Note From Our Chair / Anis Bawarshi

Anis Bawarshi
English Department Chair Anis Bawarshi

In my note from the chair last Fall (another lifetime ago it seems), I recounted the collective self-assessment and future planning that we had undertaken as a department the year before.  At the time, I noted how it will be up to us to create the future we hope to have.  It is tempting now, amid a global pandemic that has disrupted nearly every aspect of our lives, to confirm the futility of planning for a future that ultimately is always unpredictable.  But more than ever it is clear to me that we imagine and plan for the future we want not because we count on favorable conditions to exist but precisely so that we have something to hold on to and fight for when they don’t.

As we reckon with and confront racism, legacies of settler colonialism, and systemic inequities, and as we deal with health, environmental, and economic crises, we face a future that is challenging but also ready to be changed by those who are able to imagine and bring into existence a better one.  Na’ilah Suad Nasir and Megan Bang, President and Senior Vice President of the Spencer Foundation, recently wrote:

"What if we recognized this moment as also a possibility to reconfigure life towards the world we want? What kinds of new questions would we ask, what kinds of reimagining might we do together?"

In these questions I recognize the need and purpose for our work within the English department and the Humanities at large.  Through the study of literature, language, and culture, as well as the art we create, we critically examine the frameworks that organize our ways of imagining: what they make possible and exclude, but also how they can be changed to configure new possibilities, relationships, and ways of being with each other. At the same time, even as we celebrate its creative uses to imagine and bring into existence a better world, it bears noting that our study of English, in its many variations, also requires of us a willingness to engage openly and critically with its imperialist and colonialist history and its relationship to power.

Guided by these multiple dimensions that shape our work, we have faced the challenges of the last six months collectively and with an even deeper understanding for why our work matters.  In this spirit, I am pleased to announce the English department’s new “Literature, Language, Culture” dialogue series, a series of videos and podcasts that feature faculty research and teaching, including the ways our work contributes to how we understand this time of national unrest and global crisis.  Led by C.R. Grimmer, series editor, and Jake Huebsch, project manager, the first four episodes include Jesse Oak Taylor on the relationship between literature and the environmental humanities; Michelle Liu on what Asian American Studies, Literature, and Art teaches us during COVID-19; Stephanie D. Clare on trans literature and the politics of care; and Anu Taranath on shame and antiracism beyond guilt trips.  The episodes include links to further reading. There are two more episodes in production with more planned throughout the year.  Please support the department by subscribing to our YouTube channel to make sure you stay up to date on the series, or check out the series webpage for the latest episodes.

Our collective effort was most tested last Spring when, with only two weeks to prepare, we had to move all our courses (over 150) to remote/online instruction.  Led by a heroic team of faculty and staff (Candice Rai, Megan Callow, Kimberlee Gillis-Bridges, Michelle Liu, Jake Huebsch, C.R. Grimmer, Ben Wirth, and Rob Weller), we began at the end of Winter by creating online teaching resources and assembling teaching teams to support faculty and instructors.  We compiled a comprehensive guide to remote instruction that includes instructional videos and tips on how to use available tools to engage in a variety of teaching practices.  (You can read more about the work we did in this issue of English Matters).  We also created a discussion list where faculty can ask each other questions, exchange ideas, and share materials and resources related to remote instruction. We designed surveys to gauge instructor equipment needs and upgraded older computer equipment for loaning, and we managed to shift our complex administrative infrastructure so it can function remotely.  Program directors, staff, and faculty have shown great professionalism and dedication, working past exhaustion to ensure that we remain attentive to concerns about access and equity in teaching and learning.

The MA/PhD program, led by Eva Cherniavsky, created a faculty book loaning program for graduate students who weren't able to access library books, and repurposed some research funds to create a small book-buying fund.  They also managed successfully to move our graduate student recruitment visits online and brought together an outstanding recruitment class. And amid all the other demands, Eva and the Graduate Studies Committee developed a recruitment rubric for graduate admissions, revised the MA/PhD language requirement, made changes to the PhD qualifying exam (revisions we voted to endorse in Spring), and offered limited funds to support students during the summer.  The MFA program, led by David Crouse, also supported students over the summer through endowments and a grant, while offering publication workshops, creating new opportunities for feedback from students, developing a new system for distributing TA and fellowship funding, and beginning work on website revisions. And led by Priti Sandhu and Suhanthie Motha, the MATESOL program undertook website revisions, supported students, and will be offering a new undergraduate course in TESOL theory and practice this year.  We also began work on a new agreement with the UW English Language Programs to more fully support the MATESOL program’s vision for the future.  Towards this goal, we will be conducting a search for a faculty position in TESOL and Critical Applied Linguistics this year.  In lieu of the department graduation celebration, we created a graduation yearbook to recognize our graduating English majors and PhD, MFA, and MATESOL students. 

At the undergraduate level, Jesse Oak Taylor and the Undergraduate Studies Committee continued to lay groundwork for a significant revision of the major, work that we will build on this year.  In this context, I am pleased to report a continued upward trend in number of English majors over the last three years—a 19% increase over that period.  While we have some of the best teachers in the university, we would not be able to make it through this time if not for our students, who have shown tremendous resiliency, patience, and generosity in adapting to new learning conditions, with little time to adjust and while facing tremendous pressures.

At the same time, unfortunately, we had to confront the closing of our treasured English Advising office. In November, the College announced a move to a consolidated model for undergraduate advising that supports the entire Humanities division.  This meant the loss of three valued advisors, including the director of English Advising, Nancy Sisko, who has moved to a new role as Associate Director of the new Humanities Academic Services center.  We pay tribute to Nancy and our former advisors in this issue of EM.

Amid so many challenges, I am grateful to be able to share some good news.  I am delighted to announce that Habiba Ibrahim will be the department Associate Chair this year.  We also successfully completed three faculty searches last year and I am pleased to welcome Douglas Ishii, a scholar of Asian American Literature and Culture, and Josephine Walwema, a scholar of rhetoric and technical and professional communication. Our third new faculty hire, Stephanie Kerschbaum, a specialist in rhetoric, composition studies, and disability studies, will join the department in Summer 2021. In addition, I am happy to announce that Catherine Cole, current Divisional Dean of the Arts and specialist in African dance and arts, has moved half of her faculty line into English.  

We also had several faculty promotions, and I would like to extend special congratulations to Stephanie Clare and Rae Paris for their tenure and promotion to Associate Professor, to David Crouse and Gillian Harkins for their promotion to Full Professor, and to Frances McCue for her promotion to the new rank of Teaching Professor.  While we celebrate these promotions, we also bid farewell, along with our deepest gratitude, to two colleagues who retired last year, Professors Juan Guerra and Nikolai Popov.

A number of our faculty have published important new books, reflecting the range of work we do (see Faculty Publications).  Professor Anu Taranath's Beyond Guilt Trips: Mindful Travel in an Unequal World has been named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award in addition to earning multiple other awards. Our graduate and undergraduate students continue to receive grants and recognitions.  You can read more about these and other faculty accomplishments in the Faculty News section. 

At the same time, it is with sadness that I report the passing of Emeritus Professor Edward (Eddie) Alexander.  Professor Alexander was a faculty member in the English department for 44 years before retiring in 2004. During his influential career as a Victorian literary scholar, a scholar of Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, and a scholar of Jewish history and culture, Professor Alexander published numerous books, critical editions, and edited collections. In 1974, he co-founded the Jewish Studies Department at the University of Washington, which he also chaired from 1974-1981.

This issue of English Matters remembers Professor Eddie Alexander. It also introduces you to our three new faculty colleagues, recognizes our recently retired colleagues, and profiles our efforts to transition to remote teaching. It will also catch you up on the latest department news, including what faculty members have been doing, Creative Writing Program success, alumni achievements, Professor Shawn Wong’s contributions to the field of Asian American literature, and faculty recommended readings.

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