Then and Now
letter was sent to the chair of the Hiring and Personnel Committee
in the Department of English at the end of the academic year
5 May 1997
Two years ago I urged
that the English department resolve to make its next six Assistant
Professor appointments on the basis of literary competence --
that is, candidates whose primary commitment was to literature
as an object of study.
I want to make that
plea again, on the grounds that the situation I then described
has now become urgent, and that we have done nothing about it
in the meantime. The following considerations strike me as compelling:
1) The department is
now amply staffed in every area but literary studies as
such. Our list of tenured faculty includes numerous teachers
of feminist ideology, queer studies, African-American literature,
postcolonial writing, minority literatures, popular culture,
and cultural studies.
2) Students are increasingly
experiencing the situation as desperate. Undergraduates with
an interest in the areas named above have no trouble finding
courses: a Rutgers English major who wants to study feminist
ideology or queer theory or African-American writing is well
served. For students whose primary interest is in the "literary
study of literature," however, there is very little to choose.
With approaching retirements, the situation can only get worse.
3) Now, at a time when
we have elected a new Chair, seems to me to be the perfect opportunity
for a policy decision of the sort so urgently needed. There will
never be a better moment for the Department to resolve that it
will make no appointments in other areas until 6-8 "literary"
appointments have been made.
4) The important volume
Reading in an Age of Theory, edited by Bridget Lyons and
just published by Rutgers University Press, will be drawing renewed
national attention to the long-established association between
the Rutgers English Department and "close reading"
as the basis of the literary study of literature.
With the appearance
of this volume, our appeal to the very brightest and most promising
new PhDs with a specifically literary competence will be at a
height. One or two stellar appointments in this category would
make the momentum very easy to sustain. Rutgers would, in short,
be known as a department out to put itself back on the map in
an area in which it was until very recently recognized as one
of the two or three best departments in the country.
One final consideration.
We have always until now treated "219 competence" as
a standard for hiring at both the junior and senior levels: roughly
speaking, could a candidate, given a Donne poem and a class of
Rutgers English majors, bring those students to a genuine comprehension
of the poem in the course of a class period?
It is a simple measure,
but one that I think we must now start using as an absolute sine
qua non. In a word: if a candidate would be helpless when left
alone with a roomful of beginning English majors and a responsibility
to teach a poem by Wyatt or Shakespeare or Donne as a
poem, we must be prepared to say that they simply do not get
appointed at Rutgers.
I'm writing this now
to put in people's mailboxes because the term is ending and I
will be on research leave in the fall. I needn't say how pleased
I would be to return in January to learn that the department
had officially and unequivocally voted to make six to eight "literary"
appointments before hiring in other fields. I want to urge you
personally to lend your voice to the enterprise.
With all good wishes,