Greetings from Lorrie Smith, Chair of the English Department at St. Michael’s College.
The evidence is in. Recent research in areas that at first glance might seem far removed from the field of literature (neuroscience, psychology, and cognitive science) confirm what we in the English Department already take to be self-evident—reading literature “makes us more human,” “more empathetic,” “more moral,” “smarter and nicer,” and, indeed, more prepared to participate effectively in the worlds of commerce, science, and technology. It turns out that the cognitive skills nurtured by “deep reading”—the kind of reading we do in literature classes—transfer beautifully to most other parts of our lives, both personal and professional. Rather than being a frivolous escape or an irrelevant impracticality, it turns out that reading literature is essential to a successful, meaningful, well-lived life. For further evidence of this, go to the link featuring English major graduates, and you will marvel at the incredible variety of professions they are pursuing.
Faculty in the English Department are very proud of the range of subjects covered in our courses—subjects reflecting cutting edge research as well as our own deep interests, standard as well as less traditional authors. A sampling of recent topics in our introductory Seminar in Literary Study gives a sense of this range: Fairy Tales, Spoken Word, Comics, Reading Film, Transgressive Love, Irish Literature, Sports Fiction. Students in our upper-level courses can explore environmental literature, travel writing, science fiction and fantasy as well as Shakespeare, Dickinson, and Melville. But just as important as the content of our courses is the fact that we offer our students practice in deep reading, as described by Karen Swallow Prior, in an article in The Atlantic Monthly, “How Reading Makes us More Human”:
Reading is one of the few distinctively human activities that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. As many scholars have noted . . . reading, unlike spoken language, does not come naturally to human beings. It must be taught. Because it goes beyond mere biology, there is something profoundly spiritual — however one understands that word — about the human ability, and impulse, to read. In fact, even the various senses in which we use the word captures this: to “read” means not only to decipher a given and learned set of symbols in a mechanistic way, but it also suggests that very human act of finding meaning, of “interpreting” in the sense of “reading” a person or situation. To read in this sense might be considered one of the most spiritual of all human activities.
It is “spiritual reading” — not merely decoding — that unleashes the power that good literature has to reach into our souls and, in so doing, draw and connect us to others. This is why the way we read can be even more important than what we read. In fact, reading good literature won’t make a reader a better person any more than sitting in a church, synagogue or mosque will. But reading good books well just might.
Another writer, Annie Murphy, points out in Time Magazine that this ability to “read good books well” takes time and training, especially in our digitalized, fast-paced world:
“Deep reading” — as opposed to the often superficial reading we do on the Web — is an endangered practice, one we ought to take steps to preserve as we would a historic building or a significant work of art. Its disappearance would imperil the intellectual and emotional development of generations growing up online, as well as the perpetuation of a critical part of our culture: the novels, poems and other kinds of literature that can be appreciated only by readers whose brains, quite literally, have been trained to apprehend them.
This training is, in fact, what we do in literature classes. Our students learn to interpret good poems, novels, plays, short stories, and essays. They learn to “read” films and other media rather than consume them as mindless entertainment. They sharpen their close reading and critical thinking skills in all of our classes. As they progress in upper-level courses and seminars, they learn the more complicated cognitive skill of synthesizing critical ideas with their readings of primary texts. They learn to interrogate received ideas and ask questions that open to complex understandings of the world. They learn to trust their own readings and form their own aesthetic and intellectual judgments. They learn to argue in informed and respectful ways with the ideas of others. They learn to write and talk articulately about what they’ve read. Many learn to play with words and write creatively themselves. And we hope they learn that reading literature is a deeply pleasurable activity they can cherish for the rest of their lives. All of this learning takes place in small classes with teachers who share our own passions and value the relationships we build with students.
Entrepreneur Steve Jobs believed that “technology alone is not enough — it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” Like all good marriages, this kind of education takes work and commitment. It’s not an either/or proposition. We in the English Department remain passionate about helping students find what it is that makes their own hearts sing.