How English Is Your Department?

The Harvard English Department appears on the verge of changing its official name, from the “Department of English and American Literature and Language” to the “English Department.” This sounds like a good thing, a bucking of a trend that started nearly 30 years ago toward renaming university English departments in order to make them appear more hip and relevant (in 1981, for example, the Georgia Institute of Technology restyled its English department a “School of Literature, Communication, and Culture”). A recent editorial in Harvard’s student newspaper, the Crimson, praised the proposed new name as promoting the precision of diction that George Orwell (not to mention countless freshman English teachers) had pinpointed as crucial if a language is to preserve its meaning. “The Department of English and American Literature and Language is not actually in the business of teaching English and American literature and language,” the Crimson editorialist noted. “Rather, it teaches about the structure and works of the English language.” Anyone who has read the novels of James Joyce or Joseph Conrad – two masters of English prose style who were neither English nor American by origin – would have to agree.

Nonetheless, the decision of Harvard’s English faculty to give their department a more succinct and accurate name may deserve only two cheers instead of three. Harvard’s move may actually signal a desperate effort to entice more undergraduates to major in English by expanding the curriculum to include just about everything except the study of works of English literature. The name “English Department” is on many campuses nowadays a catchall home for courses in gender studies, “postcolonialism,” movies, television shows, and whatever else seems trendy or likely to induce young people who would rather not plow through Ulysses to sign up. The number of English majors at U.S. colleges and university has been in a state of free-fall since the 1960s, and now, according to the Department of Education, only 1.6 percent of the nation’s 19 million undergraduates choose English as their major.”

Surveying advertised job openings at universities for holders of Ph.D.’s in English in his widely publicized article in The Nation about the moribund state of literary studies, Yale English professor William Deresiewicz wrote, “There have always been trends in literary criticism, but the major trend now is trendiness itself, trendism, the desperate search for anything sexy. Contemporary lit, global lit, ethnic American lit; creative writing, film, ecocriticism – whatever. There are postings here for positions in science fiction, in fantasy literature, in children’s literature, even in something called ‘”digital humanities.'” (Yale itself is a case in point of declining student interest coupled with faculty flailing; the number of English majors at Yale fell from 238 in 2001 to 157 in 2007.)

In a 2005 essay titled “The Death of English” in Inside Higher Education, Judith Halberstam, an English professor at the University of Southern California recognized that few young people want to major in English these days and suggested that English departments simply change their names to something more postmodern and au courant: “The beauty of English as a discipline in the last decade has been how flexible the field became, how receptive to new scholarship, how hospitable to queer theory, feminist studies, the study of race and ethnicity, political economy, philosophy and so on…. While we may all continue doing what we do – reading closely, looking for patterns and disturbances of patterns within cultural manifestations, determining the complex and fractal relations between cultural production and hegemonies – once we call it something other than “English,” (like cultural studies, critical theory, theory and culture, etc.), it will neither look the same nor mean the same thing and nor will it occupy the same place in relation to the humanities in general…” Halberstam has followed her own advice. She holds a dual appointment in “English and gender studies” at USC, and although her undergraduate and graduate degrees were in English literature, none of her scholarship, which (according to her online biography) focuses on “popular, visual and queer culture” and “visualizations of gender ambiguities,” even remotely involves works of English literature.

USC’s English department still calls itself an English department, but it otherwise seems to have hewed to Halberstam’s counsel, in spirit if not in letter. The course offerings in the USC English department are a smorgasbord of postmodern politicizations of cultural history, including a graduate seminar in medieval literature to be offered this fall that recasts Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the writings of mystics as sado-masochistic narratives of “[t]orture and the pornography of ever-deferred martyrdom.”

USC’s course catalogue is scarcely unusual for an English department nowadays, but Harvard’s English faculty has so far resisted the trend in trendiness, and most of its course offerings for both undergraduates and graduate students deal with “Beowulf,” “Hamlet,” and other canonical works of English literature. (The notable exceptions in the Harvard course schedule are the nearly unreadable postcolonialist offerings of its 2001 hiree, Homi K. Bhabha, who won second prize in 1998 in the journal Philosophy and Literature’s bad writing contest for this sentence in one of his books: “If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to ‘normalize’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.” Orwell would have a field day with this.

One hopes that Harvard’s proposed name change is not a signal that its newly renamed “English Department” intends to go the route of its sister departments at USC and elsewhere. Given the desperate longings of English departments across the country to be ever more up-to-date in order to lure students, it is hard to summon up optimism in this regard.


2 thoughts on “How English Is Your Department?

  1. Charlotte, it’s even worse than you indicated. Out of 40 USC English professors who have posted bios on the department website as of summer 2012, (an astonishing) 11 list their interests as “gender studies” (9), “queer studies” (1) or “sexuality” (1). And to think, when I was studying there I thought it was all about reading dead poetry and boring novels. Well, that’s California for you–the state that wants to teach seven year olds about gay marriage.

  2. I’m curious to know if Harvard’s course catalog actually reflects what is taught. Reading “canonical works” means nothing if one doesn’t know how to offer a proper text-based interpretation that can hold up under some scrutiny (obviously, the interpretation doesn’t have to be perfect).
    I’m asking, I don’t know – does anyone have info to share about this?

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