There is no good reason that people who have majored in English should feel incapable of speaking the English language. Yet, it is not uncommon to hear graduate-level English students say that reading graduate-level literature essays is like trying to understand a foreign language. A large part of earning a graduate degree in English begins with wading through this familiar, yet foreign territory.
This is a problem. Literary criticism and literary theory are generally discussed entirely in academic lingo — in this foreign language that people who speak regular old English can’t understand. But literary criticism has a large and important role to play in our society — one that shouldn’t be sidelined just because we feel a need to be more “official.”
Consider the beginning of a paragraph I was given in one of my English classes as a sample of graduate level literature, taken from David Eng’s “The Feeling of Kinship: Queer Liberalism and the Racialization of Intimacy.” Within the novel in question, the main character looks up and sees himself reflected in a window. Standing next to this window is a man to whom the main character is attracted. The essay has this to say about that image:
“This space and time of non-mimetic racial identity is radically other to the standard poststructuralist understandings of the mirror stage as a narcissistic self-other dialect, which underpins the fracturing of Western subjectivity and consciousness.”
Please, take a few minutes to reread this sentence. Again. And again. What the heck is it trying to say? I mean, I thought I knew these words. I thought we were friends.
Your average Joe Schmo is not going to be able to casually enlighten himself on this subject as he stands in line waiting for his Jimmy John’s. Which is a real shame, because this essay has a lot to say about oppression, colonialism, queerness, race and society — all topics that need to be discussed.
Some people believe that English literature deserves to be this complicated. Why should the humanities be prevented from having super-specific academic lingo that only specialists know how to use? Specialists in math, science and engineering get to use this lingo, so why not English? Well… because these are the humanities!
You don’t have to be an expert in the field to understand that the humanities are a large part of the framework of how we interpret and interact with the world around us. Being able to view the world through different lenses and criticize ideas presented to you (whether by mass media or your homies) is an integral part of being a functioning human being. The humanities have arguably the most power to make a direct impact on the way our society is run.
I understand the need to feel important and to feel as though your academic pursuits are justified, especially considering how the humanities are typically looked down upon as somehow lesser and of little value to society (“What are you going to do with an English degree?”). However, creating a lingo that you need to be specifically educated in to be able to communicate your ideas does not present your academia as a subject that knows its own importance. In fact, it kinda seems like it’s missing the point.
What was the original reason these essays were written? To contribute a valuable idea to society — an idea that others could take, consider, contribute to or criticize, and maybe even use to learn something about the world around them. But what the heck is the point of starting this discussion if no one but the people sitting ominously atop their thrones are allowed to contribute to it?
I don’t disrespect the importance of or amount of work that goes into this kind of literature. The work that is done and the amount of effort that goes into organizing and presenting it is remarkable, and it has its place. But the ideas that are presented deserve to be discussed. What is the point of introducing ideas that can affect society if you’re going to disdain the huge portion of society that didn’t have the money or time to get a degree in English?
There is no reason that we should feel the need to justify the academic importance of the humanities because their importance is in everything around us, from the words we use to name objects, to the histories that we tell, to the signs we see when walking down the street.
We should feel the need to be communicating this knowledge to everyone, not barring the gates because, sorry, you need to be this educated to pass.
Cara Hillstock is a sophomore in English. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.