Special Supplemental Letter from the Editor SpecGram Vol CLXXX, No ρ Contents

The Perplexed Linguist’s Guide to English Departments

Now with Footnotes!

Athanasious Schadenpoodle

So, Dear Reader, you have completed your Ph.D. in Linguistics (yay you!), run headlong into the grim realities of the modern job market (poor you!), broadened your ideas about possible teaching contexts (smart you!) and landed a gig in an English department (lucky you?). You’ve potentially got the base of the Maslovian pyramid covered for at least a semester, but you’re in a rather alien environment, surrounded by people who talk funny in a way that Dialectology 501 never prepared you for and who have some markedly odd folkways. Some culture shock is inevitable, but a little knowledge can go a long way toward alleviating the worst of it. Thus, we1 have prepared this guide, which aims to provide some practical adviceor at least, practical by academic standards. The first section discusses characteristics of English departments as a whole, the second describes some of the faculty constituencies that you may be interacting with, the third provides some observations about student populations, and we end, like the lamentable sorts of careers, in administration.

Part 1: The Gig

While English departments are highly variable, there are some rules of thumb that tend to be reliably useful. You should, for example, keep two things always in mind:

English as a field is devoted to the study of the myriad glories of the spoken and written word; taking the language apart so you can get into the engine and fiddle around describing parts of it really, really isn’t the average English faculty member’s idea of glory.3 Since you got the job in the first place, it’s likely that you already have some experience and preparation in teaching composition and/or ESL, or you have a background in Old English and are going to teach That One Course on Old English. Maybe the department has That Freshman Course on Language (in which case, celebrate!) or even a TESOL program (celebrate extra!). You might be teaching subjects related to any and all of the above. Rest assured that most, if not all, of the other members of your department would really rather not be teaching any of that even if they had the preparation for it. This principle holds true even if you also teach composition.

Practical advice:

Part 2: Constituencies

Chemistry departments are reliably full of people who study chemistry; one may study a different kind of chemistry from another, but it’s all chemistry. English departments, on the other hand, can come across as a kind of Humanities yard sale; they’ve always got people who work on English literature, but past that, the details vary per institution. All in all, the composition of a department can contain any combination of the following; practical advice is included per subgroup.

The Criterati

These are folks who are primarily interested in Literary Critical Theory,6 not in literature; in fact, they’d much rather be responding to the work of other Criterati than spending time with actual literary works. If this sounds negative, pause for a moment and think about people who work exclusively in syntactic theory, and how interested they are in actual language in use, or for that matter, in actual language. Now, think about the status those people have in the field. See? The Criterati also include a subgroup that describes their work as being in Cultural Theory, which is a nifty way to talk about culture without having to bother with studying all that pesky anthropology.

Practical Advice:

The Literati

These are the faculty members who write papers applying some form of critical analysis framework to specific pieces of literature (or sets of pieces); this is frequently as a cover so that they can continue to do what they like best: thinking about literature. They’re the Engfolk equivalent of the linguist who writes papers on “C to T Raising in Latverian” so the Dean will stop bothering them about their research output and they can get back to working on Latverian.

Practical Advice:

The Translators

This is usually a hybrid categoryEnglish-departments don’t typically hire someone who translates literature as someone who translates literature; they hire people to be specialists in “World Lit” and those people turn out to (surprise!) be adept at more than one language. So, a Translator will ostensibly be a Criterati8 or a Literati. However, the fact that Translators know about and are keenly aware of the importance of translation effects results in a different kind of dynamic because of the way English departments have historically operated: treating other languages’ literary works the way English 19th-century archeologists treated everyone else’s artifacts. Find a Voltaire text? Bring it home and convert it into something English-speakers can go look at without feeling like they have to learn a language. Translated literary works, in short, are treated as part of the English Empire. English departments frequently teach Homer (in translation), Virgil (in translation), Cervantes (in translation) and more; but rarely is there a discussion of the ways in which the word choices in the translation might not tell you much about the word choices in the actual literary work.9

Practical Advice:

The CompRhets

These are the folks whose field of study is how people write, and how teachers can help them learn to write better. This can be very, very different from focusing on “what makes literature literature” or “how literature relates to culture”; you can definitely assume that the Criterati and the Literati have noticed thatand that the CompRhets have noticed the Literati and Criterati noticing it. This matters! There are serious status issues complicating relations between the groups, partly for historical reasons (in its current form, it’s a comparatively young field despite the antiquity of the Rhetoric part) and partly for economic ones. CompRhets teach the bulk of composition courses, which in an institution with composition requirements (e.g., most American ones) can mean they’re teaching a lot more students than are enrolled in literature courses. Those students tend to be in smaller sections, so there are an enormous number of those sections. Universities invariably present themselves as valuing writing ability quite highly (it’s a great line for the Mission Statement!10), but equally invariably treat composition courses as low-status, lower-pay gruntwork. That’s mainly for budget reasons: paying grad students and temporary hires low wages means those enormous numbers of sections become giant money-makers. But it’s also affected by prestige issues, and the prestige of the field is affected by the fact that very few people like teaching composition. For many, the “read and mark the papers” portion of the job is roughly akin to taste-testing the attempts of new cooks who don’t realize that maybe the dish soap shouldn’t go in the food, or listening to a novice musician miss 85% of the notes.11 It’s hard to sit for hours at a time gagging lightly. The assumption most people make is that it’s the job people take because there aren’t positions for something better.

What should happen, of course, is for university administrations to recognize that (a) some people actually do like teaching composition12—their feeling of social value when a student becomes a better writer outweighs their negative aesthetic reactions to iffy proseand (b) in any case, one should perhaps pay people more if they’re doing something other people don’t want to. But this does not happen, and the resulting situation is one in which the CompRhets know they’re doing a large amount of vital work that isn’t valued nearly as much as it should be. At some institutions, the CompRhets are grouped with another department (usually Communications), given their own department entirely,13 or (in the case of actively evil administrations) treated as a non-academic service unit.14 On the assumption that you’re in an English department that does handle comp, though, you might find the following advice useful:

Practical Advice:

The Creatives

These are the people who actually make literature, or at least try very hard to: the poets, the novelists, the short-story writers, the dramatists,19 the...the...whatever you call people who write creative non-fiction, whatever the heck that really is.20 In short, the “Creative Writers.” At some institutions, they’re off in Fine Arts, but it’s common for them to be in the English department.21

Practical Advice:

The Educatorors

These are the people who teach people how to be English-teachers, and they’re being listed last not because they’re less important in the operations of a department, but because in many universities they’re not in the English department; they’re in a School of Education. There is therefore a lower chance that your department includes this constituency, but if it does, it’s important! Unlike the rest of the department, Educatorors have to devote a large chunk of their time to keeping track of the myriad, ever-changing requirements of public educational systems. In many countries, that means keeping tabs on what the Ministry of Education is up to this week; if you’re in the U.S., it means trying to keep up with whatever détente is currently operational between the Federal and State agencies, and tracking how local school boards are cleverly subverting the guidelines for one reason or another.25 The actual pedagogic theory behind what the Educatorors dotheir core academic preparationwill be roughly familiar if you’re from an applied linguistics program and have had TEFL courses,26 but there’s a gigantic additional chunk of preparation involving first-language literacy teaching, and classroom management, and something called Professional Demeanor.27

Practical Advice:

Part 3: The Students

You will have at least three categories of students as an intrepid linguistics instructor in an English department: (a) those that are taking a course to get a distribution requirement (a.k.a. gen ed requirement) out of the way, (b) English majors or minors that are taking a course to get an English degree requirement out of the way, and (c) students who are just plain interested in language. These three behave somewhat differently, as will be discussed below. There is a second, orthogonal, tripartite distinction as well, however; one based on attitudes about language:30 those who think they know how English works already because they did well on prescriptive grammar tests, those who think they don’t and probably can’t know anything about English at all because they bombed grammar tests, and those who say things like “Okay, whatever” and crank up the music in their headphones. Regardless of what else you do, you need to try to confront the first type with how much they don’t know, get the second group to realize how much they do know, and get the third group to think you have no tolerance for that crap (even if you do).

The Gen-Ed-ers

Only a few of these people would have chosen to taken the course you’re teaching of their own volition; the rest are being forced into it by the university, and they’re probably not happy about it even a little bit. Stereotypically, they’re freshmen, but in reality many of them have likely done what you probably did: put some courses off to the last semester because they weren’t interested in those subjects. Their intended (or actual) majors might be anything on campus, although there is sometimes a “tilting” effect if there are multiple different courses in the distribution requirement category your course is in.31 While there will be a few students from the “I know everything about English” group in a class like this, there will typically be a hefty proportion from the “I don’t know anything” and “I wonder if the instructor is noticing my headphones” sets.

Practical Advice:

The English Majors (and Minors)

This group may not want to take your course specifically, but they know that the department whose degree they voluntarily signed up for deems it necessary. Thus, while they may resent having to take the course just as much as the Gen-Ed-ers, they’ll feel at least a little bit less validated in their resentment. And if your course is an upper-level one, your regular English majors will be used to instructors giving them paper assignments, expecting them to figure out ways to approach the assignment, and rewarding them for clever strategies. You’re much less likely to get questions like, “But what should the second paragraph say?” and more likely to get ones like, “Is it okay to look at modals in some of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories?”35 If your institution puts English Education in the English department, you’ll likely find your Ed. majors want more precise directions, but if you point out potential classroom-application-related topics to work on, they can be extremely motivated.

Practical Advice:

The Linguaphiles

Okay, this is the lot you’re most likely to “get” at a fundamental level, because you were one. Like the Gen-Ed-ers, these students can be from any major on campus, although Foreign Language and Social Sciences are more common in the mix. Unlike the Gen-Ed-ers, these students want to be in your course (which in the general course of things can be a Gen Ed course, of course37). A much larger proportion of them may be in the “I know how English works” category, and many of them will have avidly read pop-culture material making claims about language that may not be true (“People in Appalachia speak Elizabethan English!”). This all means you’re faced with a delicate situation: you need to disabuse them of their confidence, but they care about that confidencea lot. The trick is to set up opportunities for them to discover where they’ve made a mistake, without hitting them over the head with it. As an instructor, being right doesn’t automatically mean you’re teaching well, especially if you’re a right jerk about it.

Practical Advice:

Part 4: The Administration

English departments exist in a larger administrative context, of course, and the operations of that context are manifold and mysterious. Going into detail at this point would require your author know what actually goes on in administrations, so instead, you’re just getting a couple of general pointers based on remote observation. This degree of uncertainty and vagueness accurately mirrors the experience of dealing with the Adminisphere!

1 The Committee for Professional Preparation decided that there should be a pamphlet and then unanimously voted to have an absentee junior member, your author, write it. Never miss committee meetings.

2 You may have already realized that, in which case you just then said something like, “Duh, what kind of Dear Readers is this rube used to?” But it’s also common for linguists to like teaching things that other people don’t want to.

3 Glory is got by (for example) coming up with a way of reading The Sound and the Furyor, for the younger, more hip crowd, Sharknadoas a comment on the relation between Habermas’s conception of the civic order and Mill’s construction of utilitarianism, and then packaging it as an article that mentions intersectionality at least eight times.

4 And you will, because the kind of field that comes up with the notion of analyzing sentence semantics out of context, using features and lambda calculus, is the kind that prepares you to read literary texts in a way that, in a psych test, would get you placed on the autism spectrum in five seconds flat.

5 If you don’t know who Roman Jakobson was, I hereby shake my Cane of Approbation at you and your program. But you’re probably young, and at least have an excuse. Now get reading.

6 Which is apparently something about critiquing how people critique things; however, since ideology is part of how people critique, and critique critiquing, it ends up shading seamlessly into parts of what gets called “Continental philosophy.”

7 LCT also uses ‘subject’ and ‘object’but in a really, really different way.

8 In case you are annoyed by what looks like a Latinate plural suffix being used on a noun paired with an article that only goes with singulars, rest assured that this particular {-i} is the gender-non-specific nominative singular animate suffix that Latin should have had. The nominative and genitive plural is {-i.jai}; the dative plural is {-i.jai.i.jai.jo}.

9 Yes, your author is cheating here and dropping in that phrase ‘the actual literary work’ with entertainingly annoying presuppositions, but if pressed, can and will use arguments about the intentional fallacy as a shield.

10 In case you’re new to AdminSpeak, a “Mission Statement” is what happens when an institution that says it’s dedicated to higher learning and truth and all that is put in the hands of people who view those goals as a potentially useful marketing posture. The result is a shiny cloud of glittering generalities and some hefty consulting fees.

11 In a piece that’s not supposed to be punk, or Bob Dylan.

12 Your author is in awe of these people.

13 In which case the English department is put in the position of worrying extra hard about where the funding for the literature courses is going to come from, and the CompRhets are put in the position of worrying about the moral quandary presented by schadenfreude.

14 Nothing shows commitment to furthering students’ achievement of advanced writing skills like putting the relevant courses in the same general administrative category as laundry-facility management. As a bonus, you can call it a “demonstration of leadership in writing excellence.”

15 Theoretically, the CompRhets could sideline the other groups, but if the department is called “English....” this typically hasn’t happened.

16 As someone who works in an English department, your author has no compunctions whatever about making statements like that. That’s all literary and everything.

17 Admit itif it overlaps, it’s not the Narrowly Defined Language Faculty, is it?

18 Intriguingly, some of the arguments involved in the rebellion were founded on a mis-reading of Chomsky, whose claim that children acquired language simply from exposure was taken to entail that they’d acquire formal written English conventions the same way. Even for those of us who like to snipe at Chomsky, that’s not what he was getting at.

19 All English-department members can be counted on to generate drama, but few can intentionally write it.

20 Your author is absolutely sure it’s a thing, but no one seems to agree on what that thing is, except that it’s not political essays no matter how well they’re written. And apparently it’s not satire.

21 They’re almost never in Communications, for the same reason the Criterati and Literati aren’t: clarity is not the foremost element of their design specs.

22 They don’t phrase it that way, of course. It’s just that the logical possibility is soothing.

23 We should make an exception here to acknowledge the very real worth of DFW’s footnoting habits, which were exemplary.

24 This is a lot easier when you don’t know that not and often are adverbs.

25 The U.S. does not have a national educational system; it has a multifocal educational melee. Think of the Holy Roman Empire, but with less coordination and more statutes. The federal government tries to indirectly manage how the states manage educational standards, the states try to word standards in a way that will result in them being high-performing no matter what, and school boards find new ways to shift most of the funding away from academic subjects and towards high-school athletics teams.

26 If you’re a theoretical linguist, it’ll be just as alien as all other fields are, so at least you’ll be used to it.

27 Which involves acting like what you probably already think a good instructor should act likeexcept kinda weaponized. Think of 5th grade, and then go have a drink to get over the memory.

28 So at least it gets one thing right.

29 If there is no commitment to Bloom’s definitions, then start using verbs like ‘opine’ and ‘adumbrate’. When objections are raised, point out that there is no basis for objecting other than “it’s not on the list,” which is an invalid argument in the absence of the definitions. Do not, however, do this with the Chair or a Dean. Use common sense.

30 Your author has shamelessly stolen this division from his colleague, [redacted] [redacted].

31 The French Major, for example, is more likely to take That One Linguistics Survey Course than That One Political Science Survey Course. And the other French Major will too, if there ever is one.

32 This is the kind of advice that’s always right, but never easy to follow except in hindsight. And that previous sentence was a good example of “stating the obvious.” You may, therefore, be wondering why this footnote is here. Grice! That’s why. Also, we promised you footnotes.

33 You may, however, find out that meteorology is really fascinating, and “waste” time reading about it. And then the same thing happens with botany, and...well, try to keep it under control if you’ve got papers to write, or grading to do.

34 If you’re a theoretical linguist, yes, you should do a genre unit. Geez, people.

35 At which point you look confident, nod, and then look up Flannery O’Connor on Wikipedia in your office. She was to Southern Gothic short-story writing what Jackendoff was to X-bar theory. Or something like that. After a decade or so, you’ll know lots of factoids about authors, and have a lot of practice looking confident.

36 Also, it’s true.

37 That was deliberate, and therefore potentially literary, even though your author’s intentionality is otherwise irrelevant! This will all eventually make sense.

38 If you’re a wunderkind who got hired immediately, then...wait, it doesn’t matter, because you wouldn’t be a linguist in an English department. If you are in an English department and regard yourself as a wunderkind, you’ve got problems this guide can’t help you with.

39 Unless you work on language preservation, or dialect equity.

40 For example, any who might be from your author’s institution who are reading this! They’re all wonderful people.

41 If you have noticed by this point that some academics behave in this way as well, you’re certainly correct. Those are the ones who are Future Leaders™.

Special Supplemental Letter from the Editor
SpecGram Vol CLXXX, No ρ Contents