how an english department works

I’ve created a new category called “English Departments.” I’m guessing that most people who do not work in an academic environment (and many people who do) have no idea how English departments at colleges and universities work. By “work” I don’t mean what time we clock in and out (wait, we get to clock out?), but rather how we are organized, what our responsibilities are, how we get hired, how we are evaluated, etc. This might not make for fascinating reading, but it will provide a good background for helping people understand what it is we do. Why is this background necessary? Because there seem to be many people in the popular media and in the blogosphere who have a vested interest in misrepresenting us. Unless we make an effort to define ourselves accurately, these distorted representations will be the only ones people see. And these distortions can have a serious negative effect when state budgets are negotiated and when the time comes for decisions to be made about the future of, say, the NEA and the NEH.

Now, if you are part of an English department and you want to take part, write your own entry and link back to this one. Topics I’ve thought of that need covering:

  1. Divisions of specializations. (e.g. Rhet/Comp, American Lit, British Lit … Medieval, Renaissance, Restoration and 18th Century, etc…).
  2. The balance of teaching/research/service responsibilities.
  3. Promotion and tenure,” by Chuck Tryon.
  4. Academic publishing and peer review,” by Collin Brooke
  5. Academic conferences.
  6. Course assignments.
  7. Graduate student labor.
  8. Adjunct labor.
  9. Graduate education and preparation for the academic job market.
  10. The state of the academic job market.
  11. The hiring process.

What I have in mind is a basic, “Here’s what you need to know about this” kind of entry for each topic. I’m not going to write about this every day, and I welcome contributions from anyone who wants to take on one of these topics or suggest a new one. I do plan on posting something on the first topic in the next week or so.

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19 thoughts on “how an english department works

  1. Excellent idea. Don’t know how ambitious I will be to post, but I will certainly link to my course blogs so my students can get an idea.
    (When I was an undergraduate I wasn’t even clear about who the TAs where. Younger, scruffier and more anxious-looking than the professors, but still authoritative… It was a mystery.)

  2. I’m not sure this is covered in existing categories, but I’d mention somewhere the relationship between English departments and the university as a whole.
    I’m not sure if this would fall under “department administration” or something else.

  3. Not just how teaching/service/research are balanced, but what about what they actually *mean*? Like, what all is involved in teaching? Or the myriad kinds of “service”? And the reality of research, including the time, of course, but also budgeting the thing, keeping track of how you’re spending the money, etc. (which I almost got into trouble with this year)?
    I’ll see if I can do something on one of these topics and link back to you. If, that is, you think I’m credible enough, what with the anonymity and all :)

  4. What Counts

    There have been a series of conversations of late, both here and elsewhere, about the nature of academic work, whether sparked by anxieties about the impending end of the summer, or by the perception that we in the academy have the luxury of having sum…

  5. This is a great idea, but…
    Sorry to use the old student cliche, but I’m “still not sure what you want.” I take it you’re thinking of this as a resource for the outside world — so people can finally get over their misconceptions about the internal life of an English department (we’ve all seen the debates on Critical Mass and The Reading Experience).
    But writing something to demystify the academic world from the inside is a pretty difficult enterprise, since we have to speculate on the exact misconceptions people have about us. And academia is actually so complicated and variable that there might not be any definitive explanation of a topic such as promotion and tenure…
    It might be easier to pose it as a guide for current and prospective grad students: “Here is what you really need to know.”
    Another helpful thing might be to assemble and disseminate some hard data about things like the annual applicant/job ratio (data collected by MLA), as well as the real number of adjuncts floating around (I’ve never seen hard data on this).
    Just some thoughts.

  6. You may need some subcategories. English department life at my 4-yr SUNY college is not English department life at Harvard, after all.
    When discussing course assignments, you might want to raise the issue of FTEs, which can exert considerable pressure on the kinds of courses a department is willing to offer. For example, the only single-author courses we can afford to offer on a regular basis are Shakespeare and Chaucer; nothing else generates enough numbers.

  7. Amardeep, what I have in mind is the kind of explanation necessary when a family member asks, “You’re going to an academic conference? What’s that?” I agree that the workings of English departments vary greatly (as Miriam points out), and I bet most people don’t realize this.
    Miriam, I’m counting on readers like you pointing out where the differences and details come in.

  8. George, ok, got it.
    I think another instance where I often run into curious family members and friends is in what it means to do “research” in literature. Since most of my friends and family are scientists and engineers, the questions I often get are:
    What do academic books of literary criticism and analysis actually do? What is the role of empirical evidence (or the scientific method) in literary studies? Is literary criticism a form of knowledge?
    Those are questions for which I wish there were succinct answers. Unfortunately, no two English profs. will have the same answers to the above questions.
    There *is* a growing sense — at least amongst some English prof. bloggers skeptical of Foucault — that literary critics should consider their work to be a form of knowledge-production based on empirical evidence. I personally have come to believe that one could make a case for a kind of post-formalist criticism that, while certainly not “scienfitic,” is sympathetic to the scientific values of trial, evidence, and proof.

  9. Promotion and Tenure

    To answer George’s call for blog entries explaining how an English department works, I’d like to quickly reference Jimbo’s entry, “The Tenure File.” I’m not yet in a tenure-track position, but from my understanding, Jimbo’s suggestions illustrate most,…

  10. A few years ago, I did some of this for a departmental website that never got published. I’ve decided to update the material and just yesterday posted this material on the teaching Context on my blog (A Writing Teacher’s Blog) at http://faculty.deanza.fhda.edu/jocalo/stories/storyReader$887
    Note that a number of the links are outdated and I’ll be cleaning that up the next few days.
    As for categories of English Departments: community colleges are usually organized rather differently from large university departments. We don’t have teaching assistants. We have a non-hierarchical ideology (at my college, no ranks, for instance). Few community colleges have Writing Program Administrators since we’re all composition teachers. Most community colleges have not enacted the literature/composition split that most universities have developed.
    While we hire a lot of PhDs and ABDs, the qualifying degree is a Master’s in fields such as English lit, Rhetoric, Composition and Creative Writing. We have a number of faculty with MFAs. We have a huge English as a Second Language department that operates independently of English. Reading is also a separate department to the consternation of some in English. Finally, among community college English departments there’s a lot of variation.
    Good project–perhaps wildly ambitious, but what the heck.

  11. How It Works

    George H. Williams is asking English department faculty bloggers to explain How English Departments Work. Chuck Tyron has already chimed in on how tenure and promotion function at his institution. While Iíd agree with Georgeís belief that the general p…

  12. Notes to Self

    Chuck writes about promotion and tenure. Good comment from George, and link to post on the tenure file from The Cul de Sac.
    Blogging and tenure on Pedablogue (megalinks).
    Why God Never Received Tenure at Any University.

  13. On the cusp

    Have been thinking recently about the rhythms of academic life, and I’m not the only one. Here at SU, we’re hitting the second week of orientation for incoming TA’s, with the start of the semester just a week away. I don’t think it’s just me–the tail …

  14. Academic Publishing and Peer Review

    I don’t know that I’m necessarily the best person to write about academic publishing, but I do have experience with it from various angles, and if I say something patently wrong, I’ll trust to the comments. Probably the most fundamental unit of academi…

  15. Research at a non-research institution, part one

    I’d like to follow the lead of George H. Williams and Chuck Tryon, but I’d also like to do something a bit more specific. If you’ll permit me to generalize about a generalization, gentle reader, most commentators on the current scholarly climate confus…

  16. Marxist Film Theorists Revisited

    I was digging around in my blog archives tonight (looking for material for my Fight Club paper) when I came across an entry I wrote over a year ago on an LA Times Sunday Magazine article on film professors, and…

  17. This is welcome information. This fall, I plan to start applying to grad schools for an English PhD so I appreciate you all taking the time to talk about this subject.

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