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When I was a grad student at Ohio State University, one of the professors in the department insisted that the sign announcing our department be changed from “English Department” to “Department of English,” and I remember the debate that ensued on the ramifications of that grammatical shift and the high dudgeon many colleagues worked themselves into over it.
I also remember at the time thinking what an odd name it was in any event. Though I had read William Riley Parker’s 1967 essay “Where Do English Departments Come From?” and understood the lineage that had shifted, at Harvard, from rhetoric, briefly to folklore, and then to literature, and particularly literature in English, the name still seemed odd to me, given what I knew about the Department I was currently studying in. “English” did not seem parallel, to me, with the Departments of German or Spanish or Chinese. In my department, students studied and wrote dissertations on literature in English and sometimes literature in translation, certainly, but also on the history and theory of rhetoric, on folklore, on creative and other forms of writing. So “English” just seemed an odd name to me.
So odd, in fact, that in the 80s I advocated for changing the name of our departments, arguing that our name should reflect the work that we actually do. My arguments went . . . nowhere. Nevertheless, as the years wore on and as scholars of rhetoric and literacy/writing studies began to grow in number, some departments began to change their names (Oregon State, for example, went from “English” to “Writing, Literature, and Film” and new departments, separated from English, grew up around the country, with names like “Writing and Media Studies” or “Writing and Rhetoric Studies” or “Rhetoric, Media, and Social Change,” “Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication,” and so on, names that signal more clearly what the department studies and values than does the single and vague word “English.”
In “The Colonialism and Racism of the ‘English’ Department,” Elizabethada A. Wright doesn’t consider this slow evolution away from “English” and doesn’t cite William Riley Parker’s work or a number of others, such as Gerald Graff or John Guillory or Robert Scholes, who examine and question the formation and practices of “English.” But that is not the focus of Wright’s critique, which centers on the hegemony of English and of its colonializing tendencies. In this regard, I was expecting to encounter the work of James Slevin, whose Introducing English includes a searing indictment of the earliest attempts to force “English” on native inhabitants.
Nevertheless, I take the point of Wright’s article seriously, and I think all of us—especially all of us in departments of “English” should be at work right now examining how when and why our departments came by that name, articulating the mission that name suggests and comparing it with the missions that other, alternative names could carry forward. We would also do well to be asking our students what they think of the name of our departments – in what ways the name seems appropriate and adequate to what they are studying and learning in their classes and what alternative names they might suggest, along with their rationales for doing so.
What’s in a name? A very great deal. Years ago, my colleague Nicholas Howe said if he could form a department of his own, he would call it “The Department of Interesting People.” I am still not sure what my department title would be, but I know it would aim at using language together to create a better future. And it would NOT be “English.”
What would your department name be—and why?
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