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Friday, January 31, 2014

Friday, January 31, 2014

English Departments at a Crossroads

By Michael Moon (Emory University) 

After twenty years of teaching in English departments at two other universities, eight years ago I moved to Emory where I took up a professorship in American Studies in the Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, a doctoral program in interdisciplinary studies founded around sixty years ago.  In fall 2012, the university announced plans to end the interdisciplinary doctoral program in its current form – in hopes, it was said, of fostering the broader development of interdisciplinary work through other departments.  As of now, a year and more after the announcement, the institutional form and main structures of support for interdisciplinary research and teaching at Emory seem very much up in the air. 


In the year before the changes in the interdisciplinary doctoral program were announced, I had already negotiated moving half my appointment to the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies.  Last year, in the aftermath of the announcement, I moved the remaining half out of the Graduate Institute and into the English department.

So from one perspective, it looks as though I’m back – or halfway back – in an English department after a substantial detour through interdisciplinary studies and American Studies.  But I should mention that I entered this profession in the late 1980s, and that what got taken up by the US academy as LGBTQ Studies and the then-emergent field of queer theory has been at least as much a focus of my teaching and research for the past twenty-odd years as American literature has been.  I co-directed a program in Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at Johns Hopkins and am currently directing an initiative in queer studies at Emory.  My accepting a cross-appointment in a department of women’s, gender & sexuality studies this past year marks the first time in my by-now fairly long academic career that my commitment to queer studies and sexuality studies has been reflected in the name and mission of the department in which I have an official appointment.  In just the past few years, the department itself has expanded its name and range from being solely a Women’s Studies department to being a department of Gender & Sexuality Studies as well.

So, as you can see, before the merging and closing of departments became a widespread matter of concern, I undertook my own ad hoc set of experiments in mixing and moving among departments, disciplines, and interdisciplines.  Based on my own experience of rethinking and renegotiating my own relation to various programs and departments, I feel I can see not only some of the possible necessities but also some of the potential advantages of merging departments and disciplines.  I can also see some of the costs and dangers of doing so under the pressures that faculty are currently feeling and with the kinds of demands that we are currently facing.

Early in my time as a director of a Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies program, I remember making my annual call on an administrator to negotiate the next academic year’s budget.  He astonished me by beginning the conversation by saying something like the following to me, “How many more years do you and your colleagues intend to keep asking for resources for this program?  I mean, you’re in English,” he went on, “and there’ll always be an English department, but how many more years is there going to be a ‘need’ for a program like this one?”  In the moment, it struck me as even more concerning that he appeared to be saying this in all earnestness and not in a fit of pique.  He said it as though he expected me to name a fairly small number – we plan to keep coming back for support for two more years? three more years? – and get on with the meeting.  Instead, I said that English departments had certainly not been around forever or even for very long compared with a lot of other academic disciplines, and that it was quite possible that English departments might soon be morphing into other kinds of academic and institutional configurations.  But it seemed clear to me that we really weren’t there to debate the future of English departments, but for him to impress on me his vision of fields such as Women’s or Gender or Sexuality Studies as mere flashes in the academic pan.

Some years later, when the closing and combining of departments first began to be discussed widely, I remember a colleague reporting another conversation with an administrator about the bases on which decisions about these sweeping changes were going to be made.  Well, some departments, the administrator is reported to have opined, are too vital to the operations of the university to be mixed and matched or simply deleted.  “After all,” the administrator went on, “you can’t have a college without English and chemistry!”

The notion that English departments are permanent fixtures on the academic landscape might seem like good news at least to the faculty of English departments, but the way this “good news” is playing itself out is giving at least some of us in the field considerable pause.  What some administrators currently mean by an “English department” seems to me in the main not to be a place or a project that serves the intellectual and professional needs of my students or myself very well.  English departments turned out to serve the needs of faculty and students in queer studies for the first twenty years or so of my career in large part because many of them had – often through a process of prolonged conflict and division – turned themselves into major seedbeds of interdisciplinary growth during the 1970s and ‘80s, so that many fields which have since developed in varying degrees into autonomous disciplines, departments, and programs (critical theory, gender studies, lesbian and gay studies, queer theory, film and media studies, the whole spectrum of ethnic studies, postcolonial studies, cultural studies, etc.) spent their first decade or so as emergent academic fields as flourishing sub-projects of this or that English department. 

So one feature of the current academic landscape that disturbs me is the relentless shutting-down of anglophone literary studies as the kind of expansive set of interdisciplinary intellectual spaces which they’ve provided at many universities for the past several decades.  More and more, English departments are being reconceived as being primarily in the business of teaching expository writing, and the “contents” of courses in literature – both critical and historical “contents” – are being devalued and dismissed as “overly specialized” and “irrelevant” to the present-day mission of the with-it university. 

Similarly, the ecology of methods of interpreting a wide range of writings, literary and otherwise – e.g., “close reading” – is getting brutally reduced in many universities in the rush to make literary studies an outpost of “digital scholarship,” often itself conceived in fairly reduced form.  Many of the wide range of fields and practices currently operating under the umbrella of “digital scholarship” are still emerging and still defining themselves and establishing their connections with other academic fields and practices.  For better and for worse, the continuing impact of the digital turn within and beyond the academy is having massive effects on the entire range of disciplines and departments, effects that are changing and expanding our received ways of thinking about interdisciplinarity altogether. 

I believe that English departments will continue to lose intellectual and cultural ground to the degree that they continue to yield the high investment in interdisciplinarity that many of them have maintained until recently.  The digital turn affords us some very promising new ways of cultivating interdisciplinarity not only across departments but also across media and platforms. The current moment seems to me to be one when it may be both possible and highly desirable for the faculty of some English departments to re-exert our longstanding commitments to a still unpredictably wide range of interdisciplinary research and teaching as an integral part of what English departments do.  The disciplines and interdisciplines through which we now need to move may be quite a different configuration from the ones that we moved through in the 1980s and ‘90s.  Whatever the new mix turns out to be, it seems crucial to me that we as literary scholars and teachers play as active a role as we can in defining that mix, and not accept a one-size-fits-all redefinition of the English department from administrators, however well or ill meaning they may be.

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