The Continuing and New Mandates of English Studies
English departments have long been charged with preserving, articulating and conveying the value of those complex and sophisticated uses of language and form by which the culture through its writers has explored the deep moral, affective and intellectual challenges, the questions and anxieties, the tragedies and joys, the stories and the identity of its members. In the mid part of the last century a great deal of attention was paid to the dynamics of form and to the particular qualities which distinguished the finest writings, these writings being gathered into an historical narrative and known loosely as the canon. The mandate of English studies then was to chart the history of literature, to preserve and clarify works of the past, to continually reinterpret the literature of the past in terms of the knowledge, anxieties and understandings of the present, and to school young people in the wonders of the intricate and powerful uses of language and form which canonical works embodied.
This mandate remains. The direction of literary studies has, however, altered in response to a number of social and cultural changes. The mission of literary studies has extended in a number of ways:
to include a broader range of cultural considerations than hitherto - sociological, economic and ethnographic
to examine the material conditions of the production, circulation and consumption of texts
to include an expanded number of historical documents often looked at in a new way, a way which includes more of the common life of past peoples and which foregrounds constructions of knowledge and power
to recover traditions of writing of excluded and marginalized groups
to explore the ways in which literature is received, interpreted and used in the contexts of individual lives and within differing cultural formations
to include a study of the popular, of how narratives and genres hitherto excluded from the canon have functioned to articulate societal questions, concerns and anxieties, and to create meaning and identity among literate citizens who may not have been members of the educated elite
and to in many ways look more deeply into the contexts of reading, writing, and the definitions and practices of literature.
As well, the entire set of questions about meaning and interpretation have been problematized: there are questions as to where meaning resides, how it is formed, how independent of intention language may be, what is involved in the reading process, whether or in what way reading creates meaning, how the reading subject is formed culturally and psychically, what the effect of the situated interests and knowledges of the reader have on the processes of meaning, how the hermeneutic gap between the world of the writer and the world of the reader is or can be bridged.
The result of the changes in English studies is that they are more complex, more socially-located, more historical, more engaged with problems of meaning and interpretation than they were during the reign of formalist approaches characterized by the first mandate, above.
You might want to look at my page, On the Uses of Studying Literature