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This is the main page for the January 12, 2011 department charrette on revising the English major.

The charrette's over. What's next?

  • You can read a summary of the results.
  • You can review and add comments to the learning outcomes that the four working groups developed.
  • You can review and add comments to the four groups' answers to the four design questions that were posed at the charrette.
  • If you have questions, concerns, or ideas that you'd like to share privately with the Policy Committee, you can email them to for distribution to the committee only.

Why charrette?

The term charrette is borrowed from the language of design and urban planning. Wikipedia defines it as "any collaborative session in which a group of designers drafts a solution to a design problem."

The Policy Committee is charged with proposing a new design for the English major. General department input will be most helpful to the committee if it's organized around questions of design rather than around questions of general principle. That's not to say that questions of principle are out of place. Principles underlie design choices as theory underlies practice. But the committee would like to keep design in the foreground.

Our aim in the charrette will not be to draft a particular design for the English major but to identify questions, challenges, areas of agreement, and sites of difference that the Policy Committee should keep in mind as it does so.

Once the Policy Committee develops a design for a revised English major, that design will be subject to discussion, amendment, and approval by department members in a department meeting (or, if necessary, meetings).

How will the charrette work?

We'll convene promptly at 10:00 a.m. in Milne 105. We'll divide into four groups. We'll follow the agenda below:

  • 10:00-10:30 - Individual groups discuss learning outcomes for the English major, taking notes in the wiki. (Before we can discuss the design of the major, we'll need some clarity on what the major should or could be designed to do.)
  • 10:30-11:15 - General discussion based on shared notes.
  • 11:15 - 11:30 - Break.
  • 11:30 - 12:30 - Over sandwiches, individual groups discuss four design questions (one question per group), taking notes in the wiki.
  • 12:30 - 12:45 - Break.
  • 12:45 - 2:00 - General discussion based on shared notes.

    These links will become live at the charrette:
    Charrette - Learning Outcomes
    Charrette - Design Questions

How should you prepare?


  1. Alice has suggested this additional reading: Peter Beidler, "What English Majors Do Out There" (Profession, 2003).

    1. I should give credit to Ken C. for locating this (for a different purpose, but it seems quite relevant to our upcoming discussion)

  2. Well here's one that Alice really did suggest, from the New York Times: "Rethinking Advanced Placement". And while you're looking at the Times, you might want to read this as well: "Journal Showcases Dying Art of the Research Paper".

  3. I apologize for starting a new thread so soon, but I wanted to post something I've been thinking about since I won't actually be able to attend the charrette. So...

    Since this is a charrette, and design is at the forefront, I’d like to begin with a design component, of sorts, and then address why I think it’s important.

    I start with a maxim:

    Literature is made of language.

    Because my teaching experience and methodology are so closely tied to this principle, I am interested in a design for the major that acknowledges the importance of the study of language. In thinking about how to articulate this acknowledgment, I looked at the links on our charrette page to literature degree requirements at other colleges. What struck me immediately was that the word “language” never appeared in any of the preambles to major requirements, except for the University of Michigan, viz:

    The University of Michigan’s English department, like other English departments in the U.S., has long been called upon to pursue four different projects: to survey and analyze the broad range of texts in the English language; to study the history of that language: to foster creative as well as critical writing; and to study and teach composition.  To be sure, as the profession of literary studies has developed over the past century, all four of these endeavors have undergone shifts in emphasis. Historical philology has been supplemented by literary interpretation; literary history has been enriched by theory, by the critical study of culture, by the methods and approaches of other disciplines; the study of language has embraced the vitality of real speaking communities, past and present; creative writing, commonly thought of as fiction and poetry, has expanded to include creative non-fiction, drama, film, and even performance; composition studies have looked closely at the socio-cultural and cognitive aspects of the writing process.  Even as we seek to respond to these ongoing developments in our field, and the debates they generate, we continue to maintain our commitment to all four of these endeavors.  Indeed, we consider them to be the basis not only of our rich intellectual life, and of our excellence as a research faculty, but also of our success as a teaching faculty serving large numbers of students in the College and the University. [Introductory statement in our Long Range Plan}

    I, too, do not simply want to train students in some sort of naïve Victorian philology, But I would like to see our major include wording that acknowledges the importance of studying language as part of what we do---the changing semantics of words; the layers of etymology that suggest the colonization of English by others and the colonizing of English of others; the historical and regional dialects and the social registers that get used to construct Difference or the Other; and  the ambiguities of syntax that create beauty, obfuscation, or sheer undecidability, just to name a few functions of language.

    We need not necessarily create new courses to acknowledge, highlight, or privilege the idea expressed in the maxim. We are already doing this, to certain degrees, in almost any course that precedes contemporary literature, though I would think especially in pre-1700 courses. We teach a course specifically in the History of English that has updated a dictionary of Geneseo English continuously over the past 20 years. We present texts produced in English dialects that challenge the idea of the literary privilege of standard English. We try to get our students to read and understand the discourse of propaganda and politics embedded in what might seem to be “innocent” artworks.  We teach creative writing to many eager students who are learning to develop their own craft of language that extends the tradition of literature itself---by actually making it.

    Attention to language also connects with the globalizing of our curriculum because attention to  language is not just access to the past; it's also about dialects, regions, settlements, social registers, language contact and conflict, and new “world” Englishes. Such attention recognizes that there is not just one form of English---or, for that matter, any other language but English.

    I’d personally go as far as to say that I would like to see the study of language folded into the requirements for the major, something more than just the “Writing or Language” line-item that seems at times to be a miscellaneous extra.  Could we conceive of reworking this requirement as a part of what we are asking students to master through our degree program?


    Working intimately with the notion that literature is made of language, whether in our teaching or in our students’ learning, is not easy It often requires rigor, attention, tedium, and painful growth. But to my mind, for all the reasons I’ve enumerated, it is essential for what we do.

    Some pedagogical experiences and responses that have augmented my concern about language:

    I constantly tell my students that literature is made of language, and as someone who teaches earlier periods of English literature, I cannot avoid this for simple lexical reasons. Words in earlier literature just don’t mean what they do now, and sentences aren’t constructed the same way.  To be able to advance to serious interpretation that respects the message of either the author OR of the subversive and unconscious conflicting voices in an earlier work, we really have to understand the literal meaning of a text.. Without it, interpretation has almost nothing to do with verbal art; and I’m not talking about some kind of fruitful, deliberate misprision a la Harold Bloom. It's just not getting it. What I often see people doing is leaping to an interpretation without substantiation. This lazy leap to interpret something that’s not there and that cannot be substantiated is not, in my mind, the act of a  reader with great power to shape meaning, but of a reader without an excuse---solipsism and narcissism. t's the end of argument, and to me the end of meaningful literary investigation.

    Pedagogically, I rely on a quiverful of methods: I read aloud; I get others to read aloud, and we talk about the emotion or emphasis that may work for particular words or phrases. I often refer to footnotes and glosses (and highlight the fact that we are needing those footnotes and glosses); I ask small groups of students to translate short Middle English passages; I ask them to paraphrase a sonnet literally so that readers understand who’s doing what to whom (subject-verb-object) BEFORE they try to interpret the language that they are reading.

    Sometimes, our discussion relies on applying basic grammatical knowledge-- parts of speech and word order, and also knowing some of the variations between, say, fourteenth-century verb-endings and twenty-first century ones. For example, when we discuss Middle English “Cuckoo Song,” I ask the students to pick out the verbs. The excitement of spring’s return is what animates that poem through the repetition of verbs in the same form (these happen to be third-person singular present verbs). The verbs in many of the lines also come first in a clause, challenging our modern assumptions of “SVO” word order. It's also important for understanding to know that word order varies---who’s doing what to whom. A simple reading diagnostic extends to many readings of earlier literature: first, ask, “What is the verb?” Then ask, “What/who is the subject of the verb?”  

    Understanding language change, or that etymology matters, has come up in several ways. For instance, “niggardly” in Shakespeare’s sonnets might sound awful to us--\ - isn’t that a form of “nigger?”, one might think. No, it’s not; the N-word is a corruption of a Latinate/Romance word meaning “black”; “niggardly” comes from the Old Norse “hnøggr,” “stingy.” It’s not a pejorative. In a different vein, the eponymous allegorical figure in George Herbert’s “Love” invites the speaker to “taste my meat.” This isn’t an invitation to a barbecue; “meat” has a more generalized meaning of “food,” so it could very well be bread – or bread and wine - --and the implications of that meaning could have resonances for understanding the poem. If Love wants to have the speaker taste “meat,” and if it’s bread, it could be a reference to the Eucharist, which would make excellent sense for Herbert’s context.

    A parting thought. Without the serious study of language, there is limited access to the past and little comprehension of  the voices of the past WHICH HAVE SPOKEN US INTO BEING, let’s not forget---voices that have reproduced the dominant hegemon but also its resisters.

    I confess that I always find that language is beautiful; mysterious l playful. I want literary studies to make these wonders come alive for our students.   

    1. Our quivers (full of non-martial arrows that can build, not wound or kill) are stocked quite similarly! 

  4. Here are links to two additional programs of potential interest and relevance: Williams College and Swarthmore College.