Each year I am asked by the university to compose a report on the goals and achievements of the English Department. I thought that readers of this blog might be interested to see the document I’ve sent to the dean. It’s been a good year!
Prepared by Jeffrey J. Cohen, Chair
This academic year is likely a high water mark in departmental history. Success has come in many forms, and through much hard work. We are especially proud of our faculty, who have:
- published books at well respected presses (Margaret Soltan, Jennifer Green-Lewis, and Jeffrey Cohen have new books at Palgrave Macmillan; Jane Shore’s poetry volume came out at Houghton Mifflin; Jonathan Gil Harris has a monograph forthcoming at the University of Pennsylvania Press; Kavita Daiya is publishing her book with Temple University Press; Beacon Press has just issued Gayle Wald’s Shout, Sister, Shout! in paperback; Chris Sten has an edited collection at Kent State University Press; Jennifer James has a collection of essays placed at Rutgers University Press)
- won prestigious awards for their research (Robert McRuer garnered the Alan Bray Memorial Book Award for his book Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability)
- placed essays in prominent journals (most members of the department had at least one essay appear in a peer-reviewed forum this year)
- given a lengthy list of invited talks, including plenary and named lectures
- wandered the globe in their research and conference travel.
We are in short a very strong research department.
We are also a community of excellent teachers as well: five of us were nominated for the Trachtenberg Prize this year, and almost all of us enjoy the highest marks in student evaluations of our courses. The number of undergraduates declaring an English major continues to grow. This year we registered 100 new majors and 26 new minors, for a pre-commencement total of about 399 English majors and 36 minors.
We continue to serve our colleagues in the department, in CCAS, and in the university more generally through our committee work. Our students have also been thriving, giving papers at professional conferences and graduating to attend prestigious graduate schools or to accept admirable jobs.
Four of this year’s achievements will together have a profound and enduring impact upon our department:
- adoption of a mission statement that clearly articulates our values and our sense of community
- translation of that mission statement into the faculty accomplishments mentioned above
- major fundraising to support our ambitions
- securing the kind of research money that will enable to us to begin to build enduring structures for interdisciplinary humanities research in which the English department can take the university lead.
Our mission statement is concise and (we believe) cogent:
The English Department of the George Washington University is a research-active community of scholars and creative writers. We prize excellence in teaching, publication, and service. We engage with a diversity of texts within a global and transnational context. Our creative writing and scholarship contributes to and critiques this capacious literary world. Our teaching fosters in students a rigorous and informed critical reflection on literature, connecting reading practices with writing and argumentation. As a humanities faculty, we are especially interested in the artistic exploration of identity, community, cultural conflict, and history.
We refer to this statement when making choices that impact the department’s future, and are grateful to have a consensus view of who we are and what we hope to achieve.
We realize that in previous years the department has not done as good a job as it might in creating a philanthropic community to support its endeavors, especially among its alumni. We have taken four steps to initiate this process of community formation:
- maintaining a blog which focuses in part on the achievements of our students and alumni, and allows alumni a window into the life of the department
- sponsoring, in tandem with Alumni Relations, events that will draw alumni to our activities and reacquaint them with the department (e.g., a dessert reception following a reading by our GW-British Council Writer in Residence)
- direct outreach to alumni who seem especially well suited to supporting our mission
- better communication to our potential benefactors of what their contributions will enable.
The blog has been instrumental in all these endeavors, and is connected to some significant gifts that we hope to announce shortly.
Last year the English Department sponsored a proposal to form a University Seminar on Medieval and Early Modern Studies. We were awarded $2500 for the seminar, which flourished so quickly (we have a mailing list of 70 participants in the DC area) that we submitted a proposal this year to turn the seminar into an institute. Again, we have been successful: the proposal was funded through the Research Enhancement Fund of the OCR for $40,000/year for three years. This is the largest humanities initiative ever funded through the OCR. The REF funding of our GW MEMS Institute will greatly boost our Medieval/Early Modern studies strengths, and the interdisciplinary institute it will bring into being will be housed in the English department. The REF money amounts to $120,000 over three years.
Gayle Wald was also successful in getting a $10,000 Instructional Technology Lab Curriculum Development Grant to add a new multimedia component to our gateway to the major course (“Literature of the Americas,” English 40W).
Listed below are some of our other important departmental achievements.
- The new British Council Writer in Residence started brilliantly. Nadeem Aslam, a novelist of international renown, spent the month of February at GW. Aslam visited many literature and creative writing classes; gave readings and appeared in panels; led a reading course with a small number of interested students; and participated in both the social and intellectual life of the department. The residency served as a bridge between our creative writing and literature strengths, as well as a reputation building event that garnered significant alumni interest. This was the inaugural year of a three-year pilot program.
- We grew the readership of our department blog by adding more content and updating the site more frequently. The average number of visits to the blog per day ranges between fifty and two hundred.
- We established a new gateway to the major course that will intensely mentor graduate students while demonstrating to our undergraduates the study of literature in a global age. The new English 40W has two versions: American (“Literature of the Americas,” taught by Gayle Wald) and British (“Myths of Britain,” taught by Jeffrey Cohen). Both versions proved remarkably popular: they closed at their cap of 80; student evaluations were consistently high. We also used the course to give our GTAs a closely supervised introduction to the art of teaching. Again, student reviews indicate we succeeded admirably.
- We deepened our ties with the Folger Shakespeare Library through the establishment of a first in the nation undergraduate research course that allows reader privileges there. The course met for the first time in Fall 2007, and introduced students to the handling and use of books dating back to the Renaissance. We see this seminar as a first step towards a deep alliance between our department and the Folger, a research library like no other and an underutilized resource for both our undergraduates and graduate students. A cover story on the seminar will run in the next GW Research magazine.
- We continue to make the English Department an intellectual community welcoming other scholars in CCAS — especially young scholars whose departments are not as research active — via our focus upon global humanities past and present. This fostering of intramural community has been done by the creation of a seminar and now an institute.
- We have encouraged faculty to apply for prestigious research grants. Gil Harris secured an NEH (funded for a year at the Folger), and Jim Miller received a Fulbright (funded for a semester in South Africa). Two faculty also applied for the ACLS and were not funded.
- Our graduate students continue to distinguish themselves through early professionalization and precocious achievement. This year they placed five publications and presented at eleven conferences.
Major Challenges & Obstacles
Our greatest obstacle is our meager budget. Some pressure has been alleviated through the influx of donor and research money, so that for the first time we can afford to sponsor visiting scholars. We do not, however, have a reliable source to pay for faculty travel, office equipment, or new initiatives.
Where our poverty in resources will impact us most, however, is our graduate program. We have so few GTAs assigned to the department that we cannot actually sustain a sufficient cadre of graduate students: we cannot, in other words, attain the critical mass that we need in order to become the program worthy of a Research I university that we know we could be. As things stand now, we will likely be able to support and therefore admit NO doctoral students in 2008-09, a catastrophe for a PhD program that has burgeoned in strength and quality over the past few years. This lack of GTAs will impact undergraduate education as well, compelling us to rethink our ability to offer the successful English 40W course since it relies upon GTAs for sections.
Goals for 08 – 09
We will continue working on many of the goals stated above for next year. Our primary focus will be upon enriching the intellectual life of our undergraduates via a thorough revision of our undergraduate curriculum, the establishment of extracurricular opportunities for undergrads to learn about the field and its scholars, and the growth of our ties to DC institutions like the Folger and the National Shakespeare Theatre. We will also spend a great deal of time better connecting the Creative Writing and Literature components of our department, and pondering what future we would like our creative writing program to have.
More personally, I want to ensure that the department is in as good and as stable a shape as possible as we prepare for a transition to a new chair in 2009 (my three year term ends at that time).