English

Author discusses his book on Shakespeare and the state of education

Professor discusses his book on the Bard, American education and what Shakespeare can teach us about the coronavirus.

Separate but equal at the MLA?

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The Modern Language Association planned separate panels for scholars of color and their white colleagues.

Loyola faculty group is pushing back against major cuts to its English language learning program

Loyola Chicago faculty group is pushing back against major cuts to its English language learning program, saying they've cost the university in dollars and quality.

The benefits of applying the best aspects of composition classes to higher education in general (opinion)

At least once a semester, I have a conversation that goes something like this: a colleague looks at her students’ essays and moans, “They just can’t write.” When I ask how much class time she spends talking about student writing, I’m told quite sharply that “there is way too much material to cover to spend time on that, so I just give them a handout. I mean, aren’t they supposed to learn this stuff in first-year comp?”

And there it is: the paradox of student writing. Bad student writing will make you moan, but writing isn’t as important as content coverage. Writing is “stuff” that should have been triaged by first-year comp classes, which can apparently be replaced by the compositional Band-Aid of a handout.

It is almost axiomatic to say that first-year writing programs occupy a subaltern position in most universities, even though university mission statements tout the fact that their students will gain the necessary critical thinking and writing skills to land the job of their dreams. The mission statements gloss over the specifics of how, exactly, students are supposed to gain these mad skills, given that many students, particularly those majoring in STEM-related disciplines, might only have one semester of sustained writing instruction during their entire undergraduate career.

I don’t want to belabor the disconnect between what universities say about the importance of writing skills and the material realities of most first-year writing programs, which are generally staffed by the lowest-paid contingent faculty in the university. Composition courses have become academic piecework factories, only instead of being paid by the blouse, faculty members are paid by contact hour, with no compensation for time spent conferencing with students, reading and marking student writing, or preparing for class.

Instead of detailing the marginalization of writing programs, however, I want to propose a thought experiment: What would happen if through some magic spell, first-year comp became the beating curricular heart of the university? What if what was best about composition teaching became the pedagogical default instead of the exception? What if we provided better pay for comp instructors, organized courses around different principles and asked students to slow down and reflect?

Conferences, drafting and revision, thoughtfully structured workshops -- all these are commonly agreed to be best practices in the composition classroom and all share two traits: they are labor intensive, and they are only effective if skilled practitioners implement them. And yet, as Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt said in the 2018 presidential address at the Conference on College Composition and Communication, the “least prepared, least experienced and least supported instructors” often staff writing courses. She could have added “least compensated” to this list, as well. Contingent faculty, who are paid by the course and often not entitled to benefits of any sort (not even a shared office, much less health insurance), frequently teach composition courses.

The latest Modern Language Association report on salaries recommends that the minimum per-course compensation for contingent faculty start at $11,100 for a standard three-credit hour semester course -- a number that is both paltry and, for contingent faculty across the United States, quite aspirational. In New York City, for instance, the most experienced adjuncts in the City University of New York system now make slightly less than $7,000 per course. Pre-tax. Would you, for that amount of money, spend hours prepping for class, readying comments for student conferences or organizing materials for a workshop? When I was an adjunct, I didn’t; I depended on a quick wit and several years of high school teaching experience to get me through each class. So when students -- and faculty members -- complain about the inadequacies of first-year writing instruction, perhaps the complaints should focus on institutional inequities rather than instructional shortcomings.

Principles of Consilience

But let’s return to the ideal university, in which all the faculty members are well paid and the composition course sits at the center of undergraduate learning. Composition courses don’t operate on the widget model of rote learning -- the model that, in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Paulo Freire called “the banking method.” We might even go so far as to say that composition classes, at their best, refuse the capitalist emphasis on product to the exclusion of all else. Students do, of course, create a product -- a finished essay -- but before arriving at that moment, composition classes give students an unexpectedly powerful experience: they have to slow down.

In an effective writing class, students are asked to stop and reflect at every point in the writing process. Are their arguments reaching their audience? Do they need to reconsider their assumptions? How can they help develop their classmates’ ideas? They are asked to engage not only with themselves but also with their peers in a nonlinear, flexible process that ultimately leads toward the articulate exploration of ideas. Through revisions, conferences and workshops, students learn to step back from themselves and consider the nature of the conversation they are having in their writing and what they want that conversation to accomplish. The process holds true whether students are writing personal essays or analytical pieces about foreign policy, economics, literature, medical science or anything else they want to think about.

A composition course can center on any topic, any discipline -- which is a flexibility that some people might consider a strength but is all too often viewed as a failing. Teaching writing isn’t seen as “content,” the thinking goes, and without disciplinary content that is taught for its own sake, how can a course be important (or as important)?

The adaptability of a comp course enables consilience, a word that should become as common on comp syllabi as the phrase “critical thinking.” Consilience, as Nobel prize-winning economist Robert J. Shiller defines it in Narrative Economics, is the ability to draw upon multiple intellectual disciplines to inform one’s perspective. His book urges all of us (but particularly economists), to become more consilient thinkers; he wants economists to become better storytellers, for example, and suggests that we all avoid intellectual compartmentalization. As students work through their ideas in a comp course, they realize -- through conversations at all points in the process -- that only in very rare cases will a single rhetorical or disciplinary mode create an effective argument or discussion.

In our ideal university, the consilient thinkers produced by composition courses would need fewer specialized majors: universities could reorganize themselves into multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary clusters, further embedding the principles of consilience. The structure of the university thus begins to resemble the structure of our world, in which networks of information, creativity and technology are profoundly interwoven.

Does the world really need 20-something graduates who are hyperspecialized, who can only consider information and ideas within the framework of their own narrow paradigms? In the world of fake news and social media blizzards, wouldn’t we all be better served by graduates who can examine ideas from a variety of perspectives and work collaboratively with peers whose personal experiences might be very different from their own?

Consilient critical thinkers can resist the quick and snarky comments that score likes on Twitter, and they understand that “critical thinking” doesn’t mean “criticize everything.” The well-taught composition class teaches students that good questions move thinking forward rather than shut it down And it shows them the importance of the pause: the space between the first draft and the second, between snark and support, between negation and connection. No handout can do that.

Deborah L. Williams is clinical associate professor in the literature and creative writing program at New York University Abu Dhabi.

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College issues annual list of words to ban

Lake Superior State issues annual list of words to avoid.

Anglo-Saxon studies group says it will change its name amid bigger complaints about where the field is going

Anglo-Saxon studies group says it will change its name amid bigger complaints about where the field is going -- or isn't.

Cornell and Harvard English departments drop GRE as requirement

Move goes against the norm for top-ranked doctoral programs.

New cookbook from Modern Language Association celebrates subtle and not-so-subtle links between literature, food and drink

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New cookbook from the Modern Language Association celebrates the subtle and not-so-subtle links between literature, food and drink.

Academe needs to cultivate the connection between imagination and public life (opinion)

Several months ago, a report by the Association of Departments of English raised some concerns that warrant a second look, especially given our current political moment. The times make it clear: we are facing a deep crisis of imagination in public life. Our inability to imagine the interests and experiences of other people limits not only how we understand domestic and global citizenship but also how we enact that citizenship with others. I contend that many of the logics and practices underlying this version of public life are perpetuated -- among other places -- in English classrooms.

While the ADE report advises departments to initiate or continue conversations about “the organizing principles for the major,” the overall thrust of the report seems, to my mind, to frame this work as a marketing strategy for justifying a major, most often focused on literary history, by advocating “three categories: skills, career prospects and disciplinary content.” Sometimes this rebranding results in adding employment-oriented tracks “catchy” enough to keep enrollment up while preserving the status quo. But this is insufficient to reinvigorate the major. Furthermore, I would argue that a decline in the major is a crisis not of marketing but rather of public imagination.

Some of the most urgent concerns we’re dealing with on a regular basis are: the degradation of black, brown and indigenous lives; the deployment of bots and algorithms to heighten in-group loyalties and cross-group tensions; the circulation of false moral equivalencies; “fake news” and outright lies; gaslighting as a primary means of avoiding shared reasoning; an inability to bridge vibrant, volatile differences; the systematic unraveling of public institutions; the privatization of public resources; and a sometimes debilitating sense of deep uncertainty and precarity. Those of us in English departments are implicated in the predicaments of our time and also specially poised to lay claim to the pragmatic promise and practice of public life, a fragile and aspirational experiment in cooperative interdependence. In such tumultuous times, I note an inclination for faculty members to become angry and to engage in behind-the-scenes mobilizing. That is necessary but also insufficient.

Public life is always a pedagogical project -- and an imaginative and aspirational one at that. It is about envisioning and bringing about what could be but is not yet. And what could be is an open question, one that -- at least in democratic public life -- requires that we listen and learn with and from one another and that we pragmatically, iteratively invent pathways and possibilities with others in ways that make our lives go.

Certainly, the question of how to configure and name a major associated with what is still broadly labeled English studies is a complex question and one that many others have taken up. As the ADE report noted, different colleges and universities with varying aims, resources and missions will need to continue tackling the question of how to configure majors, minors, certificates and tracks differently. But my argument here is not about the important issues of institutional configurations or historical labor politics or what to name departments that might include literary studies, rhetoric and writing studies, literacy studies, English education, creative writing, technical and professional writing, linguistics, TESOL, user experience, and digital media. Instead, I am arguing that public imagination and rhetorical invention, so sorely needed in public life, should be central organizing principles in our majors, minors, concentrations and tracks -- however those are configured.

Outside the academy, many people are recognizing the need for cultivating the connection between the literary imagination and public life. They are turning, for example, to classic dystopian novels like 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale to account for the rise of and response to authoritarian regimes; to memoirs like Hillbilly Elegy to make sense of the inclinations of white voters in rural industrial areas; to poetry and prose like The Forgetting Tree to explore the experiences and effects of racial violence; or to collections of personal narratives like Green Card Youth Voices to better understand the experiences of immigrant and New American youth. As political ethicist Martha Nussbaum argues in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, literature of all kinds offers readers an entry into considering “human aspirations and particular forms of social life that either enable or impede those aspirations, shaping them powerfully in the process.” For public life, it is crucial that we treat this intersection first as a site of inquiry, wonder and deliberation -- even before it is a site of critique.

Part of what stories and poetry offer us in their rendering -- rather than explaining -- of experience is the possibility of a bond or at least a sympathetic understanding of familiar and unfamiliar others as well as of the logics and experiences, desire and pain that inform who and what they are becoming. For public life, certainly the capacity to connect across differences is important. The capacity to reason together in the face of dis-identification and lack of understanding is even more crucial and requires far more deliberate, well-tooled cultivation.

The ADE report suggests writing studies might provide inspiration for reinvigorating the major, and yet here, too, I would advise caution. After all, undergraduate writing instruction -- and literary instruction, too, for that matter -- too often still relies on claim-driven argument that strives to make a strong point, to use evidence and to appeal to logic, yet rarely brings about changes in minds, practices or policies. It too often still relies on assimilationist models of language and on writing as an individual enterprise rather than collaborative knowledge building. It too often still frames rhetorical education as a “Defense Against the Dark Arts” -- a kind of analytical jujitsu that teaches students to pick apart others’ arguments while upholding their own. And it too often still promulgates a circulation model of public life -- one premised on gaining greater audiences or amassing shares and likes. That model stands in contrast to a localized rhetorical one that engages in the gritty work of inventing astute social practices and productive self-other relations capable of making possible joint inquiry and invention around to-some-degree-shared concerns -- even across deep differences.

There is a real human need for us to teach writing “as a practical, intellectual activity aimed at clarifying problems, risks, and possibilities we face as humans and societies, and at contributing to social and political praxis,” in the words of Bent Flyvbjerg in Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How It Can Succeed Again. This well-tooled, collaborative orientation toward public life means that context and judgment -- both central to understanding and taking human action -- must also be central to our writing pedagogy.

More specifically, embracing uncertainty, difference and conflict as inevitable and valuable components of constructing context and making judgments with others -- not only or primarily against others -- must be part of our pedagogical work to foster invention for real-world writing that aims at getting something done. This is a shift equally concerned with outcomes and with justice.

Orienting writing toward public imagination and collaborative knowledge building would also have us see limitations -- in our ways of relating, in the practices and policies of our institutions, in our understandings of complex issues -- as fulcrums on which to launch inquiry and invention, leveraging writing to:

  • re-see a situation;
  • make the personal shared;
  • construct shared concerns;
  • construct more complex understandings of localized issues;
  • engage others’ ideas and experiences;
  • network arguments that travel and flip as they circulate;
  • create public forums;
  • listen across difference;
  • analyze, evaluate, imagine and invent alternatives;
  • generate public dialogue;
  • construct intercultural inquiry;
  • engage in productive problem solving; and
  • construct wise action in uncertain circumstances.

My primary aim isn’t to critique the current ways we’ve leveraged English studies within the humanities. Rather, my goal is to spur us to consider a productive orientation toward public life as central to the pedagogical work of English studies in higher education, however that is configured. Of course, this also necessitates a collaborative and imaginative orientation toward one another in our own departments. English studies has a special and significant role to play in shaping public life and everyday citizenship through the ways students learn to engage with others across deep differences.

I’m not alone in wrestling with these concerns. Nor is this challenge something individual scholars can solve, nor a single discipline. Rather, there is a public need within the academy for collaborative imagining, inventing, reasoning and problem solving together -- the very work that is perhaps most needed for rich participation in public life. We must do more than simply recreate the structural problem of change or cannibalize disciplines and subfields or fragment into a myriad of marketing niches. Instead, this moment calls for the invention of collaborative practices and of alternative discourses, sustained over time with one another to encourage public imagination and create a publicly responsive infrastructure.

Jennifer Clifton is a rhetoric and writing studies faculty member in the department of English at the University of Texas at El Paso and president-elect of the Association of Rhetoric and Writing Studies. She is the author of Argument as Dialogue Across Difference: Engaging Youth in Public Literacies and co-author of Dialoguing Across Cultures, Identities, and Learning: Crosscurrents and Complexities in Literacy Classrooms.

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An examination of the strengths and weaknesses of the English major (opinion)

The Modern Language Association released a substantial report in recent months on the state of the English major that can provide guidance to departments in light of the unprecedented implosion of enrollments in humanities at American colleges and universities over the last several years. The report offers a picture of how English departments currently conceive of their discipline and provides a basis for rethinking the major.

As chair of the committee that drafted the report, I have been able to look closely at some of the strengths and weaknesses of the English major. I want to focus here on three topics that grow out of that report: 1) the generativeness of the English program, 2) the curricular problem of literary history and 3) the opportunities for increasing English undergraduate enrollments. The news is not all bad.

The Richness of English

As we committee members studied programs, we gained a renewed appreciation for the role of the English department in the academy. English stands out as one of the most generative fields in all of higher education. It has been, and continues to be, a wellspring for new approaches, new ideas and new fields -- some of which have become full-fledged disciplines of their own.

An English professor, Carl Bode, launched the first American studies department, at my institution, the University of Maryland. The determination of English departments to teach formerly ignored African American literature helped to spur the creation of departments of African American studies. English faculty interests have provided vital impetus for the formation of programs in women’s studies and comparative literature. Likewise, the English discipline has been instrumental in promoting cultural theory and in bringing cultural studies and postcolonial studies into existence. Similarly, in most institutions, English is where you go to learn about postmodernism.

English departments have thus broadened our engagement with literature and culture and worked at the forefront of the national drive to embrace diversity. Those contributions are reflected in the curricula of English departments across the country, which are rich, varied in approach and intellectually vibrant.

Such achievements are possible partly because English departments are typically the largest in the humanities and often involve a mix of enterprises that give them energy. Besides the study of literature, an English department might embrace creative writing, comparative literature, linguistics, rhetoric and composition, theater, communication, new media studies and even courses in biblical literature or in folklore and mythology. English department are hotbeds of wide-ranging and synergistic enterprises. And they bring with them public-serving events in the form of guest lectures, poetry and fiction readings, conferences, public seminars, discussion groups, and screenings.

Indeed, the English department is at the very heart of the university’s cultural community, and its heath gives life to everyone in the academy. When an institution such as the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, truncates its English program, it sounds its own death knell as a vital intellectual institution.

The Problem of Literary History

Notwithstanding the richness and productivity of English, the state of its traditional core curricular element, literary history, presents a problem. This subject merits serious professional attention, because the study of literary history is the most endangered part of the English program -- the place where enrollments have fallen most sharply. Because of intellectual changes, this aspect of the curriculum has become less coherent.

Virtually every English major that we studied obliges students to fulfill historical requirements. They are fundamental to the major, they cultivate historical consciousness and they help to build a common knowledge base for students. Such requirements might take the form of mandatory, broad survey courses within periods, such as Medieval and Renaissance Literature, or of student-chosen distribution courses like Shakespeare: Histories and Tragedies, selected from varied offerings listed under different historical periods. Those two formats, which together account for almost every English major program, group courses according to our understandings of literary and cultural periods.

Of course, literary and cultural periods are always under scrutiny and subject to revision; that is part of their interest and vitality. The medieval period, for some scholars, now runs deep into the 16th century, and we now might speak of the “long” 18th century or the “long” 19th century. Terms such as “Renaissance” are replaced by some with “early modern.” Other terms, such as “baroque” and even “Enlightenment,” have fallen away in course titles. Debates on such matters tell us that literature and culture have a history, that such a history runs roughly parallel to but not in lockstep with political and social history, and that the ferment about periods reflects their liveliness as topics. That history also entails study of changes over time in matters such as genre, figuration and language, while it enables intertextual study as well as the study of periodization itself.

But a different kind of history has also developed within that framework: contextual history -- that is, the study of the relationship between a literary work and its immediate political, social and physical environment. Here the dynamics of an early 16th-century play might be understood as addressing the politics of the court of Henry VIII at a particular moment. Or the rhythm of some 19th-century poetry might be examined in relation to developments in the mechanics of motion, such as the railroad. This form of historical study -- often identified as cultural history or cultural studies -- reflects the pervasive New Historicist movement and its significant insistence that literature is relevant to both political and everyday life.

Although the boundary between these two types of history is permeable, one emphasizes literature’s own past and development while the other emphasizes literature’s engagement with the world around it. One history is internal, and the other is external -- with the pluses and minuses that go with them. While both those approaches are valid, the problem for the English major is that requirements are constructed typically according to the first approach but practiced according to the second. Thus, a course used to satisfy a distribution requirement in medieval and Renaissance literature might be about, say, monsters -- why societies create them, how they are imagined, what purposes they serve. That sounds like a great course (I’d like to take it), but it can remain unclear what the course has to do with a particular period requirement and why a student is obliged to take it or something similar.

Thus, we have a historical requirement, but we do not know exactly what it is or why it exists. Nowhere did the committee see a course in What Is Literary History? or Why Study Literature in Its Historical Context? or one that treats the relationship between the two models. Courses that introduce students to literary studies tend to focus on close reading and on theoretical approaches to literature, not on literary history. We all know that undergraduates resist historical requirements, and one of the reasons may be that we have never really explained or theorized those requirements for students. So instead of simply abandoning historical requirements in response to student pressure, we would be well advised to explain and explore them in engaging ways. (It would be ridiculous to think that students are incapable of enjoying the great historical questions of the discipline.)

English Undergraduate Enrollments

Reconsidering the coherence of the curriculum is important for its own reasons, and sharpening our sense of the major might make it more attractive to undergraduates. But doing so will not suddenly open the floodgates to a tidal wave of new majors. Curricular change is only one of many strategies that departments might undertake.

Other approaches include:

  • enhancing the departmental website so it becomes a more effective recruitment vehicle;
  • studying the department’s student cohort, including where new majors come from and when and why they enter or leave the program (one might discover new potential for attracting students from, say, community colleges);
  • experimenting with nontraditional introductory courses;
  • building the creative writing program or other writing programs;
  • making new media study a visible part of the curriculum and underscoring the practical training it entails;
  • building preprofessional course modules into the curriculum;
  • and, not least, developing social media strategies that engage majoring students with each other and with the department.

We are seeing some success stories. The University of Pittsburgh has attracted interest with a revised curriculum that highlights students’ interventions in literary works as a form of engagement. In the introductory course ENGLIT O505: How to Do Things With Literature I, for example, students might look at historical “things done” for different purposes to parts of Milton’s Paradise Lost -- such as modernizing its language and syntax, or removing punctuation and line breaks, or finding a poem inside the poem -- and then emulate those models or invent their own. Such “revisions,” says the course website, “help to highlight what is distinctive, valuable, problematic, puzzling, challenging and/or peculiar” in Paradise Lost.

The English department at the University of Denver has more majors than it can handle; some of that success may have to do with simple elements such as its course descriptions. Consider one brilliantly described early-modern topics course that has students working with quill pens and studying Chaucer’s attention to birds. (Students may also do field study.) The course fills immediately and draws a waiting list a mile long.

Likewise, departments that have used their websites to showcase the major’s attractiveness in catchy, even idealistic, ways have not lost as great a percentage of majors, it seemed to the committee, as have some comparable units. And the English department at Ball State University has completely rebuilt its number of majors, after substantial losses, by combining close attention to the undergraduate experience with an innovative and systematic use of social media.

The English department is one of the intellectual fulcrums of the university. The curriculum has conceptual problems, but ones that are interesting and that may identify new ways to engage students. And techniques exist for enlarging enrollments, with success stories that validate them. Programs also have strong support from MLA and the Association of Departments of English, which is launching a consulting service for departments.

So English faculty, take heart. We can do much to shape our future.

Kent Cartwright is a professor of English at the University of Maryland and, in 2016-18, chaired the Association of Departments of English Ad Hoc Committee on the English Major.

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