Remaking English: How Would You Do It?
Since my original discipline is English, I am often asked how I would remake English departments. Good question. And I always throw the answer back to the person asking the question: What would you and your colleagues and students like from your English department? What is your vision for your discipline? Have your majors declined or risen? Do your majors feel their education prepares them for the world beyond graduation (NB: not just jobs but whatever challenge they face later)? Who makes up the core of your department now and how much alignment is there between what they teach and what they care about in their discipline, in the profession of college teaching, and in the world at large? These are all crucial, deep questions requiring introspection, not a kneejerk response.
Many English Departments are going through transformations now. I invite anyone and everyone to share what's happening in your world.
For one other model for how to remake the English major, check out Christopher Newfield's syllabus for "English Majoring After College" posted to HASTAC ( https://www.hastac.org/documents/chris-newfields-syllabus-english-majoring-after-college-histories-and-futures-higher )
If you add it to the comments here, we'll tweet it out to our 15k+ members.
(A Personal Aside)
(Speaking entirely personally, I’m not sure departments are the ways to organize universities any more. Nor am I a fan of lecture courses. And I believe digital literacy components and public contributions to knowledge should be intrinsic to every course. At the very least, students should learn to be more careful about the way their institutions are giving away their privacy to edtech vendors, for example. But that’s not the topic here, And my personal preferences aren't the issue. The question I’m asked, over and over, is “How would you remake an English Department.” When asked, it's by people within English Departments who are sincere in looking for a more engaged, meaningful, relevant, and appealing way to teach. So that’s what I’ll address here.)
Yale Remakes Its History Department—and Becomes the #1 Major at Yale Yet Again
I’m impressed that Yale’s History Department decided to remake itself and found a quite brilliant, respectable way to have a tracked system, with one track for those wanting to pursue any career where a deep, crosscultural, global historical perspective would be useful and another for those interested in being professional historians, going on to grad school with the intention of one day being an academic historian like their Yale profs. Both are fine goals—but they are not the same goal and you don’t get to those goals on the same path. By differentiating ways of doing undergraduate history, History is once again the #1 major at Yale for the first time in years.
In this, the Yale History Department is one of 123 programs that the American Historical Society is recognizing, encouraging, and mapping in its "Tuning the History Discipline" project. The AHA website notes: "The American Historical Association is coordinating a nationwide, faculty-led project to articulate the disciplinary core of historical study and to define what a student should understand and be able to do at the completion of a history degree program." Go, History! You can find out more here: https://www.historians.org/teaching-and-learning/tuning-the-history-discipline
There Is No One Ideal English Major: What Works Best for Your Students and Faculty?
I have no one ideal English major. But, since I’m asked often, I’ll put out some ideas here, not because I think this is the way but simply because it is one way and then anyone else can make other ways, accepting some of these ideas, rejecting others—or all of them. I don’t care. The issue is how, collectively, any department can work to remake itself in a way that better serves students and faculty.
Here are some ideas:
Putting “English” Together Again—Reading, Writing, Language, Multimedia
--I would bring back into one department all those functions of “English” that are crucial to it: critical writing, critical reading, creative writing, creative reading, appreciation of language (linguistics, history of the language, semiotics, you make the call), composition and rhetoric, digital humanities, multimedia expression (graphic literature, film and tv, digital media, etc). All seem crucial to what Englishers often say is at the heart of their discipline even though, at most universities, some or all of these things have been separated off from core literature programs for decades.
I personally believe most of the divisions between departments and divisions, between the undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools are not only artificial ways of demarcating bodies of knowledge but not very useful (except to replicate the professors in those disciplines). I especially think we all learn from re-engaging the "thinking" and "making" or "theory" and "practice" divisions across the university. Creative and expository writing or rhetoric have an enormous contribution to make to English Departments and (I hope) the reverse is also true. Many students pursuing the non-graduate school English major may well have hopes of becoming writers one day. Many students who do pursue graduate school tracks may well be on the way to graduate rhetoric and composition programs or creative writing MFA's. These are great options for students and opportunities for profs (and, yes, I'm well aware of the problems whenever one restores to one unit divisions that exist historically; the disproportionate power, salaries, prestige, all that... Rethinking structural institutional and disciplinary issues is one great bonus of this whole project. And, no, I don't think that is easy.)
NB: I now teach in a graduate English department with an exceptionally robust and high prestige composition track and I love it and serve on the dissertations of several rhetoric and comp students, some of whom are also pursuing digital pedagogy. I cherish and learn from these students and my colleagues in these fields.
Cohorts: Case of the New Yale History Major (again)
--One feature the Yale History Department borrowed from Economics at Yale is the “cohort” model, where, once a year, every student in the year in the major takes one course in common, a cohort course. The students over three years has three such shared intellectual, educational, social, and personal classes with their departmental cohort. It promotes an idea of shared knowledge and yet also changing, rich, abundant ways of deciding what should be shared.
[Note: This is different than the famous Columbia Great Books model where every first year student reads the same books together year after year. Toni Morrison became the first African American woman to enter the Columbia core only a few years ago; she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, the same year the Internet went public. No wonder people think the humanities are about ossification and irrelevance. Communal, cohort thinking does not have to be standardized. That is a false binary and, to my mind, the world of the humanities is a far, far richer place than that with many riches worthy of sharing] That idea of a "core curriculum" feels like an exceptionally narrow-cast way of thinking about collectivity and an impoverished way of introducing students to great books and their importance to their lives--something to cherish and grow for a lifetime. There really are only a dozen of them? The world of great thoughts well expressed is richer than that, frankly. If it isn’t, why bother with a university or general education requirements at all.]
Cohorts Can Be Dynamic--and Are for Profs Too
A richer alternative to a static, never-changing core might be something like one course a year that all English majors in a given year take together. Let’s say, 2, 3, and 4th year.
For a large university with lots of English majors, this could be a lecture course that breaks into sections or into project groups with individual or collaborative research projects and papers that spin out of the general lectures. For smaller institutions or those with smaller English departments, it might be seminars. There are many ways to structure these to your needs and objectives.
But these should be taught by all the faculty, and ideally on a rotating basis, with different profs coming in for different texts or segments and then some ways to unify and tie these together and with some original research component for the students.
Have the faculty be a cohort (such as teaching one week or two weeks of one of the cohort courses for three years) is also a great way of making communication happen across departments that often get together only for the most dreary, brain-dead work. Again, the key is individual choice and collective coordination for the goal of educational and intellectual benefit for the students . . .and the faculty!
Cohort--for Large Unis a "Lecture" Class Plus Sections Dedicated To Individual or Collaborative Research Projects or Seminars or Creative Variations
If taught as a lecture, or a variant form or, where feasible at smaller institutions, in discussion seminars, it would be useful and even important to have each member of the faculty lecture on one text or set of texts so students are exposed, together, in a cohort, not only to the same texts but to different ways of reading texts. Faculty could be cohorts too, a team leading the learning.
Departmental Syllabi But Not Static Syllabi (with students participating in the design and choices)
Departments could vary the texts everyone in the cohort reads each year—or every three or five years. Keeping the cohort courses vibrant and constantly responsive to society makes them a source of excitement for the entire college or university. It's not even onerous, since the courses are taught by individual faculty members.
Perhaps the group teaching each cohort changes every three or five (whatever) year and together they decide on what they will teach and in what sequence. It's a perfect situation for coordination and conversation without coercion since individual faculty still are responsible for designing the units they teach.
In larger universities, if the courses are taught by individual faculty lecturing or conducting interactive seminars or finding another way to engage a large group and then with smaller break out sections, these kinds of flexibility can be built into the course.
Graduates from one year could nominate and even vote on two or three of the texts for the following year and perhaps even nominate the profs to lecture on those, with the profs designing the rest of the syllabus.
Designing these three cohort courses for majors would require faculty in the department to work together, decide on which principles would govern the structure of the courses, and, no matter what structure were chosen, to contribute at least one reading to the collective syllabus and be responsible for lecturing and leading some kind of individualized or collective research paper on it.
Example: Say Uni A wants to organize literature by genre, and then historically within genre. The cohort courses might be fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, with three semester-long courses organized each year within that structure, in whatever way the faculty (and students, I would insist) thought was a compelling way to structure the readings within that overarching structure. Or they might be prose, poetry, multimedia (again, depending on the size of your institutions and other departmental or programmatic divisions—such as Film Studies department, or Communications, etc). Ideally, each genre year would include avant-garde writing (of any period) that pushed the boundaries of genres, blurring the categories.
Say Uni B thinks periodization is more important. Then the three cohort courses might be beginnings to the early modern period, early modern to 19th century, and 20th and 21st century. The conversations then would have to work within those periods, represent genres, and work out what “English” means—British, Great Britain, British Isles, US, Caribbean, African, South Asian, etc. At what point do “nation” and “language” become issues? How? Why?
Example: Topical Issues
Say Uni C wanted to reorganize a department by topical issues, themes, political concerns, or aesthetic or other kinds of issues. Possibly topics might include race, gender, sexuality, the environment, individuals within civil society, political systems, love, hate, democracy, the child, identity, truth, beauty, the country and the city, and so forth.
Within those overarching topical themes, then departments could design a syllabus that could exemplify their values--again, maybe genre, maybe periodization, maybe another way of orchestrating a discussion of what literature is and means, what literary criticism affords, what the function of literary history might be in the study of or in the writing of imaginative literature.
I’m sure there are many other ideas one could come up with for big, overarching, semester-long cohort courses, but those are three possibilities. You’d offer these three every year. Students would have at least three courses during their major with the same cohort of English majors. Lots of research on cohorts underscores how effective they are in every way—for motivation, for excellence, for completion rates, for morale, for collaboration.
Again, the loosely interconnected collaborative cohort structure--for faculty as well as students--means a department could run a competition every few years for topics. It's a great way to engage and inspire your community.
Research/Writing/Digital and Public Interfaces
Each student in the cohort classes could engage in an original research project, with other students or individually, and there should be some kind of departmental non-commercial website, such as a WordPress or other site, in which the final papers are posted. If a tool such as Hypothesis were used, so that other students could comment on papers, this would make the research have a meaning and visiblity beyond the class. Others in or outside the cohort could continue. It would require that every class have a segment on online publication, security, privacy, anonymity, data use, and other minimal digital literacy skills. It would allow for multimedia inclusion. You could require everyonein the cohort to comment--judiciously and generously and generatively, helpfully--on work by others in their cohort.
A side benefit: such a publication would allow students to have something to link to on their CVs, offer another skill, and champion their knowledge as something they contribute to the public, to the public good. It could become a quasi literary magazine produced by that cohort.
This also helps dissuade plagiarism, since the paper isn't just some secret communication between student and prof but something for anyone to see. [Different universities have rules about publication so these would have to be confronted and possibly changed.]
[Another personal aside]
I'm on record for thinking term papers are pretty pointless if they are written knowing only your prof will be reading them, and especially if written at the last moment. That's a recipe for cynicism, breeding plagiarism and bad writing.Term papers for the sake of fulfilling a requirement to write a erm papers are deadly--they literally create their own variety of mistakes, the equivalent of those mistakes working class and middle-class people make in order to sound more "educated" (what sociolinguist Labov documented long ago: overuse of "whom" (even when incorrect but because it sounds "smarter" and so forth).
On the other hand, knowing how to do research is a vital life skill, especially in changing times. Having students find and explore a library, an archive, to do oral histories, to interview writers, to work in communities, to apply their literary skills beyond the course: there are so many creative ways of teaching critical writing, multimedia publication, and critical reading all together, in a way extremely creative, productive, and beneficial to the student and that champions the very best of an English department.
If I were teaching a research component, I'd want students, first, to be engaged in every step of the process, from pitching and vetting their projects to one another, bringing in early research findings and presenting them in appealing ways and getting feedback from the other students, and then publishing their work at the end of the process.
I'd make sure they understood how their own research practices in the course could be applied in any life situation and how it might be especially useful in an era of media manipuliation and overt disinformation proliferation.
I'd also want to make sure that their final research papers were presented in a way that represented them in the future--potentially to employers or to graduate school admissions committees. Your interviewer is likely to Google you to find out about you (even in cases where your HR department or state law forbids the practice)--more likely, in fact, than to spend significant, comprehensive time perusing your resume. So I'd want to work with students on not only how one engages in research but how one distills it and presents it, including online.
I might also work with them to find the best ways for them to include their project and their original research on their resumes. A grade in a class is a paltry way of testifying to what one has accomplished. There are better ways to describe on a resume what one is really proud of, with links to the result. There are tools (including this HASTAC.org site) for publication that do not take advantage of you, do not sell your data. Learning that lesson would also be part of any research component I taught.
If research were truly taken seriously (for those heading to graduate school and those heading anywhere in the world), it would be a huge service to students' futures and perhaps even to society at large. Digital literacy should, like defensive driving, be something that helps to ensure you complete your journey successfully and safely. How great for an English department to take on that goal as part of its mission to embrace better practices of reading, writing, thinking, and digital communication.]
And the Rest of the Major? Dual Pathway Model
So that takes care of three courses for the major. For the other course requirements, I personally like what the Yale History Department did, remixing all of its courses and requirements, putting them in clusters, and then having pathways through those clusters. Pathway A, "The Pre-Graduate School Professional Major" would be for those interested in becoming professional academics (with a more restrictive, prescriptive, specific set of required courses building to some kind of capstone experience). At larger institutions, the professional route might include specializations--early modern or rhetoric or creative writing or postcolonial literature or critical theory. Your choice (as with everything).
Pathway B, could be wide open (ie. something like "five additional courses in the English Department) or more distribution in strucutre. Again, your choice. I love the idea of the smorgasbord approach open to students who have no interest whatsoever in pursuing anything but a love of literature or creative writing beyond the undergraduate degree but that's not what every department will favor. The point is a second, different more flexible, open pathway for those who might love the field, love the ideas, but have no intention of pursuing a graduate degree or becoming an academic could put together a major from everything offered.
Because they are building upon those three backbone cohort courses students would have a better sense of how to build out their own majors. With lectures offered by different members of the department, students would have the opportunity to see whose ways of reading, thinking, talking, and interacting with students most appealed to them.
One institution might want more structure for the second pathway. Another less. The point is to offer different ways of being an English major while still providing some coherence.
An English Major that Offers What We Say It Does
For students who believe what we often say about the English major—that it improves one’s ability to read complex texts, to decipher and deconstruct information, to appreciate language and to learn to communicate well—this more flexible major for those who have no intention of becoming academics would still allow them to luxuriate in all the benefits of English while having maximum freedom. If they love poetry, maybe they take all the rest of their courses in poetry, reading it and writing it. Others might never want to read a poem again. If they have no professional, graduate-level ambitions, the freedom might allow them to concentrate and specialize (but in any way they want, not in way that prepares them for graduate study in English).
If it bothers you to have two radically different majors, find ways to work with your university registrar to name them. English profs who love language should be able to solve that problem easily.
I personally think an overly long syllabus inspires cheating. No one can read hundreds of pages every week so you learn to fake it, not to love great literature. Over-prescribing is the biggest problem to overcome in most fields that are based on the apprenticeship model, the expert insisting the acolyte knows what the expert knows. The same is true of required courses. Under-requiring courses allows students to explore beyond the major. If every discipline did this (I’m looking at you, Engineering Departments!) everyone would be better off and the university would be a friendlier place. Trust me. It’s true.
Invent Your Own Model: Go for It!
Don’t like this model at all? Great. Invent your own. The principle here is introspection, collective analysis of what is or isn’t working within your department and your institution, and making something better together. Involve the students. If necessary, bring in a facilitator who no one in the department knows. Work in groups on separate pieces of the puzzle, with a deadline, and then come together and fit the pieces together. And add new books and lecturers every year, chosen by one graduating cohort for those coming in. It will keep everyone fresh, interested, involved.
Most people in the humanities hate the idea of assessment. I, personally, think assessment can be great if deployed with real conviction and commitment. We can go far beyond student evaluations and really do ethnographies of what works and what doesn’t; we can see what kinds of courses students take. Are they telling their friends to major in English? Are they excited by the new offerings? Is the major growing? Are faculty in other departments asking what you are doing because they keep hearing about the excitement “over in English”?
For a blog post about non-cynical, creative, inspiring learning outcomes (designed by me, my students, and other contributing colleagues), see: "Ten Learning Outcomes to Inspire--Not Police--Learning"
Don’t like it?
No problem. Come up with something far better. That’s the point. Besides, you can always go back to what you had before.