Revolution Lullabye

November 18, 2010

Parker, Where Do English Departments Come From

Parker, William Riley. “Where Do English Departments Come From?” College English 28 (1967): 339-351. Print.

Modern English departments are a phenomenon of the 20th century, born out of 19th century studies in oratory, rhetoric, and philology. Although the practice of literary criticism and research is old (16th, 17th, 18th examples are given by Parker), the job of teaching English literature at American colleges and universities is relatively new. He argues that the relationship between rhetoric/composition and literature is really historically accidental, literature emerging as a university discipline at the same time college attendance was growing in the late 19th century, developing a need for a universal composition requirement. English, Parker contends, has always been a “catchall,” and there is no logical reason why literary critics are more able than others to teach freshman composition. Parker argues that it was the association of rhetoric with 19th century elocation that led to the university’s abandonment of rhetoric, the ancient foundation of a liberal arts education. Parker warns English departments to reassess how they define their discipline and argue for the reintegration of rhetoric, speech communication, and linguistics as valued and necessary members of English departments.

Notes and Quotes

“To live intellectually in one’s own time is as provincial and misleading as to live intellectually only in one’s own culture” (339).

political upheaval in 18th, 19th century made rhetoric again a civic oratory art (public speakers, public debate,s, debating societies, amateur and informal attention to rhetoric); Boylston Professorship at Harvard in 1806, first held by John Quincy Adams

English departments are a paradox: the utilitarian composition (based on a pragmatic philosophy) and the specialized teaching of literature (based on the German research model).

argues that just because literature is in place doesn’t mean rhetoric should disappear (347)

“Thanks first to its academic origins, and then to the spirit of competition and aggressiveness engendered by departmentalization, “English” has never really defined itself as a discipline.” (348).

“I care a lot about liberal education, and I care a lot about the study of literature in English, but it seems to me that English departments have cared much less about liberal education and their own integrity than they have about their administrative power and prosperity” (350).

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