What is English? This question is at the center of a conversation that has been unfolding since I arrived at Keene State College in 1998. Provisional answers to the question, as well as the multiple ways the question can be answered, have motivated changes in how we conceive and deliver our undergraduate program. How do we cultivate careful reading and the use of literary vocabulary? How do they experience the process of writing about literature and culture and learn to use writing for a range of expressive and persuasive purposes? How do wehelp students understand the ways historical, social, and cultural contexts shape literary works? In what ways are students introduced to those works in literary and expressive traditions produced by cultures whose collective humanity and aesthetic identity have been historically devalued, denied, or dismissed? How do students come to understand literary genre? How literary works relate intertextually? How the history of language has affected the development of literature? In what ways arestudents exposed to the history of criticism and critical theory, its application in literary analysis as well as current scholarly debates in the field of English studies?
For the past ten years our thinking about (and as) a program has been motivated by a desire to improve conditions for student learning and, at the same time, ameliorate the difficult working conditions faculty face. New members of our department have invigorated this discussion in collaboration with those who have been at the College for some time. And College-wide curricular changes (that English, in part, initiated) have transformed the work that we do. As a result, we now share the responsibility for a program that grows out of the ongoing and ever-present questions about English as a field of study.
I’ve been thinking about all of this over the summer as the primary author of the English department’s Self Study. For those reading who are not aware, college and universities undertake a self study every ten years or so. The University System of New Hampshire policy requires the Academic Overview Committee (AOC), which reports to the Keene State College Senate, to oversee and facilitate program review on our campus. The purpose of the academic overview process is to evaluate the strengths and challenges of the academic programs and its current and projected resource needs. Program review includes self-analysis by members of the program, external peer review, evaluation by the Academic Overview Committee, and response from the administration.
So, what is English? Well, The StoryI tell in this attached excerpt from the forty page document gives an overview of who we say we are and the history of the program, and might be of interest to anyone curious about English at Keene State College. The conversations around our central question are intense, ongoing, and deeply engaging. While we may not have a definitive answer to the question (in fact, we might want to question the value of such a thing), we are always working to articulate the reasons why we have the program we have–among ourselves, with our students and to the others who support the work that we do.