English Evolves--and Reverts

At the Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting on April 8, Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature James Engell, speaking on behalf of the department he chairs, moved that it shed its current title (English and American literature and language) in favor of a streamlined one (English). The change, Engell explained, represented a reversion to earlier practice, before the department adopted the current, longer name to reflect a daring scholarly advance: American literature would be elevated to “worth-reading” status, alongside British works.

Engell did not read aloud an accompanying written statement explaining the rationale for the name change in much greater detail. Lest it be lost to the historical record, we quote it at length:

There are several reasons why this proposed change is at once timely and important, but the key reason has to do with the evolution of our field. The current name, by using the two terms English and American, necessarily imples that “English” refers to the literature and language of England. That is somewhat awkward, of course, in relation to Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, but the real problem lies in the explosion of English as a world literature and a world language. To cite a single example, the influential Norton Anthology of English Literature (8th edition, 2006) includes works by Claude McKay (b. Jamaica), Louise Bennett (b. Jamaica), Kamau Brathwaite (b. Barbados), Wole Soyinka (b. Nigeria), Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (b. Kenya), Salman Rushdie (b. India), Nadine Gordimer (b. South Africa), A.K. Ramanujan (b. India), Derek Walcott (b. Santa Lucia), Chinua Achebe (b. Nigeria), Alice Munro (b. Canada), V.S. Naipaul (b. Trinidad), Les Murray (b. Australia), J.M. Coetzee (b. South Africa), Anne Carson (b. Canada), and many other distinguished writers who do not by any means fit into the national boundaries suggested by “English and American” literature. But they all very much belong in a Department of English—indeed they are among the most exciting figures in such a department.…

The proposed change simplifies our department’s name, brings it in line with comparable departments at other universities, and avoids misleading parallels. But above all it accurately reflects the state of our field and brings us into the 21st century.

Indeed, Engell noted, the department’s sole junior-faculty search for the coming academic year seeks to attract a scholar of “transnational anglophone” works.

The measure passed unanimously. A separate proposal, to reduce the quorum necessary to conduct faculty business, also passed. But as the April 8 meeting itself lacked a quorum, both pieces of legislation had to be presented to the subsequent meeting on May 6 to secure formal adoption.

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