Disciplinary Deadlock

My department has become deadlocked between competing disciplinary factions. The creative writers and compositionists believe the literature faculty members look down on them and their work (and resent it), while the literature faculty members barricade themselves behind tradition for fear that robust enrollments in creative writing and writing studies courses threaten their livelihood and the department’s very disciplinary identity (and resent it). Meanwhile, the writing studies contingent regards creative writing as catering to students’ whimsies and without the rigor of writing studies (and disdain it). Only the creative writers seem fairly happy (and flaunt it), basking in the security of their robust enrollments, which, to be frank, do stabilize the departments’ literature offerings in an age of austere budgets and of declining student interest in the literature branch of the department’s work. The literature faculty should be grateful for the creative writers’ presence, and the writing studies faculty see important disciplinary connections with them, but I struggle to formulate this to them in a persuasive manner.—Split Down the Middle

Dear Prof. Split,

Unfortunately, the tale you tell is a common one. Occasionally, bad feeling between literature faculty on the one hand and writing faculty on the other can lead to writing programs calving off and becoming their own departments. It doesn’t look like you’re at that crisis point, but things seem pretty dire. While the theory and culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s that split departments into warring factions are over, the literature/writing split has emerged to take its place. This is particularly true as literature enrollments drop off disproportionately, a real loss for faculty who imagined themselves as the center of the field, or even as defining English studies.

Your problem is even more complicated than that already fraught bifurcation, since the disdain works in three directions: literature towards writing of all kinds, writing toward literature, and writing studies towards creative writing. To be honest, I don’t think you’re going to change people’s minds by trying to convince them of the value each faction has for each other and for the field — there’s no incentive on the part of faculty to want to look behind these splits to meaningful connections between and among these disciplines. Instead, you have to be a bit craftier to get these folks to regard each other with respect.

To my mind, the most effective way of building a team out of groups of people who see each other as inferior and/or a threat is to both name the problem openly and find projects on which faculty from these different parts of the department can work together for the good of the department as a whole (by the way,I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell the lit faculty that they should be grateful to their creative writing colleagues — that will only intensify whatever resentments are already there). If you don’t already have one, you could create a student engagement committee that is staffed by faculty from each of the parts of the department, ideally faculty members who are respected by their colleagues. Set them the task of selling the major to undeclared students and to the college as a whole. This will force them to look at the different tracks of the major as strengths, and collaborate on methods to generate excitement about them. If you think the relationship between these disciplines is rancorous, you should be on the committee to cheerlead and direct constructive conversation. It doesn’t sound like you’re there, though, and the idea of engaging students pushes the focus outward rather than letting it fester internally.

I’d recommend, too, that you enlist some faculty you trust to work on this problem with you. Maybe have a small meeting of folks from each concentration in the major and be totally honest about your concerns as well as your desire to generate collegiality among the faculty from different disciplines. Don’t let them rehearse the same grievances; rather, make it clear that your agenda is to heal rifts and that you’re putting your faith in them to work on this with you. The deadlock you describe makes any kind of meaningful debate within the department impossible, and you want these colleagues to help you break through it. In my experience, expecting people to rise to the occasion usually works, especially since you’ve hand-picked this group of people as less invested in these divides and focused more on problem-solving.

You might think, too, if there are ways that you reproduce these splits without realizing it. Who have you appointed to important positions in the department? Are they predominantly one camp or another? Are your confidants in the department in your discipline? As chair, you have to seem — and be — above these divisions.

—The Chair

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.