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If you haven’t gotten a chance to look at the March 2022 issue of College English, I recommend it: every article is well worth a read. I call attention here especially to Elizabethada A. Wright’s piece, “The Colonialism and Racism of the “English” Department: A Call for Renaming” (College English, Vol. 84 (4), pp. 356-375).
I can’t say that I agree with all of Wright’s assumptions or conclusions, but I admire the historical context this article provides in the move away from classical languages and toward vernaculars and the careful analysis of the effects that names have: naming is indeed important.
I do not assume that language departments in general (Spanish, German, Chinese, etc.) are by nature colonialist and/or racist, nor that a similar department devoted to teaching writing, speaking, and reading in English would necessarily be colonialist or racist. Rather it is the attitudes that surround such teaching that create the basis for the charge brought by Wright (and many others).
In any case, I am all for renaming departments of English, having first suggested that approach some forty years ago—and repeated in 2020—to the Department at Ohio State. I did so then and so now primarily for the major reason Wright puts forth: the title “English” does not convey what it is that such departments are doing here in the first quarter of the 21st century.
Of course, teachers of writing and rhetoric began recognizing that fact decades ago: hence the separation of those groups from Departments of English and the founding of new departments, such as the Department of Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Texas, the department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State, the Department of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at the University of Utah, or the Department of Rhetoric and Writing Studies at San Diego State. And, as Wright points out, some renaming of English Departments is already occurring, as at Oregon State where they now have a School of Writing, Literature, and Film.
The efforts to clarify what we are doing—not to mention why we are doing it—when we teach writing, reading, and speaking in any language is in my estimation an important and necessary move, especially in terms of probing our assumptions, preconceptions, and biases. And that goes for examining and re-examining what it is we call or name what we are doing. What’s in a name? is a crucial question.
And it’s one our students should be engaged in answering, from students in first-year writing and rhetoric classes I taught at Stanford, to graduate students in writing, rhetoric, and literacy programs like the one I used to participate in at Ohio State—along with students at many other departments of English and of writing and rhetoric at colleges throughout the country. It’s worth asking our students what they think they are studying—and why—and also what they would call/name it if given the opportunity. What might students at North Carolina A&T say? Or at Diné College? Or at Mt. Holyoke, or a hundred other places, where students bring with them many languages in addition to English as well as many different Englishes?
As Wright points out, at this time of movement toward adopting transnationalism and transnational dispositions and what Maria Lugones called “world traveling,” it seems especially timely ro examine the names we use for what we do with special care and urgency. Were I given a chance to name (and create) a department, its name would have “rhetoric,” “writing,” and "media” in it—though I’m not sure in what order or what else I might include. I would assume that I have some things to teach but also many things to learn from those in my classes, and that we will do so using and sharing a variety of Englishes, at the very least.
And so—what would you like to call the department you belong to? How would you describe its parameters and goals? While you contemplate these questions, you might take a look at Elizabethada Wright’s essay as well as James Slevin’s amazing 2001 book, Introducing English: Essays in the Intellectual Work of Composition. I think you’ll find Jim was asking many questions that consume us today—just some twenty years earlier.
"Close up of lessons on the chalkboard" by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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