English department looks to find stability under new leadership

By Amy Ledig

High faculty turnover rates, confusion and disunity between students and professors and hardly any departmental activities to bring students together.This was the English department of the last few years. The descent was precipitated by a number of factors, not the least of which was a large numbers of professors leaving the department for several years, resulting in an influx of visiting instructors. Then Steven Burt, the former chair of the English department, left last spring to teach at Harvard, his alma mater. This put the department in a difficult position, having to scramble to regroup after his unexpected departure.

Professor Theresa Krier stepped up to act as chair for the fall semester this year until the department’s current chair, Daylanne English, returned from sabbatical to assume the post.

However, the horizon appears to be brightening as the department pulls itself back together.

“The department has actually changed less than people think,” English said. “We’ve got a stable core of amazing faculty and just brought on board this year two new equally amazing faculty members, Don Lee and Casey Jarrin, and it’s an exceptional group of faculty members.”

“I think we’re all pulling in the same direction now,” Krier said. “We all have a vision of the English department.”

During her semester as chair, Krier said, she “spent a lot of time making individual faculty feel valued for themselves.” This semester, English has continued the project Krier started in the fall of tightening up the course offerings and the honors guidelines to reflect the new, updated department.

English said that she sees the department beginning to wrap up the rebuilding phase it has been in for the last several years. She attributed the high levels of faculty turnover in part to natural retirement peaks.

“The English department at Macalester is not unlike departments at a number of colleges and universities across the country that experienced a hiring boom in the late 60s and 70s,” she said. “I think a small college feels it more because the departments are smaller, so it’s easier to notice when there’s a wave of retirements, when there are small departments and many of the faculty were hired around the same time.”

English made it clear that the work of rebuilding the department has been an ongoing process, and that Stuart McDougal, the chair until three years ago was responsible for much of the revamping.

The faculty turnover has been a problem for some students in the department.

“In the last four years my experience with the English department has been inconsistent at best. While I have had a few noteworthy and inspiring [professors], I have found the instability within the dept incredibly annoying. For example, applying to go abroad was a nightmare as Professor Burt remained the department head, but was basically never on campus,” English major Eva Kuhn ’08 wrote in an email. “Additionally, the amount of visiting professors within the department made it hard to develop any sort of personal relationship. However, I want to emphasize the integrity of the few professors I’ve had who have made me want to be an English major.”

The lack of departmental activities is another area in which the department has drawn fire. While the department does sponsor a number of readings and speakers, a number of majors feel that there is not a lot done to draw them together.

“I don’t think it’s the faculty, I think it’s a transitional time,” Grace Geiger ’10 said.

“I do wish there were more department activities, and I think communication has been an issue for the department lately. I didn’t know that there are department t-shirts this year,” Katie Longwell ’08 said.

Some of this has been due to the faculty changeover in the department.

“Given that there was rebuilding going on, a lot of department energy has gone into hiring the very best faculty we possibly could. But I also think that there’s more dept camaraderie now,” English said. “I wouldn’t point to one person or change necessarily, except that we are more stable and have more energy. We want to definitely have a sense of solidarity amongst English majors and minors.”

However, the sense of solidarity English referred to is something that a number of majors have found lacking.

“I love English and I think the staff is excellent, but there’s no sense of community in the department,” Geiger said. “I wish they’d do pictures on the wall like the other departments. I don’t know who else is a major, and I don’t know who all the faculty are.”

Krier said that she tried to get pictures taken in the fall, but that she could not find anyone to take the photos.

Things are beginning to move in a different direction, though. At the end of the semester the department will be having its first luncheon for majors and minors in recent memory, and it is also holding a departmental t-shirt contest, something that is likewise a novelty.

“I think really in Steve [Burt’s] years there might have been fewer major lunches with speakers, and that’s picking up now,” Krier said.

The department brings a number of speakers to campus each semester, particularly creative writers, Krier said.

Krier said the department has also been working on collaborating with other departments to bring speakers to campus and organize events, as part of rethinking how they can use the department’s funds.

Both Krier and English emphasized the lighter atmosphere in the department and the good effect that it has been having.

According to a FAQsection on a parent’s page on the college’s website, English is among the top five departments with the most majors in recent years. Despite the ups and downs, the department continues to remain popular.

“I was warned against being an English major because I was told the department was a mess, but I don’t regret declaring in English one bit,” Abby Seeskin ’10 said. “There is a lot of talk about how messy the English department is, but my experience in the English department has been, for the most part, positive.