Welcome to the Yeshiva College English Department. Many things are new about us, including this introduction and statement of purpose. At a moment when Yeshiva University is re-imagining its institutional mandate for the 21st century, the English faculty believe it is vital that our department define itself and explain why its coursework in literary studies, and expository and creative writing is of such core importance for Yeshiva College students. English is the only department in the college through which every student must pass. Why is that?
Let's begin with our name. Unlike other departments whose designation corresponds exactly to a clearly bounded academic discipline (e.g., sociology, chemistry, Biblical archaeology), ours is a little more complicated. We teach a set of cultural traditions along with a set of expressive skills; we teach expository writing and textual analysis; we teach rhetorical practices in various media (literature, film, performance); we teach writing by Geoffrey Chaucer and Emily Dickinson, by Junot Diaz and Zadie Smith, and by Yeshiva College students themselves. And yet, withal, we are called the "English" department—at its best, descriptive shorthand for something obviously far more variegated. But departments of "English" have their own institutional history, which also explains their name. In the mid to late 19th century, literary education was confined to Greek and Latin classical authors. Only gradually did the study of English language and literature (along with other modern languages) become an academic pursuit in its own right. By the turn of the 20th century, the German philological system of specialized linguistic training and research was behind the early bifurcation into "English Literature" (Anglo-Saxon writers through early twentieth-century British modernists), and "American Literature" (the Puritans through American modernists). But departments of English also typically divided their labor along two distinct and never harmoniously integrated tracks: the aesthetic or "belletristic" appreciation of canonical authors and texts on the one hand, and the development and honing of writing skills and self-expression on the other. This stage in the evolution of English departments roughly corresponds with the founding of Yeshiva College in 1928.
Not quite a century later, a typical Liberal Arts Department of English encompasses not only the study of British and American literature, but also many of the following subfields: literature by Anglophone writers who happen to be Irish, Caribbean, and African; literary criticism and theory (some of it originally written in French, German, Czech, and Russian); cinema and other visual media; and the intersection of literature and other disciplines such as History, Economics, Social and Political Theory, Philosophy, and area studies like Religious Studies, Women's Studies, and Cultural Studies. This intersection is reflected in the interdisciplinary nature of many of our courses, including those cross-listed and team-taught with other departments and in concert with our colleagues at Stern College. The traditional emphasis on a canon of authors and titles has been complicated by an emphasis on the manifold contexts and locations in which "the world of letters" can be mapped; acts of interpretation, reading practices, and critical methods—framing the text—form the contemporary core for the various pursuits of English in an academic setting. In short, an "English Department" is the somewhat anachronistic designation for an increasingly interdisciplinary data field whose essential task is named by a famous book about language as action: how to do things with words—to which we add the necessary corollary, how words do things with us.
Our distinctive structure and makeup also deserve to be emphasized at the outset. The Yeshiva College English Department is the largest in the College, giving us a special flexibility. Like departments at other small liberal arts colleges, we value small, seminar-sized classes and personal contact between students and professors. Like departments at much larger research universities, our faculty members have varied specializations and apply diverse critical and creative approaches to the study of literature and language. We are proud of our faculty, who are productive scholars and artists as well as excellent and dedicated teachers and mentors. We are also proud of our students who, working together with the faculty, learn to analyze the forms and meanings of literary texts and to express ideas in well-crafted writings of their own.
What special shape will a sequence of English courses take at Yeshiva College? What makes the study of English so crucial here? Fortuitously enough, just as the YC Department of English began to pose some basic questions about its own identity and mission, we received an electronic mail from a student seeking some basic information about us. These were the pithy queries he posed:
So, "what IS the raison d'tre of the largest department in Yeshiva College?"as this student framed the question himself? Why should an English course—in the multiple guises sketched above--be among the most important courses undergraduate students can take, whether as a major or in order to fulfill general education requirements.
One answer lies is the structural fact that students devote half of their curriculum to reading, analyzing, interpreting, and living with an entire textual corpus with its own protocols of framing and interpretive demand. Exegesis, or "learning," in the morning hours spent in Yeshiva, has its direct counterpart (notably different but also surprisingly analogous) in the range of English courses offered in the afternoon. In the morning's community of discourse, students not infrequently encounter the famous phrase by the 11th century commentator Rashi, Hamikra hazeh omer darsheni, "interrogate me, question me, search out my meaning." Not only does the same phrase encapsulate what every single text taught in an afternoon class solicits from the students who read it, but Rashi's feat of ventriloquism might itself be understood as a distinctively literary moment or act: he gives voice to what he is reading, and thus actively participates in its beauties, its mysteries, its truths, and its problems. The "singularity of literature" is the name one contemporary critic gives to this notion of dynamic and creative encounter, and we, the faculty of the YC English Department, encourage our students to take up its dialectical challenge, to acquire the various ways of being in the world of words.
The sorts of questions posed by the YC student in tandem with our own department point to an essential aspect of what we do. The field of English Studies, like the textual objects of its always-evolving scrutiny, is a world in the making, a world in which there is always more to say. Critical inquiry and self-interrogation have become basic to any modern Department of English by way of framing the issues, problems, and criteria distinctive to it.
And these are some of those questions that say, "interpret me": What makes a literary text "literary?" What constitute the practices of reading applicable to such a text, and how does it answer to a range of competing critical and theoretical approaches, each of which reads it powerfully, persuasively, and anew? Do such approaches come "before" reading or "after?" How do we justify the aims of literary study and the various forms that "acts of literature" can take? What, for instance, is the relationship between literature (the student as reader) and expository writing (the student as author); or between both of those practices and what is called, by convention, "creative writing?" What is the relationship between ethnic, racial, gender, and cultural difference as raised by an author's identity or subject on the one hand, and the identities of that author's readers (and their teachers), on the other? At various times, in various ways, we and our students engage with all of these questions.
As a community of scholars and reader/writers—both faculty and students—we believe that the study of literature and other cultural texts offers an unparalleled opportunity to encounter and understand the experience, ideas and values of human beings across time and space. We are thus committed to an alertness and openness to otherness, a value that we believe is essential to an engagement with the practices of reading an writing in the 21st century.
Our array of interpretive strategies and analytical methods includes those that focus on literary form, genre, and more broadly, aesthetics; historical approaches that situate the text within the social and cultural movements of their time; approaches that engage with issues of gender, race and ethnicity, and class; approaches that focus on issues of authorship and reader reception; and approaches that explore the intersections of literature and other forms of art. We explore, more broadly, how meaning is produced through acts of writing and reading, and the representational, socio-cultural, ethical-political, and spatio-temporal implications of those acts.
Writing, the exploration and communication of one's own thought, is an integral part of this endeavor and of the discipline of English itself. Excellence in writing is emphasized in all of our courses, in addition to these specifically devoted to the study and practice of expository and creative writing.
All of these interpretive and expressive skills provide essential analytic and imaginative training for students planning to enter such fields as law, medicine, communications and the new media, business, education, and the rabbinate. Above all, we strive to cultivate in students that special dialectical temperament and attunement to the particulars or writing and reading about which the poet Robert Frost wrote, "Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere You are not safe with science; you are not safe in history." This is a grand, even grandiose claim to make for what Frost calls "education by poetry." But in the most local and also far-reaching terms, such education means the study of English at Yeshiva College.
Finally, as our institution is committed to a dual curriculum, so are we: to art and to craft, to acts of interpretation and of argumentation, to the study of literary and cultural texts, and to the practice of expository and creative writing. The following two passages encapsulate that fruitful dualism and dialogue:
"Literature makes the strongest possible claims on [our] attention because more than any other form of art or expression it demonstrates what can be made, what can be done with something shared by everyone, used by everyone in the daily conduct of life, and something, besides, which carries most subtly and meaningfully within itself, its vocabulary and syntax, the governing assumptions of a society's social, political, and economic arrangements. [Few enterprises] can teach us so much about what words do to us and how, in turn, we might try to do something to them which will perhaps modify the order of things on which they depend for their meaning. To literature is left the distinction that it invites the reader to a dialectical relationship with words allowable nowhere else."—Richard Poirier
"All writers, in order to write, must imagine for themselves the privilege of being 'insiders'—that is, the privilege both of being inside an established and powerful discourse and of being granted a special right to speak. Every time a student sits down to write he has to invent the university for the occasion—invent the university, that is, or a branch of it, like history or anthropology or economics or English. The student has to learn to speak our language, to speak as we do, to try on the peculiar ways of knowing, selecting, evaluating, reporting, concluding, and arguing that define the discourse of our community; he has to invent the university by assembling and mimicking its language while finding some compromise between idiosyncrasy, a personal history, on the one hand, and the requirements of convention, the history of a discipline, on the other hand.—David Bartholomae
—Dr. Adam Zachary Newton
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