27.4.13

SO I DON'T HAVE TO TIME-SLIP THE ENGLISH DEPARTMENT.

I've been all about specialization and division of labour and the ways in which resources are wasted because colleagues and departments we count on to do some things don't.

In Economics, we teach Principles as a condition of being able to investigate perfect Bayesian equilibrium and other fun stuff.

It's a necessary evil that our colleagues in other departments are ducking?
One of the mysteries of academe is why English departments have self-destructed. We understand how it happened — professors moved into esoteric literary theories based on Marxism, feminism, and other -isms, neglecting their traditional duties such as teaching freshman composition. (That’s now handed off to graduate students and adjuncts; what they don’t accomplish is left to “writing across the curriculum” policies.)

But why? From self-interest alone, you would think that teaching the basics of writing would be wise because well-taught introductory courses (especially when required) bring in new students. Some will become majors in the department and expand the department and provide job security. But the number of English majors has taken a nose dive.
A business consultant offers a proposal that will probably turn off a lot of people by its use of the current corporate bafflegab.
English departments can be restored to prominence if they re-focus, re-brand, and re-market their curricula to adapt to the needs of their students and meet the demands of the marketplace. I say that as a business consultant who mentors many new graduates, but my views are not that different from those of [William M.] Chace, an emeritus English professor and former president of Emory University.

Now, English department faculty may not like this advice. I understand that English departments are focused more on theory than on literature  itself—some say they have shifted from love of English literature to deconstructing it. Yet they remain the natural place for teaching how to communicate.

As Chace wrote, English departments “should place their courses in composition and rhetoric at the forefront of their activities. They should announce that the teaching of composition is a skill their instructors have mastered and that students majoring in English will be certified, upon graduation, as possessing rigorously tested competence in prose expression.”
The consultant's conclusion, also, is too laden with business bafflegab to persuade many people, although much of his substance is correct.
If English departments could be the locus of this learning, they would have that “definable expertise” that they lack now. They would create an emotional connection with incoming students, increase synergy with other departments within the college, and establish a foundation to create a brand within the college and grow exponentially through extensions within the department. Since most students would study this curriculum (in my view, it should be required), the English department’s gravitas would dramatically increase.

If English professors are so devoted to "theory" that they don't see themselves doing anything so mundane as teaching composition, then someone else may sieze the opportunity. That someone may not be in the university at all. As higher education begins to change, there will be more chances for entrepreneurs (inside and outside universities) to offer education in unconventional ways.
It works something like this.

Football is blocking and tackling.

Economics is incentives, substitution, and arbitrage.

History and anthropology are good stories, well-understood.

English is writing, conversation, and communication.

The core curriculum is about the central ideas, and the major fields, the elaborations.

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