The name 'English Department' has been widely used around the world for a long time, although scholars raised the issue several times, offering a lot of discussions and debates and arguments about this.
Earlier in English departments, usually canonical British literature had been taught, later American literature was included, and with the passage of time, literature from around the world was incorporated into the syllabi. Now literature produced not only in Britain or America but anywhere in the world is studied and taught in English departments.
Even translation literature is also part of English departments at universities. So English literature refers to literature produced in English in any country, no matter if it comes out from a remote part of the globe.Many universities have transformed literary studies into interdisciplinary studies, the idea that resonates with the demands of contemporary world, which is why philosophy, psychology, history, mythology, cultural studies etc are taught in English departments.
I have been teaching English literature at the university level for almost twelve years, the span that is quite long, if not longer.Studying English literature at the university and teaching the same have been an enriching experience for me. Since my university days, I had dreamt of becoming a university teacher, and that is, obviously, the teacher of English literature. Despite challenges and decline in appeal and respect to the profession, teaching is indeed the best profession to me.
Still classroom remains my most favourite place where I spend, truly speaking, the most fruitful and pleasant time. When I see the inquisitive faces in the classroom, the bright faces that exhibit promises, I feel happier and more inspired to learn and share my knowledge with them. Many students also add value to my fascination with literature, contributing their new thoughts and ideas, sharing their views and aspirations.
So far I have seen, most of the students are promising, but unfortunately they are motivated, after their admission to English departments, in diverse ways to look at life and career. It is true that many students take admission into English departments with a wrong motivation - learning English language better and getting a good job - that later appears as a shellshock for them, because they fall in a sea of troubles, looking at the syllabuses.
The main reason is that the Bangladeshi students who come to English departments do not have the certain level of proficiency in or anticipated command over English language, which is a compelling need to study and enjoy literature. We can't deny that the students in English departments, without exceptions, learn better English, but the motivation with which most of them start their university education is damaging for their life. I still ask the students in the first year first semester classes why they have chosen English literature as their area of study.
The responses are varied and interesting. Over time, as they begin to familiarize themselves with the syllabi and classes and teachers, many of them are inspired, but many feel forced to continue their studies, and only a handful of them genuinely love literature and feel excited about exploring the area deeply.
Among the students who feel forced to continue studying literature, some get motivated as time goes by, although others think that they have to earn a certificate by any means. But the most distressing point that I would like to make is the wrong motivation that a few teachers convey to the students. Usually students consider their teachers the most respectful, and if they tell them something, especially if it is about the method and purpose of study and career, they receive the advice most seriously.
So when the students of literature are advised in the classroom to focus on career building in the sectors of banking, BCS and the likes in their freshman or sophomore stage, they are surely to become confused, because a few other teachers tell them to look at life through the lens of literature, to look beyond the everydayness, beyond the quotidian existence, to seek higher truth and to think critically. Their confusion increases as some others expound, to our utter dismay, their personal positions on ideology and belief, sometimes indirectly trying to influence them.
I don't dare deny the necessity of career after graduation from universities, but if it turns out to be at the centre of sole aims of the students, they will earn everything but knowledge, the essence of university education. If a country creates ample space for graduates, they will certainly be able to build their career in the fields of their choices, but university education in general and literary studies in particular don't approve that the students remain engrossed in thinking about or seeking a job from the first day of their university life.
Now the question arises: What's the purpose, then, of studying literature? I have already hinted at what a literature student - basically all students of universities - should focus on. To be specific about the students of literature, I tend to say that they are entitled to seek, among many other things, higher truth. It sounds, though, philosophical, but, yes, it's undeniably philosophical - life can't be imagined without the presence of philosophy in every step of our life. The students of literature are supposed to think critically more than anyone else, the quality which is unique and necessary for society.
The society where critical thinking is discouraged or degraded is a defective society that gradually turns into a dead one. The study of literature, unlike other disciplines, helps students see life through rose-coloured spectacles - literature helps them activate millions of eyes deep within them, as Pramatha Chaudhuri suggests, and they can then see differently. Literature belongs to the broader area of study called humanities, the area that apparently does not contribute anything concretely, but does contribute, of course, something more valuable compared to other areas of study. An enthusiast of literature learns how to empower the mind's eye to know the unknown, to travel even the unconscious, to unknot the mystery, to explore the uncanny, and what not.
The pleasure of reading, in fact, is beyond measure for the students of literature, because by reading the masterpieces of numerous renowned writers and poets of various countries and cultures, they enrich their horizon of knowledge and the vista of their experience. T. S. Eliot is worth quoting here, "Our high respect for a well read person is praise enough for literature." If a person genuinely falls in love with literature, he loves himself vis-à-vis humankind - the world doesn't turn into a machine or become robotic because of, probably, the existence and study of literature.
If we have physical ailments, we take the help of science, to be more specific medicine, but if we are frustrated and disillusioned, if our minds and souls suffer sicknesses, we seek refuge in literature, and literature helps us come out of many troubles in our life - literature is indeed the study of cultures, human history, human minds, nations and human relationships. Classical definition of literature is still relevant: literature is the mirror of life.
It's irrefutable that literature represents what we think and do every day, how we react to both sorrowful and pleasant events happening around us. Literature even represents our minds, thoughts, emotions and feelings, but the most magical is the power of imagination, the most essential element of literature. The benefits of literary studies is not visible, but its impact is amazing and long lasting.
But unfortunately many of us involved in teaching literature fail to inculcate the essence of literary studies among the innocent souls of English departments at Bangladeshi universities. Those who take up university teaching in general and teaching literature in particular as a career should not consider it to be like all other government or private jobs, and if they do, they do a huge damage to the nation, and beyond that to the world.
If literature professors preach, literature loses its grandeur and value as a discipline, especially to the students listening to these pundits. A literature professor needs to widen the mindscape, broaden the outlook, promote critical thinking, generate interests among students to read more, explore and celebrate diversities, be liberal,welcome differences of opinion, love nature, and above all be better human beings to make the world better andmore beautiful. Literature is about aesthetics, about wonder, about magic and music. One ought to shun prejudice and narrow-mindedness to study and teach literature.
Before setting the goal of studying and teaching literature, we have to settle on our genuine motivation. If we can't appreciate aesthetics, if we don't have sensitivities and sensibilities to what are happening around us, if our goal is to get a good job and take teaching literature simply as a job, we had better opt for other possibilities.
To make the students understand literature, I still give an example from Rabindranath Tagore. Roughly the idea is: If a person doesn't believe that honey tastes sweet, you can force him to have some, but if the person doesn't believe that the sight of sunset at the sea beach fills minds with an unmatched feeling, you can never force him to enjoy the scene - he'll experience the sunset and say yes, the sun has just set as usual.
I would like to end the essay quoting Goethe, "The decline of literature indicates the decline of a nation." Before we begin to fall, let's reshape our mindsets, rethink about our goals, reform the state of literary studies in the country, be optimistic that literature plays an important role to bring positive changes into society, promote the genuine enthusiasts of literature to be the teachers of English literature, encourage research, and provide the students with a proper motivation about literature and life.
The writer - a poet, translator and academic - is at present Associate Professor in the Department of English, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet, Bangladesh.
Email: [email protected]
---Mohammad Shafiqul Islam
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