IUPUI’s English Week: Community in Action

What’s a way to boost majors and credit hours, bring increased attention to the English department, and excite faculty? 

A celebration called “English Week” brings all these benefits and more, according to Robert Rebein, chair of the English department at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis. Rebein offered his thoughts on all this at the ADE-ADFL Summer Seminar Midwest in a preseminar workshop called “Reversing the Decline in English Majors and Enrollments.” Rebein recently answered questions about the event and its benefits.

What is “English Week?”

English Week is an annual celebration of the English department community at IUPUI. That community includes students, faculty, staff, alumni, academic advisors, and assorted other “friends of English,” including the Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and other stakeholders. The week, which is actually more like three days, is meant to be positive, informative, and above all, fun. It’s also designed to be sustainable—something we look forward to doing each year rather than a chore we dread. Putting it on is a lot of work for a lot of different people, and the result is something of a three-ring circus, but our students and faculty really enjoy it, and there’s no question that the benefits of doing it far outweigh the costs.

What’s the history behind it? Was there a particular reason you started it?

The department underwent an External Review in 2012, and that review included a number of recommendations for recruiting majors and increasing the number of students pursuing minors in English. At about the same time, our school experienced a fairly precipitous drop in student credit hours (20% over two years), and the English department was affected by that as well. In 2013, in response to all of this, we created a Strategic Plan for the department that included such goals as celebrating faculty scholarship and improving recruiting and retention of students, as well as a number of less measurable goals couched in the language of community. At some point, it occurred to us that we could address a lot of these goals in a single annual event. We held our first English Week in April of 2015, and I think it’s gotten a little better each year we’ve done it. Last year, for example, overall attendance was nearly double that of the previous year and significantly above that of the first year.

What’s the week look like, and how does it unfold?

The format is pretty simple, and you can see the entire week’s schedule by visiting the English Week website at http://englishweek.iupui.edu/cms/We rent two side-by-side rooms in our campus center and hold presentations in one of them from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., Monday through Wednesday. Each day features three 30-minute events, and on the final day, we also host a fourth event, an evening reading. So the grand total is ten events over three days, or roughly six hours of programing, including time for Q & A after the events.

Since our major has concentrations in creative writing, film, linguistics, literature, and writing and literacy, we try to vary the presentations enough to make sure we’re showing a good variety of what we do and what’s cool about majoring in English at IUPUI.

Meanwhile, the second room is given over to what we have taken to calling the “English Lounge.” It’s an informal, fun place to eat, mingle, and talk to advisors and faculty, and fellow students. We also include a few carnival elements like a wheel of fortune and collaborative storytelling; plus there are tables lined with faculty books, descriptions of upcoming course offerings, advising materials, and so on. Picture a book fair at a conference but with free food and interactive games.

What’s the budget for the week?

Very minimal, and I mean that in a good way. The rooms cost us $150 for the week and are worth every penny. We spend another $300 or so on pizza and bottled water, with faculty donating cookies and chips. Printing posters and other promotional materials adds another $175, but if you add it all up, we come in at well under a thousand dollars total.

However, as with most events in academia, the real cost is in faculty time, and we’re very careful about how we budget for that, too. Many hands make light work. That’s a principle we really try to follow. At our first department meeting in September, when planning for the event gets underway, I challenge the department to achieve something like 100% participation. What I mean by that is that every single member of the department does something to help in the effort. That could mean anything from serving on the planning committee, to doing a presentation with a student, to bringing your class to one of the presentations, to just attending an event and asking a question. We don’t keep tabs on official participation, but I would guess that we’re not far from our goal of 100% participation.

You mentioned a planning committee. How big is it, and who serves?

It’s fairly big as these things go and very diverse, including lecturers and tenure-track faculty, academic advisors and other staff, and of course students. The department’s Associate Chair, David Hoegberg, and our Lead Advisor, Francia Kissel, co-chair the committee, and they’ve done a fabulous job. They consult with the department during the planning stages and seek feedback after the event is over, but otherwise the committee has complete control. I don’t attend any of their meetings and I certainly don’t get in their way or try to tell them what to do. At this point, they know far more about planning and executing such an event than I will ever know.

How do you promote the week?

We try to get a website up the semester before, and the first thing we do is encourage faculty to get the dates and times of presentations on their syllabi. As we get closer, we use an array of means to get the word out, including email, Facebook and Twitter, the departmental newsletter, various video boards and announcement sites on campus. But the main thing we do is to invite students directly and get faculty to bring their classes to presentations. When we first started doing this, I remember someone said, “I hope we don’t do all this work and then have empty seats.” And then someone else said, “Well, fill the first half with invited classes, and the rest will come because it looks like people are having fun.” Great advice, it turns out.

What do you see as the chief benefits of English Week?

The most obvious benefits are probably the boost it’s given us in majors and the visibility it’s given our department on campus. For example, we’ve seen a five-fold increase in our minors since we started celebrating English Week, and our majors are on the increase as well. Last year, we invited the Dean of the School of Liberal Arts to launch the week, and at the last event of the week, held on a Wednesday evening, I was very happy to see our Executive Vice Chancellor and her husband in attendance. Our Chancellor is very active on Twitter, and although he didn’t attend any events, he did show that he was following what we were up to.

But there are some less obvious benefits as well, for example a boost in the mood and overall morale of English faculty. I was a little worried, at first, that faculty would see the event as another responsibility, an onerous drain on their time. Humanities programs in general, and English departments in particular, have had to absorb a lot of bad news lately in the form of declining enrollments, shrinking budgets, inability to search for replacement faculty in keys areas, etc. But it turns out that an event like English Week actually mitigates against all that. It’s a celebration of something we all love and believe in, a reminder to us (and our students and alumni) of why the study of English is exciting and important.

What have you learned in three years of hosting this event?

Keep it fun. Focus on students and their experiences. Pack the house with students from introductory courses. Keep presentations short—no more than half an hour. Highlight interactions between students and faculty. Get everyone in the department involved. Include free food. That last point might seem funny, but it’s very important. Students need to feel like they experienced multiple benefits from attending, and free pizza and cookies in the middle of a busy day on campus is definitely something they appreciate.

When we first started doing this, the events tended to feature faculty talking about their research or what students can gain by majoring or minoring in English. Since then we’ve moved to a model where students are involved at every level. For example, instead of having a faculty member read and talk about her poetry, we have the poet present on poetry writing alongside two or three student poets. In their exit surveys, students invariably mention the work read by their fellow students more than they mention faculty work in the same genre. That was certainly true when I presented on memoir with a couple of my students!

Something else we’ve learned in the last year or so is to hold the event someplace where students naturally gather. At IUPUI, we have a fairly new student center that feels more like a conference venue than a classroom building or the usual departmental digs. We moved the event there after two years of holding it in our own space, and I think that really added to the overall vibe of excitement and discovery.

Another thing I’d highlight is how important it is to include students from introductory courses. They represent our best chance at direct recruitment of majors, and we try to focus a great deal of attention on them. We do this by encouraging faculty teaching introductory courses to bring their students and get them writing about their experiences. Our first year writing courses are capped at 23 students. Getting even two sections to attend a particular event or presentation means that nearly 50 potential majors or minors will get to experience firsthand what being a student of English is all about. That’s huge, because if only 5 of these 50 students go on to minor in English, that still adds up to an extra 225 credit hours.

Finally, we’ve learned the importance of getting the most out of everything we do. For example, we learned early on the importance of photographing the events and promoting them on social media. In the past, if I wanted a picture of students and faculty interacting, I’d have to stage something or use a stock photo. But now, because of English Week, we’ve got hundreds of high resolution images to choose from (https://iu.box.com/s/m8sujptajw5yzilzt2t0u83gy5nvoyb0).

What’s the future of English Week?

We’ll keep doing it so long as it’s fun and feels like it’s making a difference. We may tweak or add a few things, but I think it’s important to not let it get too big or out of hand. It’s got to be sustainable, as I said at the beginning of the interview. But one thing we’ve talked about doing is coordinating with area high schools and trying to get more of their students to attend. We already invite admitted students who know they want to major in English, but we could do even more to involve prospective majors, and I think we’ll keep brainstorming ways to do that. 

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