The “Big Idea” English Studies Syllabus

Revised and Expanded July 2022

  1. All forms of life communicate in never-ending give and take processes. Homo sapiens and their ancient ancestors have always communicated with one another and with other forms of life. Current-day humans communicate through any number of compositions, including poetry, biography, wills, musical scores, text messages, and much more.
  2. When guided by curiosity, studying how humans communicate is not just interesting but vital, if we are going to learn. Academic discourses such as Crip Studies, Critical Race Theory, Queer Theory, Rhetoric, and Women’s Studies help decode and complicate artifacts of communication and each offer different and particular insights.
  3. The development of spoken and written languages represents one of the greatest accomplishments in world history, making sophisticated, archivable communication possible. Language is hard. The study of semiotics helps reveal how outstanding this feat really has been. Humans develop languages from various symbols that are grouped together and assigned sounds, all of which arbitrarily represent persons, places, things, ideas, qualities, and much more. Humans code-switch and code-mesh regularly, too, which is to say they adjust how they communicate and combine different traditions of language, depending on the specific setting.
  4. Powerful people like to control and judge how people communicate. “Rules” that exist have various functions. Sometimes they allow communication to be possible, but other times they try to limit creativity or limit possible changes and challenges to how languages are practiced. Frequently, too, the rules of grammar or of “professionalism,” for instance, have the consequence of perpetuating privilege and oppression when non-majority accents or grammars and non-majority traditions are automatically deemed incorrect and inferior.
  5. There are ultimately no essentialist rules as to how Homo sapiens can or should communicate, and how they speak and write constantly changes. All languages are culturally and socially constructed. English as practiced in the United States today will be unintelligible in just a few hundred years. When reading and writing—communicating—whether informally or formally, knowingly or unknowingly—Homo sapiens are constantly pushing current limits and are changing and challenging the mores of how their languages are practiced.
  6. Because seeing and understanding and reading and writing and speaking—language, life—are always in (re)development, Homo sapiens must keep learning. Writing is re-writing. Speaking is re-speaking. Reading is re-reading. Perfect communication does not exist. Informal instruction (such as through cultural productions, conversations with others, or other manifestations of the historical unconscious) and formal instruction (such as in History or Science classes or dedicated Composition classes) help guide people through this process. Such life-long instruction allows for the possibility of the very best that can be produced and consumed at a given time and place.
  7. Language itself is powerful. Language control us, determining what is even possible to think. We also control languages. In some way or another, all Homo sapiens are readers and writers. All forms of language want to accomplish something and/or to explore ideas. And this “something” mirrors hopes and fears of the time and place in which it was produced. It’s deeply historically embedded. This “something” also blurs all boundaries between fiction and nonfiction.
  8. There are a variety of ways in which Homo sapiens ‘read’ texts. Humans read books or films, as well as each other, the weather, or a room, for example—all of which are “texts.” Consensus, stable interpretations, from the perspective of hermeneutics, do not exist: A second read will reveal not only details missed the first time but brand new, never-seen-before-in-history information.
  9. And so too, there is no limit to how Homo sapiens can take their ideas and communicate them, alphabetically or non-alphabetically. The most effective authors will use appropriate evidence, will ethically use rhetorical techniques to their advantage, will embrace critical thinking, will plan, will engage with others, and will accept that writing is a never-ending process. They might learn the “rules” and then adjust or break them to better communicate, or they might just start with breaking the rules. Humans communicate most effectively when they read and analyze regularly.
  10. Homo sapiens have an opportunity and a profound responsibility. They can help preserve languages and artifacts created across time and place, and they can create their own honest, high-quality texts—for such allows us to appreciate and understand ourselves and others more effectively. “The dead do not like to be forgotten.” Language helps them live in perpetuity.