This is a good moment, I’m thinking, to answer a question that has probably occurred to anyone reading this blog, or anyone who has ever taken college courses offered by both English and Communication departments. That question is: Why are the degree programs we have discussed in this blog—Creative Writing, Professional Writing, Literature, Journalism, and Public Relations—offered by different departments that are often housed in different colleges or divisions? In my posting of March 2nd I remarked that the Journalism program at Slippery Rock was originally proposed by an English professor at the time, but found a home in the Communication department after it was rejected by the English department. It was also true, as I pointed out, that there was no Professional Writing program within our English department until 1997.
To answer the posed question, one has to begin with events that occurred nearly 100 years ago. Back then, English departments were establishing their institutional identity by focusing on literary studies, using research and the cultural values of the time to establish their value. In fact, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) was founded in 1911 by high school and college English teachers and was soon deeply involved with, in the words of Steven Mailloux, “the pedagogical issues that the Modern Language Association was abandoning in its developing preoccupation with research” (10). It wasn’t the tradition of oral argument that was a major feature of a nineteenth century college education upon which early twentieth century English departments established their identities, and it wasn’t the teaching of writing either; it was the study of literature.
Speech teachers, according to Mailloux, felt as if their status within the newly minted English departments was “subordinate” (11). And it wasn’t long before they felt alienated from NCTE as well. Consequently, seventeen speech teachers who were also NCTE members formed the National Association of Academic Teachers of Public Speaking (NAATPS) in 1915. Both before and after that date, speech teachers were busy establishing their own departments, consciously separating themselves from English studies by emphasizing their social science approach to research and the utilitarian value of what they taught. Rhetoric and creative writing were arts rather than sciences and therefore had the hardest time establishing themselves in the new academic world (Goggin 65). Speech departments eventually evolved into Communication departments and began to encompass professional training that involved writing as well as public speaking. Meanwhile, composition teaching almost always remained in English departments, generally wedded in people’s minds with helping students gain the ability to produce academically suitable writing, rather than writing one may engage in as part of one’s professional activities.
Following the Second World War there were some attempts by certain English and speech teachers to collaborate professionally, but by that time it seems the disciplines had grown too far apart in their approaches to identifying and developing knowledge to make such collaborations work in any far-reaching way. When NCTE founded its Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) in 1949 the resulting papers and articles focused almost exclusively on composition. Communication became the “forgotten C,” as I heard someone put it at the Rhetoric Society of America gathering a few weeks ago.
All of the above serves, in a somewhat roundabout way, to explain why that English professor who wanted to teach journalism found a more welcoming home in Slippery Rock’s Communication department a quarter century ago, and why you would most likely find a program in Public Relations in such a department as well. My own personal experience was that English departments of the time were experiencing something of an identity crisis. The composition teachers in their midst were becoming more confident in their educational mission, and in the scholarship evolving as a support for that mission. (When I became interested in composition studies as a profession in the mid- to late-1970s, my “home” at the nearby university for pursuing a doctorate was in English Education, not English itself.) Professors who had been trained as literature scholars in the fifties and sixties became understandably anxious—maybe they even felt a little threatened. And so, when one of their own proposed a journalism program, a program that had the tinge of “professionalism” rather than “art,” as I was told one professor of the time expressed it, he was rejected.
One point of the study I performed in 2008-09, the one that gave birth to this blog, is that times are different now. Literary critics have learned to celebrate the usefulness of what they do, and composition specialists conceive of their own mission as extending beyond service to academic writing. Critics are as likely to apply their analytical tools to journalistic writing as to belle lettres. Journalism and public relations programs demand the development of writing abilities, and are therefore of use to this particular English professor.
Goggin, Mary Daly. “The Tangled Roots of Literature, Speech Communication, Linguistics,
Rhetoric/Composition, and Creative Writing: A Selected Bibliography on the History of
English Studies.” RSQ: Rhetoric Society Quarterly 29.4 (1999): 63-87.
Mailloux, Steven. Disciplinary Identities: Rhetorical Paths of English, Speech, and Composition.
New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2006.