Department profile: English

Where Moby Dick meets The Little Mermaid

By Beth DeBoom

Glenn Freeman’s students harness creative thoughts on paper. And for the students of Shannon Reed, their initiation into the post-colonialism of 18th century literature came not in a classroom this fall, but in South Africa and Namibia.

Teaching and learning in Cornell’s English department comes with the luxury of three-week clusters to soak up mammoth novels, tune ears into 400-year-old languages, fly away to foreign cultures, and let inspired writing emerge.

“We have the ability to spend time with the text. We’re not arbitrarily interrupted by the ringing of class bells,” said Department Chair Michelle Mouton, who in her eight years at Cornell has taught Arts, Architecture, and Theatre in England four times, flying students to London in order to give them a richer understanding of their texts.

The home base for these threedimensional adventures in English is South Hall, a place where critical thinking and creative writing thrive. Consider the English department the college’s cornerstone of the liberal arts, instilling the lifelong practice of critical thinking, love of literature, and the ability to communicate in written word.

“While Cornell prides itself on teaching its students strong communication skills in every discipline, studying English provides the framework for actually understanding how to structure your language to more clearly convey meaning,” wrote senior Vincent Anderson in a paper assigned by Reed, who asks her English 411 students to explain, “Why I am an English Major.”

The core traditions of English studies remain embedded. But changes are sprouting throughout the department’s curriculum. Students these days blog, research then revise Wikipedia pages, and create book club Web pages, for instance.

The evolution runs deeper, though.

The retirement of Richard Martin in 2006 put Professor Leslie Hankins in the most senior position on faculty. Hankins, at Cornell since 1992, specializes in modernist and 20th century British literature—especially Virginia Woolf—and in film studies. She relocated her Modern American Literature classroom to Cornell’s Wilderness Field Station in Minnesota.

The remaining five faculty members—Entel, Freeman, Mouton, Reed, and Stavreva—have been at Cornell for eight years or less.

“Each who came in was filling big shoes,” said Mouton.

The faculty members, all scholars and researchers, but not far removed from their own days as college students, offer unique personalities, backgrounds, and insights about teaching English at Cornell. Several proposed curriculum changes are in the early stages of discussion, like giving students more direction in choosing which English classes best fit their major.

Other changes have already arrived. For instance, the faculty has made creative writing a focal point of the curriculum, a direction taken in response to an insatiable appetite among students for opportunities to hone their writing skills.

“I am an English major because writing is my breath, my life, my paintbrush. I cannot imagine my life without it,” wrote senior Erin Casey in Reed’s assignment.

Creative writing, once an upper level elective, now counts toward a student’s major.

And, whereas tradition once meant one full-time creative writer, the English department now has two faculty members who teach creative writing. Freeman, a poet and nonfiction writer, was hired for those strengths. Entel, now in her second year at Cornell, was hired to oversee the American literature curriculum and teach fiction writing. Thus, students now have two choices in personalities and genres for writing mentors.

Students have responded to the attention. Three thriving writing groups on campus are one way to attest to that. Students want more writing classes and greater variety, said Freeman, who is the advisor for the soon to be overhauled student journal, Open Field.

“It’s such a process of self discovery,” he said.

Those writing-hungry students are basking in a speakers series that, with alumni support, has enabled visits from some pre-eminent writers.

Last year poet Ross Gay read from his highly acclaimed book, Against Which. The visit was so well received that he is teaching this year at Cornell as a Distinguished Visiting Poet. Other visiting authors of note include former Poet Laureate of Iowa Marvin Bell and novelist Judith Claire Mitchell. An international writer’s program has been added to the mix, bringing writers from South Africa, Cameroon, Bosnia, the Philippines, Denmark, and Albania.

More visiting alumni writers are also coming to campus to round out the course offerings. This year’s lineup includes Mike Conklin ’69, a longtime Chicago Tribune writer now teaching at DePaul University.

The English Department wants to make sure students know they can parlay their writing skills into real world careers. Internships are encouraged, and easier to accommodate under One Course At A Time. The faculty also brings guest speakers into the classroom to explain how writing is used in realworld careers.

Furthermore, the department has risen to the modern concept of English today, which includes not only the study of traditional literary texts (Literature with a capital L) and creative writing, but also film studies and cultural studies.

“We’re developing in very exciting and successful ways,” said Mouton, whose World of Disney course pairs critical writing with cultural studies by showing introductory college writers the post-colonial themes in The Little Mermaid.

English studies, at heart though, emphasize critical thinking, creativity, and communication. Through literature—and now other new mediums—the English department seeks to keep the past alive like an eternal flame, often through King Lear, Captain Ahab, and, yes, The Little Mermaid.

“We are the keepers of mankind’s history,” said Stavreva, who makes Shakespeare a living history project for her students. “As soon as we sever this link, we let the past go. We let the dead be dead. And we really diminish ourselves.”