not here already, will soon be upon us. In both places there has been a concerted effort to address this perceived crisis.

In the USA a major submission has been made to Congress outlining the important contribution made by the study of humanities subjects at university. In the UK the “Cultural Value” project has set up a series of town hall meetings to discuss the value of the humanities to the wider community.

Teaching English in Australian universities

The most comprehensive history of the teaching of English is Australia is Leigh Dale’s 2012 study The Enchantment of English). Set in its historical frame, Dale offers compelling evidence as to why the discipline, as it developed, needed to change.

New ways of teaching English have emerged since the establishment of the first university English departments. Yet following on from these necessary upheavals the discipline of English as a whole has lost a strong sense of unity or direction. This is apparent in the fact that in recent years university English has not maintained a recognised peak body when cognate disciplines have.

This has now been addressed with the formation of the Australian University Heads of English (AUHE) group, a process which began in 2012 at the University of Western Sydney and was formalised in November at the University of Queensland in a meeting hosted by Professor David Carter and sponsored by the Australian Academy of the Humanities, with important work done towards this by Brigitta Olubas of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature and UNSW, Helen Groth at UNSW and Jesper Gulddal at Newcastle.

A crisis – or a moment of challenge?

In a 2003 article on the history of studying English, Writing the Discipline, US scholar Jessica Yood argues that the idea of “the discipline of English is in crisis” is a genre that can be mapped onto the history of the discipline.

She suggests claims of crisis indicate moments of challenge – and that a new method will announce itself against a background of crisis, offering itself as the solution. Such new methods present themselves as a necessary response to current conditions: new technology, new social configurations and so on.

Much of this seems relevant to our current situation. Perhaps on a scale not witnessed before, we are being confronted by new social configurations, and new technology. Might it simply be that a new way to approach the discipline is emerging to efface the old, as has always happened, as will always happen?

A crisis of lamentation

Most of the polemics we are currently witnessing are not calls to move to a new way of approaching the discipline. They are defensive rather than active in tone; most are either laments or apologies.

A recent heavily trafficked blog by Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker disparages the kinds of attempts that have been thus far made in defence of English.

If there is a crisis our goal needs to be at once to marshal internal resistance and seek the right words to convince other people. It might be that, rather than beginning from a defensive position, with genres of apology and lament, we should attempt a more active strategy – and positively identify what literature can do.

In the first Australian University Heads of English meeting in 2012, Ken Gelder of the University of Melbourne suggested that the discipline needs to develop compelling narratives about itself, to tell stories that explain its necessity both internally — to university administrations, other departments with which we engage and on which to various extents we depend, and to our own students — and externally, to government, but also to students and teachers at secondary levels.

Indeed, the group as a whole sees the re-opening of dialogue between tertiary and secondary level English as crucial to the future of the discipline.

Working under the auspices of the Australian University Heads of English, Nicole Moore of UNSW Canberra, with Gillian Russell of the ANU and Lyn McCredden of Deakin University, has developed a discussion paper related to Learning and Teaching Standards for English. Essentially they argue that in order to survive and thrive the discipline needs to explain itself.

English, unlike other disciplines in universities in Australia, does not yet have agreed Learning and Teaching Standards and has not yet defined Threshold Learning Outcomes for the discipline as a whole.

This is now being addressed and there is confidence that in building a network of Heads of English we can meet the requirements of the University sector.

Setting new standards

The process of setting new standards requires the development of clear definitions that show what is different about the discipline of English literary studies and what kind of knowledge might be given to those who study it. Building on work done in the UK by the Quality Assurance Association, Moore comes up with the following definition:

Study in English enables us to come to grips with complex forms of meaning in variant circumstances. It underpins contemporary engagement with and production of highly developed and diverse forms of communication in all contexts, including aesthetic and ideological productions of meaning.

The definition manages to capture some of the nuances that make the discipline unique: the discipline is concerned with the production of meaning on the one hand, and interpretation of meaning on the other. It moves into and away from meaning. The very process of understanding is a core element of the object it studies and the object of that study.

If we are to properly advocate for the discipline we need to pay attention to how we define it and how we talk about it. Part of this might involve using methods from other disciplines to explain how reading and studying literature adds to our capacity to think.

We need to recognise what is active in the discipline, what is positive within it, what is necessary for the culture in which it exists. It might remain difficult to find the right tone, to tell the right story – but at least we know what the challenges are. They are challenges of communication in the first instance.


This article is an adapted excerpt from a paper that will appear later this month in the journal Australian Literary Studies. ALS 28.1-2 (2013).