Blog Post

How to Outlive the Profession of English: Research and Methods (Syllabus)

I've said before that we need to rethink everything about how we teach and how we learn, about the basic structures of all of our professions.  Next Spring, I'm teaching our graduate "Research and Methods" course, typically the place where the most conventional, traditional "standards" of a profession are inculcated and reinforced.  I believe that, given our declining numbers, this is the slow death of our profession and doom for our graduate students.  So I volunteered to teach "Research and Methods" for a digital Age.  Here's my first stab at a syllabus.  I'm happy for comments.


English 300:  Research and Methods:  Or, How To Outlive the Profession of English
Professor Cathy N. Davidson, Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies
Spring 2010
Monday 250-520
Franklin Center 230 :  Interactive Multimedia Projects (IMPS) Room
Class:  limited to 15

English 300, Research and Methods Or, How To Outlive the Profession of English, is designed for any student, from first year to dissertation-writing stage, intending to achieve a Ph.D. in English and earn a living with that Ph.D.  The title is based on the fact that our profession has been in decline for decades but that, as a profession, we have not fully grasped the implications of this decline, looked at ourselves in systematic and structural ways, and found ways to reverse this depressing trajectory.  The MLA Job Directory listings look shockingly similar in 2009 to what they looked like in 1999 and even 1989 or 1979.  Except that they are shrinking and shrinking, especially for tenure-track positions.  And yet here we are in the Information Age, where reading and writing are in times of tremendous, tumultuous change, with the book industry (scholarly and commercial) in tumult, newspapers failing, and yet with new forms of interactive communication and literary and multimedia artistic forms coming to the fore seemingly every day.  Who better than us to analyze and interpret the world we live in now, today?  Who better than us to historicize and theorize all of the issues surrounding new forms of global, interactive communications, and the social and political arrangements supporting the creation of new cultural forms, and the best ways of teaching, learning, and doing research in this era of radical, foundational, paradigm-shifting, epoch-making change?  


We should not be dying as a profession.  We should be key, front and central.  The Information Age is our age--if only we will claim it.

This class is a Research and Methods class for our age.   It has a polemical and a survivalist purpose.  The profession of English may be dying but it shouldnt be, and graduate students today need to understand the profession (as it is and as it should be) to thrive within it and change it.  That is to say, critique will be commonplace in this course but cynicism, defensiveness, and pathological victimhood (stances too readily and comfortably assumed as our professional posture) need to be left outside the classroom door.  Those coming to the course need to understand it as a collective project, need to be willing to work collaboratively, need to be willing to stand by their work publicly and present it to the larger public, and need to be willing to hear engaged critique of their work, with the purpose of making it better and us better able to survive the profession of English.

The only text in the course is The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, a monograph by myself and HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg that can be purchased from MIT Press or downloaded free at  It states my views on many subjects and raises the meta-questions about learning today, about learning institutions, and about the role of disciplines, departments, and professions that we will continue to foreground throughout the course, even as we look as specific genres of critical production.  We will begin with those over-arching questions.  And, once you know my views, I'll try to stay in the background for the rest of the course, so long as students continue to push insistently at the higher levels of understanding what "research and methods" not only are---but should be. The structure of the course will, after this initial class, be student-run and collaboratively taught, with two students guiding each class discussion and the entire class choosing the remaining texts for the course using a collaborative selection method.

Here's the method:  each student will choose a favorite (this is crucial) current work in the field of English broadly defined in the following categories: (1) scholarly book review,  (2) scholarly article, (3) scholarly book, (4) scholarly online journal, (5) multimedia online and ideally interactive humanities website or project, (6) dissertation.  Students will negotiate with one another, via our class wiki,  to ensure that no two people are reading the same work.  On our class WordPress blog, each student will post a publishable (i.e. worthy of being viewed  by the public) blog about this item. 

Prior to classtime, every student will read the posts by every other student and make comments about the quality of the post or will ask questions about it to be pursued in class together.  Each student will also use the online rating system to indicate how interested they are in reading the work reviewed by the classmate-blogger.    Again, the questions should be specific genre-questions (is this the best genre in which to express the particular idea?  how well does the author use the form?  why? how?) but also, always, bigger questions too, about the meaning of the text and its application and implications for English as a profession.  The bottom-line, always:  is this a good way for adults to be spending our time?     If we cannot believe in what we do and what we teach, why should anyone else?  So we must insistently ask these questions, on the grand level and the specific, over and over, pushing further each time.

In class, two students (chosen in advance) will lead us in a conversation about this whole process.   They will talk about what items they themselves selected and the criteria they used to choose a "favorite" work.   They might also summarize the blogs about what everyone else selected, and they will tell us which post received the highest cumulative score.   As a class, we will then all read the item that received the highest score.

Class Visitors:  The two students leading the discussion will be responsible for contacting the author to see if the author can visit our class, either by teleconferencing or in person (if the person is local) to discuss how they wrote what they did.  The students will be responsible for all arrangements, including advertising the actual or virtual visit in advance to anyone who wishes to join us.   If the author cannot visit, students will see if they might be willing to engage in an online written dialogue with the class. It is expected that students will ask the author not only about the piece that was selected but also about the process of writing, professional issues, career development issues, and other matters of relevance and urgency to a future career in a profession that needs to change in order to thrive.

Public Contribution to Knowledge:  If we believe in our profession, we need to make clear to the public what we do.  There will therefore be a public component to all writing assignments in this course.   The students responsible for inviting a speaker to our class will also be responsible for tweeting and blogging about the visit and the whole process on a public website (the HASTAC site is available but other kinds of sites are also encouraged and then may be reblogged on the HASTAC site;  modest funds are available for some public, pedagogical programming for our class and beyond to a larger audience).

And then the process begins again, moving from genre to genre throughout the course, with the syllabus constantly evolving, with a model of participatory learning generating commentary and content, with constant attention to how one evaluates and how one learns to admire other work (we are well schooled in the criticism of ourselves and others but less so in the practice of admiration).   These skills are essential to being confident in producing ones own work. The culmination of this entire process will be everyone choosing and reading a dissertation using the same mechanism, including inviting the recent dissertator to talk about writing the dissertation, getting a job, revising for publication, and so forth.

Grading and Assessment:  All students satisfactorily completing all of the above assignments will receive an A for the course.  Each student will write a self-evaluation of his or her performance in the course (what was learned, what was missing, what didn't work, what did) and I will write a response.   We may choose, as a class, to make this an open process.



Hi Cathy, very interesting syllabus and a strong argument for changing how we communicate both within the field and with the public. I was thinking earlier about your previous blog entry on the costs of publication for the humanities v.s. the sciences and one thought that occured to me was that scientists typically produce "photo ready" papers. One of my colleagues teaches a writing class to graduate students in computer sciences in which they spend a considerable amount of time on the preparation of papers. In addition to blogs and wikis perhaps finding/reviewing/creating online journal systems should be part of professional prepartion? Why are easily accessible and well-formatted dissertations and articles more likely to be found in fields such as physics or computer science than the humanities?


Great idea, Jed.  I already had a scholarly website but I'll add a scholarly journal.  Thank you!


Done!  Thanks, Jed.


Cathy, this looks great. It's important for English to begin (finally) using methods courses and proseminars to address how the field works rather than just as surveys of French theory and Marxism.

There's something implicit in one of your points, Public Contribution to Knowledge, that I'd like to make more explicit. It is not only a matter of the means by which one publishes that matters, but also what one says and about which topics one says it. In English, we often make appeals to the canon and to history in order to justify doing the same old things with the same old subjects. But as in any field, no matter if its object is brand new or millennia old, needs to make that object relevant and interesting in new ways. This is not a sign of disrespect or instrumentality, but rather just the opposite. 


Thanks, Ian.  I could not agree more.  I hate it, for example,  when people throw a ton of expensive technology at some archive and then ask the same old questions about that archive.   I see very little utility in using new media to ask old questions--unless the answers are going to push us to ask new questions that result in new and more interesting answers.


Hi, Ian,  I believe in those big questions so fully that I hadn't realized I hadn't fully articulated them here.  So I went back in and made some edits to make overt in this document what is always and ever a feature of my teaching.  Thanks!   Amazing how one's deepest assumptions can be what gets left out. 


Glad to hear it, looks great! Be sure to let us all know how the course goes. 


Absolutely, I've built in a mandatory public reporting part weekly, by the students running that session.  I'd love to make it all mandatory but am sensitive to the garbage grad students get when they are on the job market and want to make sure they can both speak freely on line in their reviews for their class AND have a public face.