(a.k.a. “what you’ve gotten yourself into”)
English class is typically labeled as “that class where we learn reading and writing.” This is true; we do a lot of reading and writing here, but reading and writing for its own sake doesn’t necessarily get us anywhere interesting. Besides, you need to read and write in almost every discipline you decide to study, so I hope you’re learning “reading and writing” elsewhere as well!
I think of reading and writing as vehicles for thinking and communicating. We can get somewhere interesting when we read deeply, and we can potentially help others to deeply get somewhere interesting when we communicate well.
We Put the Human in Humanities
English class is considered a course in the greater realm of the Humanities. Like the term “humanities” implies, it is the study of humans. People. Therefore, much of our time together in this course will involve the study of people: the patterns of thought and behavior we find ourselves in, how we interact with one another, the pitfalls we tend to land in, and how we fight to get ourselves out of those pitfalls and move forward. You, the student, are a person; you will be studying you.
Literature gives us a mirror to the world. Each text reflects the author’s particular viewpoint of a certain group of people—at least at the time that he or she writes it; therefore, we use literature as a means to engage ourselves in a conversation about people (and you can use literature to engage in a conversation about yourself).
Nothing Means Anything and Everything Can Mean Something
On their own, words and situations don’t have any meaning. They are what they are: a word, a person, a murky lake, a blue curtain, a happy child. People are the ones that give meaning to these things because it’s what we are designed to do—it’s what our minds give us the capacity to do—and we make this meaning by connecting the dots we find. This is why there are so many possibilities for how to interpret a text or for how to think about a person’s life. The flowers blooming in the garden the same day that the woman makes the decision to move to another state could be interpreted as a sign of rebirth and renewal for the woman; there is a fairly well-established pattern of thought that affords us the opportunity to see this situation in such a manner. At the same time, though, flowers blooming might be emphasizing the beauty of the moment, they might be indicating what a mature decision the woman just made, or they might just be flowers blooming in the background. What people see in the situation is determined by how they connect the dots.
How a person decides to connect the dots is determined by who that person is and how he or she has come to see the world. We are a sum of our experiences, our preferences, our decisions, our thoughts and our biology. All of this we bring to a text.
The more aware we are of how we are connecting the dots, the more power we give ourselves to change how we connect the dots. The more possibilities we create.
Nobody Sees What You See...Unless You Tell Them
English class is about communicating. People have a highly evolved ability to communicate because we have developed language. We have words to try to capture the essence of what we experience, but we also have so much more than language: we have tone of voice, body language, voice inflection, facial expressions, and the intuitive capability to piece it all together and make meaning out of all of it.
We must learn to communicate effectively if we want people to understand us. No one experiences a situation, thinks about an idea, reads a text, searches for answers, watches a baseball game or wonders about the world in the same way. Two people can look at the same design for a company logo and get completely different impressions. At the same time, two people can look at a company logo, get the same impression, but get it from two completely different parts of the design. This is why effective communication is essential. We are all different and we are all seeing different things. There’s beauty in that but also challenge.
Learn the Rules and then Break Them Purposefully
Growth and change happens when the status quo is broken—when what is considered the accepted way of doing something is juxtaposed with (brought directly alongside) an out of the ordinary, different, way of doing something. Growth happens when we try something new that breaks our normal pattern of behavior, and it can be scary because sometimes our “something new” is a step into a way of thinking or acting that is not accepted as “the way to be.” This is risk.
Calculated risk is good, and it can happen when we know the rules that currently exist and then we choose which ones to break in order to purposefully achieve something different than the ordinary. In choosing which rules to break and when to do so, we maintain a healthy balance between thinking and acting in a way that allows us to function amongst our fellow people but still create progress for ourselves.
This principle guides us as we think about people we encounter in our literature and when we craft pieces of writing to communicate our thoughts. There are certain conventions to writing governed by the rules of grammar and structure, and there are certain patterns of thoughts and behavior that are accepted as the way people operate; however, this does not mean that there is necessarily only one right answer. There’s not one right way to write an essay, craft a strong sentence, build an argument, or interpret a person or character’s behavior. There are, instead, numerous possibilities for how to achieve that balance of being understood but still doing something risky and different to make a point—to make progress.
Where This Gets Us
In studying people—in seeing how others have connected the dots for themselves and for us—we give ourselves the power to reconnect the dots and rewrite our stories. English class, then, is about becoming aware of the dots, becoming aware of how they are connected, communicating what we find, thinking through alternative possibilities for ourselves, and then communicating and acting upon those different options.
This is not English class; this is a course about life.