MyAmericanFuture

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Thursday, January 17, 2013

January 17, 2013: Back to School Hopes, Part Four

[Every new semester brings with it lots of promise and possibilities; since I was on sabbatical in the fall, this will be my first time back in the classroom and the department in seven months, making it that much more of a new start. So this week I’ll be highlighting some of those hopes and goals for my Spring 2013 semester. I’d love to hear some of yours for a crowd-sourced weekend post on our collective springs to come!]
On the recent and ongoing changes in the profession, and how my department can evolve in response to them.
A few years back, our department was discussing a possible job listing in New Media, and one of the arguments that came up had to do with the frame and perspective provided by “a 1970s image of an English Department.” Having grown up with a Dad who received his PhD from one English Department in the 1970s and then was immediately hired by another (where he’s taught ever since), I most definitely knew and understood what the phrase meant. Of course there’s no one thing that English studies has ever meant, and of course the discipline continued to evolve throughout the 20th century; but I think the odds are good that almost every class offered in each of these 1970s English departments focused on, y’know, literature as traditionally defined: poems, fiction, plays, nonfiction, literary criticism, and so on. Maybe one or two radical professors were also teaching films, or using photographs or other visual media to complement their literary focal points—and some were definitely incorporating European theorists and their very distinct definitions of literature—but for the most part, English remained a traditional, textual, literary discipline.
Fast forward four decades and the recent hires in our English Studies department include that New Media scholar, as well a Film Studies specialist and a Romanticist who, while teaching the traditional authors, has also created new courses focused on zombies, the punk movement, and an introduction to Cultural Studies. Of the many factors that have contributed to this expanded and still expanding definition of the discipline of English Studies, none is more central than that latter concept: Cultural Studies, the idea that everything (from traditional literature to film and TV, comic books to advertisements, material culture to MTV, shopping malls to social media, in our present moment and into the distant past) is a text. Literary scholars have, unsurprisingly, different perspectives on this addition to the discipline—you can probably imagine how those 1970s-trained folks I mentioned above feel, and from this blog’s varied focal points can probably get a good sense of my own take—but the bottom line is that the image of a 2010s English Department most definitely includes Cultural Studies alongside the more traditional focal points and studies. The question that remains, then, is whether and how each individual department develops that element, offers its possibilities and analytical frames to its majors and students, practices this newer and still evolving part of our discipline.
There’s no right, and certainly no one, answer to that question. But in the case of my own department, one of my hopes for the spring is that we move toward the creation of a new, fourth track in Cultural Studies. One of our previous tracks has moved to another department on campus, so we have space and opportunity to add a new such concentration. We have those new colleagues and their courses, as well as the possibility to request a couple new hires to replace the faculty who moved with the previous track. And I think as a whole we have a department that recognizes the value, for our students and for ourselves, of teaching and studying and learning and practicing ways to analyze the variety of texts and contexts, media and modes, voices and communities that constitute our 21st century moment and that have in many ways comprised every era. Cultural Studies won’t mean the same thing for our Medievalist as it would for the Film Studies guy, will have distinct applications for a Shakespearean as it does for an AmericanStudier like me—but for all of us, it can become a strong component to what we do and who we are as we move forward.
Final spring hopes tomorrow,
Ben
PS. So what do you think? Thoughts on these questions? Hopes of yours for the spring you’d share?

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