I promised (threatened?) that I would give a report on the English Department retreat last Friday. Some would say that such an event would be of no possible interest to anyone outside the English Department. Some might be right. But I share a few observations anyway on the theory that in this time of sometimes wrenching transition for all of academia, the self-scrutiny of one little corner of it might offer some food for thought.
Our dept. is actually an interesting case study. From the time I started (seventeen years ago) till now, the number of faculty has remained at about fifty, but its complexion has changed (unfortunately, I’m speaking metaphorically, not literally, but that is a different story). At the start, every member of the dept., except for one colleague and me, had a PhD in English, and, except for a handful of journalists and business and technical writing specialists, everybody devoted all their teaching and research to the study of literature or related areas like drama and film. We had a few full-time composition specialists who staffed the writing center and taught sections of freshman English, but every voting member of the department either had tenure or was on the tenure track.
How things have changed. Today, our meetings include three full-time specialists in English Education, plus at least a half-dozen full-time composition teachers, almost all of them on continuing non-tenure track lines. Those ten folks represent ten fewer literature specialists. The sea change has met with a good deal of resistance from the old guard, many of whom are bemused to inhabit an English Dept. very different from the one they experienced in graduate school and through much of their academic careers.
So the retreat (our first in seventeen years) was an opportunity to address some of these issues, and try to craft some kind of vision for the future.
I came away with two main impressions. First, I have a great bunch of colleagues. Chatting with them about their work and lives was the best part of the day, and made me regret that so many of us (me included) rush home when the teaching day is done. I almost wish that the administration forced us to stay in our offices all day, every day. Almost.
Second, the vision thing is going to be pretty tough. By my rough count, about 20 percent of the department skipped the retreat. I know some of them were on sabbatical and probably doing research on some far-away continent, and some had long-standing commitments, but still.
I also learned that the bemusement ran deeper than I thought. I asked one far-from-elderly colleague what they (note the gender-neutral pronoun!) were up to, and was told, “I’m figuring out how soon I can afford to retire.”
At another point, my table of a half dozen folks were talking about the general attitude of our colleagues. I was about to say I felt lucky to be here, when someone said they felt “stuck,” and that many others felt the same way: that for many people, the UD job was the only one they were offered, and they have been unsuccessful when subsequently testing the job market.
(This exchange made me think of the classic Peanuts cartoon when the characters are lying on their backs and looking up at the sky
- Linus: Well, those clouds up there look to me look like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean. [points up] That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor. And that group of clouds over there… [points] …gives me the impression of the Stoning of Stephen. I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side.
- Lucy: Uh huh. That’s very good. What do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?
- Charlie Brown: Well… I was going to say I saw a duckie and a horsie, but I changed my mind.)
More broadly, the day brought home to me that we are a diverse set of people, not necessarily in the best sense of the word. What do a Milton specialist, a journalism teacher, a rhetorician, and a trainer of middle-school English teachers have in common? Is there in fact any shared set of goals, principles and interests that would define and inform a department in which they all work?
Tough questions. Our newly appointed chair is going to have his work cut out for him as he tries to come up with answers.