Gaining diverse perspectives and skills through literary studies

THE term “wordsmith” often comes to mind when referring to someone who is pursuing a degree in English Language and Literature — one who is on his way to becoming an expert in the use of words in the language, spouting passages from Shakespeare’s plays, for example.

This is because the programme generally requires the analysis of the workings of the English language in all forms and contexts as well literary texts from different periods throughout history.

English Literature as a major in a Bachelor of Arts programme has been offered here since 1959 when University of Malaya (UM) was established at Lembah Pantai in Kuala Lumpur.

Professor Sharmani Patricia Gabriel, head of the Department of English at UM’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, said the history of the programme can be traced back to 1949 when UM was first formed in Singapore, and even further back to the establishment of Raffles College in the opening decades of the 20th century.

“If you consider carefully UM’s development over its long history, you will notice that though remaining distinctive in the country in terms of the range of courses it continues to offer — from the medieval era to the 21st century, from the UK to other English-speaking regions of the world — the contents of its BA programme have always been in a state of flux,” she added.

“This is necessary for the study of English Literature to remain relevant to our understanding of who we think we are as Malaysians and how we see ourselves as Malaysians in relation to the wider world. This insight on our part means that in addition to teaching British Literature, we also teach Literature in English from Malaysia, Singapore, Africa, India, the Caribbean, Australia and the US. Our curricular offerings have also expanded to reflect both contemporary approaches to the study of Literature and the breadth of staff expertise and interest.”

In terms of student intake, the department annually accepts 20 to 25 students for its BA English programme although it receives applications in the hundreds. “Our undergraduate student size is deliberately kept small so as maintain a favourable student-to-staff ratio and to reflect the shift in emphasis from undergraduate to postgraduate training and education.”

At Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Literature in English is offered at the undergraduate level through the BA English Language Studies programme as well as the Bachelor of Education (Teaching English as a Second Language/TESL) programme.

Dr Shahizah Ismail Hamdan, coordinator of the Postcolonial Literature in English Programme at UKM’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, said: “We also have several Literature courses — also known as kursus citra universiti — open to all undergraduates as part of UKM’s liberal education efforts. The average intake for BA English Language Studies is 60 students and 30 for B.Ed TESL.”

UKM used to offer a BA Literature in English Studies programme, which ran from 2005 to 2014, with an average intake of 25. “Due to changing university policy — which is to increase postgraduate intake — several programmes deemed less marketable were put on hold. To date, that is the status of the BA Literature in English programme. At the Master’s of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy level, UKM offers the Postcolonial Literature in English degrees.

Both UKM and UM were placed in the 51-100 band in the 2017 QS University World Rankings by Subject for English Language and Literature, making them the top two universities in the country for the subject. UKM was in the 101-150 band last year.

“The rise in ranking for English language and Literature can be attributed to the method in which QS University World Rankings by Subject is done — i.e. via global surveys of academics and employers on an institution’s reputation for the subject as well as evaluation of research impact based on citations per publication and h-index,” said Shahizah.

For Sharmani, recognition of the discipline’s international strength is a sign that the faculty’s programme is designed on a model comparable to that of UK and the US universities, which are still widely perceived as canonical centres for the study of Literature in English. “More importantly, our world ranking offers a much needed context for bringing to national visibility the role played by the department as a centre for scholarly thinking and inquiry.”


But how relevant is an English language and Literature qualification in the modern world today, where expertise in areas like technology for example is deemed more critical?

“To declare that the study of English language and Literature is no longer relevant in today’s modern world is inaccurate. The discipline in its traditional sense may not be 100 per cent relevant but the critical and analytical skills involved in literary studies are highly valued in the industry. The ability to state an argument and communicate its relevance are also developed through literary studies,” said Shahizah.

As such, students of the programme are actively involved in many research projects related to making Literary Studies relevant. “One of the ongoing projects includes an effort at branding the skillsets developed in Literary Studies as something that can help differentiate UKM graduates from the rest, increasing their employability as a result. This is done through exposing students to the nuances of language, history, culture, ideology and real life issues that are portrayed in literary works,” she added.

Sharmani remarked that those who say that the study of English Literature is no longer relevant in today’s world must be made to study it. No one who has studied Literature will ever question its usefulness or relevance, she emphasised.

“As a Humanities subject, Literature helps us conceptualise our world from broader and more diverse perspectives, beyond our immediate and often parochial experiences. Reading and writing are, of course, among the most valuable skills one can have. But there exists a purpose for reading and writing beyond the immediate and practical purposes of communication.

“We need Literature to help us interpret our world. It is the combination of reading and writing with analysis that make the study of Literature uniquely important. Literature also helps us understand ourselves as imaginative and creative beings. Though this is found in all disciplines, it is especially nurtured in the Humanities. It is not so much knowledge that is privileged in Literature, though that too is important, but the notion of the idea.”

Knowledge on its own means very little, Sharmani added. “It is the idea that helps us explore, frame our questions, inquire into knowledge and move it forward. It is these creative and imaginative aspects inherent in the pursuit of knowledge that Literature and the Humanities in general help us address. This is all the more urgent, an antidote even, to our hypermodern, technicised 21st century lives.”

Having said that, Sharmani said she is aware of the department’s responsibility to engage with the trends and needs of various professions.

“The BA in English offered includes courses that combine the skills of literary analysis with job-oriented skills and applications of English for career options in advertising and journalism, for instance. We offer these courses as electives in our main BA programme. But we are also entrusted with the greater responsibility of not diluting our courses or modifying them to the extent that they no longer meet the principles of academic inquiry,” she added.


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