Reviewed by Dalyn Luedtke (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Erika Lindemann, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Christina McDonald, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, “Fieldwork in the English Major: Opening Doors for Civic Participation”
Emily Miller, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, “An Alternative Model: An English Major Centered on Rhetoric”
Erika Lindemann, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “An Introduction: Imagining an English Major”
Like many English departments, my department has recently begun to reconsider the way we frame our work for students in the current economic and educational climates. As the first Rhet/Comp hire at my institution, I’ve also been actively engaging my department in discussions about the role of writing in the discipline, exploring the boundaries and possibilities that arise naturally from questions about who we (an English and Communications department with specialists in Literature, Creative Writing, Rhet/Comp, and Communications) are and what we do. As a result, I was drawn to this panel, which promised to grapple with these same issues based on the recent curriculum changes made in the English Department at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI).
The panel included Erika Lindemann, who acted as chair, and two faculty members from VMI: Emily P. Miller, Department Head and Professor of English, and Christine R. McDonald, Institute Director of Writing and Professor of English.
Erika Lindemann began by reading prepared remarks from Robert L. McDonald, Associate Dean of the Faculty and Professor of English and Fine Arts, who was unable to attend the conference. The question, both troubling and promising, that framed this discussion was this: “How to avoid a bonfire of the Humanities?”
This question, of course, has been the focus of many recent articles, op-eds, and Facebook exchanges. McDonald provided some history to contextualize this debate, noting specifically that English has historically relied on literature narrowly defined and that the turn toward cultural studies and theory put us in direct competition with other disciplines.
Citing Richard Ohmann (2000) he noted that, as a discipline, we have failed to expand on available opportunities to define our purpose while simultaneously becoming unwieldy in scope, including interests not clearly linked to English. In the current climate, where an investment in education demands an accounting in jobs, English teeters on the brink of irrelevance—an “extreme vocationalism that cannot embrace English Studies.”
In essence, “As a discipline we can be large, but we need to ask who we are or who knows what rough beasts come slouching?”
Concluding McDonald’s remarks, Lindemann defined three current realities in the educational landscape:
- Technology: Students and faculty must be able to comprehend and create multimodal texts.
- Economy: We are all facing decreases in funding. One-fifth of US households have student loans. Degree programs must be able to demonstrate productivity.
- Competition: Every undergraduate program must fight to get students in seats because of AP/dual credit, transfer credit, online classes, and for-profit institutions.
And she succinctly stated, “If lecturing is all you do, MOOCs can replace you.”
Who are we? What do we do? Why does it matter?
In order to address these questions, Emily P. Miller described the impetus for curricular change in the English Department at VMI, which had been tasked with redesigning and reinvigorating the English major to exploit the strengths of the writing program and induce a Burkean definition of cooperation amongst the Fine Arts and Humanities.
Miller emphasized that curricular change is usually slow and challenging, but they undertook the process in the course of a year. It was, essentially, a chance to create an ideal curriculum and work through the questions about who we are as a discipline in very concrete ways.
The remainder of the panel focused on the specifics of the curricular revision completed the previous year. Faculty from the Writing Program, Languages, Literature, Philosophy, and Art collaboratively crafted a mission statement, guiding principles, and goals and outcomes. Christine R. McDonald detailed the ways in which the mission statement is enacted through specific courses that reinforce the ability to communicate effectively and creatively through a variety of media for the benefit of individuals and communities. The field work requirement undertaken senior year, in particular, seemed to be an important addition to the curriculum and McDonald showcased the work of two students who worked to document the literacy practices of specific communities, as well as an upcoming project on public literacy in Beaufort County, SC.
Because the culture of VMI so closely mirrors my own institution, I found the panel to be informative, interesting, and relevant, particularly the argument that the major should respond to the local context and the necessity of defining a specific vision rather than simply applying band-aids. I was also left with many questions about the repercussions of such a rapid change on both students and faculty. The audience, which I should note filled the room beyond capacity, clearly felt the same way. The push to teach from a rhetorical perspective and the impact that has on other faculty, as well as the content of courses, was the focus of the limited amount of time we had for discussion. While Miller acknowledged that there have been difficulties, the scope and nature of those difficulties, if explored further, could illuminate some of the tensions in the discipline and how those might be productively explored, negotiated, or mitigated at levels that go beyond individual departments. Since this process is still ongoing, I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops and what insights these panelists will have when the dust has settled.
Ohmann, Richard.(2000). The function of English at the present time. In David Richter (Ed.), Falling into Theory (89-95). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's Press.