The Future of English

Another excellent post by Michael Bérubé here, this time on what the future could/should hold for English departments.


…Short of renaming the English department “Patriotism Studies”—and retooling the curriculum accordingly—we’re not going to equip ourselves to deal more effectively with David Horowitz and George Will simply by putting out a new shingle reading “cultural studies” or “critical theory.” Likewise, name changes have relatively little impact on administrative budget decisions…universities find it cheaper to staff freshman composition with graduate teaching assistants and adjuncts than with full-time faculty, and much of the English department spreadsheet is devoted to staffing freshman composition.

Which brings me to the “mission” of the department. I will have to be blunt: no kind of renaming or reorganizing is going to make English a coherent, tidy discipline. It would be hard enough to make it coherent if it were devoted solely to literature; literature, as even the most hidebound traditionalists ought to admit one of these days, is a terribly amorphous thing that touches on every conceivable facet of the known world—and, as if this weren’t enough, many facets of worlds yet unknown as well. You want to organize it? Good luck…

…But it so happens that the English department is not devoted solely to literature. And before anyone gets all worked up about Theory this and Film that and Gender the other (whether pro or con, and with either small or large “o” in other), let me point out that the really destabilizing force in the English department is rhetoric. You know, the Truly Old School, kickin’ it Quintilian style. In my own department, “rhetoric” covers things like African-American Vernacular English; ancient and classical oratory; writing across the curriculum; and pretty much everything else, including theory. And why not? The department of English (in its American incarnations) has never been devoted entirely to the study of literature; most departments were developed under the rubric “language and literature,” and the study of language goes pretty far afield, folks. It’s not that the horses have left the disciplinary barn and are now running loose all over the place; it’s that there was no barn to begin with. (Scholars in rhetoric and composition have made this point about “English” many times, actually. Someone really ought to pay attention.)


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