The Evolution of College English
Literacy Studies from the Puritans to the Postmoderns
Publication Year: 2010
Published by: University of Pittsburgh Press
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English departments are currently facing the biggest drop in tenure-track jobs since they were cut in half in the 1970s. Now, as then, English departments are struggling to come to terms with the economic, social, and technological changes that are redefining what we teach and how we study it. Since the birth of the personal computer in the 1970s, interactive technologies have pressed English departments to shift their standpoint from the individual reader to a more writerly stance on transactions in literacy. Since the 1970s, we have also seen a deepening erosion of the professional ethos that had traditionally served to defend enclaves of expertise from market forces.
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English studies begins by looking past the rise of the profession in the last century to explore how the teaching of English in American colleges has been shaped by broader developments in literacy since the colonial period. Reflecting upon those developments can help us to come to terms with the changes in literacy that are redefining what we teach and how we study it. Most English departments have come to include a diverse array of critics, compositionists, writers, applied linguists, and educators who sometimes seem to share little more than a mailing address.
1. Learning and the Learned in Colonial New England
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These student orations on the virtues of rhetoric highlight several of the converging textual, epistemological, and political changes that shaped the first century of English studies in American colleges. Wigglesworth’s oration seems rather quaint, and not just because he wrote before English was standardized by print. His notebooks show that he learned to define eloquence as the art of dressing up “ould truth” in a new style from reading Peter Ramus. Such assumptions were consistent with the duties that seventeenth-century college graduates assumed as preachers of virtue in isolated communities.
2. Republican Rhetoric
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These passages set out the purposes that would shape the teaching of English in the colleges that were founded at Princeton by Tennent and Davies and at Philadelphia by Smith and Franklin. As New Light Presbyterians, Tennent and Davies assumed that a college would advance “enlightened” religion. As an unplaced minister and uneducated printer, Smith and Franklin justified education in more secular terms. Even though Smith had himself recently arrived from Scotland, he appealed to anxieties about “Foreigners” by arguing that education would instill a common culture.
3. When Colleges Were Literary Institutions
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In his often-reprinted survey of American literature, Tuckerman set out a premodern conception of literature that included the religious writings of the seventeenth century, the oratory of the Revolutionary era, and the magazine literature of the antebellum period. Literature and eloquence were closely associated terms in the antebellum period. Graff identified this broad conception of literature with an “oratorical culture” that “pervaded the college and linked the classical courses with the courses in English rhetoric...
4. How the Teaching of Literacy Gave Rise to the Profession of Literature
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Thorstein Veblen's The Higher Learning in America is as pointed as his better-known account of “conspicuous consumption” in his Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899 (396). Veblen complained that universities were being “given over to the pragmatic, utilitarian disciplines” (34). The “disinterestedness” of traditional intellectuals would be undermined if universities did not establish a critical distance from the rest of public education. While schools were intended to prepare students for...
5. At the Ends of the Profession
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In The Formation of College English, I drew upon Gramsci’s theories much more explicitly than I have here. His perspective has shaped the framework that I have used to examine how literacy and literacy studies have evolved in conjunction with the elaboration of civil society, including the institution of professionalism as the unifying ideology of the middle classes. One of Gramsci’s best known concepts is his definition of “organic” intellectuals by their integral involvement...
Conclusion: Why the Pragmatics of Literacy Are Critical
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In 1928, Clark envisioned a future in which the history of literature would be studied against changes in literacy, education, and mass media. Clark’s sense of history was shaped by the profound social and technological changes of his time. Technologies figure prominently in his set of historical benchmarks, and for good reason. In the decade in which he published “American Literary History and American Literature,” radio networks were formed, the first talking film was made, the television tube was invented, and signals began to be transmitted.
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Page Count: 344
Publication Year: 2010
Series Title: Pittsburgh Series in Composition, Literacy, and Culture