How did English get a PhD Program?

Recently the English Department celebrated the 25th anniversary of our PhD program. Here Professor Gordon Slethaug, who was instrumental in the founding of the PhD, recounts the process in remarks originally given at the event to mark the occasion. Thank you to Dr. Slethaug for agreeing to this reprinting on the blog. To find out where our PhD graduates are now, follow this link. Also, can you identify the vintage photos of English faculty members? Some of them are still around!–JLH

Founding of PhD program in Literature, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication

After serving for many years as graduate advisor in the Department of English, I was elected Department Chair in 1985. Prior to my election, I made it clear that I thought the Department needed to establish a BA and MA Program in Rhetoric and Writing as well as a PhD. In my view, the department could not realize its full potential until Rhetoric and Writing were a recognizable part of the existing BA and MA structure and until it had a PhD program. (As an aside, when the structure of the Faculty of Arts was first put in place, the English Department only sought a BA, a MA, and an MPhil because it felt it did not have experience in teaching at the graduate level or a solid-enough research base among the many new professors.)

In the transition period between being elected as Chair and taking up the appointment, Bill Macnaughton, the incumbent Chair of English, agreed to begin the process of getting the BA program in Rhetoric and Writing approved; this would be the first undergraduate degree in Rhetoric and Writing in Canada. Because BA programs and MA programs could be approved and implemented internally in universities, these would mainly depend upon the solid backing of the department and support of relevant faculty committees. The department did provide that backing, and the Arts Faculty, Dean, and University Senate supported the programs as well. Faculty members like Mary Gerhardstein and Neil Randall assisted in its launch and were active in the program, and David Goodwin was the first faculty member hired specifically for Rhetoric and Writing.

Once the two foundational programs were approved and operative, I turned my attention to the PhD. This was a much more difficult and lengthy task because the Province of Ontario had not approved a new PhD in an Arts discipline in 19 years and gave no indication that it would welcome a new program from English. At that time, there was to be no growth in universities. However, the Dean, Robin Banks, was open to the idea of a PhD Writing program once the undergraduate and masters programs were proven successful but was not supportive of a traditional literature program and was skeptical that we could convince either local faculty committees or administration at Waterloo itself or university officials at the provincial level of the need for any new PhD. Indeed, the Dean of Graduate Studies Lynn Watt showed little enthusiasm for it. However, he was replaced by Horst Leipholz who thought it was a good idea and agreed to back it if a sound proposal came forward and if the external appraisal were strongly positive. In addition, President Doug Wright was enthusiastic about the possibilities of such a program and ultimately became a champion of its development.

We set to work immediately with the assumption that we wanted an integrated Rhetoric and Literature PhD, and in addition to Rhetoric and Writing identified four key areas of literary strength where there were sufficient numbers of faculty members as well as research and library strength: Renaissance, 18th and 19th Century British, and American. No faculty member was to be barred from teaching in the program, and anyone who had approved APHID status could direct dissertations in their area of expertise. We insisted that we wanted a program unique to Canada and indeed North America that would combine features of Rhetoric, Writing, and Literature for each student, in which students would take a certain number of courses from both Rhetoric/Writing and Literature and write preliminary exams in both, but that the actual dissertation would focus on one particular area.


For the writing of the PhD proposal itself, each area had one leading person to collect strategic documentation and develop imaginative and realistic proposals. The finished proposal was passed nem. con. in the Department and, gaining the support of Rolf George, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies in Arts as well as Dean Robin Banks, was subjected to an internal-external review. That is, the Dean wanted to make sure that we had an airtight case, so carefully chosen assessors were invited to review the proposal and program before it went further in the University and the Province.

At that point, we set out to be assessed by professors with impeccable credentials from unequivocally excellent programs and universities: David Perkins, a Romantics scholar from Harvard; Andrea Lunsford, a writing specialist from UBC, the only Canadian university that had senior courses in writing, though no free-standing program per se; and Sheldon Zitner, Shakespeare scholar, Trinity College, University of Toronto. During this period of time we also took our MA program in Professional Writing onsite first to IBM in Toronto and then Bell Northern in Ottawa, demonstrating the desire and need for graduate-level rhetoric and writing in the corporate sector. The reviewers were all impressed with these new developments and enthusiastic in recommending that this innovative PhD go forward, and the Arts Faculty, Dean of Graduate Studies and Research, University Senate, and President signed off on it.

After that we played a waiting game while Queens Park considered our proposal. The same external reviewers were chosen by the Province and asked to return for an official assessment of our proposal, including the quality of the program, professoriate, library holdings, and academic and workplace potential. Following that, I made at least one trip there with President Doug Wright to define and defend it. In 1989 the PhD was approved. However, because universities were not to grow in size at that time, we agreed to eliminate the MPhil and cut our 50-student MA program back to 25 students, so that we could admit 5 PhD students annually with full scholarship support. In April of 1990 we made our first offers to PhD students and enrolled our first students in the Spring and Fall terms of that year—25 years ago. As all of you can attest, the rest is your history.

For more photos, see here.


2 responses to “How did English get a PhD Program?

  1. Is the man on the left in the third picture from the top, Paul Beam? He was there in the years 1972-1976 I remember. I am referring to the man in right profile, rolled sleeves and tie.

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