• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


How Do You Know a Good English Department When You See One?

Asking for a certain 16-year-old who lives in my house.

July 16, 2020

At dinner on Wednesday, we noted that The Girl is starting her junior year of high school soon, so it’ll be time to start looking at colleges. The Wife asked her which colleges she was interested in. TG rattled off a list she had saved to her phone a year or so ago. TW asked how she chose those, to which TG replied with an aural shrug. She did volunteer her criteria, though: Northeastern quadrant of the country (more or less), in or near a city, and a good English department. She intends to major in English or something closely related.

I can read a map well enough to help with the first two criteria, but for an undergraduate, that third one is trickier than one might think.

Published rankings of best departments often focus on research output and/or graduate programs. Nothing wrong with either of those, but they’re irrelevant for our purposes. A brilliant research professor is well and good, but TG will be an undergrad. What matters to her is the faculty she’ll encounter in the undergraduate classes. Besides, the best researchers aren’t necessarily the best teachers, even on the occasions that they teach undergraduate classes. I learned that firsthand in grad school, when I was a teaching assistant for a nationally known, prolific research star who couldn’t teach his way out of a paper bag. Nearly every discussion section started with students asking, “What the hell was that?” followed by me saying things like, “What he was trying to say was …” or “What I think he was trying to say was … ” or “Never mind that, here’s what this is about.” He once assigned a chapter from one of his books for the Kinko’s packet -- yes, it was the ’90s -- then didn’t give copyright permission to Kinko’s, so the students just had a “PERMISSION DENIED” page in their packets where the assigned reading, by him, was supposed to be.

I am not making that up. There were witnesses.

But I digress.

The blessing and the curse of English, as a field, is that it’s ubiquitous. If she were interested in, say, ceramics, we could quickly rule out most places. (Existence precedes excellence; if a college doesn’t have a ceramics program, then it doesn’t have a good ceramics program.) But most places of any significant size have English departments and programs. Many of them are fairly large.

As a veteran of the industry, I know that plenty of terrific people have landed in places with lesser reputations as a function of the academic labor market. I also know that many departments rely heavily on adjunct faculty, who may or may not have the ability to devote as much time to their students as one would like.

All of which combine to make it difficult to help her use “good English department” as a criterion.

Obviously, there’s more to college than classes. (At least, in nonlockdown times.) She’s in a better position to judge those things for herself. But as a card-carrying academic, and as the father of a brilliant young woman who will absolutely devour good teaching, I’d like to help her find a place where she could both thrive and be challenged.

As Monday’s post intimated, she’s fluent in race- and gender-based critiques, and her political views are strongly held.

And before the inevitable snark, I’ll stipulate that she doesn’t want to go anywhere I work. She wants to make her own name, as well she should.

Inside Higher Ed doesn’t do comments anymore, so I’ll ask folks to respond on Twitter. (I’m @deandad.) Using only publicly available information, how do you know a good English department (for undergraduates) when you see one?


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