Introducing a new series on the McGill for Humanities blog: “Why I Study English.” Here, current students studying English at McGill describe how they came to the program, why they study English, and why the feel the study of the humanities is important.
This week features Katherine Horgan, a first year MA student at McGill who studies the Renaissance, Classical Reception, and Modernism. She has her BA in English with a minor in Classical language, and her B.Mus. in French horn performance.
Hello! My name is Katherine, and I study English because I enjoy it. That’s right I said it. My brain and I like to have a good time. We like to play, we like to do puzzles, we like beautiful things, and we like untying knots: English is where we get our fix.
My commitment to enjoying myself isn’t just a manifestation of a deeply rooted hedonistic intellectual laziness–for me, it’s part of a larger approach to work and life: it’s best to work with your brain, rather than against it. My brain likes detective work, it likes puzzles, and it likes attractive things–so I feed it attractive puzzles: poems. Studying English is congenial to my way of thinking because it involves a good deal of room for play as one untangles beautiful knots. I have always enjoyed reading–but for English, I’ve found that liking to read isn’t really enough. The study of English seems to me much more about following up on clues in the text. First, you spot something that doesn’t look right or strikes you as odd, and you try and piece the moment together–where was it prefigured? What does it mean? You do research, and you make your case. It’s all very exciting.
The crucial difference between English and detective work, however, is that there are no right answers here–language is so slippery! It’s all about piecing together something cohesive, and trying the facts of a poem in different orders and through different lenses, to get at a reading that feels honest. You’ve also got to live by your wits–English is one of those disciplines where it certainly helps to know a little bit of everything, and I prefer a varied diet. More often than not one finds oneself with history books, at art galleries, listening to 14th century masses, struggling through philosophy–adventures abound.
If the study of English is like detective work, the poems themselves are more like machines with lots of moving parts. I like to see how the different cogs and springs work together–how allusions transport meaning, how rhyme and meter enhance the impact of a line, how different texts work together, the tools authors use to create character–I could go on. All of these parts work together to make a machine that works (or that doesn’t work–a different argument) to do something (what that is, again another argument). By studying how the poem works, the work is, at least for me, made even more beautiful.
On top of all this, there is the constant struggle of writing itself. This too I enjoy (though I am, like all grad students, occasionally miserable). I like to talk (a fact to which my long suffering friends can well attest) and writing is organized speaking. I like to question my sentences, and to try out ideas. Sometimes they fall flat, but most often, through the process of writing, I write myself to a new place and a new understanding. And with each paper, I can feel myself getting faster at saying what I mean. The process of practicing and feeling improvement is very satisfying.
This all sounds very fun and playful, but at bottom, what I like best about English is that through all of this play, and this curiosity in testing out ideas, and the taking apart of structures, one is lead to some very serious places. When you hold literature up to the light, interrogating the thoughts and structures, one often discovers the disturbing implications of an a idea taken to its extreme, or one struggles with the author about where to draw the line on an issue, or what it means to be a responsible person. There is a lot of beauty to be found in poetry, but there is also a lot of confusion and uncertainty. Literature is life, distilled, reorganized, reapplied and presented for our scrutiny. In my view, authors–who are people too–are trying to organize and order what they have seen. This creation of order is beautiful–because we create order, perhaps this is evidence that we are part of some order too, all participating in nested microcosmic cycles of creators and creations (my own vague speculations and hunches!).
I study English because I like it, but I also study it because I firmly believe in the importance of thinking, the importance of care. For me English is about spotting patterns, connecting dots and tracing ideas. It doesn’t teach information so much as it teaches you how to think: to take the long way, and think around a problem, rather than through it. To turn it upside down and inside out, to look past cosmetic differences to see essential sameness, or to look past sameness into difference. Above all, English taught me to be uncertain, especially about the things I think I know. Through the very process of thinking, we learn to ask questions. In running with ideas authors merely suggest, or toy with, we see patterns. In effect, we learn to be a bit more suspicious, a bit more wary. Literature teaches us to make beauty and to love it, but it also teaches us to hold ideas (those of our politicians, of our peers, of our professors even!) to a high standard, because though poetry may “do “nothing, an idea in the wrong hands has done a lot. Do I think that the study of English is the answer to all hurt or injustice, no of course not. But I believe that it is a study that, at its best, makes for citizens who might ask a well timed question, born from the work they have studied and the critical stance they practice–and there seems to be no earthly reason why one can’t enjoy oneself at the same time.