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“I didn’t come to university to study this!”  I’ve heard that phrase a fair few times over the last ten years, usually from English students grappling with Anglo-Saxon, sociolinguistics, theatre history or another branch of the field which doesn’t match the popular image of us as professional readers immersed all day in Shakespeare or the Victorian novel.  I suspect a large number of people reading this piece, if they’ve been through an arts and humanities department, have probably heard or said the same thing, perhaps when faced with Cliometrics or Foucault.  A continual argument about what does or doesn’t constitute the field – where exactly the muddy bits in the corner of the field have definitively become the swamp and we’re all about to disappear under the ooze – is one of the distinguishing features of our sort of study.

Coming from students, this sort of objection is often dismissed as evidence that they don’t know what’s good for them.  It is not, lecturers have been known to grumble, for undergraduates to tell us what they should or shouldn’t know in order to work in our subject.  Students have come to learn from the faculty, and that involves a certain amount of admitting they don’t know things.  To quote that bit of Donald Rumsfeld which everyone seemed to think was so hilarious at the time, but which actually made perfect sense, there are known unknowns and there are unknown unknowns.[1]

People applying to study English might know they want to find out about Pynchon, or Shakespeare, or Woolf, and be gazing eagerly at the cloudy expanses which they can see are there but which they haven’t had a chance to explore yet.  On the other hand, they might not even be aware that sociolinguistics exists, or that performance theory is a pretty powerful way to reconsider drama, or the Great Vowel Shift ever happened.  To borrow from another profession, someone once defined good journalism as writing which tells you what you wanted to know, and great journalism as writing which tells you what you didn’t know you wanted to know.

Part of the thrill of an expansive discipline like English is the hidden and obscure aspects which can turn out to be vital to your intended learning, or can simply divert you to another path.  It’s our job as academics to ensure that these parts of the subject are made available to our students, even – no, especially – at the early stages of their university career.  I have a lot of sympathy for students in this position, particularly at a university like Nottingham, which gives its first years compulsory courses in medieval, linguistics, drama and post-1500 literature.  Particularly after all the enthusiastic talk during A-levels about how you can really specialise at university, and spend all day on your personal niche, this is a flummoxing array of different modes we expect our students to become proficient in.

Nonetheless, they are splendidly eye-opening topics which can revolutionise your sense of what it even means to do English, as testified to by the number of second-years who choose options in them, despite never having known some of these subjects existed when they filled in their UCAS form.  It’s up to academics to explain, to justify, and then to teach these topics in a way which hopefully persuades students of their worth.  It’s up to students to keep an open mind about how they might acquire a new understanding of the shape of the field, as well as acquire knowledge within its known bounds.

I actually find it remarkably heartening when I hear this objection.  Well, I do when I think about it afterwards.  It might sound on the surface as if students who object that “I didn’t come to university to study this” are buying in to the increasingly prevalent image of university study as a consumer good.  The idea that universities are essentially selling a pre-packaged item (whether a credential which will entitle the recipient to a job, or a snugly tailored “student experience”) is one of the bugbears of current discussion about higher education.  Academics understandably snarl – and Stefan Collini exhilaratingly writes angry articles – when told that it is their job to provide a tempting selection of courses which potential students can assess ahead of time, understand completely before they enrol, weigh up against other comparable units of education, and then purchase at the most competitive price available.

But that’s not what I hear behind “I didn’t come to university to study this”.  I don’t hear an entitled generation of consumers rejecting a particular epistemological app because it doesn’t suit their tastes.  After all, according to the flat, contractual model of higher education, their objection makes no sense.  Check your contract, the university could respond crisply.  This is exactly what you came to university to study.  We provided all the information in advance, you made a rational choice between equivalent universities on the basis of value, excitement, customizability or whichever criteria seemed most pressing to you.  And you chose the exact combination of modules we’re now providing you with.  This is the spec written on the box, the model as advertised.

The objection only makes sense if we assume that these students didn’t pick an assortment of elements which they scanned in advance and decided they’d enjoy more than the other items in the market.  “I didn’t come to university to study this” is the frustration of someone who signed up for a coherent course of study, who put their confidence in a group of people they believed were dedicated to a particular field of human culture into which they wanted to be inducted, and now feel they’ve been let down or rejected somehow.  The betrayal implicit in this complaint has no meaning in a chocolate-box menu of university disciplines, it presumes that the student has tentatively lent their judgement to someone else, in order to let that other person direct their intellectual life for a while.

It’s couched in the language of trust, judgement and confidence which the humanities speak to each other.  It shows that the student is one of us, because they’re trying irritably to hold us to account by our own principles.  If we don’t think we’ve betrayed them by setting them to useless or meaningless work, we have to answer in the language they’ve used.  We need to persuade them that this topic is in fact English and can benefit them enormously – whether for its own sake, or for the light is sheds upon their own favourite part of the subject –  if they give us their confidence again until we prove it.

Replying in the cant phrases of markets and contracts would be a worse betrayal than they already think we’ve committed.  If only because we would be betraying ourselves and our colleagues as well as them.  “I didn’t come to university to study this” can be remarkably irritating to hear.  But it’s the stubborn cry of a student who is on our side, who has rejected the instrumentalist and consumerist vision of education which the government offers, and who is demanding the right to have their grievance heard in our language, as one of our own.

[1] Like A-Ha, or The Eagles, Rumsfeld released just the one classic, which stands bafflingly amidst the body of work as a mute reminder that you have to listen hard even when you’re sure it’ll be drivel.