“Where Do English Departments Come From?” William Riley Parker


Parker, William Riley. “Where Do English Departments Come From?” Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. First ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009. 3-16. Print.



  • English comes from a “broken home” of its parents Public Speaking and Linguistics.
  • English studies are older than the teaching of English and date back to the Renaissance and Reformation.
  • Cambridge didn’t have a professor of Anglo-Saxons until 1878 (empty position for ~230 years) and no literature professor until 1911.
  • The notion of English studies is fairly recent and is the convergence of English literature, linguistics, English grammar, elocution and oratory skills,
  • UK English ed adopted modern Eng. much more readily than US
  • John Hopkins university tried to bring specialization of teachers to education after it opened in 1876. Before then, there were no teachers specifically trained for English as there were for history per se.
  • MLA was founded for several reasons: change in attitudes towards traditional education p 11
  • English departments “overreached” themselves to take up unclaimed spaces between departments.
    • Because of this, we (English) have never bothered to stop and determine what we are and are not.
  • How professors teach the upper level grad courses or speciality courses and grad students teach comp…yeah, that started in the 1890s 



“So let us begin with the recognition of a simple fact: the teaching of English, as a constituent of college or university education, is only about 100 years old, and departments of English are younger still.” p. 3

“Although Emerson’s famous ‘American scholar’ address was delivered in 1837, it is important to remember that this was not a time that produced in America and literary or linguistic scholarship of real substance, and the professor of English language and literature did not immediately emerge. In the United States before 1860 only a very few colleges ventured to mention English literature as a subject in their catalogues or announcements.” p. 8

“But these facts do not add up to the conclusion that the professor of rhetoric and oratory should disappear, to be supplanted by the teacher of English language and literature.” p 12. Talking about composition classes and their popularity, who was deemed most qualified to teach them.

“You may think me unfitted to be a chairman when I say, now, that the history of our profession inspires in me very little respect for departments of English; their story is one of acquisitiveness, expediency, and incredible stupidity. I care a lot about liberal education, and I care a lot about the study of literature in English, but it seems ot me that English departments have cared much less about liberal education and their own integrity than they have about their administrative power and prosperity.” p 15


Where will the English department go in the future? Will mini-departments form and deviate from “English” much like composition studies has at some schools?

Why are the effects of literary studies methodology, scientific linguistics, and how liberal education was to be run different between the US and the UK? Does it remain in today’s educational cultures?

p 7-8 talks about how Cambridge and Oxford graduates had to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles to prove their allegiance to the Church of England, but why? What consequences were they if they didn’t or did not remain? Since there were many non-conformist institutions established soon after, I am guessing that the consequences were not awful.


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