A Department in the Doldrums: Saving Global Literatures in English

As many of you are aware by now, the first draft of next year’s Staffing Plan has caused quite a stir, as it proposes removing the Global/Post-Colonial Literature position from the Department of Literatures in English. The position — filled by interim visiting professor Jeanne-Marie Jackson since Professor Simon Hay’s departure two years ago — would not be filled by a tenure-track faculty member. The professorship would instead be reallocated to Film Studies.

With forty majors this year and just two faculty members, Film Studies clearly needs another professor. The ratio is horrid: several departments with fewer majors have many more faculty members. According to Film Studies professor Dr. Nina Martin, an additional professor would “teach our core courses, advise our students and build the Film Studies curriculum and community.” One idea would be to hire someone as a full professor in both the Departments of Literatures in English and Film Studies. Before they left the college, English Professors Simon Hay and David Greven taught film and film criticism extensively, and their loss was felt keenly by both departments. However, the Film Department’s situation is so dire that a shared professor would not fully alleviate it.

Yet the Department of Literatures in English cannot lose its global literature position, and so the student advisory board of the department has been campaigning recently to ensure that that doesn’t happen. Just to head off any possible accusations that we’re doing this to get on our professors’ good sides: we’re not. We’re doing it because we care about the department and the field. I, for instance, am only thinking of majoring in English because of discussions that occurred as a direct result of reading books (including Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians) that fall under the category of global literature.

Not being able to take courses on these writers would be extremely detrimental to a department that is fundamental to a liberal arts college. Literatures in English is the fourth-largest major at Conn and the largest among the humanities. Without a specialist in World Literatures, the recently revamped Race & Ethnicity concentration would be dismantled. The structure of major requirements would have to undergo serious reconstruction — in the wrong direction. The “World” section of our geographical requirements would have to be removed, thus restricting our study of English Literature to works from the United States and Britain. Such a limited scope of study harms the current attempt in a globalized world to understand cultures significantly different from our own.

As an already-small department in relation to many of those associated with our NESCAC peers, further size reduction is not movement in the right direction when the number of faculty scholars directly affects the diversity of opportunities available to students — something that Conn says that it prides itself on.

If such a change were to take place in the English Department, I’d be worried about the negative trajectory of other departments, too. Will the College, for instance, remove the ethnomusicology concentration in the Music Department in the future? It is, after all, analogous to the Global Literatures position, and hinges on the staffing line filled by Professor Dale Wilson.

It also occurs to me that the World Literatures aspect of the English Department helps to accomplish precisely what Dean Brooks, the Dean of the Faculty, spoke about in his recent TEDTalk: making sure that college isn’t just a series of boxes that we can check off. The concentrations in the Department of Literatures in English allow for exactly that deeper development of the major through courses taken before and after the basic requirements. Cutting a concentration in the Staffing Plan turns that entire talk into mere political posturing. It is, as Professor Jeff Strabone of the Department of Literatures in English said, “a difference between what appears and what actually is.” In justifying the loss of the Global Literature position, Dean Brooks stated that because Africa and South Asia are taught in other departments, their literature doesn’t need to be taught in the English Department. This is a check box approach to running a college; we’ve got Africa taken care of somewhere, so we’re all set. This goes against what a liberal arts college is and should be: a place where a student can study any topic and be fully prepared for whatever he or she would like to do in the future. Studying global literature is different from studying global film, which is different from studying global economics, which is different from studying the global aspect of any particular field. Therefore, each department should have a global component for its majors.

The only solution that would allow the Film Studies Department to grow while allowing the Department of Literatures in English to remain whole (instead of going back to simply Department of English, as it must do if the world literatures aspect is in fact removed) is for the college to spring for two tenure-track professors – something that is not unprecedented. In 2011, the German department conducted a search to hire one professor, but found two they liked. They were allowed to hire both. Let’s repeat this supposedly “magical” feat.

One more thing: any argument that the expression of student sentiment doesn’t have a place in the Staffing Plan changes, when those changes are going to affect us, is wrong and full of double standards. I consent that the final decision rests with the Dean of the Faculty and any committees that he chooses to create, but as the folks most affected by any change, we should have not necessarily a final say, but a voice. The purpose of the departments’ student advisory boards and of SGA is to grant the student body that voice through shared governance. Why would departments give the students a chance to voice their opinions in the hiring process, as both the Music Department and Department of Literatures in English did this year, only to disregard our reactions to the deterioration, or the simple stagnation, of our majors?

As Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible (another book that piqued my interest in English as a discipline) reminds us, names have incredible power to explain the essence of a being: Shared governance is (or should be) more than a simple combination of syllables. As Kingsolver writes, “the rabbit has the life it has – not a rat life… – because it is named ‘rabbit.’” Don’t let our college lead the life of a rat.