Some Highlights from the Department’s Annual Report

English Departmental Annual Report Form (AY 06-07)
Prepared by Jeffrey J. Cohen, Chair

Major Accomplishments

This academic year marked a profound moment of change for the English Department. Senior faculty who had long run the department (and had run it very well) saw the results of some canny hiring in the past as new faculty stepped into administrative roles. This was my first year as department chair. Gayle Wald became deputy chair and leader of the Planning and Development Committee. Gil Harris assumed directorship of the departmental honors program. Patty Chu became our Director of Undergraduate Advising, while Tara Wallace became Director of Graduate Studies. Every important position related to the governance of our department changed hands.

I want to stress that our department was in excellent shape when I assumed its helm: eight years of leadership by Faye Moskowitz ensured that solid state. No crisis was looming. Yet the change in administration has been energizing, encouraging us all to think deeply about our pedagogical mission; our excellence in research; our burgeoning national reputation; our shared values and sense of intellectual community.

Given that so many of us were new to our positions, our communal goals were relatively modest in 2006-07. We focused upon learning the ropes of departmental governance and university administration. All of the following goals, however, were accomplished:

  • Simplify the undergraduate major and render its requirements more transparent and commonsensical. The CCAS curriculum committee has approved our changes.
  • Change the annual faculty evaluation process to render it as prospective as it is retrospective (previously, it had been focused upon past accomplishment to the detriment of future ambition).
  • Work with the Director of Creative Writing to establish the new British Council Writer in Residence for Fall 07. We are off to a brilliant start, having secured Nadeem Aslam, a novelist of international renown, as our visitor for October 2007. (Aslam is the author of the award winning novel Maps for Lost Lovers, a heartbreaking account of life among Pakistani immigrants in England). This will be the first year of a three-year pilot program. We have very high hopes for it, not only as a bridge between our creative writing and literature programs but as a reputation building event that will also garner alumni interest.
  • Begin outreach to alumni through a personal letter and the creation of the “Featured Alumni” section for our blog.
  • Complete the transition of our department from its service orientation to an embrace at every level of a research-active mission that reaches from our freshman seminars to our introductory courses to our graduate program. This transformation has meant changing the membership of most of our departmental committees; reordering our priorities in allocating funding and material resources; establishing a new gateway to the major course that will also intensely train and mentor graduate students while demonstrating what the study of literature in a global age should be (the new English 40W). The new gateway course was funded in part by our successful grant application to the Writing Program ($5K for reinventing a large course as writing intensive).
  • Support the mission of the Writing in the Disciplines (WID) initiative and the educational mission of CCAS by making all our lower level and survey courses WID courses, and making the majority of our upper level courses WID. We are happy to say that, unlike any other department, the majority of our courses are now WID.
  • Increase the faculty mentoring of graduate students through the introduction of early teaching experiences and more use of GTAs in the literature classroom.
  • Introduce more rigour as well as efficiency to the graduate program.
  • Foster our ties to the Folger Shakespeare Library through the establishment of a first in the nation undergraduate research course that allows reader privileges there. The course will meet for the first time in Fall 2007, and will introduce 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.
  • Hire a world-class writer focused upon the Latino experience (the novelist Herman Carrillo).
  • Hire a world-class medievalist whose focus on medieval literature in global terms will resonate with our burgeoning strengths (Jonathan Hsy).
  • Begin 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 colloquium and lecture series.
  • Accomplish a complete revision of our graduate curriculum focusing upon the three areas of our strength: Medieval/Early Modern; Postcolonial; and Nineteenth Century. This spring the revised Medieval/Early Modern curriculum was approved by the CCAS curriculum committee; it goes into effect next year. The two other areas will be submitted in the fall.
  • Establish a new university seminar to grow our strengths in early Europe and form more of a university community around the area. We submitted a successful proposal for a new seminar focused upon Medieval and Early Modern Europe within a global frame. The seminar will begin to meet in Fall 2007. It has support from scholars at Georgetown, U Maryland, American, and George Mason, as well as the Shakespeare Theatre. The latter alliance is a first step towards making the forum DC-wide and not limited only to universities. We’d like to see more of our research brought into the public sphere; the Shakespeare Theatre seems the logical place to start, since they stage so much work by Shakespeare and have so effectively marketed themselves as a leading DC cultural institution.
  • Have faculty apply for prestigious research grants.

Major Challenges & Obstacles
Our greatest obstacle is our meager budget. We do not have enough money in it to cover our required contributions towards faculty travel, let alone sponsor events of any kind (lectures, round table discussions, workshops). It is very difficult to be ambitious when your fund balance is not zero but negative within a few months of the fiscal year beginning. I believe that those who pay the highest price for this lack of funds are our undergraduates: we are not very good at fostering their sense that they belong to an intellectual community extending outside of the classroom, mainly because we can’t afford to stage any events that draw them together with us. American University, for example, is much better at accomplishing this goal through their speaker series funding.

Another challenge is the danger of inertia. Our department is for the most part a collegial place: faculty gripes are few. Though it could be argued that what isn’t broken ought not to be tampered with, as chair I have been arguing just the opposite: now, from a tranquil vantage, is the time to reconsider what we do and how we do it. Now is the time to think seriously about how to maintain the tremendous growth in our national reputation and our status as one of the most research active departments in CCAS. Now is the time to think seriously about who we want to be five and even ten years from this moment.

Goals for 07 – 08
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. I also intend to have us work more closely with other area English Departments, especially Georgetown, American, and Maryland: at this point, we function in relative isolation from the other educational institutions with whom we share a city.

Our biggest commitment in terms of faculty energy will be the revision of the undergraduate curriculum, a list of courses that has not been touched in more than decade. In the fall we have serious and far-ranging discussions about our department’s identity vis à vis our desire to move towards a more globalized approach to literature in English. Though a commitment to that movement is already evident in the courses we teach as special topics, moving much of this material from sidelines to center will not be uncontroversial. It will, however, transform our undergraduate program of study into one of the most ambitious in the nation, and place us (we are confident) on the leading edge of how literature is analyzed and understood today.

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