On the second day of English 480: Literary Theory, I ask students to bring a “mirror paper” reflecting on their study of English literature thus far in their lives. As they read their responses out loud to the class this year, I was struck by how well they articulated a variety of perspectives — with some common threads — on the value of an English major. Maybe you’ll see a little of yourself reflected here too.

Here are the first two.

Annie Cerovich, “My Story through Stories”

The study of English literature, I feel, began when I was very young, before most would even consider it a “study.” I loved books as a kid (I believe not having a TV helped with that), and would mentally place myself into whatever story was unfolding before my eyes. I remember reading and getting this feeling that I truly was in the story, and I could not get enough. As the clock ticked later and later into the night, my light would still be on as I went on adventures with Laura Ingalls and galloped with the Pevensie children in Narnia. This period of literary study laid down the foundation of my love for stories and human expression through this medium.

 As I went into high school, my teacher did a wonderful job of guiding us into many different literary realms: the “classics” such as Catcher in the Rye and Shakespeare, dystopias like Fahrenheit 451 and Brave New World, scientific novels like The Hot Zone, ethnic literature such as Their Eyes Were Watching God, and many more. We were assigned lengthy essays asking us to dive into leading questions on the existence of God or why scientific inquiry is important or what it meant to be of color in post-Civil War America. These probes into deep topics were just the beginning of my interest in pondering how stories illuminate and give concrete examples for us to learn from.

Moving on to the academic world of college, I was unsure of where to focus my studies. Psychology, sociology, art, dance, languages… my interests were copious and hard to encompass into one field. Yet suddenly I was an English major, and found that I was still somehow studying all of these areas of interest as I dove into analyzing Charlotte Perkins Gilmore’s The Yellow Wallpaper through a psychological lens, how dance could interpret Virgil’s The Aeneid, or the cultural significance in The Red Convertible by Louise Erdrich.

Looking back on all these now, I’ve learned that literature not only helps us grasp the experiences of others, but often helps illuminate our own experiences or questions. The Chronicles of Narnia helped illustrate my childhood faith. Catcher in the Rye not only illuminated mental health questions for Holden Caulfield, but also myself as we both navigated the changes and stresses of high school. Paradise Lost challenged my growing adult faith in college. These are just three of the many times literature has encouraged me to investigate what it means to be human and how I live out that investigation in my day-to-day life. 

Studying English, I have become passionate about not only these stories, but other untold stories that are waiting to be gracefully unfolded by someone who grasps the importance of conflict, antagonistic and protagonistic forces, the use of symbolism and metaphor… the list continues.

I have noticed that I tend to approach my study of literature through an analytical lens: always searching for the meaning of this symbol or why the author used that metaphor. I also find myself becoming very intrigued with character development throughout the work—how the antagonist/protagonist evolved to the place they are today, what motivated them to make certain decisions, or how they interacted with conflicts and challenges. My mind thinks in a very metaphorical way as I find myself, even in daily conversation, describing events with metaphors to help illustrate the path of my story.

In this way, I approach all literature with an eye for what could be interpreted as meaningful, and I believe that this approach arises from my desire to ultimately understand the motivation behind human actions. 

Hannah Jones, “Learning to Read, Reading to Learn”

I chose to study English because of my longtime love of reading. Once I learned to read, I brought a book with me everywhere I went. Reading, I believe, has shaped who I am today. Reading other points of view has helped me understand nuance and empathy, showed me the importance of being able to respectfully disagree, and opened my eyes to the experiences of people both similar and different to me. Reading, as cliché as it sounds, has transported me to places, times, and circumstances that I would never be able to experience outside of a good book. One of the things I appreciate most about literature is its unique ability to communicate those places, times, and circumstances in a way that makes us all feel as though they have been our lived experiences.

When I got older and started to understand the power of words and how to use them, I fell in love with another aspect of English: writing. I was fortunate enough to have phenomenal teachers in high school who showed me the more mechanical sides of writing (grammar, paragraph structure, how to write a good thesis) and who helped me find my own unique voice. English classes in high school pushed me the hardest and were always my favorite to attend.

These past years at Hope have encouraged me even more in the study of literature. Taking classes in the Women’s and Gender Studies department among others has opened my eyes to fascinating interdisciplinary connections. I’ve also had my literary muscles stretched in new ways by classes like Intro to Creative Writing. 

Overall, it is my love for reading and writing that has driven me to study English. I am a firm believer in studying what you are naturally drawn towards, regardless of all the people who say things along the lines of, “But what are you going to do with an English degree?” Ultimately, I hope to continue discovering interdisciplinary connections, particularly with courses in Women’s Studies, which is my other major. I hope to keep exploring the many ways in which reading and communicating in writing are crucial to other parts of life and the human experience in general.

The English curriculum in high school certainly was less diverse, but my professors at Hope have been intentional about choosing more diverse readings. I tend to be hyper-aware of classes that include few or no female authors, which happened in high school at least once. I have noticed a push lately for classes and anthologies to include more women and writers of color, which I’m grateful for. I’ve become increasingly aware of the need for representation in literature and beyond.

In my Children’s Literature class, we are learning about the importance of literature being truthful. This doesn’t mean that stories about magic or time-travel aren’t good literature because they aren’t entirely factual; rather, even the most fantastical stories can, and should, tell basic human truths. Part of Plato’s argument in The Republic connects to this need for truthful literature. Plato, speaking through Socrates, reminds readers of “the prime need to make sure that what they first hear is devised as well as possible for the implanting of virtue” (4). This is part of what makes literature such a powerful tool. When children (and adults) are exposed to diverse, truthful literature, they can be shaped into better, more empathetic people from a young age.

Photographer pictured in a mirror

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