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SSar wonders if she will be graded on "standing up for personal beliefs"
SSar's Beast
Dear [Students heading a protest to retain Victoria's ENLA major]

I hear you are seeking input from all levels of students who might have a stake in the continuation of medieval English courses at Victoria, and in the possible appointment of a new medievalist in the department. I am an Honours student who has had the good luck to take Old English, Middle English, Old Norse, and Chaucer papers at 200 to 400 levels. The 'good' part of the 'good luck' comes from how much it has benefited me. The 'luck' part of the 'good luck' comes from the pure chance that I will complete a full set of undergraduate and Honours courses in the last year that they have been confidently offered, while you do not have that guarantee.

The way that the cut-off point for the ENLA major and associated courses has been placed in the middle of your own studies seems awfully arbitrary to me, and I would like to offer you my sympathies. At the same time, I am hopeful, because it appears to give you a strong case for deferring such a cut off point: in the interim, and maybe indefinitely, should a new instructor be appointed. In this way, your bad luck could give us all an opportunity for good intention rather than good chance to prevail.

Admittedly, "us all" is a sweeping generalisation. It is easier to describe what I have received from the courses which are to be axed.

From Old English 215, I learned what terms like 'dative' and 'reflexive' meant when applied to my native language: where they could be applied, or why they couldn't. I began to grasp the continuum of History as laid out in a textbook of dates and rigid statements, and History as a biased story of events, recorded fallibly and passed on. I learned that saints' lives and Viking invasions can be funny. I learned how to use a 'foreign' glossary, which is not as easy as it sounds. Reading Wulf and Eadwacer, I learned how much power a translator of any language has, and how little certainty.

From Old English 321, I learned how much difference a 'silent edit' can make, and why anyone would argue over a comma that might be a full stop. This sounds embarrassingly soppy, but I really learned to take pride in my own status as a BA student because of the main assignment of this class, which was to take an Old English manuscript facsimile all the way to an edition with glossary, introduction, and notes. From high school to university, critical essays on literature are a known quantity, and although I have been proud of some critical essays I've turned in, I haven't remembered them. I remember the 321 assignment because it felt like something "real scholars" would do, something that required great precision, problem-solving, and background knowledge.

From Middle English 322, I learned to recognise the word 'what' in its many, many forms. I learned how a dialect could be traced as though it were a kind of biological strain, as it migrated, competed, mutated, or died out. I learned to recognise markers of one dialect or another, and more importantly, I learned how experts before me had identified these markers.

From History of the English Language 224, I learned to use the Oxford English Dictionary Online - which is a great example of something that high school students could probably benefit from and which I didn't access until my fifth year of university. I learned about the history of printing, and what 'Ye Olde Englishe Tea Shoppe' really means to a diachronic student of language. And I learned what Middle English texts looked like to students who hadn't studied 215, 321, or 322; that is, I learned how much of an advantage I'd been given!

(That only covers the undergraduate courses... but I have not yet completed the Honours courses, and besides, I have probably worn out the word 'learned'.)

In particular, it was of enormous benefit to me to take some of these courses in conjunction with others run by the Linguistics department. I had an advantage in the "Danish and Comparative Germanics" linguistics course, because one of the 'Germanics' that I could compare was the Anglo-Saxon tongue. I also benefited a lot from taking "Middle English" concurrently with the Linguistics department's "Sociolinguistics" course, as they both dealt with the interaction between dialects of a language. I am taking the Linguistics "Morphology" paper now, partly because of the etymology knowledge given to me by the English Language papers, and the assignment I am working on right now focuses on the Peterborough Chronicle.

The sense of context, of how the work of scholars before me as well as the words of scholars before me have created the material that is our literary heritage, was one of the two greatest benefits of the English Language major for me. The other benefit was the ability to cross-train in Literature and Linguistics, learning to appreciate the knowledge one imparted all the more because I could immediately apply it to the other.

Having the benefit of timing, I am not as directly disadvantaged by the potential loss of the ENLA major as you are. In arguing for the retention of courses which relate to the history of the English language, I would feel a bit of a hypocrite if I could not give reasons that this would benefit me personally. The most obvious reason is that I would like other students to have the same opportunities to learn that I have had. The second is that I would like that cross-training potential to be there; when I investigate the prosody of noun+noun compounds or the different branches of the prefix for- in the course of Linguistics, I would love to be able to consult with historical-English experts in my own university. Indeed, I would like to be able to ask questions about these things within New Zealand, which looks as though it is becoming more difficult. The third is that Honours is hardly the end of graduate studies, but it looks as though it will be the end of medieval English language studies for me, in this university. That is a pity.

In general, I don't think I can over-emphasise the value of learning English as a language at university level. It is a common lament that grammar is no longer taught in schools. It is widely accepted that it expands one's mind to learn another language. It is necessary, through studying an unfamiliar tongue, to gain an appreciation of structures and patterns that are invisible in the language we speak every day. So, learning English from its roots provides the student with grammatical skills, the flexibility of a foreign language learner, and greater fluency in their first language, all at once. If I am proselytising, it is because I have experienced all of these benefits first-hand, with history and poetry included.

...And finally, I would like to call as my witness Thomas Jefferson, in his Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia:

...Anglo-Saxon is of peculiar value. We have placed it among the modern languages, because it is in fact that which we speak, in the earliest form in which we have knowledge of it. It has been undergoing, with time, those gradual changes which all languages, ancient and modern, have experienced; and even now needs only to be printed in the modern character and orthography to be intelligible, in a considerable degree, to an English reader. It has this value, too, above the Greek and Latin, that while it gives the radix of the mass of our language, they explain its innovations only. Obvious proofs of this have been presented to the modern reader in the disquisitions of Horn Tooke; and Fortescue Aland has well explained the great instruction which may be derived from it to a full understanding of our ancient common law, on which, as a stock, our whole system of law is engrafted. It will form the first link in the chain of an historical review of our language through all its successive changes to the present day, will constitute the foundation of that critical instruction in it which ought to be found in a seminary of general learning, and thus reward amply the few weeks of attention which would alone be requisite for its attainment; a language already fraught with all the eminent science of our parent country, the future vehicle of whatever we may ourselves achieve, and destined to occupy so much space on the globe, claims distinguished attention...

(Report of the Commissioners for the University of Virginia, 4th August 1818, pages 440-441; )

Yours sincerely,

Sara Berger, student

PS: Take that, Zombie St Olaf.

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That's awesome - a really interesting and clearly-written letter. Kudos :)

Awww, thank you! I feel like a crusader. :)

Your English 321 comments are basically exactly the same as mine were. :) DAMN that was a good paper.

Truly. What a brilliant assignment that was.

Although it also speaks volumes for the 322 paper that I managed to adore it despite failing it.

Have I told you I love you lately?

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