Literature is possibly the most inter-disciplinary subject in mainstream university curricula. During the undergraduate programme, the student would have walked through the streets of disciplines as diverse as sociology, history, political science, philosophy, psychology and the fine arts. (Is it possible to teach the Victorian period without teaching Darwin, Mill and Bentham? And how do you teach the Modern period without Freud and Marx?) Since literature is a representation of the world itself, there is nothing that lies outside its purview.
Yet, studying literature involves studying not only the world but (and this is what makes literature a specialised field in its own right) the world as it is shaped in language by writers.
The Delhi University ‘Eng litt-er’ can expect to be exposed to various understandings of the world, from different eras and different regions. Over three years s/he will have to take nine papers that cover canonical authors of mainly British literature – Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf etc. But s/he will also be exposed to literatures from other times and other parts of the world through papers like classical literature, twentieth century Indian writing, Commonwealth literature and modern European drama. Some of these are optional papers. Other important optional papers include literary theory (which aims to equip the student with crucial theoretical and methodological tools for the study of literature) and genre-specific papers like popular fiction and European realism.
In addition to these 'honours' papers, the student also opts for a few interdisciplinary concurrent courses, which are designed to enhance the multi-disciplinarity of the course as it is taught in Delhi University.
In the newly-introduced semester system, these papers are distributed over six semesters, with examinations being held twice a year. The student will additionally be internally assessed (at the respective college level) through tutorials and written assignments through the course of the year, and 25% of the total marks come from these internal assessments.
It should be clear by now that the focus of English literature is not language training, but an exploration of literary works and worlds produced in that language. In fact, the student is expected to be fluent in the language 'before' taking up the course. However, it certainly aims to sensitise the student to the nuances of language and hone his/her writing skills. It seeks to develop analytical skills, imaginative abilities, and intellectual rigour, creativity and sensitivity.
Consequently English literature is an ideal launch pad for a student who wants to go immediately into a career or to pursue higher studies whether in literature or in another discipline, whether in India or abroad. Students have a wide variety of options after they graduate. Many of them do a master's degree and go on to specialise, in India or abroad, through research. Many researchers have moved with ease into disciplines like film studies, cultural studies, media studies, gender studies and even development studies or into more conventional areas like social work, sociology, philosophy, etc. Others opt for law (LLB) or for competitive exams like those for the civil services, banking, etc, for which they are usually already prepped by the multi-disciplinary nature of the subject and the similar demand made by these exams. Yet others opt for management courses and for careers in the private sector. A very large number go into the electronic media and newspapers, where their training in literature stands them in very good stead. Another increasingly promising option for students of English literature is the publishing industry, which is growing in size in India. Apart from these, a popular option over the years has been to undertake a BEd programme after the BA, to pursue a career in school teaching.
It must be noted that very few private universities offer a literature programme. And although many state universities do, Delhi University is one of the few universities in the country that offers a full-fledged honours programme in literature. The course is one of the most rigorous and demanding, but also one of the most sought-after and rewarding literature programmes in the country.
Institutions at a glance
Best for undergraduate programmes in Delhi
St Stephen's College
Jesus and Mary College
IP College for Women
Miranda House (for Women)
Best for UG programmes in India
English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad
St Xavier's, Mumbai
Jadavpur University, West Bengal
Madras Christian College, Chennai
High degree of language competence
Sensitivity towards and interest in social issues
Passion and stamina for reading
Five points to note
Literature is not a language course
The study of literature requires a fluency in written and spoken language
The course involves an in-depth study of entire novels, plays, poetry and essays from the 14th century onwards
It is a highly interdisciplinary programme that encourages a wide-range of reading
Consequently it offers career options in a number of fields
The author is associate professor, department of English, St Stephen's College, Delhi