Where Do English Departments Come From?
William Riley Parker
William Riley Parker explores the genesis and rise of the history and development of the Modern English Department in “Where Do English Departments Come From?.” As he examinees the 130-some-odd year trajectory of the English department, he uses the metaphor of the English department as a divorced relationship of the Mother (Oratory) from the Father (Philology or Linguistics). He stretches the metaphor to recognize the Modern English department as the estranged child of Oratory and Philology with its own unique neuroses and petulance toward its progenitors. Parker continues the metaphor and postulates that, in most cases, the child no longer recognizes the parents and has transformed into a multi-headed hydra that captures a myriad of discourses which may include literary criticism, comparative literature, technical writing, rhetoric, and cultural studies and in no discernible way relate one to the other. Parker, however, may have overlooked the pedagogical necessity to remarry Oratory and Philology. In fact, the two may have never divorced and the offspring, the Modern English department, is not only a happy child resplendent in the glow of a happy marriage of parents, but a robust and well-adjusted child entering adulthood.
Parker highlights children first learn to speak, read, then write. A future teacher must glance to the near future when they will lead a first-year composition class. The future instructor must understand the nuances of the learning experience and the spectrum of educational mastery; this insight will begin to show us the necessity of the happy marriage between Oratory and Philology. When we break down the scope of the learning process and examine the trajectory of subject mastery, we must understand that the scope of rhetoric (argument), writing (non-verbal communication), and scholarly discourse (literary criticism) are all intertwined and belong in the same department. Once a student enters into the collegial realm, the focus of studies shift from a mere generality, as it was in secondary education, to specificity. Although we encourage a liberal arts education in the United States which focuses on the well-rounded student, we still encourage a general major in the final two years of the four year degree. But before this shift toward specificity, we must focus on the mastery of the student in the language of the American workforce-Modern English. To reach a modicum of mastery, teachers must examine the general tendencies of the high school vernacular (is this not Oratory and Linguistics?) and delve into the focus of the American education system.
If we accept a child first learns to speak, read, then write, we have to make a paradigmatic shift and refocus the mastery learning experience to that of reading, writing, then speaking. Admittedly these skills are taught in conjunction, but we will see them mastered at staggered intervals that will come with a grasp of critical reading first, followed closely by a mirroring or imitating of effective scholarly writing, and finally an osmosis of increasingly effective oratory skills adopted from their reading and writing. So if we are to examine these learned and taught traits, we must assert they must fall under an eclectic amalgam of disciplines in one department to insure a creative and pedagogical discourse amongst the faculty that leads these classes and disseminates the skills down to the students. Where Parker fails to make this connection is in the reality that a film studies instructor, creative writer, rhetorician, literary critic, or technical composition instructor will at some point in their teaching career find themselves teaching English Comp I. However different each specialty may be, what all these fields bring to table is a mastered skill set of subjective reasoning and critical thought processes that are absent in the undergraduate hard-science curricula which focuses on the basics of the given discipline.
The birth and growth of the Modern English department is fascinating. However, for Parker to argue the claim the department is an estranged child of divorced parents, Oratory and Philology, overlooks the importance of keeping the two happily wed. Where he should have focused this statement was the olio of disciplines within the English department makes us the happy and effective dysfunctional family we are. The focus of the department is to mold the student into a master of the critically read language, the effectively written word, and finally the well-delivered oral dissemination of these skills. Without a mix of specialties in one field, the American educational system would lose the creative drive which is steered by the American mindset. Our education system would lose that subjective reasoning that gives rise to innovative thought, entrepreneurial success, and free-thought.