When I was a graduate student, I worked alongside a man who was a practicing psychologist returning to get his degree in English literature.
He explained that there were similarities in the way psychologists tried to understand and relate to their clients and the deep reading and character analysis that happened when studying literature. He didn’t feel like he was getting a degree that would sidetrack him from his career, but instead he saw an MA in English as an enhancement of his practice.
At the time, I didn’t completely understand what he meant but as I have continued to read and learn more about life and people, this connection has become clearer to me. Studying characters in literature to understand their motivation and what makes them tick is a satisfaction that we can’t fully achieve in our real lives; even our own motivations may be murky or concealed within ourselves at times.
Yet literature makes us ask questions to find that insight. We can ask why the townspeople in “The Lottery” continue their outdated, barbaric tradition and trace Pip’s psychological and social development through “Great Expectations.”
Literature forces us to ask questions in an attempt to unearth and explain connections in a way that is more challenging to do in our real-life interactions. We might never fully understand why a trusted friend betrayed us or why a significant other seems suddenly withdrawn but by reading novels we learn to look for the dimensionality of people and see them from various angles.
A piece in the “New York Times” last year gave an overview of several empirical studies which looked at the ways in which reading fiction actually has demonstrated effects on personality and how people perceive themselves (Oakley & Djikic, 2014).
The message is that reading literature can change us.
From the perspective of composition, understanding other people’s thoughts and motivations also makes us better writers. We can understand our audience better, know what makes them tick and more effectively connect them to our point of view. This is just one other way in which reading makes us stronger writers.
Beyond that, understanding others makes us not just better writers, but better people. It makes us more empathetic toward others and more compassionate about what they might be going through. This understanding allows us to grow as Christians and to better follow Jesus’ mandate to “love one another.”
As I continue to grow and learn as a professor and as a person here at Grand Canyon University, I feel more and more the interdisciplinary nature inherent in all that I do. The combination of how composition and literature intersect with the social sciences is just one place to find a kinship among College of Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines and the real-life impact of interdisciplinary work.
Read more about how history and literature enrich our lives by checking out our other blog posts. For more information about a liberal arts degree at GCU, please visit our website.
Oakley, K. & Djikic, M. (2014, Dec. 14). How writing transforms us. New York Times. Retrieved from nytimes.com/2014/12/21/opinion/sunday/how-writing-transforms-us.html?src=xps