In class today, we continued exploring an essential question raised last class period: what is the value of studying literature? Prior to class, I asked you to begin reading from our Norton anthology, focusing on selections that covered the general overview of literature and of responding to fiction, poetry, and drama as separate genres.
To begin, we considered the basic economic argument: how much money can I expect with a degree in literature? To answer that question, we looked at a couple economic summary reports (links are in the class calendar). The data suggest that having a college degree, no matter the degree, generally leads to a more lucrative career than no degree at all. Considering the humanities and literature in particular, the median salary for someone with a BA majoring in English was around $53,000 in 2013, with a substantially greater range (up to double that amount) for those who continue their studies in graduate school. Another popular career choice is to attend law school, where students with BAs in the humanities can use their communication skills as the basis for a prosperous legal career. In general, those majoring in English may have to spend more time finding their niche after college than those in STEM fields, but lifetime income expectancy still demonstrates a lucrative outcome for completing the degree. Besides the obvious career choices such as the writing and publishing industry, humanities graduates often end up in careers supervising others, according to a recent study you can read about here. For example, the communication skills gained through the humanities could make an employee a valuable project manager. That study also suggests that humanities graduates are generally employed and more satisfied with their jobs than the graduates of other fields. Read here for examples of 10 CEO’s from major companies (Starbucks, Avon, Disney, HBO, YouTube, ect) that graduated with humanities degrees. Each of them certainly had to work hard to gain their position, but the popular myth that pursuing a humanities degree is just throwing your money away is simply not supported by the data. I am not going to tell you that everything is easy and stress free for those pursuing a humanities education, but I do want to stress that you can follow your heart AND make a living at the same time.
After this conversation on the economics of the study of literature, we moved on to considering other sources of value. After asking you to describe some books you enjoy reading, we began working on a list on the board of ways that the study of literature can provides value. Here is our current list, based on suggestions you offered in class, which we will add to over the next few class periods:
- A salary
- Building empathy
- Touching our emotions
- Fostering discussion
We next moved to discussing a general overview of literature, during which we talked at considerable length about how a focus solely on the cognitive domain of facts can miss the affective domain of feeling and personal experience. For example, many of you did not believe that this definition of a horse at the start of Charles Dickens’s Hard Times captured the essence of a horse: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth….” (Norton 1).
John Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” also suggests the valuable role literature can provide in moving past facts to open up a world of first hand experience (Norton 4).
The 1920s New York Times article we read about the wife accused of killing her alleged lover further suggests that we cannot always be sure of what the facts really are until we start considering the emotional and personal experience of those involved (Norton 12). Some of you thought the article’s presentation of the facts was insufficiently sympathetic to the plight of the accused woman, who claimed she was being sexually assaulted. Others of you rightfully noted that we need to consider her credibility and whether her story makes sense, given that a man lost his life as a result. The news paper article itself, however, is sufficiently vague to support rival interpretations of the nature of what happened: cheating wife who kills her lover after being discovered by her husband or woman defending herself from her abuser. Not only did we touch on the value of empathy here, but this discussion of that article along with the Keats poem and the horse definition resulted in a new addition to our values list: addressing the affective domain.
That news article also emphasized the constructed nature of writing, even a news account. How the facts are arranged and presented can affect how the reader is expected to respond and also suggest something about the narrator’s perspective.
The old Buddhist story we read about the elephant in the village of the blind suggests how meaning depends on how the reader’s perspective as well. Each of the blind villagers came to different conclusions about what an elephant is based on touching parts of the animal, arguing that it is a long water hose or a rope or a set of pillars, and they were only able to reach a combined construction of the animal after discussing the elephant with each other and with the peddler who brought the elephant, who pointed out how it helps him move his wares as well. So to can readers of literature come away with different opinions that can be combined with or modified by the perspectives of other readers engaged in a shared discussion. This conversation dovetails with the value we listed earlier that literature has in fostering discussion. Through those discussions, our perspectives can change in beneficial ways.
We concluded class with a brief overview of the distinctions between three general types of poetry: narrative, dramatic, and lyrical. As part of that discussion, I drew the following test to help you determine which type of poetry a given poem might generally be:
Of course, the above test will be often challenged by particular examples of poetry, which tends to fight categorization. However, it is a good place for us to start. We will begin looking at examples for each type of poetry next class while returning to the above test. As we do, we will continue considering what the value of studying literature is while also considering closer a second question we have repeatedly touched on this class and last class: how do authors and readers construct meaning?
As a reminder, there are additional readings listed on the calendar that all address somehow the role of literature within society. Please make sure to do those readings and to write a quick one page response to one of the four questions posted on the calendar.
Also, as a final reminder, any terms that come up in our discussions can often be looked up in the back of the Norton anthology. For instance, you could look up the meaning of “narrative” or “plot.” The anthology places in bold all such terms that are defined at the back of the book. I provided a quick explanation of a few terms in class today, which we will address again in the future, but your best resource is the back of your book.
Thanks for a fun and productive second day of class!