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I recently delivered a talk to the OCR consultative forum – a meeting of teachers and educators from across a wide range of sectors. During the preparation and ensuing discussion I was led to some rather interesting revelations which reinforced the Heraklitean observation that what folk have in the palm of their hand is often overlooked. Stepping back from the intensity of the ‘day job’ and collating information for the OCR talk offered new perspectives which I was then able to share with the forum.
Members of the English Forum need no convincing that studying English brings its own rewards, but how do we breathe new energy into what many perceive as a rather demanding subject with lots of reading and essay writing? As a subject to study (and to teach), English is not just interesting, but its relevance also brings substantial benefits to the individual and, as it turns out, to the economy and the community.
So what does English Language and Literature offer?
Firstly, straddling the arts and sciences, language study truly has something for everyone, and is therefore a most attractive academic subject because language impinges on all subject areas. And (yes we can coordinate sentences with a conjunction), when language description and analysis is combined with the creativity and expressiveness of a rich literary heritage, the allure will surely speak to all but the most unimaginative.
As well as a source of pleasure, creativity and imagination, literature helps develop descriptive and rhetorical skills as arguments are justified with evidence, and conclusions based on logic and reason. More than this, our rich literary tradition charts the evolution of English from its origins to the present day. The shifts in word meanings, pronunciation and grammar are evident in the texts of each generation and ‘archaisms’ were once every bit as innovative and creative then as neologisms are for us today.
Further, any discussion of politics, power, beliefs and values need only look at history see how they were expressed through words, whose meanings and uses change over time, space and context, to this day. Literature provides the documentary evidence for the ways English has evolved and surely serves to humble any strident champions of ‘correctness’.
Contemporary society has become one where multitasking is the norm, information, goods and services can be accessed 24 hours a day, and ours after a few mouse clicks.
Technology does not merely change the way we work, rest and play; it changes the way we write, speak and think. History here too shows this isn’t new: early writing systems, the printing press, electricity, the telephone, and television have all had similar effects - effects that are reflected in language and literature alike. How could it be otherwise?
So with a foot in the arts and sciences, English Language and Literature offers a solid grounding for those whose career direction is yet to be determined, as much as for those whose enthusiasm and futures are already planned. Students, and their parents, will warm to the ready ‘transferability’ of the skills involved, as well as the knowledge itself, especially when it comes to opening the door to a wide range of career options.
Employability and transferable skills
The gradual move from a manufacturing economy in the UK to one based on service industries creates the need for a workforce that has well-developed analytical abilities within their respective fields, competence in literacy and numeracy, and, interestingly, ‘soft’ skills: the most significant of which is communication.
As UK businesses develop their USPs, effective liaison between various client groups is crucial to their success, particularly in the South East, where financial and professional service industries thrive.
Some estimates suggest that by 2025 soft skills will contribute some £127b to the UK economy up from around £88b in 2012. It seems that graduates in English Language and Literature will be well placed to help fill this skills gap.
Like many UK universities, employability is an increasingly influential factor in course design at Bedfordshire. We must demonstrate exactly how a degree in X will improve a student’s career prospects. This involves looking carefully at what graduate employers seek: graduates are expected to know their subject, but must show they can exploit that expertise.
We know employers are keen to keep costs down, and applicants who need considerable training are less appealing than those who already know how to apply their area of expertise to that professional work setting and, better still, have relevant experience of doing so.
A ‘placement year’ will help – a year in industry that both informs their subject expertise and gives students the chance to see how their knowledge and skills apply to their chosen professional work setting.
Finally, larger graduate employers use selection methods that involve psychometric testing – procedures that give students of English Language and Linguistics distinct advantages.
1. Soft skills: Understanding rapport and using well-honed communication skills in speaking and writing
2. Critical thinking: using descriptive, analytical and evaluative skills to reach justified conclusions
3. Psychometric testing: based on verbal reasoning and reading comprehension tasks.
These all favour the highly articulate and literate, which is what we expect of English Language and Literature graduates.
Theo Maniski - Head of Department of English Language and Communication at the University of Bedfordshire
A child of the 60s, Theo was born and raised in North London. Having trained as a language teacher originally, he taught English Language and Literature in the UK and abroad for several years, and was an external examiner for the UCLES mainsuite EFL exams. His first degree was in Linguistics which he studied at UCL under Dick Hudson, majoring in syntax, and English phonetics and phonology. After a period as a visiting lecturer in London, teaching English, Linguistics and Phonetics, he moved to Luton where PG studies in Applied Linguistics allowed him to explore English syntax in ELT contexts. He worked both as a teacher trainer and teacher of linguistics in Luton for several years before taking on management of the UG English Language programme, an experience that led to his current post of Head of Department of English Language and Communication at the University of Bedfordshire.