I had a student ask me today if they could just skip class and hand in the assignment as we go. They said they would come to class, but it’s an English class and we never seem to talk about English, so they don’t see the point.
This hurts me. It hurts me because it feels like a failure of my teaching approach. Even more so, it hurts me that someone can be so sequestered and see the knowledge of the universe as categorized.
I talk about everything in my class as sample subjects. Today, for instance, we talked about VX (the chemical weapon) and TRAPPIST-1, the 39-light-years-distant star with a very fascinating system of planets. We talk about credible experts if we were to write about such things, where we would go, and how we would balance that kind of information.
You see, I want my students to be good citizens and communicators. I want them to build connections with everything and everyone around them. It’s what we need for functioning communities and a thriving species. I believe that as a fundamental truth.
If we study the history of genetics and biology to learn how we are related to that tree just outside the classroom window, that’s building a connection, that’s contextualizing, and that is understanding a bigger picture. You know what? That is English.
If we gaze up after an evening class and see the Pleiades, the star cluster 400-light-years distant, we are seeing light that left those beautiful blue stars around the same time Galileo was peering through a telescope for the first time. All that has happened between then and now, the triumphs and discoveries and tragedies and atrocities, all of that is connected by the transit of this 186,000 miles-per-second vision.
That is understanding the vastness of our universe, the way history is connected, and how what we see is both real and illusory. That is English. That is understanding. And that is then to be communicated.
The alternative is that English is a sequence of grammar and punctuation rules and words that go in and out of fashion. English is a collection of citation methods that change every few years. English is a mundane tool and box to tick on the way to a degree.
I refuse to believe that. I refuse to confine my discipline to such a dusty corner. English rides those connections between us all, as much as starlight and DNA and wonder do. The universe is about connections, and so is the human experience. English is the means for expressing all of it for those of us who possess the language.
So, in short, no. No, you can’t skip my class. You aren’t exempt from wonder. You aren’t free from the responsibility of the universe.