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Dear Students of Engl 170-01, Fall 2012:

I'm extremely pleased with the your essay on the English major as the final product of this semester's bold experiment in collaborative writing. I'm even more pleased with the quality of conversation that the process of writing engendered, both online and in person.

From the initial brainstorming and collection of relevant references and quotations, through the drafting, revising, and polishing, to the final, heated debates over quotations from "The Yellow Wallpaper," the process was one in which your collective self-definition as English majors became, on the whole, increasingly focused, concrete, detailed, and meaningful.

It wasn't all progress, all the time. The essay had some features in earlier versions — such as a clear emphasis on the idea of criticism as a "practice"  that English majors are learning to join, and an effort to move logically from a working definition of literature to the nature of critical practice — that eventually lost prominence. In addition, a number of excellent suggestions offered in comments — for example, to say something significant about the English major's engagement with "culture" — remained in the margins, never making it into the argument's main flow.

But when, at the end of a typical term, I read a pile of individual essays, one thing I never get to see is the ideas that don't make it into this or that person's finished version. And one thing the individual writers don't get to see is the way their fellow writers would have answered the exam questions. Your collaborative essay showed me much more than I usually get to see about what the class, as a group, gained from the course. I hope, too, that by seeing what some of your classmates got out of it, many of you were able to continue learning right up to the end.

Seeing what you learned as a group also gave me insight, of course, into which ideas, among those I tried to emphasize this semester, didn't "stick." I'm sure that some if not all of these ideas did register with individuals here and there, but if my goal is to make at least the majority of the class walk away thinking of these ideas as central to the major, I clearly still have work to do.

Here, very briefly, are some of those ideas. Some of them, especially the last few, I realize that I never articulated clearly this semester until our conversation in the closing minutes of the final exam. By pushing me to do so, you've helped the next group of students that takes this class from me:

  • That what makes criticism a "practice" isn't simply the fact that many critics use the same analytical toolkit, but also the fact that they engage continuously in a lively, often contentious conversation about what they do, why it matters, and how to do it best.
  • That in this conversation, the definition of even the most basic terms — including "literature" and "criticism" themselves — is always up for grabs, and the value of any particular critical activity — "interpretation," for example — is always open to question.
  • That as critics, English majors study stuff that human beings make — mainly stuff that they make from words, but also stuff that they make from images, sounds, numbers, bytes, etc.
  • That in studying made things, English majors study a domain of human life and activity that might be called (though all such definitions are always up for grabs!) "culture."
  • That insofar as English majors study something we might call "life" or "experience," or particular aspects of reality such as "politics" or "society," they do so through the things that human beings make — that is, through culture, which consists in large part, but not entirely, of models or representations of life or experience or reality.
  • That at least one reason to value the study of culture — the whole of it or any single piece of it, such as a poem or a film — is that it's through culture that human beings engage in an ongoing conversation among themselves aimed at making sense of politics, society, love, beauty, death, and all other aspects of life and reality. (But of course any answer to the "value" question can always be contested!)
  • That to say that English majors study culture is to say that they follow a variety of methods — all of them always up for debate! — for making sense of individual bits of culture — a novel, a play — making sense of how those bits fit together, and making sense of how — in bits and as a whole — culture continuously remakes itself.
  • That because this is what English majors do, and because, if culture has value, studying culture must have value, we might well summarize all of the above by declaring, The English major makes sense.
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