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Monday, May 20, 2024

Column: Why lit matters

Writing: the supposed bane of every scientist’s existence. Literature: that artsy crap that doesn’t matter and isn’t going to change the world like the next Apple iPhone will. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

A new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, has concluded that the nation’s undergraduate students are not learning like they used to. Co-authored by sociology professors Richard Arum of New York University and Josipa Roksa of the University of Virginia, the research presented in the book is unsettling.

Of the 2,322 students they monitored at 24 schools, 45 percent “demonstrated no significant gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and written communications during the first two years of college.” Thirty-six percent showed no improvement over the course of four years.

So if we aren’t learning anything, are we throwing our money away? Good question. Can we even assess skills like reasoning and writing accurately? Another good question. Whether you want to completely ignore the recent study or occupy the library and demand reform, I have a proposal for you. Before you leave UC Davis, take a literature course, and I’m not talking about English 3: Introduction to Literature.

Studying literature involves a lot more than making plot pyramids. Critical thinking, analytical reasoning and written communications, the three aspects that this recent study suggests we aren’t learning about, are all covered in a literature course.

Maybe you do improve your analytical reasoning skills by Facebook stalking. Maybe writing those pre-labs count as written communication. I’m not saying these activities are useless, but don’t underestimate the power of participating in an in-depth discussion or writing a critical essay.

According to U.S. News, UC Davis is one of the top 23 schools in the nation when it comes to the integration of writing across all disciplines and class levels. Yeah, we’re awesome. But even with this bragging right under our belts, I’ve met more than a few Aggies who avoid writing like the plague.

I understand some people have overwhelming fears of having to analyze a novel or write a paper. In high school, I had nightmares about spilling hydrochloric acid all over myself. Needless to say, taking a chemistry class is probably not in my future. But, what better time is there than college to get over your fears and try something new?

A lot of people, specifically science majors, have asked me before “What exactly do you even do in an English class?” For those of you not privy to this information, I’ll let you in on the secret. We all wear glasses and drink tea while our professors dress up in costumes and recite soliloquies. (Someone once actually believed me when I said this.)

Most of the time, literature courses involve some type of lecture coupled with student discussion. Students are encouraged to ask questions and argue with professors and other students. In my opinion, these courses are a lot more valuable than some 300-person biology lecture where your multiple-choice final involves regurgitation of facts.

Practicing writing skills is an obvious aspect to literature courses, but it’s not just about writing, it’s about the way that you think. Can’t see how being forced to write 2000 words about Marx’s influence on 20th century science fiction is going to someday help you find the cure for cancer? You’re improving your critical thinking and analytical reasoning. You learn how to look at relationships, connections, patterns, logic… the list goes on.

Being an English major, I’ve gotten used to people telling me “Oh! So you’re going to be a teacher or a lawyer.” Unlike having a degree in something specific like animal science or engineering, I have a lot of career options, thank you very much. Analysis and writing skills are gold stars to put on my resume.

With America falling behind in math and science when compared to the rest of the world’s superpowers, the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has been emphasized over and over again. Yes, having an arsenal of poets is not going to stop people from using weapons of mass destruction, but that doesn’t mean literature is any less important these days.

Examining literature can teach us how to deal with the moral quandaries that arise from this ever-increasing complexity that is today’s world. We learn how to look, to investigate and to question. If we stop scrutinizing our surroundings, things can get pretty ugly. So, please, read a book.

CORRIE JACOBS is putting an end parenthesis on this column but not on her thoughts. Feel free to reach her whenever, wherever at cljacobs@ucdavis.edu.


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