The English Department: Questions and Dreams Moving Forward

The English Department: Questions and Dreams Moving Forward

The Liberal Arts: An Ancient Idea Whose Time Is Now

The English department, as an institution, is only a shade over a hundred years old, but that relative stability (it’s newer than the chemistry department but older than the psychology department) provides enough cover, I hope, to maintain something like the much older tradition of the liberal arts in the face of a job-training mentality that tends to colonize the college.

When the Romans talked about the liberal arts and medieval Christians inherited that tradition, they had in mind the disciplines of mind that characterized the free, those who influenced the world around them rather than passively receiving the world’s influence.  That notion was rooted in Roman citizenship during the Republic and membership in the body of Christ when Church became the center of common life, and in both cases those old educators held that the human being was ill-suited to govern other human beings without the disciplines of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.  The good news was that human nature was elastic, so that one person could become a surgeon and another a writer and both of them citizens or members, and moreover particular individuals, by means of education and disciplined living, could become genuinely extraordinary examples of wisdom, justice, faith, hope, and love.

As early as Plato–and likely before–thinkers began to realize that a lifetime pursuing excellence should not mainly be a matter of securing advantage over rivals but mainly a life of service, farming well so that others might eat even when they weren’t as skillful and fighting well so that others might be free even when they weren’t as fierce and thinking well so that others might benefit from wisdom even if their natural capacities for wisdom and their education in the traditions of wisdom weren’t themselves as extensive.  We do for others not mainly for some reward from Heaven when we die (though that wouldn’t be bad) but because the best human life is a life of doing-for-others, and we do best for others when we have developed capacities for excellence.

In the face of college-as-investment ideas that have been on the rise in the course of my own lifetime, the liberal arts, with their inherent focus on serving others, sounds counter-intuitive.  But a true idea stands as an idea with the energy to resist bad ones, and liberal arts as service stands to resist self-centered concepts of education.  At Emmanuel College, our students–be they Business majors or Mathematics majors or Early Childhood Education majors, are going to get the coursework to become specialized professionals with the credentials to enter the workforce, and the liberal arts stand to remind our students and us that, without taking away from that specialization or from those credentials, those educated at a Christian college can be and must be more than specialized professionals.

General-Education English: Discipline for Citizenship and Membership

For the moment (though I often worry that the moment might pass), our college requires that every student who wants to graduate take at minimum two composition courses and one literature course.  Thus over the course of a college degree–some students get them all done quickly and some leave some space between–every Emmanuel College student spends time studying written rhetoric and the specialized kind of thinking that makes literary criticism possible.

Within a job-skills framework for understanding college, writing classes make some sense and literature none at all, but disciplining free people, if we hold that the liberal arts are still a valid core for a college, can benefit from the combination of rhetorical and critical education.  In a literature class, students are going to run into texts posing questions that the students wouldn’t have thought of, except that the student read Alice Munro or Rumi or Jane Austen or Fredrick Douglass.  Every such encounter, facilitated by good professors, stands to expand the interval between questions discovered in the challenging texts (including films) and the questions that the students bring from high school and church settings and social-media exchanges and such.  And the more such alien encounters a student undertakes, the greater the student’s intellectual flexibility becomes, and that flexibility stands as one of the intellectual virtues most needed in a historical moment that changes as rapidly and radically as our own.

To be sure, one possible result of general-education writing and literature classes is that students become English majors, and we’re all for that.  (More on that later.)  But the education that a student gets in these courses should benefit those surrounding the student in other contexts.  Human beings, as the old humanists already knew, are creatures of habit, and even limited discipline in the intellectual virtues of the humanities–intellectual flexibility and others–stands to send these students to professional and church and civic contexts better equipped to serve:

  • Citizens with a disposition towards attention to a given audience will temper the one-size-fits-all ideas that are such temptations in social-media environments by attending to the real variables that make people and situations and moments genuinely different.
  • Church members who develop a disposition towards diligence in research will provide congregations a richer context for decision-making and for stepping forward into new visions of ecclesial life than they would be capable of imagining otherwise.
  • Professionals who develop persistence in extending inquiry beyond the obvious or the given will lend a given organization or business possibilities for innovation and to creative revision on any given project.

The common thread here is that the work that we do goes beyond simple, repeatable algorithms that students can deploy at a desk or in a conference room.  The aim here is to develop long-term dispositions, tendencies that will translate into new contexts, be those workplaces or neighborhoods or churches.  A human being who studies with professors of the liberal arts should stand capable of more freedom–here meaning influencing the world rather than passively being-influenced–then they were before they studied and therefore more able to provide genuine help, as intellectuals, to those communities.

As our English department moves forward, our work with students of all majors should make us proud: those students who get through EN 101 and EN 102 with our faculty really do have occasion to learn the disciplines of revision and research that lead towards the virtues of diligence and attention to the other, and some of them, to some extent, take us up on the way of life that incorporates these practices professionally and in other communities.  Moreover, an Emmanuel student who’s read Wordsworth with Stephanie Garrett or modern verse with the Petrovics might just be asking questions that the same human being, on a diet of Instagram and Netflix, just isn’t going to be asking.

Over the past few years, I’ve tried to be more deliberate about talking liberal arts in these core-curriculum classes and designing assignments so that their staging processes develop the habits of mind that I outlined above.  Going forward, I’m trying to reimagine all parts of the EN 101 and EN 102 writing sequence not in terms of “skills” (which students often think of as algorithms-for-the-worksite) but of habits and dispositions and virtues.  Likewise, although somewhere Ocscar Wilde’s ghost is plotting to jab a knife into my younger self’s portrait (stupid thing isn’t keeping me young-looking anyway), I’ve deliberately avoided talk of literature “for art’s sake” and really dug into what Aristotle and Sidney and Martha Nussbaum see as the genuinely political, community-shaping character of narrative and dramatic and lyric art.  I want to impress on the students who show up in my classes that the structures of our imaginations, and the ways that our stories and philosophies shape them, really are matters of life and death, and the way to seek life is to learn the free-person’s art of rhetoric for the sake of shaping that public imagination on whatever scale we have occasion to shape it.

The English Major: Black Belt in Question-Posing

If a Sports Management major who has undergone some discipline in the liberal arts returns to communities beyond Emmanuel’s campus as a better free person, the English major dedicates far more time–five times the credit hours, give or take–to examining and engaging with texts that expand the reader’s capacity to pose questions and lead souls towards goodness.  Every Emmanuel College student should come away having spent two semesters paying attention to writing for a reader; an English major will also have spent at least a semester and hopefully more learning from Kyle Garrett what it means to invent stories or poems or memoirs for a reader.  Every Emmanuel College student should come away with a taste of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s fantastic and deeply troubling stories of human nature in the face of strangeness; an English major will also have seen, alongside Karen Compton, how Walt Whitman’s verse brings strangeness into the everyday American worker’s life and how modernist fiction makes things weirder even than very old men with enormous wings.  The same goes for texts (movies and other more modern forms as well as novels and tragedies) from all of the times and all of the places we teach; part of what makes our literary sequence strong, I think, is that our students might well begin with African epic in sophomore literature before they dig into Shakespearean history as upper-division students, and there’s no strong sense in our current sequence that “World Literature” is something tacked on only after one masters American and British literature.

When I studied karate (that ended when I got a car and had to work a job to pay for gas), my Shihan–which as I remember translates as “grandmaster,” but it’s been a while–often told us that a black belt was not the rank of a master but of an advanced student, one whose karate would really benefit by starting to teach beginners while under the tutelage of a Sensei, a master.  That’s one image, though not the only, to which an English program can aspire.  The undergraduate English major is an advanced student, one who could pursue further discipline in graduate school to become a grandmaster of the liberal arts but who could, just as reasonably, take her expanded capacity for questions and for persuasion to law school, to seminary, to the business world as a technical writer or a consultant.  More importantly, these advanced students, who have developed the kinds of dispositions that Aristotle calls intellectual virtues, stand to serve churches and other communities in ways that I outlined above and also as people who have developed other intellectual virtues:

  • An English major will bring to human communities a sense of narrative purpose, knowing that human stories gain their narrative tension from an implied good and seeing that the character of that good is always subject to tragic revealing, epiphanic expansion, and all sorts of other human possibilities that dramatic and other literary texts articulate.
  • An English major will, through sustained work on complex critical and creative projects, develop what Aristotle called phronesis, the capacity to posit intermediate goals that lead towards ultimate goals.  Combined with sustained reflection on provisional purpose, any community–business or church or civic or otherwise–stands to benefit from such an educated human being.
  • An English major will develop a disposition towards restraint because she has encountered a range of competing visions for the good life.  Without diminishing Harriet Beecher Stowe’s zeal for recognizing the humanity of the oppressed or ignoring John Milton’s for the liberty that only takes shape in the fires of intellectual struggle, the liberally educated human being will learn to recognize that strong convictions often (perhaps always) take their stand over and against other, strong convictions that stand opposed.  That awareness should make possible the difficult tension between insistence on real ideals and the will to hold any particular ideal provisionally.

I should pause here and note that I, Nathan Gilmour–I do not speak for any of my colleagues, though I’d be glad if they agreed with me–do not put much stock in assumptions that there’s an established “canon” of literary texts from which English departments must not deviate.  To be sure, most of my favorite texts to teach are older, but there are plenty of old texts that just don’t bear the same fruit as their ancient counterparts or even certain modern texts.  Plotinus is fascinating for the reader who already knows the projects of Plato and Aristotle, but I’d never assign Plotinus to sophomores–the payoff just isn’t big enough when we could be digging into Aeschylus or Dante or Mary Shelley or Salman Rushdie.  Likewise, Kobo Abe (the twentieth-century Japanese novelist) is going to do much better work for training students to pose new questions than, for instance, the epistles of Seneca (the first-century AD Stoic philosopher) or the comedies of Mendander (the fourth-century BC Athenian comic playwright).  When I talk about texts that bring students into the discipline of question-asking, I’m talking about texts that have proven themselves among their peers from all places and all times, not an arbitrary and fixed list of “THE GREAT BOOKS.”

As we dream about new programs and new bodies of learning, I’m happy to entertain possibilities for film emphases, sports-writing emphases, expanded technical and business writing tracks, and other new foci that the Communication department has stolen from us but that we can do better.  (I used to be more reticent to “poach” students from other departments, but that seems to be the game we’re playing now.)  The way I anticipate things, my role in such discussions will be as a counterweight for the old liberal arts, not as a person who refuses the new but as a reminder that we should keep what’s good in the old.  Right now, ours is one of the only programs that allows our majors to take electives, and I want to keep that.  Ours is one of the only programs of study with any sense of continuity between the text of the Bible and our own moment, and I want to keep that.  Our English major is the only program left that expects every one of our students to learn a language other than modern English, and I want to keep that.  I can be convinced otherwise, given good enough reasons, but I’ll be the one asking for those reasons as we strive ahead.

What’s It All For?

Over the months since November 2016 (let the one with ears hear), I’ve read a number of opinion pieces on what colleges and specifically English departments need to do in “The Trump Era.”  There’s some merit to that: whether we’re talking about the folks who cast votes for a man who openly advocates torturing prisoners or about the people whose sense of moral progress is so absolute that they write and talk about my family (among other folks, of course) as sub-human monsters, I would welcome more diligence in research and humility in examining complex public policy.

But here’s the thing: English majors were doing that already.  We were researching carefully, revising what we write, reading poems that invert received hierarchies of value and dignity.  What I’d like for our general-education students, to be sure, but especially for our English majors, is a curriculum and a community that prepares them to engage intelligently with whatever comes after Donald Trump, with whatever media revolution inherits the Internet when Facebook’s day is done, with the new questions that their communities need to ask before anyone can come up with any decent answers.  The English department’s particular mixture of writing and engagement with literary art and study of the grammar and history of our language develops the intellectual virtues that aim towards that future engagement, that task which has not yet greeted us.  To reach into the past in order to meet the future is a contradiction of sorts.  Very well.  We contradict ourselves.