How can studying English help make the world a better place?

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TSR Talks: University of Glasgow
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What skills does the world most need if it’s going to be a better place for everyone to live in? How does studying English help you contribute to building a fairer, more sustainable, more balanced world?

As English Literature teachers in the University of Glasgow, we know that a lot of our students are deeply concerned about global challenges like climate change, poverty, and the crisis in mental health. Studying English can sometimes feel as if it takes you away from dealing with those challenges – isn’t literature basically an escape from reality?

Actually the skills you learn in an English degree are powerfully relevant to these worldwide problems. Most importantly, you learn to be alert to other people’s words, their surface and deeper meanings, and to use language to persuade, argue and open up ideas. You learn to enter other people’s imaginations and cultures, to pull concepts together from across the whole range of human experience, and to understand why people do the things they do and why they’ve chosen to write about it in the way they do. These are skills that employers want from graduate recruits, as well as skills that can help change the world.

What do you think about using an English degree to help you change the world? What would you love to see on your degree course, if you’re studying English or thinking about studying it?

Bios

Alice Jenkins is Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture in English Literature at the University of Glasgow. She's also Head of the School of Critical Studies, which includes departments of English Literature, English Language and Linguistics, and Scottish Literature. Alice teaches courses on Victorian realism and fantasy, Victorian popular fiction, and a special course for students who are interested in a career in teaching. Her research is in literature and science in the nineteenth century. Books include Space and the 'March of Mind’: Literature and the Physical Sciences, 1815-1850 (Oxford UP, 2007) and an edition of Michael Faraday’s essays, Michael Faraday’s ‘Mental Exercises’: An Artisan Essay-Circle in Regency London (Liverpool UP, 2008).

Dr Helen Stoddart is currently head of English Literature at Glasgow University and is herself a graduate of English and Film and Television Studies at Glasgow. She researches and teaches on modern and contemporary fiction.

Dr Briony Wickes is a Lecturer in English Literature (Victorian Studies) at the University of Glasgow. Before joining Glasgow’s School of Critical Studies, she taught at King’s College London and worked as a Writing Advisor at the University of Exeter. Her research and teaching examines the interrelations of empire and ecology in nineteenth-century fiction.
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For me, it's reading things like Toni Morrison or post-colonial literature that gave me just a whole new view of the world. It made me more aware and more open to what the west's place in the world really means. I just do think all half decent literature exists to provide some kind of wisdom and advice about both the past, present and future. How we lived in the past and the good and ills of it / how we live now and what it's impact might have on the future.

I think for me also it's just a really accessible way to find out more about things i sometimes find difficult/boring like some science things (currently i'm reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which is very medical) or history or philosophy etc.

I just can't imagine living without literature and I love studying it. Makes ME a better person and I think that's one of the main ways it can change the world
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I have an immense passion for literature and the empathy it's primarily founded on. However, my struggles with the subject are in its lack of utility. So many books are written with the goal of improving the world by identifying all the issues within it. But like Oscar Wilde says in his prologue to Dorian Gray "the books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame"- books are always banned when they show a too accurate image of the world, and if not banned then they're overanalysed into literary criticism which only writes about something and doesn't contribute to any great action against it. I think great literature can make great people, by showing all viewpoints possible, but I'm worried the study of literature is actually quite ineffectual.
I'm still studying it though!
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I did english lit at a-level, a total waste of time analysing extracts with language deeper than ones ability to understand them. People only do it if they find it fun other than that i don't know who in the right mind would want to.
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stickylikehoney
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I have a masters in literature. I gained a top A at Alevel and was declared gifted and talented in my subject.
I don't think a BA or MA in literature is really worth it, given how much it costs etc.
In my opinion, if you can get an A in A-level, that is where ability ends basically.
Degree etc is just an extension - just more reading, more thoughts but it doesn't make you any better at the subject, in my opinion.
You can always just do reading on your own.
Don't need to pay thousands for a BA or MA!
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(Original post by Anonymous)
I have an immense passion for literature and the empathy it's primarily founded on. However, my struggles with the subject are in its lack of utility. So many books are written with the goal of improving the world by identifying all the issues within it. But like Oscar Wilde says in his prologue to Dorian Gray "the books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame"- books are always banned when they show a too accurate image of the world, and if not banned then they're overanalysed into literary criticism which only writes about something and doesn't contribute to any great action against it. I think great literature can make great people, by showing all viewpoints possible, but I'm worried the study of literature is actually quite ineffectual.
I'm still studying it though!

The great thing about literature is that we're all still studying it and trying to work it out - even those of us who do so professionally. I agree that it might not be immediately apparent what its utility is. As the first responder says, some of its value is in telling us about other lives and issues, the significance of which might not be immediately available to us (for cultural or historical reasons) - or might be much more complex than we had thought. In that sense readers of literature have particularly valuable skills because they have a training in looking for and understanding the complexity of important social and political issues about the world as it has been and is now, and are therefore especially well-poised to think about and argue for how the world will be in the future. Of course other courses like history and politics include a similar training, but what's unique to literature students is that they are also trained in the study of language itself. Language doesn't communicate in a straightforward way; it's full of ambiguity, indirection, metaphor. This means that our literature graduates have a very sophisticated understanding of how language works in both creative and critical contexts and are able to put this to use in their future careers. We recently invited some of our graduates/alumni back to talk to our current students about how the skills they'd learnt in their degree had been crucial in the careers they had chosen. They highlighted a number of key skills, but one that struck me in particular was identified by someone who is now head of productions for a large charity. She pointed out that in the charity sector, where resources are scarce and have to be hard fought for, it takes immense skill in argumentation and persuasion to convince people to spend money, invest in something new, take a risk etc. To be able to construct such persuasive argumentation you need to be able identify problems, read sub-texts, understand complex motivations, recognise and interpret uncertainty and lay out a clear and logical case for change or innovation. No other degree provides precisely these skills, and quite often it's not until our graduates start working that they recognise that others don't possess the same skills.



If you'd like to see what kind of careers are available to English Literature graduates, have a look here:

https://www.prospects.ac.uk/careers-...degree/english

Helen Stoddart
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(Original post by Anonymous)
For me, it's reading things like Toni Morrison or post-colonial literature that gave me just a whole new view of the world. It made me more aware and more open to what the west's place in the world really means. I just do think all half decent literature exists to provide some kind of wisdom and advice about both the past, present and future. How we lived in the past and the good and ills of it / how we live now and what it's impact might have on the future.

I think for me also it's just a really accessible way to find out more about things i sometimes find difficult/boring like some science things (currently i'm reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks which is very medical) or history or philosophy etc.

I just can't imagine living without literature and I love studying it. Makes ME a better person and I think that's one of the main ways it can change the world
That's really interesting! What you said about literature 'providing wisdom and advice' reminded me of what Matthew Arnold, the great Victorian theorist of literature (and many other things), wrote in his book Culture and Anarchy:


"culture [is] the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically".

Lots of readers and critics would disagree with the idea that you can make a hierarchy of culture - with some cultural items or literary works 'better than' others, and some 'best' of all. But that being said, the idea that literature helps us look afresh at our stock ideas and behaviours seems useful and relevant to the present day.
Alice
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(Original post by stickylikehoney)
I have a masters in literature. I gained a top A at Alevel and was declared gifted and talented in my subject.
I don't think a BA or MA in literature is really worth it, given how much it costs etc.
In my opinion, if you can get an A in A-level, that is where ability ends basically.
Degree etc is just an extension - just more reading, more thoughts but it doesn't make you any better at the subject, in my opinion.
You can always just do reading on your own.
Don't need to pay thousands for a BA or MA!
One of the lovely things about studying literature is that - as you say - reading is a pleasure everyone can share, at any level. But I'd say there's a big difference between reading literature on your own and reading it as part of a course, where you find yourself thinking much harder and more deeply about what you're reading because you're talking about it with lecturers and other students. For me, studying a piece of literature is a bit like looking at a fractal - every time you get to a deeper level, you see there's another deeper level to discover. As you go deeper into each text, you're honing your ability to analyse complex and abstract ideas. So I'd say studying literature does indeed help you get 'better at the subject', to use your phrase.
Alice
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all half decent literature exists to provide some kind of wisdom and advice about both the past, present and future.
I'm really interested in this idea raised here about 'half decent literature'. As a scholar of nineteenth-century literature, I often have to read books that many would deem 'indecent' - they can be incredibly offensive, or sometimes they purport ideas and worldviews that I am totally opposed to.

Should we confine these kinds of books to the dustbin of history? What sorts of texts do you think that we should prioritise in our study of literature?

- Briony
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(Original post by TSR Talks: University of Glasgow)
I'm really interested in this idea raised here about 'half decent literature'. As a scholar of nineteenth-century literature, I often have to read books that many would deem 'indecent' - they can be incredibly offensive, or sometimes they purport ideas and worldviews that I am totally opposed to.

Should we confine these kinds of books to the dustbin of history? What sorts of texts do you think that we should prioritise in our study of literature?

- Briony
Ah no i guess I meant like pop-lit - the Danielle Steels of the world.

I mean that is VERY snobby of me, which I get. And actually I've never read Danielle Steel. Maybe in 100 years her novels will provide a true insight into 20th and 21st century culture.

...probably not though, it would be far truer and insightful to be reading Girl, Woman, Other to really understand this generation.
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Ah no i guess I meant like pop-lit - the Danielle Steels of the world.

I mean that is VERY snobby of me, which I get. And actually I've never read Danielle Steel. Maybe in 100 years her novels will provide a true insight into 20th and 21st century culture.

...probably not though, it would be far truer and insightful to be reading Girl, Woman, Other to really understand this generation.
That's really interesting - what would we need to read to understand this generation? Is it what they read when they were children? For example, some of our students were brought up on Harry Potter - what has that done to their sense of morality or politics? There's been some conversation on social media about whether people who support Greta Thunberg and her work are in some way more receptive to her because of the Young Adult books and films about courageous heroines who save the world, like Katniss in The Hunger Games. What do you think?
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After reading this I was compelled to reply. I study English A Level and some concepts in books that I study/have read I don’t agree with. Concepts that promote racism and sexual abuse and include an oppressive hierarchy. I agree that just because they include controversial topics doesn’t mean they’re any less important. When we reflect back on those concepts, we can learn through the impact that they have upon the reader, it pushes us to not want to condone such events. Pamela, arguably one of the most either controversial or romantic novels (as would be seen in the books era-not my opinion), includes the presence of a predatorial employer. The pain Pamela endures informs us that we shouldn’t have a repeat in the job sector like those covered, today. Hence why we have laws in place to protect workers.
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(Original post by Anonymous)
Sorry - a little late to this forum. I recently completed an undergraduate degree in English Literature at UofG and I found it enhanced a lot of crucial skills which I believe to be transferrable in a variety of workplaces - most of which are listed in the original forum post. In terms of my individual experience of how literature can 'change the world' - I found the 'Literature and Medicine' course to be fantastic. In exploring illness narratives from the Victorian period to present day, I was really taken aback by the various, and persistent, ways that experience of illness can be stifled dependent solely on gender/race/class/body weight etc. - discrimination that admittedly became more clear to me through reading texts and engaging in discussions with fellow students. I think publishing experiences of illness and subsequent treatment to be an extremely effective way of not only highlighting the past failures of the healthcare system but also thinking of the future and how far we have yet to come.
Delighted that you got so much out of this course, and out of the programme in general! I think what's distinctive about Glasgow is that we both teach all the classic authors and genres people would expect to see in a English Literature programme, but we also have lots of courses like this one which engage in real world issues - medicine and the body, disability, the environment, postcolonialism, consumption and food, globalisation, gender, sexuality and energy.
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(Original post by Anonymous)
In exploring illness narratives from the Victorian period to present day, I was really taken aback by the various, and persistent, ways that experience of illness can be stifled dependent solely on gender/race/class/body weight etc. - discrimination that admittedly became more clear to me through reading texts and engaging in discussions with fellow students. I think publishing experiences of illness and subsequent treatment to be an extremely effective way of not only highlighting the past failures of the healthcare system but also thinking of the future and how far we have yet to come.
Absolutely, thanks for your reply. I think you're right, so many of these oppressive or violent structures and ways of thinking that we find in Victorian literature, for example, (such as hierarchies of class, gender, race, etc), that we might like to think that we've left behind, still persist in hugely significant ways. We need to pay attention to them! Reading and analysing literary texts can help us to recognise the longer histories that underpin such constructs, and the various ways that they operate - this also connects to the ideas raised in AmyCabella's post.

The example of illness narratives is also really helpful here I think because 'the body' is such a powerful image in literary texts and it can be a key site to explore ideological and socio-historical forces. Attending to representations of different 'bodies' in literature creates an opportunity to consider all sorts of important and ongoing societal issues - questions of the senses, of technology, of emotion; issues of maternity, disability, ageing, obesity, pain, death, and dying; and sometimes even what it means (and how it feels) to be human. In this way, then, literature can help us to see how some bodies are valued more than others.

It would be great to hear some examples or interpretations of literary bodies that people have come across in their reading! And a further question - if literature can help us to recognise social inequalities and oppressive historical attitudes, can it also then be a useful tool to dismantle those inequalities and attitudes?

- Briony
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Studying English sounds like something I'd love to do, but the feeling that it doesn't really help the world in any way does pull me away from it. I find it to have truly valuable skills and be a great way of learning about the world.However, I fear that employers in fields which 'help the world' wouldn't actively search for English post-graduates. And I suppose this is because I struggle to think of jobs that exist which 1. require English degrees and 2. make the world a better place.Do you know of any jobs which tick both these boxes? And if so, what steps would someone with the same concerns as me need to do to obtain a job like this?Thanks.
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