Feature: Disciplines & Changing Boundaries: The Case of English Studies

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By Dr David CL Lim (david@oum.edu.my)

Demystifying 'English'

English is a highly misunderstood discipline, no less in Malaysia where studying English at tertiary level is, to many, equivalent to studying to improve one's proficiency in the English language, in the way that one would in high school, for example.

Others tend to collapse English into the study of literature or linguistics, the latter being a 'scientific' or 'clinical' study of the English language as speech sounds, grammar, and meaning. There are yet others who reduce English to TESL (Teaching of English as a Second Language), as though the only thing one could do with English is to teach the language in schools.

Few realize that English is much more than what it has come to be seen as, that it is in fact an evolving intellectual discipline that has become highly interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary (as will be explained). That English continues to be constricted in the commonsense understanding in Malaysia is not helped by the conventional ways in which English is taught in most local universities, where English is commonly broken into discreet subfields and taught in relative isolation.

There are no doubt benefits to be reaped from studying English purely as proficiency, linguistic, literature or the like. Many English graduates who majored in one of the many subfields of the discipline in their pure form have successfully ventured into a broad range of professional fields. Among these include journalism, professional writing, research, editorial, advertising, media, public relations, teaching, consultancy, the arts including theatre, and management.

However , the shortcoming of this traditional 'pure' approach to English in the 21st century is that it leaves learners with knowledge of parts of the proverbial elephant instead of the necessary skills to apprehend the elephant as a whole. It leaves them with a less-than-holistic understanding of language and the lifeworld it produces and in which we live. The whole of language cannot be grasped from the perspective of one subfield alone. It takes multiple perspectives that draw from a range of seemingly disparate disciplines to allow us to see that language is not just the words we speak or study inisolation from everything else, it is also, ultimately, and more critically, the foundation of our very being and thought. Language, in Jacques Lacan's parlance, is the hammock that simultaneously receives and imprisons us.

A dominant intellectual paradigm of the 21st century is the understanding that we can never hope to properly understand a phenomenon from the perspective of one discipline, let alone from one subfield within that discipline. To believe otherwise is to demonstrate hubris, at best.

In progressive universities across the world, artificial disciplinary boundaries are being demolished to produce inter disciplinary studies which seek a more active integration between subfields (e.g., linguistics and literature) and multidisciplinary studies which involve the study of two or more disciplines in parallel (e.g., literature, film studies, sociology). This applies beyond such commonplace couplings as language or any other conventional discipline with education.

The radical dissolution of traditional disciplinary boundaries is not exclusive to English but affects just about all disciplines, producing such creative hybrids as psychoanalysis with quantum physics; film and literature with politics; ecological studies with popular culture. The possible but seemingly incompatible combinatory potential is endless and exciting, presaging the disciplines-to-come.

The changing paradigm of monodisciplinary to radical interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity is far from an exclusive ivory tower phenomenon. The world outside the academe is fast coming to realise that, just as one perspective cannot unveil the elephant as a whole, so too one perspective cannot adequately prepare learners to face the complex demands and challenges of the hitherto turbulent 21st century.

Radicalising ' English Studies' at OUM

OUM's Bachelor (BEST) and Masters in English Studies (MEST) Programmes break from the conventional way in which English is usually taught in local institutions. Instead of limiting the discipline to one subfield or the other, they dissolve the divisions that have artificially divided English. Of the two, BEST is strategically more broad-based. It introduces learners to English through the latest in advanced literacy and communication skills, literary studies, cultural studies, film studies and professional writing. Learners following the programme have the opportunity to first upgrade their literacy skills to advanced levels through courses like Critical Reading, Critical Writing, and Listening and Speaking at Tertiary Level. Thereafter, in varying course combinations, learners are exposed to the multiple dimensions of English as a discipline. Through all these courses, learners are brought to the forefront of knowledge as it is evolving.

OUM's newly minted Masters of English Studies (MEST) is more specialized than BEST, as is expected of a higher degree. While BEST enables learners to develop core proficiency in the English language and to acquire fundamental knowledge and understanding of the ways in which language serves as the condition of possibility for the emergence of thought, being and reality across traditional disciplines, MEST builds on BEST by emphasizing depth over breadth in its focus on language and cultural production. Among the cutting-edge courses in the MEST's advanced curriculum are Language, Power and Society, Film and Society in Contemporary Southeast Asia, Malaysian Fiction, and Critical Theory.

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