English as a Second Language

Home grown.

If you visit this blog regularly, you may know that I’ve been taking university English courses. For fun. If you visit this blog regularly, you may also know that I have a supremely misguided notion of what constitutes fun. Just in case you are contemplating having the same kind of fun I’m having right now, I am happy to offer some insight into the post-secondary English educational journey that may either save you the trouble of doing it in the first place, or arm you with a toolkit that will allow you to breeze through it with flying colours. As they say, a win-win.

The first thing to know is never use the term “win-win” in an essay. If you do, you will be accused of writing a blog post instead of a scholarly academic paper. Academic papers, for an English course (or probably any course), must be devoid of colloquial expressions, lest they make it easy to read. According to my TA for EN 1002, who I must add, has at least two fewer graduate degrees than I do, you must also never use contractions. I don’t know what that’s about, because I can’t think of any reason why a contraction wouldn’t be acceptable. But it appears they aren’t. And it’s probably forbidden to start a sentence with “and” or “but.” Forewarned is forearmed.

Completing an English degree in the 21st century boils down to a firm grasp of two things. Neither of these were in evidence during my first undergraduate go-round in 1974, but possibly I was not paying enough attention. Regardless, I am extremely glad to know so much has advanced in the study of English since then. I always thought of English as kind of like accounting. Debits and credits have been pretty much the same since Luca Pacioli invented the double-entry bookkeeping system in 1494. (I learned this from Wikipedia, not from a text book that cost $40, used, BTW. Oops, not allowed to use BTW, either, I’m guessing.) Au contraire (also, do not use foreign phrases. This is English, after all.) Somehow, in the past forty-five years or so, English has galloped ahead of geography, calculus, and sociology in academic precision.

English majors must be well-versed in “the canon,” which is the worthiest set of things to read to obtain a well-rounded education. Shakespeare, Milton, Keats, Dickens, Hawthorne, and their ilk. In other words, dead white guys. But here is the twist. The learned English scholars of the present day question the relevance of the canon (which doesn’t mean they don’t still make you read them – too many contractions and probably a double negative. Deal with it.), for just that reason. So now we have several canons to consider: the original one, the modern one, the post-modern one, the avant-garde one, the diaspora one, the sub-continent one, and the 21st century one. Your key to success as an English major is to predict the next canon.

Another important lesson is that “everything connects.” Even though the canon of white guys has officially been declared as dead as they are, it lives on to be vilified and flagellated via the concept of intertextuality. Apparently, every “cultural text” (AKA a thing that has been written and well-received) is related to every other cultural text because it embodies the normative behaviours of the society that created it. (I should probably include a reference here. I will not. Or actually, I won’t.) In layman’s terms, intertextuality is what we used to call plagiarism. It means incorporating great swaths of the canon in your book, either explicitly or implicitly, reverently or irreverently, ironically or sincerely, just because you can. I suggest the best approach is to get a real cannon and kill the canon once and for all. Until then, I am almost finished cranking out essays this term, devoid of contractions but with ample reference and deference to dead white men, in, what I hope, is an implicit, irreverent, ironic way. A way in which I wish my twenty-something TA finds me worthy.

4 thoughts on “English as a Second Language”

  1. Do I envy you? Ummm, no. My recurring dreams (nightmares?) are mostly about going back to school and realizing at the end of the term, that I did not ( didn’t?) attend any classes. The fact that they are usually Math classes is beside the point. Going back to school is the point. Never. But good on you those who do. (woo pan started that sentence with “but”.

    1. I have those nightmares even though I am actually going to school – oh, wait, I think I just figured that one out. Apparently my sleeping brain has proven it knows best. I shouldn’t, can’t, won’t do it! It will be a win-win-win!

  2. Amen!! I spoke about some of this stuff, except trying to remember it from very foggy memories, when I did my last book launch in Deep. Too bad you weren’t there. We could’ve bandied about words like signifier, intertextuality and appropriation with great (or lesser) aplomb. Or a plum. Good on ya. Very brave indeed to confront this stuff in one’s advancing years. My brain is no longer advancing but retreating, I’m afraid.

  3. An Ode to Marilyns and TAs everywhere
    I’m writing my essays, one by one
    Focus on word count, but is that a con?
    It’s all about thesis, argument and proof
    Contractions, oh no you’re such a goof.
    I’m struggling with poetry as you can see,
    iamb and sestet, caesura, trochee
    Ethos, pathos, and logos today
    Exams over soon, is it an F or an A?

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