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Why Birkbeck Needs English Literature

January 17, 2023

During lockdown, book sales boomed. Many of us who were forced to work from home found we had an extra couple of hours of free time per day because we weren’t commuting. We read. We watched movies. We binge-watched TV series. Isolation was tough, and we reached for works of imagination to escape our confinement, to bring light relief, to help us understand what was going on in the world.

The English language is fundamental to British culture, and English literature is the English language at its finest. Directly or indirectly, it filters through everything we think and do, and imbues our daily lives with a richness that sometimes we don’t appreciate. When literature matters so much to us as a nation – to our view of ourselves, to the world’s view of us – why would we not encourage students to immerse themselves in its variety and glory, to understand it thoroughly, to carry its message forward? But that is what Birkbeck University is planning to do.

The founding and growth of Birkbeck University – the Mechanics’ Institute – is testimony to a sane and civilised society providing opportunity for working people to engage with the world around them and to better their lot in life. Birkbeck offers opportunity for working people to grow, to challenge themselves, to follow their dreams when their circumstances mean they don’t have the luxury of ditching the day job, when they still need to earn a living.

I would not have been able to continue my study had it not been for Birkbeck’s unique operating model. I am in the second year of a two-year part-time MA in Creative Writing. English literature and creative writing go hand in hand. Understanding literature is fundamental to better writing. So I don’t just write, I also read, for the course and for the love of it. I am from a working-class background, I work for a living, and it has always been my dream to sit within an ecosystem that revolves around written works of the imagination. Birkbeck allows me to do that.

You don’t have to study English to degree level to enjoy works of literature, but it’s a cornerstone of any worthwhile institution to offer an undergraduate course in the written word of our native language, to offer the opportunity to understand our shared body of literature. It speaks to the aspiration of your student body, of the students you wish to attract, to present English literature as an option. For Birkbeck, of all places, to walk away from English literature, or to downplay it, is to suggest that literature is not for working people. At least, that’s how it feels.

As a writer of fiction, I am on a perpetual lookout for the reasons behind human behaviour, for the motivating factors behind a given course of action. I want to think well of the people around me, to search for resolution, for the satisfying ending. I believe in redemption. And so it is with the plight of English teaching at Birkbeck. I have faith that a solution can be reached that allows the English Department to survive and to thrive. But as I am not party to the discussions as to department’s future, all I can do is add my voice to the multitude of people who know that closing the department (or downgrading it, which is tantamount to the same thing) would be an error. English literature sits at the heart of British culture, and Birkbeck needs a thriving English department to support working people who love our language.

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