The English Department’s chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, an International English Honor Society, inducted seven new members at its first meeting of the fall semester in the Plaster Student Union, where Dr. Heidi Hadley, Director of English Education, delivered the keynote address.
“Only students of high scholarship are admitted to our ranks,” Dr. Jonathon Newman, one of the faculty advisors, explained. All English majors and minors who meet the credit and GPA criteria are welcome to join. “Membership in Sigma Tau Delta brings publication and presentation opportunities, as well as opportunities for service, fellowship, and leadership in the English department at Missouri State.”
Founded in 1924, Sigma Tau Delta has over 750 active chapters in the United States, the Caribbean, and Europe. They have been at Missouri State University since 1974. In Greek, the letters “Sigma Tau Delta” represent the English words “Sincerity, Truth, Design.”
Hadley’s inspiring message resonated with these significant characteristics of the organizations and of studying English:
To study English is to study words, ideas, stories, language, culture, power, communication, and humanity. Peter Elbow, a writing scholar, once wrote that “English is the grab-bag, garbage-pail, everything but the kitchen sink discipline. Or, recasting this with the dignity that English professors love, English is peculiarly rich, complex, and many-faceted. More so, I think, than any other discipline.” So, if the question is “why do we study English?”, perhaps the answer is “for whatever reason you find valuable.”
The reason I read and write has been different throughout my life, and how I define what I study or what I should study has been different too. I have used reading and writing for lots of different purposes: as a young child, I read to show off; as a preteen, I read to feel less lonely; as a teenager, I read for entertainment; in college, I read the canon in order to be “well-read.” I’ve read to understand my religion, and I’ve read to deconstruct it. I’ve read bedtime stories to my children. I’ve read current fiction for book clubs, and I’ve read theory that makes my understanding of the world bigger.
I’ve written, too, of course. I’ve written to understand myself better through journaling; during the early 2000s when I was deep in the trenches of being a stay at home mom to five kids under the age of eight, I wrote a mommy blog purely to keep myself sane; I’ve written lesson plans (so many lesson plans!), I’ve written letters to the editor to enter into community dialogue, I’ve written tweets to test out new ideas, I’ve written stories and poems because I just like to write stories and poems, and I’ve written research articles to share what’s new and interesting in my field.
You, too, have probably used reading, writing, and speaking for a variety of purposes, and sometimes this purpose-inspired definition of the study of English can lead us to consider the study of English as the sum of its parts. It can encourage us to think about the study of English as what it can teach you to do, rather than who it can encourage you to be. Carol Jago, a former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, offered a personae-based conception of what English is. Which is to say, the study of
English can and should encourage us to take on various personae that allow us, as she says, “to make a living, make a life, and make a difference.”
These personae include roles that are related to success in one domain or another: roles like storyteller, philosopher, historian, anthropologist, reporter, critic, and designer. These roles attend to both comprehension and composition. For example, as a storyteller, you can enjoy reading a story, but you can also learn to tell or write a story; as a designer, you may “read” a text differently when you notice the features that enrich the text’s meaning, but you will also more thoughtfully design textual experiences for others in order to enrich their understanding. Some of these personae encourage critical thinking and complex understandings of the world, others focus on grappling with big ideas or attending to features and functions of every element of communication.
To study English, then, is to want to read; it is to enjoy the intricacies of story, to take pleasure in viewing, observing, thinking, or communicating.
But the final persona of someone who studies English that Jago offers is the persona of a traveler. Instead of being purpose-based, a traveler in the study of English is marked by their intellectual curiosity. Travelers want to know, visit, see, and understand; they are self-motivated to explore as they come to understand the world around them. To study English, then, is to want to read; it is to enjoy the intricacies of story, to take pleasure in viewing, observing, thinking, or communicating. It is to embody the riot that Audre Lord referred to when she said, “The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot.” To study English is to find joy in an apt turn of phrase, to welcome the moments of discomfort that lead to a deeper understanding of our responsibility to ourselves and others.
When I think about who studying English has allowed me to be, I am certain that the study of English has encouraged me to be the kind of person who sees the glory in, as Gerard Manley Hopkins says:
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
Studying English has given me the capacity to decenter myself in the universe and to make space for the other in my ethics, my community, and my worldview. As we kick off this semester in whatever year of English study this is for you, whether it’s your first or your twentieth, I encourage you to consider not only what studying English can teach you to do, but also who you are becoming.
About the Author
Sabrina Wagganer is a first-generation college student who will graduate with a BS in Professional Writing in 2021. Sabrina has published on Atlas Obscura and is the creator of The Jacqueline Project, a blog highlighting women who rock their corner of the small business world. A former massage therapist and educator, Sabrina has been a small business owner since 2007 and is passionate about the success of small businesses. She enjoys a variety of interests, including photography, listening to true crime podcasts, discovering locally owned eateries, and visiting little-known tourist attractions while traveling with her partner.