THE term “wordsmith” often comes to mind when referring to someone who is pursuing a degree in English Language and Literature — one who is on his way to becoming an expert in the use of words in the language, spouting passages from Shakespeare’s plays, for example.
This is because the programme generally requires the analysis of the workings of the English language in all forms and contexts as well literary texts from different periods throughout history.
English Literature as a major in a Bachelor of Arts programme has been offered here since 1959 when University of Malaya (UM) was established at Lembah Pantai in Kuala Lumpur.
Professor Sharmani Patricia Gabriel, head of the Department of English at UM’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, said the history of the programme can be traced back to 1949 when UM was first formed in Singapore, and even further back to the establishment of Raffles College in the opening decades of the 20th century.
“If you consider carefully UM’s development over its long history, you will notice that though remaining distinctive in the country in terms of the range of courses it continues to offer — from the medieval era to the 21st century, from the UK to other English-speaking regions of the world — the contents of its BA programme have always been in a state of flux,” she added.
“This is necessary for the study of English Literature to remain relevant to our understanding of who we think we are as Malaysians and how we see ourselves as Malaysians in relation to the wider world. This insight on our part means that in addition to teaching British Literature, we also teach Literature in English from Malaysia, Singapore, Africa, India, the Caribbean, Australia and the US. Our curricular offerings have also expanded to reflect both contemporary approaches to the study of Literature and the breadth of staff expertise and interest.”
In terms of student intake, the department annually accepts 20 to 25 students for its BA English programme although it receives applications in the hundreds. “Our undergraduate student size is deliberately kept small so as maintain a favourable student-to-staff ratio and to reflect the shift in emphasis from undergraduate to postgraduate training and education.”
At Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM), Literature in English is offered at the undergraduate level through the BA English Language Studies programme as well as the Bachelor of Education (Teaching English as a Second Language/TESL) programme.
Dr Shahizah Ismail Hamdan, coordinator of the Postcolonial Literature in English Programme at UKM’s Faculty of Social Sciences and Humanities, said: “We also have several Literature courses — also known as kursus citra universiti — open to all undergraduates as part of UKM’s liberal education efforts. The average intake for BA English Language Studies is 60 students and 30 for B.Ed TESL.”
UKM used to offer a BA Literature in English Studies programme, which ran from 2005 to 2014, with an average intake of 25. “Due to changing university policy — which is to increase postgraduate intake — several programmes deemed less marketable were put on hold. To date, that is the status of the BA Literature in English programme. At the Master’s of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy level, UKM offers the Postcolonial Literature in English degrees.
Both UKM and UM were placed in the 51-100 band in the 2017 QS University World Rankings by Subject for English Language and Literature, making them the top two universities in the country for the subject. UKM was in the 101-150 band last year.
“The rise in ranking for English language and Literature can be attributed to the method in which QS University World Rankings by Subject is done — i.e. via global surveys of academics and employers on an institution’s reputation for the subject as well as evaluation of research impact based on citations per publication and h-index,” said Shahizah.
For Sharmani, recognition of the discipline’s international strength is a sign that the faculty’s programme is designed on a model comparable to that of UK and the US universities, which are still widely perceived as canonical centres for the study of Literature in English. “More importantly, our world ranking offers a much needed context for bringing to national visibility the role played by the department as a centre for scholarly thinking and inquiry.”
But how relevant is an English language and Literature qualification in the modern world today, where expertise in areas like technology for example is deemed more critical?
“To declare that the study of English language and Literature is no longer relevant in today’s modern world is inaccurate. The discipline in its traditional sense may not be 100 per cent relevant but the critical and analytical skills involved in literary studies are highly valued in the industry. The ability to state an argument and communicate its relevance are also developed through literary studies,” said Shahizah.
As such, students of the programme are actively involved in many research projects related to making Literary Studies relevant. “One of the ongoing projects includes an effort at branding the skillsets developed in Literary Studies as something that can help differentiate UKM graduates from the rest, increasing their employability as a result. This is done through exposing students to the nuances of language, history, culture, ideology and real life issues that are portrayed in literary works,” she added.
Sharmani remarked that those who say that the study of English Literature is no longer relevant in today’s world must be made to study it. No one who has studied Literature will ever question its usefulness or relevance, she emphasised.
“As a Humanities subject, Literature helps us conceptualise our world from broader and more diverse perspectives, beyond our immediate and often parochial experiences. Reading and writing are, of course, among the most valuable skills one can have. But there exists a purpose for reading and writing beyond the immediate and practical purposes of communication.
“We need Literature to help us interpret our world. It is the combination of reading and writing with analysis that make the study of Literature uniquely important. Literature also helps us understand ourselves as imaginative and creative beings. Though this is found in all disciplines, it is especially nurtured in the Humanities. It is not so much knowledge that is privileged in Literature, though that too is important, but the notion of the idea.”
Knowledge on its own means very little, Sharmani added. “It is the idea that helps us explore, frame our questions, inquire into knowledge and move it forward. It is these creative and imaginative aspects inherent in the pursuit of knowledge that Literature and the Humanities in general help us address. This is all the more urgent, an antidote even, to our hypermodern, technicised 21st century lives.”
Having said that, Sharmani said she is aware of the department’s responsibility to engage with the trends and needs of various professions.
“The BA in English offered includes courses that combine the skills of literary analysis with job-oriented skills and applications of English for career options in advertising and journalism, for instance. We offer these courses as electives in our main BA programme. But we are also entrusted with the greater responsibility of not diluting our courses or modifying them to the extent that they no longer meet the principles of academic inquiry,” she added.
“As Literature is a non-vocational subject, we have made it compulsory in our programme internships that provide students with a valuable opportunity to gain work experience before they graduate. This allows them to get a feel for career pathways they may be interested in exploring after they finish studies. Such work experience is also an Having said that, Sharmani said she is aware of the department’s responsibility to engage with the trends and needs of various professions.
“The BA in English offered includes courses that combine the ability of literary analysis with job-oriented skills and applications of English for career options in advertising and journalism, for instance. We offer these courses as electives in our main BA programme. But we are also entrusted with the greater responsibility of not diluting our courses or modifying them to the extent that they no longer meet the principles of academic inquiry,” she added.
“As Literature is a non-vocational subject, we have made it compulsory in our programme internships that provide students with a valuable opportunity to gain work experience before they graduate. This allows them to get a feel for career pathways they may be interested in exploring after they finish studies. Such work experience is also an asset when applying for jobs.”
On the future of English Language and Literature programmes, Shahizah said as long as there is a need for graduates who can communicate in English effectively, as well as have heightened awareness and acceptance of different cultures, ideologies, aesthetics and social sensitivities, there will be a market for them.
“Graduates of English and Literature develop a heightened responsiveness to the power of language in terms of vocabulary, an understanding of different styles and discourses as well as advanced analytical, critical and creative thinking skills. They have accuracy, subtlety, persuasiveness and lucidity in their verbal skills. These skills enable them to engage in many fields and disciplines and in various capacities.”
Currently, graduates from both the English Language Studies and Literature in English Programmes at UKM enjoy employment in many areas including education, corporate communications, public relations, journalism as well as creative industries such as advertising and playwriting.
As for UM, Sharmani said the BA programme has attracted international students. The department has also opened the BA programme to students who meet A levels and International Baccalaureate qualifications entry requirements.
“As for prospects, our BA programme provides a well thought-out, balanced, serviceable and effective framework for comprehensive training in literary studies for the Malaysian and international job markets. A degree in English Literature offers versatility and prospects for students in terms of the range of career options.
“Indeed, a training in literary studies helps prepare students for a variety of roles in more or less every industry — teaching and academia, journalism, public relations, advertising, sales and marketing, publishing, editorial, production, administration and the civil service. Others have become well-known creative writers of poetry, fiction, drama and actors/directors in the worlds of film and theatre.”
More than just reading books
DR David Tneh Cheng Eng, who graduated with a PhD in English from the University of Malaya (UM) in 2015, believes that with the advent of the digital age and the fields of digital media and publishing that require creative content, there is a place for English Literature graduates in the job market.
“English Literature graduates, being language, communication and writing specialists, have skillsets that are always in demand in the digital/creative economy realm,” said the assistant professor who is dean of the Faculty of Creative Industries at Universiti Tuanku Abdul Rahman.
Tneh said he has always been fascinated with literary studies as a discipline.
“I am very inquisitive about the form and function of the English language that go beyond its linguistic perimeters. The study of English Literature not only gave me an intimate understanding of the language and aesthetics of writing, but also a global outlook.
“It is a multidisciplinary degree that offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives and one has the chance to understand the complexities of human emotions, societal discourses, transnational issues, world philosophy and history, and international politics, for example.”
To those keen on pursuing an English Literature degree, Tneh said: “Do not hesitate.
“You’ll learn a lot and receive a global education. It will change the way you speak, write, feel and think. Your mind will be sharpened intellectually and the transformative benefits are priceless. Be prepared though, there’s a lot of hard work as it is more than just reading books.”
For corporation communications practitioner Muhammad Khaidhir Naaim, who graduated from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia with a BA Literature in English Studies degree, English Literature was a fallback after not making the marks as an engineering student.
“The biggest advantage of studying Literature is being able to think critically. In addition to the communication and humanity theories, and history and literature components, critical thinking gained from literary studies allows students to overcome challenges at work. Dealing with customers, working with human resources to keep retention rate high and even sales and marketing require critical thinking,” he said.
Muhammad Khaidhir, who works at an information technology and services company, clinched his first job in the communications sector right after his final semester. A little reading up helped him to understand the industry better. His lecturer then recommended him for a job at one of the Business Process Outsourcing companies in the country.
“I was hired immediately. I was chosen mainly because of my attitude and my hunger for work. Two years after that, I was recommended to my current company.
“I’m almost in my third year with my current company. I was given a chance to advance in either sales and marketing or project and planning. There’s still a long way to go but I’m excited to contribute to the company. Besides, there’s no harm trying, right?”
Muhammad Khaidhir said job prospects for linguistics graduates are vast as companies look for graduates who have the passion to learn and the willingness to grow.
Learn, unlearn and relearn
MAYBANK Group chief human capital officer Nora Abd Manaf views graduates with an English Language and Literature degree and other “soft degrees” as equally important as those with Science, Technology, Engineering and Math degrees.
“It’s our belief that it’s important to hire individuals across all academic backgrounds, as every academic discipline equips individuals with valuable knowledge, skillsets, tools and perspectives,” she said.
Academic qualifications will help a talent progress, said Nora, but it won’t get him or her far on its own. For a graduate to boost employability, it is key to supplement academic excellence with work experience and personal development skills. It is very important that employers see the areas — other than studies — in which students have done well.
“My advice is during the semester break, find opportunities to work, build professional networks, participate in voluntary activities, attend industry events and invest time to understand your personal brand,” she added.
A degree in English Language and Literature is both marketable and relevant because of the value that it brings to its holders, creating individuals with a strong command of the English language, with good communication and writing skills, as well as critical thinking, all of which are important to succeed in one’s career.
“There are many English majors who go on to become highly successful people in business, the civil service and technology sector. For example, former Avon CEO Andrea Jung is an English literature major from Princeton University. Former Walt Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner holds a BA in English Literature and Theatre from Denison University. He said, ‘Literature is unbelievably helpful, because no matter what business you are in, you are dealing with interpersonal relationships. It gives you an appreciation of what makes people tick.’.
“Find an interest and build competence to work with others, and develop the ability to inspire and try new ideas. I also emphasise the need to learn, unlearn and relearn — never stop learning! All of these create a foundation that will set you apart, making you a talent who is agile, current, relevant and ahead of the rest.”
Nestlé (Malaysia) Bhd human resources executive director Shahzad Umar agrees with Nora.
“Nestlé hires high-performing talent from all backgrounds who are a good fit. This includes those with backgrounds in English Language and Literature. Beyond job-related skills and qualifications, we look for dynamic multi-taskers who are passionate about their work and thrive.”