Not Strictly Literary: 6 Unexpected Subjects You Learn About in English

I’m currently in the last year of my English undergraduate degree. Well, kinda. I will probably have to do an extra semester to finish off my credits completely, but after next semester I will have finally finished all my English requirements.

Like many students, I kind of fell into my major. In my first year of full time studies I was seriously considering a degree in economics, or anthropology. Until I took a class in those subjects and quickly changed my mind. Once I started figuring out what kind of classes I actually liked, I started talking about doing my degree in Sociology, Political Science, or Environmental Ethics. Then, when I transferred to UVic, I decided I would take their writing program. Well I thought I was decided, until I was invited to join the English Honours program. That invitation totally went to my head and I dropped everything in order to pursue that (very structured) program.

Because of the number of required English classes (and because I blew many of my elective classes during first year), I’ve been taking pretty-well only English classes for the last two years. During that time, I began to ask myself if I had made the best choice. After all, English is really just reading books, isn’t it? Couldn’t I do that in my own time?

Ah, reading for fun/relaxation. Can’t wait until I get to do that again.

Now that I’m getting close to the end of my degree, I’m able to look back and be thankful for (almost) all of the English classes I needed to take. Yes, I still feel like there are a million others I wish I could have taken, but I think I would have felt that way regardless of my major. There are more fantastic courses out there than what you can possibly fit into one undergraduate degree.

Getting close to the end has also allowed me to reflect on the many English courses I have taken and realize just how broad a range of subjects they actually address. I’ve included a few examples below.

Linguistics

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One of the texts we are translating for our final project.

I’m currently finishing off a class on Middle English that I did not want to take. Not at all. I’m required to take a class in early English literature, so I chose this class after a friend recommended the professor. I was then pleasantly surprised to find that it was a fantastic class. It was also not at all what I was expecting.

English has evolved considerably since the 12th century, so it’s hardly surprising that trying to read Middle English texts is like reading an entirely different language.

At the beginning of the class our professor touched on many of the other languages that have influenced the formation of the English language. Then, as the class progressed, a lot of the work we did in class involved translating various works. The translation process required a basic understanding of how to parse language, something I had almost no experience with. Like many English speakers, sentence structure is something I know intuitively, not something I’ve intentionally learned. However, if my experience in Quebec this summer taught me anything, it’s that knowing how to break down language is key to learning a new one. So I’m hopeful that the linguistic skills I’ve been struggling to learn in this class will help me with my future language learning goals.

History

Studying English is like studying History, except you get to use much more interesting textbooks. Rather than memorizing dates and people you get to read novels, then learn about the historical context of those novels. I haven’t taken a single History course at university, yet I feel like I have a basic historical knowledge of a variety of times and places simply because of the English courses I’ve taken.

My class on Shakespeare’s history plays, for example, provided us with a basic introduction to the War of the Roses so we could understand the political views being expressed in the plays. Meanwhile, my class on Postcolonial Caribbean literature allowed me to learn a bit about the linger effects of colonization in the Caribbean region. Then, of course, there is the historical context I needed to learn when studying American and Canadian literature, but I think you get the idea.

Theology

Growing up in church means you become pretty familiar with the Bible. So when I started my English studies, I was surprised at how often I would learn something new about a subject I am so familiar with. The church has always been a dominating force in the English speaking world. Consequently, many of my English classes have touched on the way the spiritual environment of a given era influences its literature.

Additionally, literature can reveals how the social environment of a certain time or place can change the way English speakers interpret scripture. By comparing Medieval and Victorian interpretations of the bible, for example, it becomes clear just how much modern fundamentalism has been influenced by Victorian protestantism.

Philosophy

Several of the required courses in my English program were about literary theory. While you wouldn’t necessarily have the same readings in a Theory class as you would in a Philosophy class, I think there would certainly be overlap between the two. More importantly, Literary Theorists strive to dissect and challenge the meaning in a text much like Philosophers dissect and challenge our understanding of reality. Then, if you read Derrida you discover that everything is “text”, so the theorists were actually just theorizing about everything anyways.

I’m not going to pretend I actually understood much of what I read in those courses, but I am really thankful I had to take them. While I certainly wasn’t thankful to be taking those courses at the time, having even a very basic understanding of some of the “great thinkers” has been helpful in many of my other classes. Plus, reading them has challenged my perception of reality.

Psychology

Along with the Derrida readings I found nearly impossible to comprehend, readings by Freud and Lacan were, of course, included in our Literary Theory classes. Since I had already taken a class on psychology in my first year, I was already a little familiar with Freud. So it was fun to see how psychoanalysis could be applied to literature, revealing a whole new range of possible meanings in a novel.

But remember, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Sociology

One of the most powerful affects of the novel is it’s ability to make a social statement. Novels can get inside our heads. They can change the way we see the world. They can also perpetuate injustices, like racism, sexism and xenophobia. English classes are dedicated to identifying exactly how literature influences our world, and to studying how the world is reflected by our literature.

English studies trains students to look behind what words say in order to discover what they really mean. So looking back on the years I’ve spent studying literature, I really can’t have any regret. I feel like my studies have given me so many tools to study the world around me.

Plus, if nothing else, English has let me spend most of my undergrad buried in books.

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