Tag Archives: future of english studies

End of Term Blues

The last few days of classes are signaled by the horrendous massing of crows in the pines outside of Hagey Hall. They are harbingers of the melancholia that gathers in the spleens and noggins of professors and students during these final dismal days of November. To be sure, a few oblivious profs are satisfied with their work over the last weeks, confident they have cultivated in their charges some new seeds of knowledge and perhaps even watched one sprout into something green and leafy. But most of us are as usual chagrined that our efforts at releasing our students from their mental prisons of sulky jadedness have failed so decisively, that our syllabusic reaches exceeded our pedagogical grasps, that our pupils are now leaving our precincts containing so much less than what we imagined in our wild September dreams would puff out their still labile brains by term’s end. As the last leaves fall from the stubborn oaks, as the crows bruit their winter plans for southern Kentucky, as the geese honk their miserable laments to their lost fellow (gunned down, unbelievably, on the North Campus, where normal humane impulses are attenuated, evidently), we take stock of our successes as teachers and as taught, and most of us, WIP very much included, recognize we have fallen short yet again.

Honky: R.I.P

A few students, whose previous encounters with the English department qua English department consisted solely of sleep-interrupting sessions with its various pontificators in dispersed classrooms across the campus, now find themselves timidly searching amongst the randomized office numbers in the Brown Warrens of Hagey Hall. On a quest for face-time with a professor who they never before wished to view but from the back of a classroom, these hapless individuals, now that all hope is not just lost but actively fleeing, have arrived to request some kind of academic lifeline that will allow them to transform their mediocre “work” of the previous three months into grades commensurate not with their performances but with their aspirations.

“I’m wondering if there is some way to get my mark up to honours level….this is the only course that is holding me back from my commitment to excellence. I studied so hard, but your assignments weren’t what I expected. I expected they would produce better results. For me. I still expect better results. Are you listening?  There is something bizarre and inchoate about your mind, Professor. I respect you, but more so when you give me what I want. I will like you better then, too. My OSAP/grad school application/parents’ continued indulgence rests in your liver-spotted hands. Pony up!”

“Oh, really? This is the only course that defeats you? It has all come down to me and my patient disquisition on the literature of the pre-inter-war period, the post-Victorian neo-Gothic efflorescence, and more specifically on the poetic feats of the Vorticists, about whom your presentation on their after-life did, with great uninterest, lay forth, absent research and thought, a case for their continued pertinence on the basis of the notion that you believe them to be ‘Cool’? (I’m quoting here.) On this rests your claim for a greater volume of markage? That grade of C that you received, a gentleman’s C, by the way, this C is the source of all your woes?”

“Aye.”

“I see. Ok, then. I suppose I can re-weight things. Just make sure you show up for the take-home exam. Now run along, you little scamp.”

Still, melancholy isn’t all about sadness and enervation; there is a lighter side to black bile. Where would any of us be, student and professor alike, without the good humour that emerges from the preposterousness of our situation, this wacky idea Plato and his gang dreamed up? The Academy! A place of advanced thought. Maybe in Athens, with its stone temples and open sewers. Any serious discussion there was a giant step up from the daily rounds of excrement and death. But in Waterloo? We compete with the billion-headed beast that is our hyper-civilization. Have you watched Jersey Shore? Did you play Call of Duty: Black Ops II? To think we could ever teach and they learn! How could you even hold their attentions for a minute? And if you could, are you really capable of bringin’ it? Have you got the juice? Of course not. That’s just crazy talk. There is too much going on, and none of it in your classroom.

Henry, meet The Situation

Each generation of moderns is cognitively unresponsive to the previous. And for good reason. As Thoreau noted, “Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures.” If Thoreau is right, we have even less reason to expect our students to remember anything we teach them because so much of it is merely an account of our confusion and weakness before the Knowledge we purport to be selling. This is the Faculty of Questions, Not Answers. All that lofty ignorance can get a bit old. At least in the Greek agora, you could hear Socrates discourse and get drunk on honey-wine at the same time.

Oh, the humanities!

But then the ray of light, as if from the low-hanging sun. One of our colleagues is overheard exclaiming about the recent cohort: “So smart. Best group I’ve ever taught.” Another speaking over the din of crows as we walk to our cars: “The group projects! Unbelievable what they can do with multimedia. I learned so much from them.”

And there it is: what Thoreau didn’t know, or, more likely, knew very well. The Academy is a river that flows both ways. Or, if that image doesn’t scan, a pond whose waves lap each shore. “I myself have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose.” Mayhap (yes, this is a word) Thoreau was an autodidact, but one suspects there was a syllable or two from, say, Emerson, that slipped past Thoreau’s pugnacious egocentrism. And, more important for the melancholiacs of November,  Thoreau taught his elders in Concord a great deal.

So if we have fallen short of our fantasies of the Great Course, if the class ended without the gestalt, the epiphany, the grok, mayhap (still a word) we should search our own benighted minds, and look for any seeds that our students, despite the stony ground they had to work with, managed to plant there.

The Future of English Studies: Conference Report II

A guest post by Professor Sarah Tolmie.

Back in October, just around Thanksgiving, I attended a conference at the University of Southern Denmark, in Kolding, on the Future of English Studies. Fraser Easton, as chair of English, had circulated a call for papers several weeks before, and very spontaneously I decided to go. A flurry of e-mail with the organizers, Jane Vinther and Gordon Slethaug (former chair of English here at uW and our main connection to the institution) followed, and then I found myself on a plane to Copenhagen (via Reykjavik and its shockingly expensive airport) and subsequently on a train down to Kolding, about an hour from the capital, along with my husband Scott Straker, a medievalist who teaches at Queen’s University. As it happens, we met Fraser at Pearson airport, at which time we all figured out that we were going to the same conference; we then managed to lose each other shortly after arriving in Copenhagen and didn’t catch up until the following day. Academics are fairly hopeless at this sort of thing.

However, after checking in at the lovely old hotel, the Saxildhus, mid 19th century and a bit down at heel, and eating a fabulous meal at a restaurant in the oldest building in town, a 16th-century merchants’ hall, we felt we were in shape for the conference, despite imminent jet lag.

After a 10-minute walk through the commercial part of Kolding the next morning, we arrived at the University of Southern Denmark campus (one of three campuses in the region that amalgamated only a few years ago, the others being at Aarhus and Odense). Scott’s paper, on cross-border anxieties in the 15th-century Anglo-Scots text The Kingis Quair (proving that some problems of globalization are hardly new), was in the first session. Mine, on the Salvation Suit project — a virtual reality translation of the 14th-century visionary poem Piers Plowman, a “wearable poem” as I am calling it — was the following afternoon. Fraser’s, on “The English Department of the Future” (which means us here at uW, apparently) was shortly before mine. We all got our words out, and they were all cordially received. There were about thirty international attendees, plus graduate students from the university. Papers were various, many tending towards language learning and pedagogy, as you might expect from the conference theme. It was interesting to observe that a main focus of the conference — namely, English studies — has a particular institutional inflection in Denmark, one that is currently under scrutiny, if not attack, by a populist and pragmatic government. There was some fear that current departments of English studies, which teach both literature and language, would be dismantled in face of increasing pressure for market-driven, competence-based language learning — and that literature teaching would be the automatic loser. Thus, a major effort at disciplinary re-branding and reclamation of humanist identity was underway, to which the conference was contributing. Overall, probably the most interesting aspect of the conference for me was witnessing this difference in institutional status, in a culture that is unofficially, at least, bilingual, Danish and English. Most Danes, both in the university context and outside of it, speak astonishingly good English. The present educational system is clearly serving this function amply: the question is, seemingly, what is value-added by having students read literary texts?

Your admin speaking now: Good question, Sarah. Any responses to “what is value-added by having students read literary texts?

Also, here are some photos from Sarah’s Danish experience.

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The Future of English Studies: Conference Report I

A Guest Post by Professor Fraser Easton.

As the Chair of an English Department that I think has quite a bit to offer when it comes to the question of the future of our discipline, I was delighted to be able to speak about what my colleagues are doing at an international conference in Kolding, Denmark, last month on “The Future of English Studies.”

The conference held a few surprises for me. First of all, it was a conference on English Studies held in a non-English speaking country (well, not really: all Danes seem to be able to speak excellent English; still, the first language is Danish, and most media is in Danish, with some Swedish, Norwegian or German language channels). This meant that English Studies was viewed in an international framework, and not only in terms of the global spread of English Literature. Issues in linguistics, ESL, and English as a Lingua Franca (for which there is even a journal) were among the hotter topics. So all in all it was a nice decentering of some of the normative assumptions one makes about the focus of the study of English in an English-speaking context—that, for example, the study of national literatures, particularly our own, should be central.

The next pleasant surprise was a talk by Dr. Janette Ryan on “Internationalising teaching and learning: Making room for other knowledge, language and academic values.”  The talk spoke directly to the challenges international students face when English-speaking institutions are happy to charge them higher fees, and then leave them to sort out all sorts of hidden assumptions about the classroom, curriculum, and even the nature of English competency (what Dr. Ryan calls “A ‘native speaker norm’ [that] exercises tacit power in pedagogy and assessment”).  It was particularly fascinating to learn that Dr. Ryan had taken a university degree in China, is fluent in Mandarin, and can speak convincingly about the nature of Chinese and Western educational assumptions.

Another wonderful surprise—although it shouldn’t have been—was the talk given by my colleague Sarah Tolmie on “Poem/Design: Translating Piers Plowman into Virtual Reality.” I have known about Sarah’s Virtual Reality, Critical Media Lab-inspired project for some time, but this was the first time I had heard her speak about it.  The effect on the audience was electric: to take Langland’s poem, digitize it into a virtual realm, and then to use that as a way to test the theories of embodiment that are in part the subject of this dream vision was intellectually provocative and exciting. That Sarah was able to show the VR in action was all the more “immersive” for her academic audience.

My talk was titled “The English Department of the Future,” and there was a really bad photo taken of me as I was giving it. No, I didn’t talk with my eyes closed: I was just looking down when someone snapped the shot!

On a personal note, I got to stay in an eighteenth-century warehouse in Copenhagen that is now a hotel on my way back from Kolding. On the way to Kolding I got to speak with a PR rep for LEGO, which is based a few miles away from Kolding in Billund, and ask lots of questions on behalf of my eight-year-old son.

Your blog admin speaking now: Come back tomorrow to read a post by Professor Sarah Tolmie about her experience of the same conference. Such fun this academic tourism thing.