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Undergraduate Degree in English Studies Remains a Good Bet

EducationWorld December 2021 | Magazine Spotlight Feature

Prof. Denys P. Leighton, Professor and Dean, Jindal School of Languages & Literature O.P. Jindal Global University

Early in 2021, an eminent US public university announced a decision to eliminate its Classics department. Controversy over termination of the department coincided with revelations about Facebook and the ethics of filtering or manipulating the circulation of some Facebook user content, and it related to continuing unease within US academic circles about the (supposed) dominance of STEM and the perceived decline of the humanities. One aggrieved faculty member of the aforementioned university quipped that STEM minus humanities equals Facebook. Declining numbers of students enrolled in humanities programmes in US colleges and universities — philosophy, anthropology, history and foreign languages and literature have been among the most impacted fields — have inspired a rethink about uses of the humanities among administrators, department heads and even ground-level academicians concerned about the viability of their fields.

Few institution heads anywhere in the world actually contemplate ditching the humanities. Indeed, the pronouncement about STEM minus humanities equals Facebook reflects a wider recognition among leaders of business schools, data science and environmental study programmes worldwide that students and researchers in the most ‘applied’ and utilitarian areas of work need to be educated about ethics and the nature of the human condition, and that such teaching must take place in several units of each university. Not all consequences of banishing humanities can be foreseen, but many responsible people believe that the closing of ‘non-performing’ humanities departments will damage the academic ecosystem and compromise its use to society.

Leaving aside various analyses of the ‘death of the humanities’, we should acknowledge that reorganisation and even elimination of humanities programmes over the past dozen years has produced some qualified wins for academe overall along with losses. The larger picture in India resembles that in the United States and other Undergraduate Degree in English Studies Remains a Good Bet societies with higher or roughly comparable gross enrolment ratios in higher education. English Studies in India — and specifically B.A. (Hons.) English and BA English — has adapted quite successfully to changing demands and expectations from within academe and from without. The curricula of English departments in India are quite different for those 20-30 years ago. The UGC undergraduate English programme outlines prepared at the time of the New Education Policy (2020) show considerably less minute attention, compared to documents from 15-20 years ago, to periods and genres of literature of England and America: there is less compulsory focus on areas such as Jacobean drama, Victorian (English) poetry or the 19th century American novel. The time periods covered by most of the compulsory papers are longer. Also, courses have been introduced reflective of comparative and world literature – namely, ‘Indian Classical Literature’, ‘European Classical Literature’, ‘Modern European Drama’, ‘Popular Literature’ and ‘Postcolonial Literature’. The result is a B.A. (Hons.) English curriculum that is less Anglocentric, more Indian inflected and less focused on what historians and sociologists call elite culture.

Turning to elective courses, the new UGC English programme outline features a large number of discipline-centric electives, special electives and skill-enhancement courses devoted to Partition literature, travel writing, autobiography, literature and film and literary criticism, not to mention courses devoted to academic writing, research skills, translation studies and business communication. This is likely to entice students who might otherwise have opted for mass communications and media studies. Many of the new model courses are geared toward developing skills in writing and using language in diverse work environments. English Studies programme outlines and syllabi of the institutions that aren’t required to conform closely to the UGC outlines (such as IITs and Institutions of Eminence) reveal even greater intellectual diversity and deviation from ‘traditional’ norms. Compared to their predecessors of 2000 or 1980, B.A. (Hons.) English students in many Indian institutions today have opportunities not only to read ‘the best that has been thought and said’ (as Matthew Arnold put it in the 1860s) but to begin preparing for careers in publishing and editing, media and communications, translation work and other areas.

An undergraduate degree in English Studies is among the most versatile and valuable pre-professional academic degrees worldwide. There is almost no field of creative endeavour that hasn’t been populated by English graduates. It should be kept in mind that English Studies in an Indian university is not separated from study of Indian languages and culture. English is arguably India’s most important link language and the means through which speakers learn about each other’s contributions to Indian culture and society. Not only the English language but the reorganized field of English Studies is a door through which the world enters India and India reaches the world.

The Jindal School of Languages & Literature (JSLL) of O.P. Jindal Global University inaugurated two new B.A. (Hons.) programmes in 2021 — B.A. (Hons.) Spanish and B.A. (Hons.) English — and is admitting the first cohorts of students in 2022-2023.

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