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Redefining English for the 21st century

February 14, 2013

If you think that studying English means spending four years poring over Shakespeare classics, then think again. Thanks to Maureen Daly Goggin, department chair, the ASU Department of English is redefining what it means to earn an English degree.

A growing trend in higher education has given rise to a movement in which departments and disciplines at a university must be transdisciplinary in nature to prosper and foster well-rounded graduates. A pioneer of this movement, Arizona State University has ensured that students can study in various disciplines and learn from faculty who are presenting groundbreaking research in their fields.

Concentrations such as film and media studies, creative writing, literature, rhetoric and linguistics are available to all students – and within each specialization, the curriculum may take a student to areas such as sustainability, the social sciences, art and even gaming.

Jeff Holmes, a graduate English student and a fellow with the Center for Games and Impact, says his studies in the Department of English have led to opportunities he never thought possible. In fact, after earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from ASU, he is now working on a doctorate.

“For me, one of the most exciting things about working in the English Department is that it expands my perspectives, not limits them," Holmes says. "The department can support things like videogames and sewing circles as authentic spaces and practices that deserve as much attention as the 'classics.' In a way, it helps promote broader cultural awareness and critique.”

But working with video games isn’t just 'fun and games,' Holmes says, as he find that the critical thinking and creativity required of gaming interests him most of all.

“There are lots of other great games and experiences, from Portal to World of Warcraft to Minecraft,” he says. “What drives me to study them and use them is that they allow for such a broad range of thinking about and experiencing the world, and provide opportunities to think very deeply about myself and others and how we relate to the world around us.”

New avenues for research, outreach

The faculty members in the English Department are delving into new and innovative projects as well. Professor Joe Lockard has created the Prison English program, in which he and selected students conduct literacy and creative writing courses to inmates in the Penitentiary of New Mexico and Florence State Prison.

Lockard is also involved with “Project Yao,” which brings together faculty from across the globe to catalogue and translate early American works of literature into Chinese.

Associate professor Ron Broglio conducts research on how animals inform what it means to be human, while associate professor Peter Goggin researches the rhetoric of sustainability on smalls island nations that call attention to the complexities of doing sustainability work and ultimately challenge the notion that globalization has flattened the world. 

Professor Laura Tohe combines family history and American history in her work on Native American World War II Code Talkers, and professor Melissa Pritchard has become well known for her work with the military and the Afghan Women’s Writing Project.  

Goggin says: “I want to foster work that is extremely creative. We have amazing scholars in this department. They have built international reputations, and I want to be sure they have space to build their careers.”

The department is also expanding its global reach. Goggin says one of her goals is to build exchange programs and teaching opportunities for students and faculty internationally. Several faculty members already have traveled to Austria and Romania to teach.

With the assistance of School of International Letters and Cultures professor Ileana Orlich, the Department of English secured a partnership with the Romanian government to allow for cross-continental exchanges of scholars and ideas. The Central European Cultural Collaborative (CECC) so far has brought actors to perform and scholars to teach courses at ASU. The agreement also has provided for a course in silk making.

Looking ahead, Goggin says the department is building a new concentration in sciences and the imagination that further supports this type of cross-disciplinary vision. Titled “future studies,” the program will ask students to take a proactive look at the future instead of the reactive stance we as humans are accustomed to.

“As knowledge making now takes place in lots of spaces – nonprofits, government, corporations and private businesses – universities across the country are reworking programs to prepare students for the rapid changes in the 21st century. The work that takes place in the English Department is an effort to contribute to those important changes,” Goggin says.

The Department of English and School of International Letters and Cultures are academic units in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.