I often make fun of English, though much more in person than in print. Just the other day I commented that my holey flannel shirt and patchy facial hair (it was Februhairy) was a trial run for my eventual career as a homeless person. And while I think it should probably go without saying that studying English does not, in fact, lead to a life of destitute poverty, there is a similarly common stereotype of English majors: the isolated artist producing work that no one else cares about or understands. I’m sure there are cases of this, but a recent experience reminded me of the common fallacy of this stereotype.
A few days ago I pulled my head out of my books and homework long enough to go to the campus coffee shop to refuel. When I got there, I ran in to a number of friends including a fellow English major. He was sitting with a limp little sign advertising that he, as a TA for an English class, was there to help people with their papers and homework. No one, it seemed, was particularly in need at that moment and so he instead sat reading a book for yet another English class. I sidled into the chair across from him and struck up a conversation about Critical Theory and Practice, the one class that we share. We had recently been studying postmodernism and had a paper on the subject due in a few days. I brought up the paper, not thinking that I really had much to say, and mostly expecting it to fill up some small talk space. What happened instead was a full blown, impassioned discussion of postmodernism and the work we were doing. It turns out that, though I was not excited thinking about postmodernism abstractly for a paper, I was thrilled to talk about it in person. And, when I returned to writing, our conversation had set my mind abuzz with new, exciting ideas. Isolation is the enemy of English studies, not its natural end point.
My point, if I have one, is that when I think of English students I don’t think of people who can’t stand people and are so caught up in their own world that they miss out on everything else. I think of people who happen to love activities, reading and writing, which generally require some solitude. Nonetheless they (we) love to explore the worlds and ideas that they find on the page with anyone and everyone. Students of English may be a bit incorrigible, but few of them suffer from self-isolation. English, in its myriad forms, is and will remain a social activity because, at its core, it is about communicating.