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.