Why study English Literature?
Nicholas Carr, the author of a recent study on the effect of the internet on our thought processes, uses the phrase ‘the deepening page’. His sense is that we find ourselves increasingly in a world of browsing, in which we touch on ideas and then our attention shifts. It is not reactionary or Luddite to stress the importance of sustained and careful reading of literary works. To do so is to enter worlds and linger in them; to explore the intellectual and affective textures of other places and times. Though we are as a department of literary studies committed to exploring the use and potential of different and new media, we will always value, advocate and teach the significance of reading literary works.
The Department teaches world literature written in English. The first-year course comprises the study of Indian, South African, American, and Renaissance literature. From the beginning of second-year, we adopt Edward Said’s ‘contrapuntal’ approach. Starting with Medieval and concluding, at the end of third-year, with Postcolonial literature, we proceed with a chronological study of literary texts, but, in each period, we consider the ways in which contemporary writers and authors from various contexts have engaged the British and American traditions.
Our curriculum is not traditional in the mundane sense of the word, but considers the ongoing dialogue between tradition and innovation, and the conversation among European, colonial and postcolonial writers.
Poets, playwrights and authors of fiction have, since Plato, been called upon to justify their activities. Critics have been chastened for lacking a useful social purpose. Yet storytelling, at all levels, reveals to us the ways in which meaning is imagined, recorded, organised and shared. Society exists because of its capacity to narrate – and to dramatize – its past, present and its hopes and fears relating to the future. To learn to read more closely and more knowingly is surely among the richest human ambitions.
Our graduates, who possess by the end of the major, sophisticated reading, writing and critical thinking skills, go on to teach English here and abroad, to work as copywriters, editors, publishers, authors of all varieties or academics. Many students who go on to become lawyers, psychologists, economists, accountants or pursue careers in the sciences find literature an essential supplement to their field of specialization.
The members of the department are actively engaged in researching various areas of literary study, including: South African literature, maritime fiction, Shakespeare and early modern studies, literary theory, jazz and country music, Zimbabwean literature, English in education (multiliteracies and multimodality), postcolonial conflict, travel writing, South African theatre, contemporary American literature and culture, representations of trauma, and authors as diverse as Henry James, Nuruddin Farah, Chinua Achebe, Ivan Vladislavic, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Damon Galgut, Aravind Adiga, Richard Hughes, Kiran Desai, Dave Eggers and Abdulrazak Gurnah.