What’s your identity? Teaching Language or Literature?

“I wonder if I could meet you today to discuss my seminar paper, Sir,” I asked my English professor with ‘due respect and humble submission’. The grey haired bespectacled English professor looked at me gravely and thundered, “If you want to meet me, meet me. Why are you wondering?” Well, I was not wondering or wandering at all, I had made a polite request! The professor of ‘English literature’ interpreted my request too literally, I suppose. My knowledge of Grice’s ‘cooperative principles of conversation’ and Brown and Levinson’s notion of ‘politeness phenomena’ failed me miserably. Was there any ‘Face Threatening Act (FTA) on my part? I asked myself.
When I joined English Language Teaching Institute and declared openly my preference for English language teaching (not English literature), I met the same professor one day and invited him to visit our Institute. He retorted, “Sorry, I can’t. You have gone astray!” ( To quote the actual utterance, ‘tumi beleg phale ghusi gola!). Yes, I had gone astray! I had opted for the “Road not Taken.” Even after making my obeisance to Shakespeare at his birth place and spending lovely evenings on the bank of the Avon in the company of the statues of Lady Macbeth and others, even after spending a year in the birth place of D.H .Laurence, I had defected from the illustrious group of professors of English literature to a dubious club of English language practitioners. Instead of teaching Wordsworth and Shakespeare to groups of highly competent postgraduate students studying in ivory towers, I preferred to work for the ill equipped English language teachers working in the most disadvantageous places of the country. Literature has its sublimity, language has a responsibility!
An uneasy calm exits in the corridors of the English Departments of many Indian Universities. Those who teach literature and those who teach English language belong to two opposing camps. Sometimes, they are not even in speaking terms! Discussing Leavis, Roman Jakobson, Bhatkin, Derrida, Lacan and Julia Kristeva in English in a postgraduate class is intellectually stimulating and professionally satisfying, but, how do you feel when you know that half of the students attending your impassioned discourse on literary theories are unable to use English for communicative purposes?
What is literature, by the way? Isn’t it an example of language in use and a context for language use? “Studying the language of literary text as language can therefore enhance our appreciation of aspects of the different systems of language organization” (Carter,1982:12). How can your students appreciate literature if they have not developed the requisite competence and sensitivity in the related language?
In order to make the study of English literature a meaningful and rewarding experience for the non-native students of English, an integrated English language and literature course should be designed in our Universities and the Department of English should be renamed as the ‘Department of English Language and Literature’. A literature professor blind to the wonderful resources of the language and a language professor blind to the unlimited resources of the literature of that language are anachronisms today. It is often observed that English language specialists and practitioners are blissfully oblivious of the beauty of English literature and shun the resources of English literature. Similarly, many teachers of English literature tend to ignore language and linguistics as if they are too mundane for them. Language and Literature are the two sides of the same coin, aren’t they?

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