This column is devoted to sharing student and faculty input on the various majors offered at Lawrence. The goal is to highlight areas of study that are not well known and to provide undecided students an inside look at things they may want to study.
The stories we read and are surrounded by from a young age have the power to impact how we view ourselves and how we view others. As we grow older, the stories we have always known can be given more value when we put in the time to look closer at the complexity of why we love the stories we do, why they shape us the way they do and how we can tell our own meaningful stories. Here at Lawrence University, this long process is being fleshed out and celebrated in our very own English Department.
At Lawrence, students studying English are encouraged to take what they gain from the very beginning of their studies and apply those gains not only to what they read, but to whatever culture, media or form of expression they are learning about or experiencing. It is an area of study where creativity is celebrated and appreciated, but also a space for students to fine tune the technique and strengths of their creative muscles.
English is an area of study that deals specifically with human stories and human experiences. At Lawrence, there are a wide variety of options and classes to take for students to learn about stories that are different from their own and different from the stories they’ve grown up with. Sophomore English major Max Craig spoke to this as he stated, “I think what really makes me like a book is if there’s something about it that allows me to empathize with new people. Books that allow for me to do that shape my own perspectives.”
Students are encouraged to draw connections from certain texts and to their own experiences. For Craig, one of the most memorable commonalities he drew between multiple works took place in his studies last year. Not in an English class per say, but in everyone’s favorite Freshmen Studies. Craig spoke to the impact of the connections he made as he stated, “Something I gained from a lot of the books we read in Freshmen Studies last year was really an idea of how to be happy in life. And from a lot of them, I felt like that happiness had to do with balance. Like in Plato, there are multiple parts of the mind and all of them have to be balanced in order for the mind to function on a whole. Finding balance is actually something I still think about a lot because of those books.”
This desire to connect texts to each other and to personal experience is indicative of the ideals of a liberal arts education. Senior English vajor Harrison Barber spoke to this as he stated, “Each text helps you understand more about yourself and the world around you, while also making you more fluent in whatever topic it concerns. This is part of the essence of a well-rounded liberal arts education. It also forces you to critically think about what you think and what the author intended. I believe this idea is also at the core of a liberal arts education.”
This process of gaining personal understanding and identity from literature has the potential to grant focus and clarity to students studying English. Barber alluded to this idea as he stated, “English readings have always been very humanizing for me. I gain perspective about myself and the world around me. This has always been the most significant aspect of studying English literature at Lawrence University. It helps remind me of who I am as a person and it teaches how to be an understanding person in general.”
The study of English can seem broad and interpretive from person to person or from course to course. It is, at its core, always centered on the power and intention of the words we use to tell stories and to connect. It is a tool of communication. Craig sees this power to communicate as a worthwhile one as he stated, “I think there are a lot of problems in the world that are based around miscommunication. And if studying English helps me better communicate, then I think that is valuable in terms of helping others.”
Not only does Craig view his studies in English as an opportunity to improve and build upon his own communication skills, but he is also intrigued by the flexibility his major provides him in order to pursue a wide variety of careers that are all collaboratively creative. One career he specifically threw around was writing comedy. On this note Craig stated, “I like the idea of being able to sit with a bunch of other writers and throw around our ideas and jokes. Even if none of them are even any good to begin with. But then through talking with everyone’s ideas, getting a story that is good and that actually means something.”
English is a complex area of study that focuses both on connecting and finding empathy within stories that stem from different roots and understanding how to communicate those stories as a writer. Both these facets share one common trait of being centered on understanding and valuing the lives of others. Craig has identified with this understanding and value from a young age as he stated, “When I was younger, I was always drawing characters and people. I only ever drew people. I played with a lot of action figures too. I liked the characters. I guess I’ve always really been interested in people and their stories.”
“My mom was an English teacher and so I grew up talking about literature and stories in books, movies and television shows,” Barber stated on how he interacted with stories from a young age. “And it has always connected with me more than any other subject. As I went through high school and college the texts and discussions became more and more interesting and stimulating.”
No matter where our identities lie, we all use words to define those identities, to remember those identities and to explain those identities to others in the hopes of them being able to identify to a part of whatever we spoke of to be valuable. At Lawrence, studying English is an opportunity for students to gain the confidence and fluidity to use words define their own identity, and to be active and engaged in understanding the complexities in how others define their own as well.