A 21st-century Department of English affirms and extends the centrality of English and the humanities for MSU’s land-grant mission and its key values: democratizing access to liberal education and generating knowledge that enriches life and makes a difference in the world. In 1859, students and faculty rebelled against a plan to replace the new State Agricultural College’s broad four-year curriculum—uniting scientific and practical agriculture and the liberal arts—with a narrow, two-year technical education. “To teach agriculture,” an early defender of English declared that year, “is to teach literature also.” Then and now, English remains at the center of debates about the power and value of the humanities in the lives and imaginations of our students.
Through the study and creative production of literature, film, and culture, the MSU Department of English today equips students with the knowledge, skills, and habits of mind essential to ethical participation in a world that is diverse and complex, inclusive and interconnected. Our department’s strengths lie in the interdisciplinary research and teaching interests of our faculty, whose cutting-edge work in Literary Studies, Creative Writing, Film Studies, and English Education crosses tidy and traditional boundaries of discipline, period, and nation. This is not your parent’s English Department. We teach novels and hip-hop, comics and experimental poetry, silent cinema and digital media. We explore how cultural production across the globe is shaped by race, gender, sexuality, class, ability and their intersections. This range and flexibility of training and expertise across media, genre, and geography enables our faculty to better collaborate and innovate, and to respond agilely to the changing needs, interests, and competencies of our students.
In the next five years, we seek to better integrate the department’s various programs by spotlighting a 21st-Century Literary Studies. Our expansive vision of literary studies centers diversity, as indicated in our search priorities and faculty-lead initiatives: the hiring of our inaugural Leslie Endowed Chair of African American Literature; our recently concluded search in Film Studies and the Digital Humanities, which hired a scholar of Indian cinema and new media; our second Leslie Endowed Chair in American Indian Literature and Indigenous Studies, to run next year; and the success of the MUSE Scholars Program and the WOCI Initiative. It also leverages emerging strengths in the Digital Humanities and English Education, and builds on the department’s historical strengths in the study of popular culture. A 21st-Century Literary Studies thrives in our contemporary digital media environment, which has made all the more urgent the need for critically and historically informed practices of reading and writing, and for information literacy across media platforms.
A key priority is stabilizing and growing our Creative Writing program, which continues to draw significant interest from students. We aim to better integrate CW programming into contemporary literature classes (as modelled in the planning for the Claudia Rankine/“Who Is a Citizen?” events this spring), as well as other CAL and MSU units. We will lead in CAL efforts to chart an Arts Strategy for the University, and we are well-positioned to do so with our department’s strengths in Creative Writing and Film Studies—programs that combine creative practice and critical inquiry, showcase the power of storytelling, and insist on the link between making, history, and theory.
We will also affirm the public value of the humanities—and a 21st-Century Literary Studies—in MSU’s general education mission. We will use our gateway classes to the English major to promote the humanities broadly and engage students in pressing debates about their individual and social value, especially in moments of crisis like our current one. Our classes and co-curricular programming will encourage students to see the difference the humanities make in the various communities they engage and transform. We will incentivize faculty to join learning communities devoted to enhancing our pedagogy and making it more inclusive, and we will expand the pedagogical training and mentoring we offer to our graduate students. We will provide an infrastructure for faculty to experiment in the IAH classroom with compelling courses that ask big and urgent questions facing humanity, courses fueled by our faculty’s cutting-edge research.
In these ways, the Department of English will continue to expand the democratic promise of a capacious definition of literature within a liberal arts education offered in 1859, in an early, mission-defining moment in the history of MSU: “To teach agriculture, is to teach literature also.”