It’s time to evict English Departments from universities

About a dozen of my 35+ years of teaching were in undergraduate English departments in America and Britain. I now believe it’s time to get rid of these fixtures of universities once and for all.

Let’s start with the teaching of writing. Why do universities need English departments when other departments could easily include courses on written and spoken communication for their fields? American universities have been coming close to this practice for years, where English departments provide their services to other departments in the form of Composition classes. In Britain, English departments don’t include modules on composition or academic writing. Young people are taught (though do not necessarily learn) how to write in secondary schools and for those who don’t finish secondary school and later decide to attend universities, there are Foundation modules – and these are not always operated by English departments.

Furthermore, apart from modules on creative writing, most undergraduate writing is formulaic, following one of several genres of academic writing. The memories are flooding back from my stint of teaching Composition in the US, where I was encouraged to teach the five-paragraph essay and correct students’ fragment sentences no matter how effective they were. These essays came in several varieties – alternating argument, block-form argument, compare and contrast, process explanation etc. Fine for teaching some aspects of communication and critical thinking, but the end results hold little resemblance to writing in the real world, where essays take on creative forms, wiggling their arguments around anecdotes, and reports that could be journalistic, scientific, technical or legal, are punctuated with videos and follow in-house styles for speedy reading. The five-paragraph essay is the product of our assessment culture. Adhering to a formulaic genre of less than 1000 words is efficient for the grading machine, otherwise known as the English teacher.

Having learned the basics of prose writing in secondary school or a subject-specific Foundation classes, students could develop their writing with essays and reports in their fields of study. If they have the ideas and understand the content, but struggle to communicate, they can always go to a bot, such as ChatGPT, to help them. Not an original thought – a recent article in Nature considered whether ChatGPT could replace editors and teachers of writing. While academic publishers might take issue with this, such AI tools have a place in formulaic writing as an aide to written communication. Yes, they make mistakes and lack the creative nuances humans can bring to their writing, even if those humans are undergraduate students. Perhaps in the future student writing will become, with the help of bots, student editing. But I’m singing the praises of AI in soft tones until we learn more of the real costs – I’m waiting for news of the carbon footprint of ChatGPT and other sophisticated bots, considering the shameful carbon footprint of digital currencies like Bitcoin.

What about literature? English departments without writing courses would be left with literature, criticism and a spattering of linguistics. I’m not convinced that we need undergraduate English departments to teach us about literature. A lover and producer of literature myself, I see that the most influential works of fiction, poetry and theatre in my life came mostly from what I was taught in primary and secondary school. Other key works in my reading life came to me after finishing my student-serfdom as most of these books and plays were only written within the past 30 years. Outside of the academy, people enjoy literature the world over through book clubs, reading groups and as individuals. This is being helped with literary festivals, online forums and seminars, blogs, social media and sites such as Good Reads.

Literature in foreign languages, in my utopic university, would be retained in foreign language departments with hefty doses of literature and other cultural input. English literature would also still be studied at university as a component of other departments, most obviously sociology and psychology. Historical fiction could be part and parcel of history modules. STEM subjects could also draw from literary texts – last week’s blog discussed a novel that featured maths. All disciplines could benefit from more creative input.

As for Literary Criticism, in the age of mass printing, the internet and MOOCs, self-study materials and literary theory discussions are available for the motivated. Better still, let’s leave Critical Studies, Literary Criticism and Literary Stylistics for post-graduate departments, where students can appreciate these subjects more having had some undergraduate education that gets them thinking critically, whatever the field. Having said that, writing in The New Yorker, Merve Emre argues that Literary Criticism has become professionalised and part of the cultural capital (in the Bourdieu sense) that excludes the under-educated and is wrapped up in ideologies at the expense of studying and enjoying literature. That is, maybe criticism needs to reinvent itself into something more accessible.

What started as a blog has turned into something of an essay. But note – more than five paragraphs, a few fragment sentences and a meandering set of arguments without a conclusion.

My ’68 (or forgetting 2018)

Instead of saying good-bye to 2018, I thought I’d do what people have been doing throughout the year and have a look back at 1968. But on my own terms. Since I was born on the cusp of the baby-boomer generation, I hadn’t developed the hormones to appreciate the summer of love. Nor can I share the memory of hearing the Beatles White Album when it first came out, talk about John and Yoko nude having been filtered from my ears. Uprisings in Prague and Paris had to wait for me to discover arthouse films decades later. Martin Luther King’s final speech is a second-hand recollection created from grainy footage, a cracking soundtrack. Yet, for all these missed experiences, 1968 was a pivotal year in my life.

A typical Chicago deep freeze ushered in the New Year and kept us indoors with the television, fighting over what to watch with such ironically limited choice in those days. I’d escape the arguments by visiting my grandmother’s apartment, the unit above ours. Grandmother preferred radio to television and was always baking something sweet. Her apartment had white walls and ceilings, a white carpet running throughout – no shoes allowed – and cream soft furnishing. For all the lightness this color scheme brought in, a sense of sadness brought on by my grandfather’s death some months earlier filled the rooms with darkness.

Joy returned to our lives in the early spring. Most of the black snow, soiled by the city’s pollution, had melted and the maples were starting to bud. My grandmother had baked a devil’s food cake, a dark chocolate sponge with thin white icing. We were celebrating that night, marking the date on our mental calendars for future years. My parents’ divorce had been finalized and my mother and grandmother saw it as a day to be commemorated. Not a private clicking of glasses with a sense of relief that a legal ordeal was over. This was louder, cheerier and more public with all seven children involved in overeating and joking. My mother’s laughter like a song floated over the long dining table. I can’t remember what was said that evening, aside from hearing the word divorce being bandied around. I don’t recall my older siblings appearing upset or unhappy with this twisted display of victory. With hindsight, I’m certain the older children, a few in their teens, were angry and saddened but dared not show it.

I was too young to realize how sick and inappropriate this divorce party was. While these off-color festivities became less exuberant over the years, fading away by the time I was in high school, the residue stayed with me for decades. My social self had been born. Marriage was a form of imprisonment and divorce was women’s emancipation.

Within a month of this inaugural divorce party, Martin Luther King had been assassinated. My world suddenly stretched beyond our apartment, my grandmother’s apartment and our Chicago neighborhood. Downtown and the south side of the city became battle grounds for three days of riots, watched by my family on our black-and-white Zenith television. On one of these afternoons during the riots, I sat combing Barbie’s hair and staring out our first-floor window when I saw a large khaki vehicle roll down our residential street. I remember seeing a couple of soldiers with their helmets on – the characters from the news were now outside our building and in my life. Only it looked like the news about Vietnam and not the riots. I must have briefly entertained the idea that Vietnam was being fought on American soil, in the middle of the country. I would later learn that the National Guard had been called in, some 11,000 soldiers, alongside 10,000 Chicago policemen.

So strong was this true-life moment that I wrote about it in my early teens, when I had learned the word juxtaposition.  I described the army tank – or was it a truck? Childhood memories are not always the most reliable. The khaki vehicle, its soldiers, its rumbling wheels and roaring engine against the narrow street of parked cars created a juxtaposition. And like any juxtaposition, it created a meaning greater than the sum of its parts. For the six-year-old child with the Barbie doll, it was the first experience of sensing fear brought on by government authorities, government agents in the form of soldiers.

The drama of the riots tumbled into the last days of school before the summer break. The late afternoon sun streaked into our living room and I had parked myself in front of the television to watch The Flintstones. My mother, in her paisley housedress, appearing large and formidable, had entered just as the ads came on.  A brief announcement about the news coming up at six droned as it did to my ears in those days. Anything that wasn’t comedy or cartoon sounded like a monotone din.  The news was about Robert F. Kennedy. His death in hospital had been confirmed. He had been shot just after midnight at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles soon after winning the California primary elections.

Within seconds my mother’s eyes and cheeks glowed with wetness. It was the first time I saw her cry. I didn’t think she was capable of such a weak, babyish thing. I hadn’t seen her cry over the death of her stepfather (the only grandfather I ever knew), or over anything to do with her marriage ending. I struggled to understand it. I wondered if she had a crush on this Kennedy person, this man with foppish hair, large ears and a row of teeth too big for his mouth.

My mother wasn’t the only one crying that afternoon for a man she had never met. I saw that too on the black-and-grey news. Men as well as women wiping the tears from their faces, talked about RFK and JFK and Martin Luther King all in the same breath.  I was starting to put pieces together. This grieving over the loss of a famous person was part of something bigger and people were afraid of an uncertain future when the present and immediate past was so unpredictable and fierce.

In the last days of summer, just a week before school was to start, riots erupted again in Chicago – this time at the Democratic Party National Convention.  I watched television with my mother and grandmother, seeing cars alight and hippies and police batting at each other. My siblings joined us, squeezing into the sofa, finding space on the floor – all except for my eldest brother. He returned home in the small hours of the next morning, smelling of smoke as he passed my bedroom door, his pony-tail disheveled, a rip in his jeans. I assumed he was in the riots but was too afraid to ask.

Later that morning, my mother berated my brother for taking risks and being out past the curfew. In my childhood, we always had a curfew and could be stopped by police if we were out past ten – midnight for older kids. But these riots brought about a special curfew and no one was allowed on the streets after sunset. A city in lockdown.

The autumn was all about school and being in the first grade, the first time I spent all day at school. I liked being around other children who were not my siblings and adults who were not my parents or grandmother. But I didn’t like the air-raid drills, the fear of the Soviets attacking America from the sky. We masked our terror with laughter – and people we didn’t like were called commies.

One night in November of that year, the news interrupted our family viewing of The Beverly Hillbillies with images of a stand-off on the tarmac of JFK Airport. A Pan Am jet had been hijacked by guerrillas and was going to Cuba. My brother with the pony tail scratched his armpits and made gorilla noises until a sister explained to me that animals had not broken out of a zoo. Vietnam wasn’t the only place under siege.

The year ended on a high note as everyone was talking about the Apollo 8 mission, with men actually inside a space capsule orbiting the moon. We were all drinking Tang like the astronauts. It wouldn’t be long now before they would be walking on the surface that we knew was not made out of cheese.

It was Francis Xavier who said, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” As 1968 came into my sixth year, it played a part in the making of this woman. But gratefully, perspectives change with hindsight and memories can be altered with time.

Writing Essays

This was supposed to be a writer’s blog, writing about my writing and others’ writings. But other aspects of life have funnelled in – politics, feminism, visual arts. I make no apology. What brings all of these disparate parts together is actually essay writing. Blogs for me are a warm-up activity, a brain and language stretch for writing essays.

Before I write another word, I should explain that by ‘essay’ I mean creative non-fiction. What I don’t mean, for those of you who have searched #essay writing and landed here, is the formulaic student essay – that academic rag of assessment that takes all of the fun out of essay writing.

Without the structural constraints or the timeliness needed for newspaper articles or columnists’ pieces, essays can have a more varied existence. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard once said ‘The essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed.’

Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard

In some of my essays, I’ve worked within an overriding chronological story-telling, but without fictional characters to get in my way and with space for more philosophical ideas than I can get away with in fiction. With other essays, I’ve used more of a mini-collection style, with each vignette on the same theme and some indirectly answering to other vignettes. I try to not ramble in my essays. Perhaps it’s because I ramble in my journals or perhaps because I fear the work won’t get published – being mistaken for bad writing.

That reminds me of something I read a few years ago in Prospect Magazine: ‘The essay is more than an assembly of literary conventions: it ought to be an examination of the facts of the world. This has become clearer with the emergence of new technologies, which threaten to deprofessionalise one of the main historical strands of the essay, the egotistical ramble.’ (P. Hensher)

Aside from the above comment about rambling, this quote is also interesting for its inclusion of ‘facts.’ One thing I’ve learned from writing essays over the years is that while they are not fictional, their ownership of ‘facts’ or ‘truths’ is a bit slippery. I write about what I know to be factual at the time, sometimes having to rely on elusive memories that I’m aware are from my viewpoint. I choose to write about some facts and not others because this fact or that fact has been meaningful to me.

My favourite essayists have been mostly male. In part this is because men are more likely to have collections of essays published as single volumes. I’m thinking Gore Vidal and Clive James. I suspect this has its origins in the essays of the great Western philosophers. Women’s essays appear more often in anthology form along side other authors, such as the works of Rachel Carson and Margaret Atwood (underrated as an essayist).  I’ve noticed the trend too of the rare collection by a single female author being labled ‘women’s writing’ or ‘feminism.’

Well, if I’m going to buck this trend, I had better stop by rambling – I’ve exercised enough with this blog – and get on with essay writing.


Essay: The Heiress

At a hospital in New York she was in a third-floor room that had its number changed to make it harder for people to find her. On the door of this room was a plaque bearing the name Harriet Chase – an alias and a lame one at that – a female name with the same initials.

Hugette Clark’s 5th Avenue apartment covered the entirety of the eighth floor and contained 42 rooms. She also owned a castle in Connecticut on 52 acres of land and a house in California that overlooked the Pacific. For decades, she lived cut off from most of the outside world in her New York apartment with these other homes remaining empty, though well-maintained.

By the time she was thirty, Clark was already worth half a billion dollars. That wealth had been inherited from her father, a copper mining and railway tycoon. He had other children with his first wife and remarried in his 60s, siring Hugette when he was 67 and half deaf. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of these half-siblings were the reasons for her hospital-room anonymity – they were all after her money.

In 1930, Hugette Clark posed for a photograph, wearing a mink coat. Her hands are partially folded in front of her, one grasping a jewel-studded bracelet. She’s wearing a rounded hat that women wore in those days, a silken flower sewn into one side. Her lips, darkened by lipstick, are closed into a gentle smile while her eyes are gazing up in a posed fashion. Soon after the picture was taken, she cut herself off from much of her family and friends and no longer went out in public. There were only a few photographs of her to survive, this was her last, her death mask – a parting gesture for the curious.

She wasn’t a total recluse though, having a few close friends who remained at her side. Among them was her secretary, Suzanne, who claimed that Hugette’s closest friends were actually her dolls. The heiress had a collection of antique dolls that she fussed over, with her servants washing and ironing the little doll clothes. These, her surrogate children, were at her hospital bedside.

Hugette Clark died in May 2011 at the age of 104. She didn’t write any books, nor was she an actor or politician. With only one photo of her left, she hasn’t given the world much of herself. Yet, since her death, stories about her fill a peripheral space in the internet, generating a kind of celebrity that Clark herself would have shunned.  Her legacy has been her lifestyle – her living in isolation, her eccentricity and above all else, her wealth. The size and value of her properties, the cost of her furnishings, jewellery and her dolls speak to our envy and avarice. If she were equally isolated and eccentric, but poor, she probably would have passed without our notice.