If you could design the ideal curriculum for English Majors at the Virginia Military Institute in 2013, what would it include? That was the question that the Dean asked last year to launch our redesign of the English major. Building on the Institute’s mission, we aimed to create a robust program that will produce graduates with a deep love of learning, a strong commitment to public service, and a lifelong appreciation of the value of English studies.
We are not alone in our efforts to make the humanities a significant and meaningful force in this new century. Martha Nussbaum’s book Cultivating Humanity and numerous recent articles in national publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal have all examined the educational value of the humanities in today’s society. Their importance in our personal lives is not in question. As David Brooks notes, the recent Academy of Arts and Sciences’ report affirms that the study of the humanities promotes not just improved thinking and writing abilities but also “internal transformation.” In his essay in The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik sums up their unquestionable value quite succinctly: “they help us enjoy life more and endure it better.”
If we are to keep English curricula and the humanities viable, however, we cannot shy away from the question of how the English major prepares graduates for their professional lives because students (and their parents) have justifiable concerns about what they can do with a humanities degree. Anthony Cummings, in a recent edition of Inside Higher Ed, therefore challenged those of us in the humanities to address these concerns “legitimately, effectively, and persuasively.” In designing this new major at VMI, we embraced this question with full confidence in the profound value of what we teach and the enormous influence that English studies can have on the personal, professional, and civic lives of our graduates.
The new curriculum includes the study of language, literature, rhetoric, philosophy, and art, all subjects previously required of English majors. Our new course of study, however, is designed to enhance our cadets’ ability to make connections among all of these subjects: by providing students with a foundation in rhetorical studies, we invite them to explore the many ways in which human expression and understanding occur in the 21st century. As the art and skill of using language in its broadest sense, rhetoric thus works well as the center of the English major at VMI.
Our curriculum therefore includes foundational courses in rhetorical studies and opportunities to learn about the role of language in cultural movements, public discourse, and professional communities. Cadets learn how to articulate their own ideas effectively, build consensus, solve problems, and thus improve the human condition. They are given many opportunities both within and beyond the classroom to compose documents for real audiences so that they can begin to make a difference in their community even before they leave the Institute. The redesigned curriculum also asks cadets to take at least one course in creative expression, in which they either practice the visual arts or write poems, short fiction, or nonfiction, developing what we hope will become a lifelong habit.
The curriculum has been further enriched by courses that will teach students to read and compose a variety of texts. Since communication often now occurs electronically, English majors will take not only departmental (ERH) courses in digital, professional, and technical communication but also Computer and Information Sciences (CIS) courses in web design, thanks to the collaboration of these two departments as they redesigned their curricula.
The study of literature continues to be an important element of the English major and in many ways has been enriched by the new program. For example, with its emphasis on the ways in which authors respond to and shape their cultures, our curriculum clearly reveals the significance of literature in any society, and its importance becomes all the more apparent when studied in connection with other kinds of human expression. These connections are fostered by our integrated approach and by interdisciplinary courses such as Philosophy and Literature or Artistic Responses to Social and Political Issues, which might, as it does this year, focus on the literature, art, music, and film of World War I. Furthermore, by giving students the opportunity to study the writings of established authors and then to create their own poems, stories, memoirs, or essays, our Genre Studies courses (ERH 222 Poetry, 223 Fiction, 224 Nonfiction) inspire them not only to appreciate the writers’ talents but also to develop their own creative abilities as they build on what they have learned from others.
While the English curriculum has well defined outcomes, a rigorous core, and additional required courses, it also has much flexibility and diversity. If you take a look at the website, you will notice that a number of the course titles are generic, thus offering rich possibilities for a wide range of studies of authors and works. One section of ERH 321 British Literature in Cultural Context might focus on Shakespeare, as it does this semester, but any era, author(s), or theme in British literature could be the focus of other sections. Similar diversity characterizes ERH 322 American Literature in Cultural Context, which this year includes sections on the Beat Generation, Southern Literature, and the Role of Race in the American South. Likewise, this year the Major Figure course (ERH 422) features sections on Shakespeare and Rodin but could be an in-depth study of any major figure in rhetoric, literature, philosophy, or art. This approach allows us to have a dynamic process of course development that takes full advantage of the opportunities afforded by this integrated study of human expression.
To further inspire majors to make connections among the various subjects that they investigate and thus take ownership of their learning, English majors will develop electronic portfolios across the four years of their cadetships. As they post each assignment, they will reflect on how it builds on their previous learning and might inspire their future investigations and interests. The creation of this comprehensive electronic portfolio will thus encourage them to synthesize what they have learned and actively engage in lifelong learning.
Also very important to our new program is the Field Work requirement (ERH 411). Having taken foundational courses in subjects like ethics and civic discourse and having had opportunities in previous coursework to apply their learning, 1st (senior) and 2nd (junior) class majors will undertake internships and service learning projects in which they further extend their learning beyond the classroom. With this requirement, we have thus aligned our curriculum with the Institute’s mission to educate men and women committed strongly to civic engagement.
With its emphasis on an integrated study of language and texts, multiple modes of communication, and the application of learning beyond the classroom, our new major should produce citizen soldiers who are eager to express their ideas creatively and persuasively in a variety of media, all the while drawing on a rich heritage of such influential figures as Plato, Aristotle, Chaucer, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Rembrandt, Kant, Coleridge, Brontë, Hawthorne, Whitman, Woolf, Faulkner, Baldwin, Picasso, and Burke.
Creating this new program has not been easy, but change is crucial if curricula are to continue to be relevant to the lives of our graduates and to the world in which we live. This curriculum, therefore, is not static: we will continue to revise it as appropriate in the coming years, guided always by our unwavering resolve to offer each generation of cadets the best possible education. I encourage you to explore this exciting new curriculum for our English majors.
COL Emily Miller