The Trouble With English

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the subject of English or English departments.

Their history begins, surprisingly to some, not in English-speaking countries, but on the European continent in the mid-19th century, when English-language instruction—later combined with instruction in literature and culture—was recognized as a pragmatic necessity for business and politics to communicate with the most successful liberal economy in the world: Britain.

As Richard Ohmann, Gerald Graff, and others have mapped out, English departments in Britain and the United States were established a little later, some emulating, some objecting to the German(ic) philological models dominating Continental institutions after 1871. The two world wars, the rise of the United States as the most powerful nation in the world, the ascendance of English as the world’s lingua franca, and the general growth of humanities departments between 1945 and 1990 all contributed to the final anchoring of English in (native) English-speaking academies.

As a hotbed of ever-new methodological, ideological, and rhetorical turns, English departments embraced New Critical, Marxist, New Historicist, and feminist paths and fought valiantly in the theory wars. At most institutions, they survived the onslaught of interdisciplinary competitors such as women’s studies, cultural studies, and American studies by offering a safe habitat to these fields’ representatives under the large institutionalized “English” umbrella. They warded off incursions by upstart colleagues from communications departments by ceding to them most areas of visual, oral, and technology-based communication, doggedly holding on to the teaching and study of writing, literature, and sometimes film, as bastions along their imaginary 38th parallel.

None of these past challenges compares with the one under way now. While other humanities disciplines—philosophy, linguistics, and modern languages, for example—have relied upon a range of foundational practices at the modern mass university, many English professors have depended on literature (narrowly defined), written discourse, and the printed book as the primary elements in teaching and scholarship. But hidebound faculty members who continue to assign and study only pre-computer-based media will quickly be on their way toward becoming themselves a “historical” presence at the university.

More so than philologists since the 1970s, Marxists since the 1980s, and New Historicists since the late 1990s, they are bound to become monuments of bygone glory, remembered only as a “wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command” by young faculty who anxiously reject their canons and ideologies to build their own identities. Students, parents, and society in general may allow them to serve out their tenure terms as a form of nostalgia, but many departments may be closed, and “English” faculty may be asked to join other departments. I can see some ending up as representatives of English-language literature or creative writing in departments of world literatures/languages or global studies, and others in niches and sinecures in communications, women’s studies, and administration.

Ironically, the area relatively immune to the “accelerated obsolescence” of the English professoriate happens to be the one literary scholars, theorists, and creative writers have continually disdained as too practical and uninspiring: writing studies/composition.

Grading-intensive and allegedly intellectually pedestrian, the teaching of composition has been all-too-willingly relegated by tenured English faculty to junior colleagues and contingent faculty, groups whose members, because of their relative youth and employment situation, are “naturally” inclusive of new technologies and experimental teaching. In several schools, first-year writing/communication nowadays even incorporates not only written, but also oral, verbal, electronic, and nonverbal communication, creating even more convergence with other areas on college campuses.

Finally, composition studies, traditionally involved in finding pragmatic solutions for complex social and pedagogical issues, has never taken its diverse student populations for granted, thus earning the trust and gratitude of the faculty in the many academic disciplines its general-education and lower-level courses serve. Therefore, I am not at all worried about these colleagues’ futures.

Please don’t get me wrong: I do not think that we should abandon the study of literature, no longer negotiate theory, or cease to write poetry. What I am saying is that many tenured English faculty should stop: a) lamenting that the antebellum specialist cannot possibly cover the second half of that delightfully long 19th century; b) brushing off the suggestion that the fiction writer cover a genre called nonfiction; c) assigning thesis topics investigating the sudden emergence, and hasty disappearance, of birthday poetry on the Isle of Man during the first 17 days of the Seven Years’ War; and most importantly d) refusing to see that professional development ended with promotion/tenure.

In a nutshell: The English professoriate should embrace, accompany critically, and shape the new discourses its students sorely need to communicate and compete: blogs, video essays, Web comics, digital archives, data visualization, and the like. If these professors continue to hide in disciplinary dead-wall reveries, preferring not to grow with the academic culture and technological change that surround them, I predict students will vote with their feet, and parents with their pocketbooks, to usher in the end of degree programs and departments that rely exclusively on writing, print, and the allegedly carefree days of WordPerfect 6.0.

And with these colleagues’ skill sets and competencies would also disappear numerous and diverse humanistic correctives on our increasingly technological world, correctives even business leaders cherish as absolutely essential for the success of their companies.

Richard Utz is chair of the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

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