Targeting Lit on Route 66: What's Really at Stake?

A few days ago, I, along with my colleagues in Missouri Southern State University’s English and Philosophy department, learned, to our great sadness and dismay, that our long-time department head will soon be resigning from his administrative responsibilities. Our head’s letter of resignation was quickly accepted by both our dean and our vice-president for academic affairs.  While tensions had been mounting for the last two to three years between our department and the administration and we would have been naïve not to expect a crisis of some kind soon, our head’s announcement of his decision nonetheless stunned us, angered us and heightened the pitch of the frustration we have been feeling for quite a while.  How could our head’s exemplary professionalism, commitment and service be so readily disregarded and dismissed?

Our head has led the department superbly for thirteen years.  He has supervised, to the very best of his ability and at great personal sacrifice, outstanding faculty who, thanks to demographics and an overabundance of English Ph.Ds in the last thirty years, have landed here, just north of historic Route 66, in Joplin, Missouri, coming from very diverse areas of the United States and therefore bringing a range of national and international perspectives to our largely regional institution.  Like comparable faculty in many universities, we are passionate about the values of a liberal arts education and the crucial importance of the humanities and we believe we always—always—have had the interests and welfare of our students foremost in mind and closest to our hearts.  As might be expected of faculty who care deeply, however, we rarely hesitate to voice our opinions and often challenge each other in promoting or questioning educational policies and practices and, yes, many of us have strong egos and forceful personalities.  Our head proved himself exceptionally adept at keeping us together and keeping us focused on the crucial goals we have set for our department:  trying to serve a substantial, diverse number of English majors while still delivering our core general education courses well and regularly re-evaluating our overall mission and curricula. Like his immediate predecessors, our head is in large part responsible for sustaining a humane teaching environment that has produced a higher percentage of faculty who have been honored as outstanding teachers, by the university and by the state, than any other department on campus can claim.

Our English program of study offers undergraduate degrees in both English and English Education.  Our English major offers emphases in literary study, professional and technical writing and creative writing.  We are just completing the second  re-design of our B. A. literary study major in ten years, shifting at last from a historical period orientation in our upper-level literature courses to a “Studies in…” approach that we hope will provide our students with the training and experience in strategies of critical reading they need while also giving us the flexibility to engage a wider range of texts and issues in the classroom, without sacrificing coverage.  Yet we have always been aware that our first and foremost obligation as a department is to serve the entire student body, majors and non-majors alike, in first-year writing courses and sophomore-level literary survey courses that are part of the university’s humanities core.  Indeed, of our fifteen full-time department faculty, most of whom are Ph.Ds, most carry a four/four load that is half general education composition courses; for many of us, the other half of our load, too, is made up of general education courses.  So, with our current class caps (25 for writing courses and 30-35 for literature survey courses), we each typically teach 90 to 110 students a semester, and we aspire, of course, to teach conscientiously, always with concern as to how we could improve. Not surprisingly, relatively little of our time can be devoted to our own research and writing, even though we know that research always enriches our teaching.

Given these realities, we were distressed to learn the particulars of our administration’s concerns over our department’s performance and that of our head.  We have been told that we don’t teach enough writing or teach writing well.  We have been told that we are “too heavy in lit” and devote too much of our time to upper-level literature courses with excessively low enrollments and that the caps in our literature survey classes are too low.  Along with that, we have been told that we are “over-tenured,” that we really don’t need tenured and tenure-track faculty to teach the courses we really should be teaching, i.e., first-year writing and literature survey courses.  Indeed, according to the administration, our tenured and tenure-track faculty have done such a poor job of meeting our students’ and the university’s needs that we should not even be allowed to determine the academic specialization of the candidates for whom we wish to search:  we were just informed that we could advertise but only for a one-year, non-tenure-track specialist in rhetoric and composition, when we desperately need an Americanist who, of course, can also teach writing.  It was this latest intransigent interference by the administration in what traditionally has been the department’s prerogative, this bald-faced power grab, that ultimately convinced our head that he had to step down while he still could on his own terms.

It is very difficult for us to take our administration’s charges seriously.  First and foremost, they don’t merely ignore the facts, they fly in the face of the facts.  Most of us spend most of our time preparing courses in writing and literature and evaluating students’—again, mostly non-majors’—work and growth in those courses.  In our just published schedule of courses for the coming fall, of the over 70 sections or courses offered by the English department, which will serve over 1,500 students, only five are upper-level literature courses, which will serve 100 students at most, and only a handful more are other majors courses.  Thus, our core courses constitute by far the biggest part of our job and I think it’s accurate to say that they are where we want to invest our best energy, intelligence and efforts.  While I always enjoy the opportunity every three or four semesters to teach an upper-level lit course, I am much more excited by and engaged in the opportunity to foster reading, writing and critical thinking skills among all my students, especially those who will take only two writing courses and only one literature course while they are at Missouri Southern, and especially given the fact that an administration-driven revamping of our core curriculum a couple of years ago reduced the required hours in humanities from nine to six. I choose to teach my world literature survey courses from a humanities orientation, introducing examples from music and the visual arts whenever I can.  In my world literature surveys, we’ve juxtaposed Homer’s style with Dylan’s blues and Eminem’s rap, moved through Chartres cathedral into Dante’s Inferno, considered how Mozart’s music transformed Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro and viewed Zola through the Impressionists’ paintings of the Seine.  We do this not only because I love the arts but also because my course might be the only exposure to them that my students have while at Missouri Southern.  More than that:  my teaching in my core courses provides my best chance to introduce the idea that the arts are not luxuries but necessities, or, more crucially, that we cannot, will not survive without the capacity for sympathetic imagination that the humanities create in us.

I wish that in the contest between faculty who believe the humanities are indispensible and administrations like ours that seem more than ready to sacrifice them, facts really mattered.  Instead, the impression I’m getting from my foothill of the Ozarks is that our best teaching efforts and accomplishments, even in the rapidly shrinking space the humanities hold in our embattled curricula, are being dismissed out of hand.  Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we’re teaching “service” courses or majors’ courses, or how many we’re teaching, or how much writing we’re teaching or how well.  All that matters, apparently, is to force the compliance of an unquestioning corps of “teaching” functionaries who will play only a subservient role in the “delivery” of “education.”  (It is ironic but not accidental that our chief administrator of distance education does not refer to faculty as professors but rather as “subject matter experts” who are expected to play a part—but only a part—in course design and delivery “teams.”) 

Those who live and work in the humanities know that perhaps the defining fact about the humanities is that they cannot be experienced without engaging in, practicing and ultimately cherishing critical thinking and sympathetic imagining, even or especially when thinking and imagining lead us into uneasy, uncertain and disturbing territory.   I suspect it is that very critical thinking and imagining that administrations like ours are most desperate to restrain or repress, perhaps even more than they are eager to cut costs.


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