On the first day of my English 242 Non-Western Literature and Cultural Studies class I asked my students to put their desks in a circle, and then we pondered the problem of the circle in the square: why are circles not the standard configuration for our classrooms?
We all looked around. Our classroom, my students noted, is very, very square. The ceiling panels are square, the tiles on the floor are square, and the desks are square. A circle of desks is unnatural and uncomfortable within this room; there is too much empty space in the center, and there are too many people along the edges. It’s a bad fit.
What does any of this have to do with the study of English, you might wonder.
Here’s my answer. Through our rhetorical strategies and through our fictional, nonfictional, and poetic creations and analyses, English is a discipline that constitutes not only the study of language and literatures but also the means by which we construct and analyze the world around us. The study of English allows us to negotiate, create, and analyze texts, whether those texts are novels or films, presidential speeches or song lyrics – or even the food we eat and the spaces we occupy.
For example, when my class read the text of our classroom, we were able to tell many things about the culture – our western culture – that produced it. Western culture is linear: consider the structure of our written texts, row upon row of words that constitute narratives with beginnings, middles, and ends. Consider our linear conception of time and the way that we think that it passes: one is born, one lives, and one dies. Squares and lines connote a kind of efficiency to us, a practicality that allows us to compartmentalize, grid, and define a certain set of rules about who we are.
But there are other texts out there, and the faculty in English – rhetoricians, literary scholars, creative and technical writers – are here to explore their meanings with you. Consider Nigerian author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Okonkwo’s compound is a circle: “his own hut, or obi, stood immediately behind the only gate . . . . Each of his three wives had her own hut, which together formed a half moon behind the obi.” In Okonkwo’s world, long dead ancestors walk among the living. And New Zealand author Keri Hulme’s novel The Bone People situates “the end at the beginning”; the narrative is structured as a spiral – overlapping, endless, and circular. In these texts, the circle, not the square, is prominent.
The cultures and texts beyond our classrooms may not be linear; they may be round with conceptions of time that are cyclical. The dead may not stay dead, and the architecture may not have angles. But the study of English allows us to navigate unfamiliar and challenging textual landscapes in order to articulate larger and more nuanced truths about the world around us – whether that world is in your backyard or on another continent.
Welcome to our department. Have a look around, make yourself at home, and let us
know how we can help you.
Dr. Laura Wright, Department Head
English Department, Coulter 305, Western Carolina University, Cullowhee, NC 28723
Phone: 828-227-7264 | FAX: 828-227-7266