English is ...
Over eight years as chair of the UW Department of English, I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating how best to complete that sentence: “English is….” Like many completion exercises, it’s hard, with many possible, often divergent answers competing to fill the empty space. So it is precisely the sort of problem that intrigues me… the sort that led me to a career in the humanities.
My departmental colleagues and the thousands of students we teach every year would doubtless complete that sentence in hundreds of different ways; our alumni and public audiences would add possibilities beyond those—a laudable diversity, I think. Yet this lack of ready definition contributes to a sense, frequently evoked in recent years, of there being a “crisis in the humanities” as enrollments fall widely across the country, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields gain public acclaim and dollars, and the utility of education, narrowly conceived as vocational preparation, comes to appear society’s sole concern.
So I’m pleased that this issue of English Matters (the last that I will oversee during my term as chair) offers so many ways to define what English is. The capacious possibilities take us across the world—to English being studied in India, in the Balkans, in Spain, and in Morocco, as well as in more historically obvious places such as London. It takes us across history and out into the community via a public forum examining why an author like Shakespeare still resonates for modern audiences. It takes us inside individual and collaborative research projects. And lest we forget the practical dimensions, it follows students in unexpected career directions, such as the field of making wine.
At its core, however, English remains for me a simple thing, a matter of reading and writing well, two of the three traditional Rs of education. People love to read (and to write, if perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent; writing is real work). Their lives and their careers impel them to keep doing both long after they graduate from UW. ‘Rithmetic can seem to have gained the upper hand today, constituting for public discussion a disproportionate role within the educational enterprise. But reading and writing well are essential skills and invaluable talents, benefitting from the honing that they can receive in a university setting. And in ways that are hard to convey in numbers, they help us learn to understand and to value ourselves as human beings, as citizens, as members of communities and families. As I step down as chair and return to teaching, I remain fiercely proud of what departments of English (and the other humanities) contribute—when we are doing our jobs in the best ways possible—to social and personal well-being.