Friday, July 13, 2012


As I've mentioned before, there are changes afoot in the curriculum at VMI. I am on the committee to redesign the major in English, which we have been told must be based on rhetoric and writing, but which is also to include literature, fine arts, and philosophy. Nothing has been decided, but my sense is that some people on the committee would like all courses in this department to have the same designation, so that, for instance, what is now called PH 304 Ethics might be called something like EN 304 Ethics. In the catalog of courses, in other words, philosophy courses would look like English courses, as would rhetoric and fine arts courses. At any rate, all these kinds of courses would look the same, whether they're listed as EN (for English), RH (for rhetoric), HU (for humanities), or whatever it might be. I don't like this idea. Am I too conservative?

Here are my main concerns:

  1. In thinking what courses to require in the new major, we were specifically instructed to give priority to courses in rhetoric and writing. Would it not then be disingenuous to behave as if rhetoric and writing were essentially the same thing as literature, philosophy, and fine arts? If all these subjects are basically the same, why prioritize rhetoric and writing? If they aren't basically the same, why label them as if they were?
  2. It might be nice to break down boundaries within the new department, but wouldn't it be more helpful to people outside the department to be able to see easily which courses are in literature, which in philosophy, which in rhetoric, and so on? If I'm a graduate school admissions officer or potential employer, isn't it legitimate for me to want to know what kinds of courses a student has taken? If another department at VMI wants its students to take a course or two in writing, wouldn't it be helpful for them to know which are writing courses and which are literature or fine arts courses? And if a student takes ethics and likes it, wouldn't it be helpful for them to be able to find similar courses easily? Not to mention that a change in labeling would almost certainly mean that students could no longer get minors in philosophy, fine arts, etc.
  3. I'm not a disciplinary purist and do teach, for instance, some literature in my courses. But I still recognize that I have been given a specialized education, that I have had a particular training and have particular skills that make me suited to teach certain types of courses (i.e. courses in philosophy) and not others. Doesn't interdisciplinary work rely on some disciplinary skills, concerns, and methods? Otherwise isn't there a danger of a lack of rigor and, in a word, mush?
  4. Given that we currently do distinguish between writing courses and those in English literature, those in fine arts, and those in philosophy, why not continue to do so? Is there a serious danger that students or faculty members will divide harmfully along these lines unless we deny that they exist? I'm currently in the Department of Psychology and Philosophy, and we all get along very well. Psychology majors can get either a BA or a BS, and they all get along. 
In short, I see no good reason to change the labeling and several reasons not to do so. But am I missing something? And would the above be a good way to make the case to my colleagues, or might it be too confrontational?   


  1. Everything you say here makes a lot of sense to me. I wonder why those people you mentioned want all the courses to have the same designation.

    Might the reason be that they want to avoid the appearance that the new department has no unifying principle?

    Or might it be that they want to signal that the old disciplinary boundary lines are being discarded of, and that something new is now about to take place.

    Or maybe they are just used to having a curriculum that is unified in this way. In this case, maybe the only thing you need to do is to assure them that the separate designation has been working well for years in the psychology-philosophy department: that there has been a joint effort to which both psychologists and philosophers contributed—each their own thing.

    But I have another question: Is it your sense that they appreciate the disciplinary difference between Philosophy and English? It is my sense that the intellectual ACTIVITY is different in the English and Philosophy Departments. It is true that we philosophers can sometimes teach literary texts and that English professors can teach philosophy texts. But subject matter aside, even when such things happen, we still teach Philosophy, and they still teach English—English and Philosophy being two sorts of activities.

    Anyway, I wonder if there is no way to compromise. Maybe the philosophy courses designation could be ENG(PHI), or something of the sort.

    About confrontationality: If I had to pick someone to convey that dissenting voice, it would have been you. Maybe the thing to do is to present those concerns as first and for most YOURS, and allow them to share those concerns, without making it seem as if they HAVE to share them. Maybe this way, they’ll be somewhat more inclined to go the extra mile: not because they want to of their own accord, but because they don’t want to come off as rude.

  2. Thanks, Reshef.

    It's hard to answer any questions about what motivates these people because they haven't said, and indeed no one has clearly stated that they want all the courses to have the same designation. But the idea has come up, and several people seem to like it. So much so that I think I might be the only person against it. Until we have a proper discussion of it, though, I won't be sure.

    Here's my sense of what people are thinking. I think it's a combination of: a) they want to avoid the appearance that the new department has no unifying principle, b) they want to signal that the old disciplinary boundary lines are being discarded, and that something new is now about to take place, c) they don't fully appreciate the disciplinary difference between Philosophy and English, and d) to the extent that they do appreciate the disciplinary differences, they don't really care because of b (we're going to do something new).

    One problem is that English itself is divided as a discipline. Sometimes the subject is called English language and literature, and there is quite a divide, it seems, between those who focus on language and those who focus on literature. The language people can sell what they do as more practical, because it's about writing and communication skills generally, but they have also (as far as I can see) bought quite heavily into the theories of people like Foucault. This gives them a claim to know something about philosophy or about what philosophy ought to be.

    Another problem is that I'm talking about several different people here, some of whom are English language people but who also include an art historian and a literature specialist. I'm surprised that they all agree, and perhaps they don't, but they do SEEM to.

    It's interesting that you say "Maybe the philosophy courses designation could be ENG(PHI), or something of the sort." Exactly that has been mentioned as a possibility, and not by me. It didn't seem to meet with much enthusiasm, sadly, but I would be much happier with something like this than with a generic designation. Especially if a generic designation meant that philosophers were expected to teach something other than philosophy, or to teach philosophy in only a Foucauldian way, for instance.

    I'm thinking of communicating my views by email before our next meeting. It would probably be best to explain them face to face, but I don't want to leave any points out or be drowned out by dissenting voices. But perhaps I've said enough, or more than enough, about this in public already. (The head of the committee did encourage us to talk about the committee's business with others, unless I badly misheard, so I don't think I'm doing anything wrong, but it feels a little weird to be thinking about all this out loud, as it were.)

  3. I don't think you're being too conservative. I think it makes sense, for the reasons you mention (other people who will look at transcripts) for prefix distinctions to remain. Here at EKU, I know that the Department of Foreign Languages and Humanities has different prefixes for each language offered and for the humanities courses (like opera, critical theory, etc.). As far as I can tell, they're a mostly happy bunch.

    On the other hand, perhaps you could suggest that the "single-prefix" party adopt an entirely new prefix (not EN) which captures the full range of disciplines (but looks unfamiliar), like ERH (English, Rhetoric, Humanities)--of course, they might love that...but the point will remain that people outside VMI will have no idea what ERH means (at first), and so there's a question about how much that matters I guess.

  4. Thanks, Matt. I think something like the ERH prefix is what some people would like to see. But you're right that people outside VMI looking at transcripts will have no idea what this means. And I don't see much value in blurring distinctions. "I'll teach you differences" and all that.