English 165

Special Topics: The English Department

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
2 Fall 2018 Marno, David
MW 5-6:30 106 Dwinelle


The English Department is one of the most curious developments in the history of human civilization. What do we study? The answer used to be, “literary texts of the English canon.” But then we questioned what belonged to the canon, what constituted a literary text, whether its segregation from non-literary texts was defensible, and eventually whether we should restrain ourselves to the study of texts at all.

At times we have claimed that what holds together students of English is not what we study but how we do so. But what exactly are the skills of an English major? Other literature departments require the knowledge of at least one foreign language; most English majors read texts in their first language. There are some “methods” that we supposedly share, such as “close reading” or “critical thinking.” But aside from the difficulty of explaining why we should have exclusive claims to either of these skills, we have also called them into doubt by exposing their historical particularities, epistemological biases, and political inefficiencies.

This constant self-questioning of the subjects and methods is not an incidental feature of the study of English but the logical consequence of the utopian ideal behind it: namely, to create a completely democratic discipline. This ideal is inherently paradoxical: it seeks to establish an academic discipline, that is, a branch of knowledge separate from all other branches of knowledge; and yet it seeks to leave or actively make this knowledge accessible to all. Why do we want such a discipline, and what are the consequences of wanting it?

In this course, we will be looking at the Department of English as a social and intellectual experiment with a fascinating past, a challenging present, and a doubtful future. What were the original motivations behind its establishment? What are the driving forces that continue to maintain it today? What are the particular challenges facing the English Department and its students today? And finally, if there’s a future for this field, what does it look like?

Readings include chapters from the history of literary criticism from Plato to Donna Haraway; accounts of the modern university from Wilhelm Humboldt to John Guillory; and theories of education and its politics from Thomas More to Simone Weil and Hannah Arendt. All readings will be posted on bCourses.

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