PhiN 69/2014: 93

Richard Utz (Atlanta)

Quo vadis, English Studies?

Quo vadis, English Studies?
The Modern Language Association's Division on the History and Theory of Rhetoric and Composition had invited me to contribute a paper on the topic of "Rhetoric as a New Paradigm for English Studies" for the 2014 annual meeting of the MLA in Chicago. While the other participants at the session, Douglas Hesse (University of Denver), Peter Leslie Mortensen (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and Michael Bernard-Donals (University of Wisconsin, Madison), focused on illustrative examples of the cultural work rhetoric can do within the "English" paradigm, my own proposition as the only "English literature" person now at a major technological research institution turned out somewhat more radical. My thought experiment asked whether we need "English" departments at all, extending previous deliberations published in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Utz 2013)

Historically, the academic study of English began with clearly identifiable utilitarian and national objectives, from the inculcation of Britain's cultural ideology onto its various colonial subjects from palm to pine to language instruction for businessmen on the European continent. After a period of heightened importance to represent and maintain cultural superiority during and after the two world wars, the "English" professariat abandoned such openly national goals and expanded the field into a space in which an either self-sufficient or politically engaged aesthetic resisted most applied, utilitarian, or entrepreneurial goals. To achieve this transformation, directly praxis-oriented areas, such as composition, rhetoric, applied linguistics, and English education, were relegated to professor practitioners, lonesome and often untenured directors of composition, and salvation armies of contingent faculty and graduate students, and a powerful mythography about the powers of reading and interpreting English literary texts was advanced.

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Based on mostly unexamined claims about high literature’s universal humanistic relevance as well as the unique competencies (critical thinking; creativity; public speaking; writing) its study allegedly imparts better than work with any other "texts", tenured core faculty in English and American literatures constructed curricula exacting full historicizing coverage of all literary periods, all genres, all major authors, and a series of up to four survey courses, often required of all students regardless of their specific reasons for pursuing a major or minor within the realm of "English". They built a modern tower of learning in which literary studies and theory held the top place medieval scholars once reserved for Theology, trying hard to obfuscate that the tower’s foundation, i.e., the raison d’être for having an "English" faculty in the first place, consisted of the large-scale instructional needs in basic composition and communication for students from all other academic disciplines.

It seems to me that colleagues in English and American literatures occupied the intellectual space provided by "English" departments not because of devious colonial desires, but because "English" seemed like an empty signifier beckoning to be filled. Consequently, as the nationalist foundation for having "English" departments faded after the 1950s, many of these units chose to call themselves departments of "English language and literature" or "English and Cultural Studies" in response to the absence of a distinct disciplinary identity and to what the most recent version of the crisis narrative in "English" happened to be. Even before that, until politics severed the easy cultural and linguistic cognatism between Englishness and Germanity in the late 1930s, students of "English" at U.S. research institutions took mandatory courses not only in Anglo-Saxon, but also Middle Scots, Old Norse, Gothic, and Old or Middle High German, prompting William Allen Neilson, the President of Smith College, to state that "the Egyptians took five weeks to make a mummy, but the Harvard English Department took five years" (Bates 1982: 49). "English" truly has been many things to many different people, in different geographical areas, in different cultural contexts, and at different times.

If we conceive of an academic discipline as a laboratory-like habitat within which a group of practitioners collaborate according to certain negotiated paradigms, practices, curricula, canons, places of publication, and sometimes even style sheets, English departments, at least in North America, are no such habitats.

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Whatever unspoken arrangement holds together an English department’s competing scholarly, artistic, ideological, and pedagogical interests, it might rather be called, with James C. Raymond "a marriage of inconvenience, grounded not on any passion or admiration that would justify the union but on habit, historical accident, economic dependency, and perhaps anxiety about what people would think if we went our separate ways and whether we would actually survive" (James 1996: 1). Responses to this generally accepted insight have ranged widely: In the 1980s, there was Steven Mailloux’s attempt at bringing together the divergent parts of the Syracuse English department based on the paradigm of "cultural rhetoric," which he defined as "the political effectivity of trope and argument in culture" (Mailloux 1989: 69). In the 1990s, Peter Elbow and Gerald Graff embraced the sempiternal crisis mode of "English" as a feature we should simply accept because they thought it to be commensurate with the intellectual complexity of the cultural work "English" does (cf. Elbow 1990; Graff 1992). In 2006, in English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s), Bruce McComiskey, proposed a "New English Studies," whose unifying goal was to be "the analysis, critique, and production of discourse in social context" (McComiskey 2006: 43). He sees discipline as a space in which literary, linguistic, pedagogical, and creative practices would be seen as functionally complementary, but not ideologically opposed. He names three prerequisites for the "re-integration" of "English Studies": A "strong desire to join forces" (McComiskey 2006: 46), the "pursuit of a common goal" (McComiskey 2006: 47; the telos he has in mind is, of course, "the analysis, critique, and production of discourse in social context"); and the creation of "institutionally recognized bounds that are functional" (McComiskey 2006: 47; and by such "functional relationships" he means those stemming from external exigencies, for example:

A stand-along writing program may join forces with English education to establish a National Writing Project site in response to a felt need to improve writing instruction at all levels of the local curriculum. A literacy crisis in a city […] might motivate linguists to join forces with critical theorists, seeking funding for a literacy center to each the power of language to those who need it most. Literary critics might join forces with creative writers to establish a young authors’ conference promoting literary culture and values throughout the state" (McComiskey 2006: 47-8).

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How does McComiskey want the imagined community known as "English" to reimagine itself? Rejecting the notion that the humanities deserve a habitat at the university expressly because they are anti-utilitarian, he pleads with his colleagues:

English is useful. English is useful. And we must learn to use it more fully to solve important problems. When we scan our dusty bookshelves, we do not see the material representations of our disciplines. Our books are not us. Disciplines are constituted in the ways that knowledge is generated, developed, used, and integrated – by people – into a larger system of knowledge whose concerns press beyond the narrow disciplinary scopes of linguistics or discourse analysis or rhetoric or composition or creative writing or literature or literary criticism or critical theory or cultural studies or English education" (McComiskey 2006: 49).

While I am attracted to McComiskey’s smart and well-articulated rhetorical turn toward building a new "English Studies," I doubt that most colleagues in English departments (and McComiskey does not even discuss the numerous colleagues in Africana studies, gender studies, critical race studies, disability studies, film and cinema studies, etc., who also tend to have their tenure homes in "English" units) have the deep-seated desire to join forces and pursue common goals simply because such collaboration might create the functional relationships necessary to reform and redefine "English." After all, their path through higher education and tenure and promotion has instilled in them the notion that it is adherence to their distinctive (and narrow) subdisciplines and not the seeking of convergences within the larger "English" umbrella which yields success and recognition. However, if a solution from within "English" is unlikely to happen, and if "English" is not really a definable discipline, what about a university without English departments?

Let me contextualize my question: I am the product of an English department and have spent more than 20 years of my career in English departments and at traditional universities with large humanities colleges. However, I recently moved, quite intentionally, from an institution at which the English Department was the largest teaching unit (Western Michigan University) to become chair of a School of Literature, Media, and Communication at an Institute of Technology. Until the early 1990s my School was a Department of English and among the founding departments at Georgia Tech in 1888, and it consists of faculty with degree specializations in Communication, Composition, Creative Writing, Cultural Studies, Digital Media, Digital Humanities, Film, Literature, Biomedicine, Law, Performance Studies, and many more.

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All that remains of "English" in the curriculum is a two-semester sequence of courses, titled ENGL 1101/1102, which satisfies the Georgia Board of Regents composition requirement. However, these courses are taught based on a WOVEN approach, which caters to Written, Oral, Visual, Electronic, and Nonverbal communication elements, and a large cohort of postdoctoral fellows provide most of the instruction of these courses. Our two undergraduate majors, both Bachelor of Science degrees, are in Science, Technology, and Culture (recently renamed: Literature, Media, and Communication) and in Computational Media (collaboratively run by my School and the College of Computing). The courses required for these degrees are organized according to curricular concentrations ("threads") chosen by the student, and they include no survey courses and teach issues far beyond the realm of "English." There is still a whiff of the coverage model among the literature/cultural studies faculty, but if you look closely you will find that our eighteenth-century British Literature specialist focuses on surveillance, our early Americanist recently received an NEH grant to work on Metadata Visualization, our Shakespearean centers on Renaissance science, and our Victorianist examines representations of medicine in nineteenth-century culture. Like several other units in our Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts, we are joyfully "undisciplined," "incomparable," and "peerless," and nobody could possibly identify a fitting category within the famed Delaware Study of Instructional Costs & Productivity to measure and rank us against other teaching units in the nation. What unites us are exactly the kinds of real-life "external functional exigencies" McComiskey’s suggests as the central constitutive feature of a purposeful disciplinary identity. If, as Georgia Tech founding president Isaac Hopkins announced in 1888, the aim of the English department is "to train the student in the best methods of expression, to cultivate in him true literary taste and appreciation, and to give him an adequate knowledge of the English language and literature," today’s School of Literature, Media, and Communication is moving towards the end of a protracted process of unlearning some of the powerful paradigms that inform Hopkins’s foundational statement. Rather than asking students to critically analyze and produce established cultural forms, we now encourage them to explore new ways of responding to and defining innovation in their chosen professions.

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With the unique vantage point of practices typical of an Institute of Technology, what unites us and encourages us to collaborate is, in the end, what our students join us for: A grounding in both multimodal communication skills as well as specialized research centering on the convergences between science, technology, and the humanities. In this way, we are not passively shaped by, but collaboratively shape the ever-accelerating advances in science and technology studies. And yes, just like our nineteenth-century "English" forebears, we are still "auxiliary" and proudly so, providing humanistic perspectives in an increasingly technological world to a campus predominantly focused on educating future engineers and scientists.

Don’t get me wrong: I am not suggesting that my School’s path from "English" to "Literature, Media, and Communication" is what all other current "English" units should try to emulate. Our co-disciplinary inclusion of digital media with some of the more traditional elements of the humanities, albeit always with an eye toward science and technology, may well become one of the promising directions a new liberal arts education can take. However, it is of course largely specific to our presence at a technological university. What my School’s example proves is that the day we abandoned "English" was not the day the world stood still. In fact, even non-tech institutions have made the reorganization of teaching units into more clearly definable disciplines, without "English," their distinctive feature. Perhaps most notably, the Department of Literature at UC Santa Cruz advertises itself as differing from comparable units at most American universities in both its organization and its approach to the study of literature: "Rather than dividing the field of literary studies along national and cultural traditions (and into separate departments of English, French, Classics, etc.), the department offers a single forum for research and teaching across linguistic, disciplinary, and geopolitical lines" ( UCSC’s Division of Humanities also features departments of Linguistics, Feminist Studies, and the History of Consciousness, acknowledging older and newer disciplinary concentrations, and all without recourse to the "English" denominator and tradition. Many other, often smaller and regional institutions, have realized the deep connections between language and literature study and have united these two areas in departments of literatures and languages; and at dozens of institutions, Rhetoric, Creative Writing, Writing Studies, and Cultural Studies have created their own departments.

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I guess what I am trying to say here is that the realm of "English" is already much more organizationally diverse than its numerous, omnipresent, and commanding institutional anchors and monuments would make us believe. More should and will happen, as George Levine predicted as early as 1993. Reform, Levine wrote (and the MLA just recently reprinted his visionary essay), "must begin within departments and programs that have resisted structural (as opposed to ideological and theoretical) change until now. We must learn to build departments whose interests and objectives are less at odds with their immediate public responsibilities" (Levine 2012: 147). After all, there is a well-known historical precedent for what happens when an academic discipline ignores these public responsibilities: When I chose a Latin question for the title of this short essay, it was not because I wanted to sound learned or fondly remember Henryk Sienkiewicz, but because it seems entirely likely that "English," which once upon a time succeeded in dethroning and replacing the established Latin and Greek as the master disciplines in the humanities, may end up inhabiting a similarly moderate space in the academy as these Classical languages hold today. Some, not I, might see this as a form of poetic justice.


Bates, Walter Jackson (1982): "The Crisis in English Studies," Harvard Magazine, 85, 41-53.

Elbow, Peter (1990): What is English? New York: Modern Language Association.

Graff, Gerald (1992): Beyond the Culture Wars. New York: Norton.

James, Raymond C. (1996): English as a Discipline: Or, Is There a Plot in This Play? Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Levine, George (2012): "The Real Trouble." Profession, 143-48 [originally published in Profession, 1993, 43-45].

Mailloux, Steven (1989): Rhetorical Power. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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McComiskey, Bruce (2006): English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s). Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English.

Utz, Richard (2013): "The Trouble with English," in: The Chronicle of Higher Education. Accessed: June 29, 2014.