What is an English professor? 

Jonathan Swift

Jonathan Swift

 

In my experience, even well meaning and highly educated people tend not to know much about what an English professor is and what an English professor does. I wrote this guide to improve public and collegial understanding of English professors, the discipline of literary studies, how we do our research, and what we teach. This won’t adequately describe all English professors. Rather, it’s aimed at addressing the most common misconceptions about English professors in general.

 

1. “English” is shorthand for “English literature” or “literatures in English,” but really just means “texts in English.”

When people find out I’m an “English professor” they often say things like “I better watch my grammar around you!” But there’s really no reason an English professor would or should care about your grammar any more than any other non-English-professor person who generally cares about clear communication or maintaining some standard sense of language use. English professors do end up helping students address grammar issues—largely because we spend a lot of time assessing written work—but our primary role is not to teach people how to speak and write the English language. Our primary subject matter is all the things people over the years have considered “literature,” which might include things like fiction and nonfiction, letters, science writing, the Bible, poetry, drama, and personal journals, to name a few. Our primary job is not to teach grammar or linguistics. So please understand that your pedantic uncle is far more likely than the average English professor to care about how you talk at the dinner table.

 

2. We usually call it a “text” and not a “work” or “work of literature.”

Particularly in the US, the way most people learn about “English” in school is that there’s a magical thing called the “work of literature”—like Shakespeare’s sonnets—which is inherently better and more meaningful and more sophisticated than something like Harry Potter. The “work of literature” is supposedly the product of “timeless” individual genius. And the only people who can understand the “hidden meaning” and “symbolism” “behind” a “work of literature” are snobby teachers with magical reading powers. And what these snobby teachers want or need you to know about the “work of literature” is that it’s better than the crap you’re reading outside of the classroom.

[deep breath...]

This is mostly bullshit. English professors are more likely to refer to anything we’re reading and studying—whether Shakespeare or Harry Potter—as a “text” and not a “work.” We like “text” because it connotes a simple but important truth about what we read: that what makes one thing “literature” or a “great work” and another a mere “beach read” is more than the singular genius or ability of the author. Rather, things like what a culture values; what a political system enables or prevents; which people in a given society have access to education and publication; the state of the economy; and even the place of "English" in the educational system all shape our impressions about what’s good or bad, what counts as “literature” and what doesn’t. The point here is that English professors study all of these factors when we teach and write about texts or “literature.” Please understand that it’s not our job to judge the value or merit of what you read, or to tell you whether it’s any good. We want to produce knowledge about these texts, which, by virtue of being read and talked about and circulated in our lives, are like living things that keep making new meaning in new contexts. We study this.

 

3. Reading can be "subjective," but texts have facts.

We study texts in different ways, with some of us approaching the topic from more of an historical perspective and others focusing more on how language works and what it does within a text. Most of us do some combination of these two things to produce new knowledge about texts, their histories and contexts, the role of these in the wider world. Perhaps the most helpful way to understand how and why we study texts is to keep in mind that texts have facts. Books are written by real people in a time and a place, so knowing facts about the people who create them, how their lives and societies were when they wrote, what were the political circumstances surrounding what they wrote, and how readers responded or are responding to what they wrote, all help us understand not just what a text “means” when we interpret it, but also what its impact is in the world. So yes, textual interpretation, like many other things in life, is fundamentally subjective. But as with answering any subjective question—like whether the death penalty is just, or whether abortion should be legal—you get better answers when you know the related facts.

 

4. The study of text is not based on "opinions."

You can and should have opinions about what you read, but opinions are a starting point, not an end point, for the study of texts. English professors don’t sit around at academic conferences trading our opinions about what we read. We make arguments about what we read, and we base those arguments in evidence. Evidence may come in the form of quotes from the text we’re studying and discussing, or it may come from historical sources, just as historians use. For example, if we want to know what readers in 1740 thought about a novel, we seek out published reviews, personal diaries that survive in libraries and museum collections, or publication records from the period in which the novel was published. Or, if we want to make an argument about emotion in a poem from 1711, we might read what philosophers, physicians, and the wider community said about emotion, to get an understanding of what societal views of emotion were when the poem was written. We can ask and answer the same kinds of questions about more contemporary writing, too. Doing research on literature isn’t just saying what we think about it after we read it; it’s investigating the circumstances of what we’re reading to make evidence-based arguments about what it means in its context and why we should want to understand that meaning now.

 

5. English professors use the scientific method...

When we do our research, English professors do practice the scientific method. We start out with a conjecture or a hypothesis based on an observation (“eighteenth-century fiction writers believed they were creating a new literary form called the novel”). Then, we gather data (reading and gathering notes from primary and secondary sources on how eighteenth-century fiction writers wrote about what they were doing, how their texts were reviewed by others, what others said about the novel form, whether novels themselves achieved what their authors thought they were doing, etc.). Then we evaluate our hypothesis based on our evidence. When the evidence supports the hypothesis, we write it up; and when the evidence contradicts the hypothesis, we throw the hypothesis out and describe what we found. Sure, subjectivity comes into play when we interpret evidence (as it does in any science), but our objective isn’t certainty, but plausibility.

 

6. ...even if the findings aren't universal.

The scientific method is a powerful way of approaching quests for knowledge of all kinds, which means the scientific method doesn’t belong only to what today we call “the sciences.” In fact, people like Margaret Cavendish and Abraham Cowley, who were at once scientists and philosophers and writers of poetry and fiction, played important roles in developing experimental methods during the Scientific Revolution, before there were strict disciplinary boundaries between "science" and "literature" like we have today. We know that the nature of reading is such that it will never disclose one, universal, objective meaning that’s consistent across every reader. But that doesn’t mean we can’t come to meanings and understandings that are more plausible than others, and reject implausible interpretations. We can also learn useful lessons about the past—or about the present thoughts and experiences of others—and interesting pieces of information about prior societies or societies otherwise distant from us, and how people who are or were experientially different from us think and live. Texts can be artifacts, or windows into the past, or windows into the minds of others. If we want that kind of knowledge and understanding, the people who produce it—English professors—have to put our opinions aside and follow the evidence. And we need to accumulate knowledge of what we study—the history, philosophy, art, politics, economics, etc. pertaining to the texts we study—to understand what we’re studying.

 

7. English professors produce useful knowledge.

A lot of people don’t like English professors because of an understandable fear that our job is to tell you what you think and feel about what you read or like is wrong. But the purpose of what we do as English professors is not to overrule you or invalidate your experience as a reader. If you’re open to having your thoughts and feelings about what you read and think challenged, then yes, the knowledge we produce might challenge you in those ways. But, to be frank, our goals are about more than how you read literature as an individual. We want to build and refine a body of knowledge, on an ongoing basis, that helps current humans learn from and about other humans, past and present; that helps us understand and articulate our behavior, our desires, our politics, and our hard-wired reliance on narrative and play. Our purpose as English professors is not to replace scientific understandings of the world, nor to ask you to believe in fiction over fact, but rather to understand the impact of something that features very prominently in human history and the human present: the written word.

 

8. I want more of this “literary knowledge” you speak of. Where can I get it?

Just like our colleagues in the sciences, English professors publish research in peer-reviewed academic journals. That means after we go through the process outlined above in item 5, and write up our findings in an article (or, if on a bigger topic, in a scholarly book), we initiate what’s typically a double-blind peer-review process. That means two or three experts in the field independently evaluate our work without us knowing their names or them knowing ours, produce reader reports recommending publication or rejection, and advise the journal editor or press editor on whether to accept our work for publication. Typically, even accepted work goes through several rounds of revision, according to peer-reviewers’ and editors’ recommendations, before it appears in print. This revision is not just stylistic (not just about the quality of written prose), but substantive, requiring further research, refining or clarifying of argument, or a refining (or expansion) of the scope of the research. Unfortunately, academic journals are usually not open to the public, but behind expensive paywalls. You can find just about any scholarly book on Amazon or on publishers’ websites, though these are often more expensive than commercial books. So if you want to learn more about our research, feel free to ask us. We tend to love it when people take interest in our research!