Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Introductory Exercise

This Beginning Theory book has exercises in it, and that I was very excited about. Barry wants us to do some theory for ourselves, because it's not "some kind of spectator sport only played by superstars," so to continue his analogy, hopefully kicking the ball around a little will make the action less daunting, even if we can't play a full-on game just yet.

The first of the exercises is disappointingly general, but perhaps that makes it more challenging. It is supposed to make us "feel the need" for theory.

1. What first made you decide to study English, what did you hope to gain from doing so, and was that hope realized?

I always liked to write, and I've always found solace in books. I first made English my college major after a few years of art school and getting Cs on art projects. Once I got a C on a paper I wrote about an Eric Fischl painting. I was convinced that the prof was a jerk, because I didn't feel like I should ever get a C on my writing! Why didn't I feel that way about my paintings? It was then that I realized I can do a whole lot more with words than with oil paints, and that maybe I could understand them better too.

I hoped to do what I am good at, so that it comes easily and can be enjoyable when translated into some kind of career. I had trouble figuring out how this would happen at first, since English majors always get told to go into business, or to go to law school, or to teach children. Those things are not enjoyable. I finally figured out that I should just stay in school forever (which is fun and easy-ish and thought-provoking) by getting a PhD and then teaching the stuff to semi-adults. So yeah, my hope is on the way to being realized.

2. Which books and authors were chosen and what things did they have in common?

White folks were chosen; white American dudes for most of my secondary education. Twain, Hawthorne, Vonnegut, Steinbeck, Hemingway, etc. I did get some Wharton and even Ayn Rand when I briefly went to private school, and they're kind of outsiders. But for some reason, the English folk who wrote in English were not the main attraction. I think I read one thing each by Dickens and Shakespeare in 10th grade, and some short stories of a British persuasion, but that was it.

By college (some years later...) there was weirder stuff, by Arab women, by Mexican women, by Native American women. The high school books and the college books may have had different agendas, but most of them were spoon fed to us. It seems they used to teach us about some unchanging grain of humanity, and now they teach us about an almost violent diversity of humanity.

3. Which books and authors now seem conspicuously absent?

Most of the old faces are still around. I've reread many of those Americans in film courses (oooh, intertextuality?) and English courses. Curiously, I've still remained unexposed to many Brits except by my own diligent application to their works. I've taken a class or two in them, but those were dedicated Brit Lit courses, and not required. They refused to pop up in my genre classes, film as literature, or even intro to lit.

4. What, in general terms, has your previous study taught you?

It has taught me that there is some grain of humanity that can be accessed through literature across the ages, that literature is not a standalone product of an isolated mind (well, we can treat it that way for a little while, but then we have to backpedal), that doing what you love is so much better than doing what makes money, and that literature can indeed both "instruct and delight."

Luckily my professor is a funny guy who isn't expecting something more formal, 'cause this is it. I want to hear what others have to say tomorrow, and then I'll come back and add to this.


  1. I just wanted to say number 1 relates to my situation right now. I am an art major and am questioning my choice of subject as I can't seem to put the effort that both I and my professors would call necessary for a life pursuit. I was actually thinking of becoming an English major. Your post seemed to add a little perspective from someone who went though the same thing. For that thank you.

  2. Hi Steck,

    I think the thing that has worked out best for me in English studies is that this discipline itself is interdisciplinary (media studies, film as literature, cultural studies...), and both scholarly and creative at the same time. As an art major, I did take art history classes and write about paintings, but in no way were we (painters and photographers) also expected to be art critics!

    As an English major, I'm challenged as a writer, I'm challenged as a critic, and I get to spend much more time studying those who write better than me than I would get to spend studying those who paint better than me if I were still in art school. There's so much to do, so many directions to go, that it never gets old and it never gets tedious.

    Finally, the "intellectual" in me was never satisfied with making things. If you have that problem as well, there's plenty to think about in English, or even art criticism if you decide to go a middle route!

    I hope you find your way!


I publish all the comments, the good, the bad and the ugly. Unless I have no idea what you're saying. If you want to email me (with only good I hope), I'm at rbyrd [at] niu [dot] edu.