This is a course about two things: storytelling, and learning to be analytical about it, on the one hand, and expressing oneself eloquently once one has acquired these analytical skills, on the other.
Why are they important? Well, storytelling is as central to being human as anything else is: speech, tool-making, upright posture, all the various features that have been put forward, at one time or another, as “distinctively human.” As Peter Brooks puts it, “Our lives are ceaselessly intertwined with narrative…. We live immersed in narrative, recounting and reassessing the meaning of our past actions, anticipating the outcome of our future projects, situating ourselves at the intersection of several stories not yet completed.” Storytelling is, as philosophers like to say “constitutive of our identities”; that is, we make sense of ourselves, and we communicate what kind of people we are, through stories. What could be more important, then, than learning how the best storytellers have told their stories? Reading Homer and Austen and Dickens and Tolstoy and Joyce gives us a firmer grasp not just of technical storytelling techniques but of our own selfhood, our own capacity for moral choices and fine discriminations. For centuries, narrative has seduced us into morality as well as sociability. From the epics of blind or anonymous storytellers, through medieval religious narratives, to the novel and the film, and finally to the (as yet) largely untheorized narratives typical of the age of Facebook and other social media, narrative has been our teacher and guide. What could be more important, then, than to pay attention to these shaping forms of narrative?
The other aspect of the course is just as important: expressiveness, articulateness, eloquence. It is precisely these skills that are most in demand in the world outside the academic humanities. A good English course teaches you to think well, and to express yourself well. I firmly believe that English departments are the true heirs of the classical discipline of rhetoric, the art of persuasion. Here, if anywhere in the university, there is an emphasis not only on what you say (or write) but how you say it (or write it). In an age in which social media, paradoxically, may intensify “connectivity” while paralyzing actual face-to-face verbal and communicative skills, it often falls to English courses to take up where rhetoric left off. It is in courses such as this one that students learn to organize their thoughts, take up a position in a debate, express themselves clearly, politely and eloquently, and participate in the unending adventure of human intellectual inquiry.