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The value of an English literature degree


We invited IB diploma graduates to reflect on post-IB life and offer perspectives on topics of their choosing.  This is the second article in a series by Sunniva Midtskogen, one of this year’s cohort of alumni contributing authors.

By Sunniva Midtskogen

English is the type of degree that doesn’t prepare you for a specific job. In other fields students tend to graduate with a purpose, with a set of skills that applies to specific occupations. Having graduated this spring, I’m faced with the scary question of what’s next. How do I contribute to society after spending three years reading widely? Do you want to know about James Joyce? Don’t ask me, I still haven’t read Ulysses. I can tell you about Angela Carter, at least on the topic of my dissertation, but smarter people than me have dedicated their lives to writing about her. My brief research spanning no more than 8 months is nothing compared to years and years. With a bachelor’s degree in literature I am far from an expert. There is a narrow depth to my knowledge, centered on the works that my lecturers pick out – most from authors I didn’t even know about before glancing at my reading list. For pleasure I read more second world fiction than stuff of the literary canon. (Second world fiction would be when a new, fictional world is created, like Lord of the Rings. The literary canon is literature widely recognized as timeless, influential and great literature, such as To Kill a Mockingbird).You don’t become an expert when you study an art, but you learn about everything.

‘The more you know the more you realize you don’t know’. I keep thinking back to the first philosophy lesson I can remember, possibly 10 years ago, and what’s stuck with me is Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss’ metaphor of the lamp in the dark. The light of the lamp represents what you know, the darkness around the knowledge you don’t have. The bigger the flame gets, the larger the surrounding darkness. This is my experience with literature. It’s like travelling abroad – you’d think that once you see a new place there would be one destination less on your list, but that’s never the case. There is so much to see and there is so much to learn. The depths of libraries are endless; to work your way through only George Orwell’s shelf will take you months. And then you will surely feel compelled to take up Jack London who was a source of inspiration to ‘1984’. Or perhaps you wish to go forward in time, and see how Orwell in turn inspired Margaret Atwood and William Golding. Any way you go there is no place to stop. Had you chosen to begin with Virginia Woolf instead you would have been no better off.

One of the first lectures I attended as a Literature student was on the topic ‘What is English Literature?’. “What is English University Literature? What is English University Literature? What is English University Literature?” My professor repeated, looking at us, us looking back at him pen ready, notepads open. What? we wondered. What? he asked again. Then he talked for 50 minutes and somehow he never reached an answer. Ask any English Literature student today what they really studied, and most likely the answer you will get is ‘books.’ But what are books? It cannot be defined the same way as mathematics can, as medicine or biology. If you look beyond the physical object of the leather bound pages, literature is everything. It’s about nutrition, it’s about politics, it’s about religion.

Out of curiosity, I looked up the definition of ‘Literature’. I expected a simple definition, confident that I already knew what it meant. The first suggestion from Oxford American Dictionary is somewhat exclusive, stating that it is ‘written works, especially those considered of superior or lasting artistic merit’. When can a novel/poem/play be deemed to have lasting merit? Can we not all agree that Harry Potter will last, on similar grounds as Lord of the Rings? Mr. Potter is a large part of billions of children’s upbringing. This is already getting complicated.

The second definition offered by OAD is ‘books and writings published on a particular subject’. So, instead of claiming I studied books, maybe I should say that I studied how to read books. We look at several books by the same author, or on a few books by different writers, and then we try to understand why they wrote those books. Similar to history and philosophy, we learn to look at their arguments, then to take a step back and ask ourselves: why is the author saying this, is the author right to argue that, and do I agree with them? It can be intimidating to form an opinion and voice it in a seminar knowing that your seminar tutor has read and studied the text for years, when you just finished reading it the night before. How can I possibly contribute to a discussion between scholars?

Sometimes I do recognise that I am seeing links, I am thinking in different and new ways, and it is encouraging. It means that even if there are smarter, more well-read people thinking about the same things as me, I can still step up and question it if I find anything lacking, or remark it if I make a discovery. And perhaps more important, I learned to not accept what Mikhail Bakhtin said just because it was he who said it. Comparing Euripides to Graham Greene shows that there is development and progression, and there is always room for new voices in any discussion. And I can be part of it, despite only being 22 years old.

So what will I do when I graduate? English Literature does not teach you to fix cars or computers, how the brain works, or to be smart about opening up your own business (however you can of course find literature that covers that as well). In this crowded world, it has helped me see how I am original, even if that can be hard to remember at all times.

Sunniva Midtskogen writes about being abroad and her thoughts on the idea of home. She is now studying a BA English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University, UK and graduated from the IB Diploma class at Sandefjord Videregående Skole in 2013. She likes to escape her daily routine through literature and travel.

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