A Department of Distinction

What the CLA 2015 Report means for English

Ellen Messer-Davidow online.jpgby Ellen Messer-Davidow

What is the identity of a department whose faculty members write novels and scholarly books, compose libretti and hypertexts, design web-based courses and conference posters, and parse philosophical treatises and Creole idioms? What binds their research and teaching on medieval gardens and modern pulp fiction, Renaissance diplomatic practices and Victorian dictionary illustrations, early Moroccan political thought and contemporary eco-criticism, Asian-American theater and ladies' Shakespeare clubs? With this diversity of interests, is the Department of English at the cutting edge of our discipline or is it just a CLA unit that houses a bunch of iconoclasts? Why are we even thinking about department identity?

The answer, to be a little crass, is money. For several years, virtually all American universities and colleges have been caught in a fiscal crunch--pinched on one ledger by the inexorably rising costs of facilities maintenance, energy, new technology, library acquisitions, and health care benefits for students and employees, and squeezed on the other side of the ledger by declining revenues from state and federal governments, investments, and private sources. Then beginning in 2008 the recession triggered a nasty pauperization spiral: American families lost their jobs and homes, tax revenues fell, and states were plunged into budget deficit sink-holes, causing them to slash their appropriations to higher education and everything else.

In 2009, CLA Dean James Parente established the 2015 Committee, consisting of faculty, staff, and students, and charged it with providing recommendations on "how CLA should reorganize for a better academic future and whether CLA will have the resources to continue as a major research institution." The committee's final report, released in November 2010, concludes that we must be a more distinguished but smaller college. (The report is available online.)

So on one hand, the report asks all departments and programs to consider how they can be more interdisciplinary, more global, more student-centered, and more engaged in order to be more distinctive and distinguished among our peer institutions. But on the other hand, it reveals that CLA has borne the brunt of University budget cutting. From FY08 through FY 11 (academic years 2007-08 through 2010-11), all other colleges enjoyed increases ranging from $1 million to $6 million, while CLA alone experienced cuts of $8.7 million. The $8.7 million could have funded 50 faculty members, 80 teaching assistants, and a small number of professional teaching and administrative staff.

The Department of English has shared the pain. For FY10, English took a cut of $128,000 or five percent of the base budget; and for FY11, we took another cut of $111,378 or five percent of the base budget. These are recurring, not temporary, cuts that in concrete terms mean not replacing faculty and staff members who retire, reducing TA positions available to graduate students, and skimping on equipment and supplies.

Fortunately, we have many strengths on which to build a "new English" that meets the criteria articulated by CLA. We have a tradition of student-centered teaching, as can be seen in this issue's articles on inspirational faculty members--our recently retired Professors Michael Dennis Browne and Edward Griffin, as well as our Distinguished McKnight University Professor John Watkins. Watkins has not only produced acclaimed scholarship in the field of Early Modern Studies but participates in the community of Medieval and Early Modern Studies formed by faculty and students in the department and across the University.

Newly promoted Associate Professor Omise'eke Tinsley, celebrating the publication of her first book, is a part of a growing group interested in diaspora literature and theory. Two assistant professors, also authors of first books, work in multi-national fields: Tony C. Brown studies Enlightenment encounters between the Old and New Worlds, and Siobhan Craig analyzes post-World War II "rubble" films produced in Italy, France, Germany, and the United States.

English major Moira Pirsch, who will graduate in December, has been so deeply committed to community service and university leadership that she received three prestigious awards: the President's Student Leadership and Service Award, the University of Minnesota Alumni Association Student Leadership Award, and selection as the student speaker at CLA's December Commencement. Hard to top that performance! But credit for outreach must also go to Lecturer Eric Daigre who oversees our public engagement component consisting of service learning courses and community internships.

The Creative Writing Program, now in its 14th year, consistently ranks in the top 20 MFA programs nationally. Prolific graduates such as Swati Avasthi, who published one novel while a student and completed a second for her degree, have contributed to the program's prominence. Speaking of distinguished writers, the department is hosting CLA Winton Chair Nuruddin Farah. This acclaimed novelist, who is teaching students in English and other fields from 2010-12, just mounted a staged reading of a new play in the Twin Cities and will also be the guest speaker at CLA's December Commencement.

For some years, department faculty and supporters have been working hard to give the department a home of its own in the historic Pillsbury Hall. Professor Shirley Garner and Regents Professor Madelon Sprengnether have been leading this initiative.

Meanwhile, this year alone generous donors endowed the Gesell Award for Creative Writing and boosted two funds--the Michael Dennis Browne Fellowship Fund and the Edward M. Griffin Fellowship Fund--to the $25,000 mark, making them eligible for a 21st Century Graduate Fellowship Match that will double the principal. Even the printing of this newsletter was made possible by a generous donor.

For your faith in us and in the important skills of close reading, careful analysis, and cogent writing that we foster in our students--we thank you. Please continue to help us as we strive to be a department of distinction in CLA and the world. You are welcome to share your thoughts with me by sending an e-mail to emd@umn.edu or to donate online through the University of Minnesota Foundation.

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This page contains a single entry by Teresa Sutton published on December 7, 2010 10:35 AM.

I Will Dare was the previous entry in this blog.

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