The Case for ENGL 1205

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Recently, at the SMUSA general meeting, SMUSA President, Ossama Nasrallah talked about developing a new course for first year students, a course to help the transition between high school and university. Sounds like a great idea. But the problem for me came in his second statement “it might replace English 1205” to which members of the audience applauded, raised their arms in fist pumps and performed “hallelujah-esque” gestures. Osama responded with his own fist pump, and my hopes sunk.

The purpose of my letter is not to put Ossama on blast at all, he’s a nice guy and a great SMUSA president, and I think he is well intentioned. But I find this whole incident incredibly problematic, not only does there already exist a high school to university transitional course, “Introduction to University Education” EDUC 1000, but The SMU English Society was not even invited to the general meeting where the future of our department was discussed. Ossama also suggested that a Linguistics course be substituted for ENGL1205, which I think people who already don’t like 1205 will dislike even more. Trust me, Linguistics is generally pretty dry. Compare talking about grammar rules to talking about The Watchmen (as is taught in Mark Barr’s 1205 course).

The incident at the general meeting, is indicative of a larger problem here at SMU, the distain among the student body of English 1205, and veiled desires of the administration to discontinue the course, or even downgrade the department.

As an English major, I find this all very disconcerting.

From the student’s perspective, the hate that gets leveled at ENGL 1205 is something I find incredibly unwarranted. I understand that people dislike English, but one of the goals of Saint Mary’s is and has always been to create well rounded students. As an English student, I still have to take some science and at least one math or logic course, subjects that are not my strength as much as English is not the strength of others. It honestly baffles me sometimes, how dismissive people are towards 1205, people just refuse to try and learn how to do it because they don’t think they can. During my 1205 class I had someone show up to the final exam (which was an in-class essay on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) who told me they hadn’t read a page of the book, or even watched any of the literally dozens of film adaptations of the story. I had people come to me and try and get me to “explain this book (it was War of the Worlds) to me” and when I asked if they read it, they said, “well, no can you just tell me what it’s about?” How does me saying “Religion” or “Materialism” help you? Yet, it seems to me that people like this are the loudest opponents of 1205.

We all have to take courses we don’t like. It was hard, for me, to learn about geological rock formations, and Logical equations, it’s not the way my brain is set up, it’s not the way I like to learn, and a lot of the time I wished that I didn’t have to take those courses. But you know what? I did them, I rose to the challenge and came out with a better appreciation for both of those things. I put in the extra effort I needed to, sought help where necessary, and passed with the grades I needed to. The Business faculty has a course in which the pass/fail rate is something like 50% (40/60 on the first midterm)) and yet for some reason, no one is trying to replace Finance 2 as a mandatory class for most business majors. English majors have to read Geoffery Chaucer, you don’t see us trying to get that kicked out of the curriculum. You have to put in effort and be challenged in University. If you want everything to just come easy to you, I’ve got news, it’s not going to. And even if it did, if every single class on business or science or [insert your preferred subject here] came easy to you, one first year course that makes you work a little bit harder can’t be that much of a burden. You can do it. It may be difficult, but there’s the writing centre which is almost criminally and underutilized and I guarantee any English prof would gladly help you understand the material if you go talk to them. They’re super nice people.

The English department has some of the best and most inspiring profs in the country, published authors, who genuinely care about their students. I have friends who have taken English degrees at Dal, for instance, and they are stuck in classes of 100-300 people, with a prof laying out theory from a power point for an hour everyday, profs who it’s impossible to get an appointment with. At SMU, we get real, one on one attention from our profs who engage with us in class every day. I have meaningful discussions around gender, class, oppression, racism and human complexity every day with my profs. Professors who know me, and my fellow students by name simply from attending classes with them. That should not be dismissed. Removing 1205 from the curriculum will prevent many who would have been inspired to pursue English from ever doing it at all, and our department suffers as a result.

Every English major I know at SMU decided to declare their major because of 1205. Take that away, and many of us would not be where we are now.

Beyond that, it’s worth it. English 1205 teaches essay writing and literature appreciation, which are central disciplines of University education. Essay writing is a particularly important skill in university, you will, with a very high degree of probability, have to write an essay at some point. Learning how to do that competently is as important as making sure you understand how to fill out a multiple-choice exam. Being able to formulate a formal argument, and prove your position with evidence is an extremely useful skill.

I understand that my opinion goes against what seems like the majority of the student body. I understand it’s an unpopular class, and that people don’t like English the way I do. I’m not asking everyone to love it all of a sudden; but I am saying that this flippant attitude towards one of the core curriculums of academia is misguided and frankly, out of place at a prestigious post secondary institution. English is a discipline that I would argue carries a much greater value than the Saint Mary’s student body is willing to attribute to it. There is more to life than knowing enough math to get a job in an office to make money. I’m not saying we all have to be poets, or authors, or that we all should be able to quote Shakespeare verbatim, but I am saying that if you’re going to go through 4 years of university, you should have read at least one or two novels or a play or two, maybe a couple poems. Creating students that are only good at one discipline has never been something our University has tried to do. Would you rather be only good at one thing, or good at one thing and have a working knowledge of how others work? Why are we fighting the accruement of knowledge at an institution of higher learning?

One of the main complaints against 1205 is that often students don’t really know what they’re in for. Perhaps a solution could be to create more options for students, require a 1000 level English course, with various options to choose from, such as Drama, Poetry, Literature, perhaps Creative Writing or Film classes, so perhaps the subject matter will be a little more inside each student’s comfort zone. But, this decision to cut out 1205 will cost the English department enrollment, it will cost many students TA jobs, it will be a disservice to our student body, and it will be a major blow to a small, but incredibly valuable part of the SMU community.

Matt Brisby, Vice President SMU English Society

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