2003 English Department External Review Self-Study
Department of English: Future Directions
1. Changing Dimensions of the Discipline
The 1992 External Review self-study devoted 25 single-spaced pages to Future Directions for the Department's programs.
Many of the questions opened at that point, and future directions set forth, have unfolded into realities.
The 1993 merger of State Universities with the community and technical colleges to form the MnSCU system has yielded results, most visibly in the form of system-wide mandates for major changes that arrive approximately every two years and radically change curriculum requirements, requiring significant workload of readjustment and reassessment. The current demand is to create a transfer curriculum enabling students to move easily between community and technical colleges and universities, which will once again require a substantial overhaul of curriculum.
The Department's recognition of the multi-faceted nature of the discipline, evident in the 1992 self-study, has yielded the present well-integrated department, in which the teaching interests of all faculty are taken into account and supported. New faculty hires appear to have found this department's integration of fields a good fit with their disciplinary training, and many teach across subfields, such as rhetoric and literature, or linguistics and literature.
The department responds to changing conditions because the changes come to it, rapid-fire, and there is no overlooking these pressing conditions.
This English Department is well positioned to flourish in the directions it continues to chart and redesign for itself. Students desire greater disciplinary challenge and specialization across all subfields (Online Assessment, reports): creative writing (expand into Screenwriting, restore ability to teach drama in collaboration with Theater and Film Studies faculty, professionalize students' publishing skills); linguistics (current need to produce ESL teachers stretches course availability thin and attenuates specialized course offerings, but faculty on hand have the credentials to support advanced study of all linguistics fields); writing (retirements and administrative reassignment, and the need to support writing courses with tenure-line rather than temporary faculty has made course maintenance the overriding priority), literature (to support student ambitions and to educate classroom teachers requires more availability of advanced training and a reversal of the trend towards less coverage of fields).
Major concerns are budget and workload.
The number of students electing English majors has held steady, and has maintained the institution's traditional role as an educator of classroom teachers, including large numbers of ESL teachers.
Increased enrollments create tremendous difficulty in keeping courses accessible to the enormous numbers of students demanding them, especially required courses such as ENGL 300.
Fortunately, existing classroom space continues to keep classes to the reasonable size of 31, at least for the present. However, national standards for programs offering graduate courses set workload for graduate faculty at no more than 9 credits per semester. SCSU faculty are now held to a 24-credit assignment each year, and increasing numbers are teaching overloads.
Faculty scholarship has long been under pressure from workload. Grants for reassigned time to develop assessment strategies or to carry out scholarship and research projects have disappeared. Current conditions increase the difficulty, not only on account of budget but because of campus climate, because a series of community crises have made it a matter of duty and citizenship for faculty from stable, functional departments such as English to assist in moderating the emergencies. English faculty have, for example, coordinated the new mediation program, advocated for non-renewed faculty, given speeches at public rallies, and helped redesign the Retention and Tenure procedure.
The Department has succeeded in hiring highly credentialed faculty in the last several years. In order to retain this level of quality, junior faculty scholarship requires support.
* MnSCU has hitherto understood the interests of community and technical colleges better than those of universities, and has devoted much of its energies to locally-focused teaching enhancement programs. MnSCU needs to orient itself toward the national standards appropriate to universities, especially by giving needed support to universities to seek major research grants to bring money in to support university work, as its predecessor, MSUS, had sought to do.
* Junior faculty ought not to be held to the full 24-credit assignment and should not be pushed to teaching a 4 th course if they can demonstrate a productive use of the spare credit or so. Faculty research, such as time-consuming applied research in classroom settings, directly benefits the community, especially via K-12 teaching.
In response to spiraling enrollment increases, at least 6 faculty have begun piloting large lecture-hall courses in General Education. SCSU lacks classroom space to accommodate this campus-wide trend, however, and English will be limited in its ability to expand service in this manner.
A major trend was spotted by current ESL faculty. While international students must demonstrate their English skills on enrollment at SCSU, students applying domestically need not. There is consequently a need to support ESL skills for students entering without them. The MnSCU Chancellor has recognized the importance of this recognition.
This effort by ESL faculty suggests directions for this proactive department to take, since demographic projections indicate that up to 25% of the SCSU student population could be ethnic minorities within the next 6 to 10 years. The department will continue to plan with this projection in mind.
The major concern of the department is to prevent English from being requisitioned by the rest of the university to serve as a supplier of a writing skills foundation. This department already has better participation by senior faculty in first-year writing instruction than seems typical nationwide; department policy stands that faculty teach at least 1/3 of their credits in composition, except on account of duty reassignment or when demand for majors courses becomes urgent.
There would be no benefit to the state of Minnesota from reducing the number of students trained in the knowledge base and interpretive and critical thinking skills that accompany the English major.
3. Department Strengths
The importance of the graduate program to preserving the academic life of the department must be reemphasized.
Far from functioning as a mechanism for exploiting student labor to mass-supply composition instruction, as happens elsewhere, the Master's program benefits both graduate students and the institution, as well as society as a whole. Unlike Ph.D. degrees, the Master's degree always improves career opportunities rather than specializing them. At SCSU, the relatively intimate size of the graduate program ensures mentorship relations between students and faculty, and new teaching assistants and ESL instructors are given a high degree of guidance as they begin their classroom careers.
Graduate students make it possible for the department to create reasonable consistency in meeting its objective of providing writing instruction for not only a minimum of 2400 entering students per year, but for the numerous advanced writing courses often set as requirements by other departments. A department of 30 could not begin to keep alive the study of literature, writing, culture, second-language acquisition, and texts without extending its direct and indirect influence through its education of assistants, who themselves usually wish to apply this experience by continuing their careers as teachers in high schools and colleges.
It should be noted that the graduate program far more than pays for itself.
Promoting academic life, this graduate program brings on campus students demonstrating professional commitment to the discipline, and brings urgency and stimulation to the program. Faculty must remain alive in their fields in order to hold the interest of this student cohort.
Furthermore, the graduate program directly serves society and the community. The most obvious case is TESL. Nation-wide, 100,000 ESL teachers are needed immediately. This English Department trains such instructors at an ever-increasing rate.
As new faculty members are hired, they bring with them advanced skills in the use of technology in classroom instruction. Many senior faculty have also made strong efforts to enhance instruction with online and smart classroom instruction, and some English faculty have been campus leaders in the technology of teaching. Learning Resources provides numerous opportunities each year for faculty to take intensive technology workshops to enhance their teaching.
The Department is recreating its web page this year.
The English Department's strength remains its high-quality courses for majors, which combine the engagement of writing instruction with readings that remain current and important to the field. It is becoming increasingly rare nationwide for undergraduates at public institutions to study in classes whose size makes possible easy chances to take part in a discussion with a professor, rather than to be sectioned off for a once-per-week encounter with someone not directly running the course, or simply to take in information in a large lecture.
3. Future Directions
During the present year, department faculty will revisit program design, especially the CORE and the emphases, and once again consider how well these programs serve students. One question is whether to compress the 7 major emphases into fewer. The Department seeks from the External Review process insights into its current program design. The Department invites recommendations regarding strategies for allocating courses to serve the long-term health of the department.
Few of the seniors surveyed expressed strong desires for significant changes in the programs offered by the English Department-except that they asked for more of everything the department currently offers: more course availability, especially more upper-division electives, more poetry courses, more creative writing courses, more specialized linguistics courses, more electives, more reading of the classics, more diversity, more grammar, more challenge, including more challenging assignments. (Online Assessment Project, reports)
Despite the Department's best efforts to sequence its course offerings, the education of many students remains fragmented, in part because a large number of SCSU students enter as transfers, but also because students take whatever courses still have seats open when they register. For example, students occasionally take English 490 before taking 300. As a result of tendencies such as this, every class often serves as both an introductory and advanced class. Improved access to courses would consequently improve educational integrity.
ENGL 300, which was designed in an effort to help make sure that students would enter advanced literature, creative writing, and writing courses already in possession of crucial skills, has clarified its purpose over the last few years. However, the course replaced the former Introduction to Poetry course, and both students and faculty have identified the need to restore these fundamental skills in analysis of language. The Department is seeking a solution to this problem.
Crucial to the future of the English department, as to any, is its ability to provide maximum support to new hires. Since new hires are in the best position to relocate to other universities, the Department needs to make itself as attractive a place to work as possible. New hires need to be given priority consideration for equipment and technology requests, and opportunities sought to make them feel as welcome as possible.
In addition to the 4-5 positions currently approved for immediate or future hire (ESL, rhetoric and composition, creative writing--fiction, multidisciplinary scholar), the department has important field coverage gaps in Modern British and in Drama. In view of demographic shifts underway towards greater recruitment of ethnic minorities, faculty could consider how hires in comparative literature/non-western or contemporary culture, including postcolonial studies, could position the department well to receive students who are living among these changes. Sheer student numbers also suggest an urgent need to recruit additional ESL and rhetoric/composition faculty.
Hiring should be planned in collaboration with Theater and Film Studies and with Foreign Languages.
The department publishes an occasional newsletter; improvement in communication could come about if staff or reassigned time were available for developing an e-mail list for all majors, minors, and interested students. This is obstructed in part by the university's emerging policy of terminating all e-mail users to prevent liability for their messages. However, if students were allowed to continue using SCSU accounts, the university would become a center of communications, and English Department electronic addresses would continue to function to maintain an alumni communication network.
The Department continues its policy of maintaining evening course offerings, and in general seeks successfully to attract non-traditional students.
English will do what it can to support and collaborate with the departments of theater, film studies, and dance and foreign languages. Budgetary diminishment of either department represents a serious threat to the quality of the education the English program can offer its students. Students seeking advanced degrees require foreign language training to win admission to graduate programs. The interrelationship among dramatic performance, film, and English studies has led to frequent double-majoring between departments, and has supplied performance and professionalizing outlets to countless English majors.
The Future of the Department
The State of Minnesota gives SCSU far less per enrolled student than it does to any of our fellow universities. If funding were made more equitable, this department would flourish because of student perception that the department exerts itself strenuously for their personal, educational benefit. An improved funding picture would make it possible for English faculty to entertain plans for 5 and 10 years from the present. With no budget, there is no time or reason to explore the new professional and social implications made possible with the new technologies and literacies .
The influence of the English Department needs to be understood as extending throughout the lives of its students, to whenever they choose to engage their community, the arts, or their reading with an active and open mind.