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Affirming the value of the English degree

Date Released: Wed, 20 April 2011 09:41 +0200

In the climate of English austerity, funding for higher education has severely tapered – particularly for those faculties seen as less income-generative. Not in the least escaping the secateurs, have been Arts and Humanities departments, which tend to produce graduates with non-linear vocational paths. Yet despite the political and economical atmosphere of the UK, some programmes are still thriving.

Last Thursday, Head of the University of York’s Department of English and Related Literature, Prof David Attwell, profiled his department and discussed the merits of doing an English degree at the seminar, “The state of English studies in Britain.”

“We like the indeterminacy of the term, ‘related’,” joked Prof Attwell, referring to the semi-ambiguous title. As the name suggests, English at York integrates literature of other languages and regions. It is compulsory for undergraduates to study a second language for their first two years, in preparation to study this literature in its original text. This articulates a key feature of York’s English department, its interdisciplinary nature.

Though the English department is divided into four major periods of literature – Medieval, Renaissance, 18th Century and Modern – each period has developed a unique relationship with other departments. Often a new centre of study will be created around one such interdisciplinary collaboration, for example, the Centre for Medieval Studies which integrates English Literature, Archaeology, History and History of Art.

These collaborations, no doubt, support another marked feature of York’s relatively young English department – its emphasis on new research. Prof Attwell emphasised the importance of academics doing outside research projects, to reach much needed external funding. He acknowledged that although financial need may be an uncomfortable motivation, the English department has become more productive for their efforts.

In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) from 2008, a study that looks at the research outputs of 159 higher education institutions worldwide, York’s English department ranked above all other UK institutions.

Perhaps the greatest feature of the English department at York is its high standard of excellence. Though it is a large department with nearly 720 undergraduate students, it maintains extremely competitive entrance rates, accepting just one of every 11 applicants.

Prof Attwell was frank about what these standards mean for the demographics of his department. “It is mainly children of the professional classes who do English at York,” he said, “very few students come from poor backgrounds.”

Prof Attwell did note, however, that 70% of the entire York student body comes from the state sector, which expresses the university’s general value of “widening participation” for people of all social classes.

When asked to justify why students still study English, despite all the arguments of its impracticality, Prof Attwell said, “They do English because they find it meaningful,” adding, “ I take heart from this – no matter what the culture is throwing at students, they are there for the rights reasons.”

Story by Hailey Gaunt

Photo supplied by the University of York