English 250

Research Seminar: The English Department

Section Semester Instructor Time Location Course Areas
1 Fall 2019 Marno, David
Tues. 3:30-6:30 180 Barrows


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 and 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 that we teach to our students? 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.” Yet, aside from the difficulty of explaining why we should have exclusive claims to either of these skills, we have called them into doubt by exposing their historical particularities, epistemological biases, and political inefficiencies.

But what if this constant self-questioning of the subjects and methods is not an incidental feature of the study of English but belongs to it in some essential way? What if behind the debates about English there is an ideal of an academic discipline that is completely democratic? If such an ideal were to exist, it would have to wrestle with its own paradoxical nature, especially the fact that it seeks to establish an academic discipline, that is, a branch of knowledge separate from all other branches of knowledge, and yet it wants to leave or actively make this knowledge accessible to all. Why would 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 in the 21st century? And finally: what do we want its future to look like? 

While the course focuses on the particular case of English Department, it is open to any graduate student interested in the histories, theories, and ethnographies of the university, in the relationship between academia and its publics, and/or in the philosophies and political theories of education in general. Assignments include the preparation of a syllabus for an undergraduate course you see yourself teaching in the future; a full, written-out lecture for the same course; as well as a final paper considering any one of the topics explored in our course. Readings include chapters from the history of literary criticism from Matthew Arnold to Eve Sedgwick, accounts of the modern university from Wilhelm Humboldt to Tomoko Masuzawa and Sara Ahmed, histories and critiques of the English Department from Gerald Graff to Fred Moten and Stefano Harvey, and political theories of education from Thomas More to Ivan Illich and Hannah Arendt. All readings will be posted on bCourses.

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