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Our Rich History: Competent student writing, literature understanding falls to TM English Dept.

By Tom Ward
Thomas More University       

Part 58 of Our Series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021” This is the second part of two related to the English Department. For Part 1 of the English Department click here.

Writing was a crucial skill for students in all academic departments. The primary responsibility for producing competent student writers, however, fell upon the English Department — although much was expected of it, it often seemed to them that their opinions went largely unheeded. The department taught the basic English courses that all students had to take as part of the core curriculum, and it was important for these to include a writing component, though its nature often changed over the years.

Sr. Colleen Dillon, SND. (TMU Archives)

In the early 1980s, TMC added a two-part writing requirement for all students to be presented by the English Department.  These two parts were a basic instructional writing/composition course, and another course based on literature “in which assignments are designed to provide practice in writing beyond the instructional level of courses…” (1981-1982 TMC Catalog, p. 17, TMU Archives). Such a requirement partially fulfilled one goal of the department, “to instruct in written communication and in the appreciation of literature … ,” with the department bearing “the sole responsibility for offering the ‘service’ courses required for all students to fulfill the two-part writing skills requirement…” (English Department Self-Evaluation, ca. 1983, p. 1, TMU Archives). Yet this requirement, focused more on writing than around works of literature per se, seemed inadequate to the English Department, and the extent to which literature would be part of the core would be a point of contention for many years.

A document by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) concisely summarized the various aspects of literature for which the TMC department considered its study so essential: literature “affirms our common humanity, illuminates our differences, and documents how different people at different times have perceived and approached an infinite variety of human problems and aspirations” (Quoted in English Department Report, 1993-1994, p. 9, TMU Archives). Such understanding of the human condition would help make students well-rounded individuals with an appreciation of cultural diversity.

The English faculty, then, had good reasons for its ongoing concern that literature was being given short shrift in the curriculum. At the behest of President Thomas Coffey, a Core Curriculum Committee studied the possibilities for the new core to go into effect during the mid-1980s. Sr. Colleen Dillion, SND, chair of the English Department at the time, hoped for a more extensive writing program to be adopted at TMC, something more than the “less-than-satisfactory results that can be achieved in a two-part writing requirement” (English Department Report, 1983-1984, pp. 3-4, TMU Archives). The writing requirement finally accepted by the Faculty General Assembly, though, did not satisfy Sr. Colleen; she was clearly disappointed that “a core was set in place, in a liberal arts institution, with no literature requirement” (English Department Report, 1985-1986, p. 1, TMU Archives).

Professor Joseph Connelly. (TMU Archives)

For a time, the inclusion of a “Great Books” element in core curriculum courses was tried as a substitute for a literature requirement. Beginning in the new curriculum approved in 1986, core courses, with a few exemptions, were to incorporate at least one appropriate book into their syllabi. This was later rejected, though, when the core was re-evaluated in the early 1990s, and the English Department’s lobby for a core literature course again proved unsuccessful (Curriculum Committee meeting, Nov. 9, 1990, TMU Archives).

The English Department members realized that part of the reason for the absence of a serious literature component was “criticism by the faculty that such a requirement would overload the core” (English Department Report, 1995-1996, p. 5, TMU Archives). But whatever the perceived reason, the department would claim that it “continues to suffer the embarrassment of the school’s not having separate 6-credit writing and literature requirements in a liberal arts curriculum …” (English Department Report, 1993-1994, p. 5, TMU Archives). With this situation, the department’s objective to introduce students to literary interpretation was hampered because “there is only limited inclusion of literature in the students’ experience” in the core (English Department Report, 1994-1995, p. 10, TMU Archives).

The problem would not be fully resolved in the 1990s either. A compromise of sorts was reached between the English Department and the Curriculum Committee of the Academic Affairs Committee (AAC), a compromise that would at least bring more literature into the core curriculum. The department proposed to change the 101 and 102 “English Composition and Reading” courses in the core to new courses entitled “Literature and Writing” 101 and 102. The content of the courses was to be made more “writing intensive,” while a new “Intermediate Composition” course would be created as a non-core requirement for students whose writing skills were inadequate (Minutes of Curriculum Committee meeting, Mar. 20, 1992, TMU Archives). The Curriculum Committee regarded this as a means of addressing “in a positive manner” the English Department’s concern over the lack of literature in the core, though they also worried about further expanding a core of 56-61 credits (Curriculum Committee to Academic Affairs Committee, Mar. 23, 1992, TMU Archives). This seemed a way to increase literature in the core without adding additional credit hours. The Academic Affairs Committee approved the proposal at its meeting on March 23, 1992.

Professor Jim Schuttemeyer. (TMU Archives)

But the expedient of combining literature with writing in ENG 101 and 102 courses was seemingly impractical. It demanded an effort to “make literature appealing while making writing effective” (English Department Report, 1993-1994, p. 5, TMU Archives). An experienced teacher like Joe Connelly found it difficult to try to cover both in one course. He concluded that “the divided course has created more confusion than insight” for his students who learned little about literature as a result (Connelly Faculty Self-Assessment, May 1996, TMU Archives).

The lack of literature in the core, though, did not mean that the department could not offer enough literature courses for its majors. They maintained or restored basic courses, like “Literary Criticism” and “Directed Readings,” as well as more specialized ones; Professor Connelly created a course “Mythology and Literature” for 1983-1984, which proved quite popular (English Department Report, 1983-1984, p. 3, TMU Archives).

Yet during the 1980s, the English Department was hampered by not having enough full-time professors. Even with several part-time professors, they were stretched thin by having to staff “service” courses required for the core, which often meant that staff had to grade a “sizeable part of the paper-correction load created by the writing requirements” (English Department Report, 1983-1984, p. 4, TMU Archives).

In 1987, the department was granted a fourth full-time position that was intended to accommodate the phasing out of a “writing-about-literature” requirement and phasing in ENG 101 and ENG 102 “English Composition and Reading” I, II, as core requirements (which would themselves later be changed as noted above). The new position was filled for a year by Tim Moning, who took a leave in 1988 to complete his PhD. In order to assist with the college’s “austerity budget,” the department agreed to allow the position to remain vacant; this meant that at least one full-time faculty would have to teach three sections of the 101 and 102 courses. When it became clear that Professor Moning would not return, Dr. David-Everett Blythe was hired full-time to replace him (Dillon to Hebert, Jan. 30, 1991, TMU Archives). Yet this still did not meet the needs of the department as Sr. Colleen perceived them.

Dr. Sherry Cook Stanforth. (TMU Archives)

The English Department also introduced the idea of adding a “writer-in-residence” to its faculty. The person selected for this new role was a Franciscan priest, Fr. Murray Bodo, who was an “active spiritual writer and poet.” His primary responsibility would be Creative Writing, though he would also be qualified to teach “Literary Criticism” and “Modern Poetry”; another factor in Fr. Bodo’s favor was that he was near to completing his PhD, which would add another terminal degree to the department (Dean Hebert to President Bensman, June 6, 1990, TMU Archives). He was hired part-time in the spring of 1991 as writer-in-residence, a role in which he would also work with the editorial staff of the student literary journal WORDS (Hebert to Dennis Umberg and John Nicholas, VP for Administration/Finance, ca. 1991, TMU Archives).

Department faculty recognized other problems with the classes they offered to their majors. The necessity of their students having to take Comp and Graduate Record Examination (GRE) tests interfered with their own conceptions of how their courses should operate. Besides disagreeing with using such tests to assess their students’ achievements “– a concept we do not endorse – a concept which, in fact, we think is antithetical to the goals of our discipline,” they believed that “the range of knowledge expected is incredible.” What the students were expected to absorb in terms of “reading background and formal knowledge” for the standardized tests did not always correlate with what the faculty taught in their classes. To cover this broad range could necessitate English increasing its credit hours to thirty-six. In an attempt to solve this shortcoming generated by external factors, the faculty resolved to add more “GRE-type, factual questions in their tests” and students agreed to accept “the challenge to study more objectively in addition to reading the material and learning to formulate critical opinions” (English Department Report, 1995-1996, pp. 5, 7, TMU Archives).

Meanwhile, the English Department made significant efforts to improve overall writing skills for all students. Several important innovations were introduced at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s.  In 1989, the English Department applied for a chapter of Sigma Tau Delta (STD), the National English Honors Society (Dillon to Hebert, Nov. 3, 1989, TMU Archives). The initiation of the Nu Omega Chapter of STD at TMC greatly benefitted the English majors who met the grade point requirement to become members (3.25 in English and 3.0 overall), as they were thereby eligible for scholarships (The Utopian, Dec. 5, 1989, p. 3). Yet it also benefited other students. For example, when Student Support Services opened a Writing Center in 1990, members of STD were a natural choice to serve as mentors for students who needed assistance in writing. As they wrote in an introductory letter to faculty, they were “equipped to help students with research, essay development, proof reading and any technical needs they might have,” and they encouraged faculty to recommend their services to their students (STD to Faculty, n.d., TMU Archives).

The English Department itself attempted to ensure more student writing within all departments. After hearing about a program at Alverno College in Milwaukee, entitled “Teaching Abilities Across the Curriculum,” Sr. Colleen applied to participate in a workshop in June 1989. This was the origin of what would be called “Writing Across the Curriculum” (WAC; It was also called “writing to learn”).

Dr. Julie Daoud (TMU Archives)

Sr. Colleen attended the Alverno workshop and prepared to introduce the program at TMC. Later, in November 1989, additional faculty from a wide range of Thomas More departments attended a WAC conference at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Some, such as Paul Tenkotte from the history department, found the workshop to be a pedagogically significant experience, enhancing their teaching skills in profound ways.

A Faculty Development Day dedicated to introducing WAC was held on January 5, 1990, with two professors from Alverno College present to direct it. Part of the plan was that each academic department would create at least one “writing intensive” course and designate one person for training in WAC. It was determined that future workshops would be held later in the year (Dean Hebert to Faculty, Jan. 18, 1990, TMU Archives). At a meeting of the Academic Affairs Committee following another workshop conducted March 9-10 that year, Sr. Colleen stated that all participation in WAC would be voluntary and “no effort is being made to force WAC on anyone.” According to her, all participants at the March 9-10 workshop recommended it (Academic Affairs Committee meeting minutes, Mar. 12, 1990, TMU Archives). Although the initial response from participating faculty may have been mostly positive, the WAC had a somewhat limited impact.

By the end of the 1990s, more changes were occurring in the English Department and its offerings. Sr. Colleen retired in 2001, though she was granted emeritus status (Dale Myers, VP of Academic Affairs to Dillon, June 14, 2001, TMU Archives). Professor Jim Schuttemeyer began a very long term as departmental chair, from 1998 to 2017. Professor Connelly retired in 1999 (he died on July 7, 2007) and was replaced by Professor Julie Perry (later, Julie Daoud). In 2000, Dr. Sherry Cook Stanforth joined the department. She would be responsible for beginning one of the most influential writing programs ever at TMC, the Creative Writers Vision Program (CWV).

During Professor Schuttemeyer’s tenure as chair, the English Department designed some new English courses, such as ENG 240 “Literature and the Arts,” to be counted also as a Fine Arts credit, making it more attractive to non-English majors. In 1998, the department proposed to the AAC to “allow literature courses to ‘count’ as Fine Arts electives within the Core curriculum …” as an “attempt to at least allow students the option of taking a literature course as part of the Core requirements” (English Department Programmatic Review 1999, p. 23, TMU Archives). The proposal was eventually approved and beginning in the fall of 1999, included the above-mentioned Literature and the Arts, as well as ENG 322 “Creative Writing” (1999-2000 TMC Catalog, pp. 109-110, TMU Archives).

Some problems continued to exist with the lack of correlation between course content and questions asked on standardized tests. Following some initial student resentment over the tests, faculty tried to stress their importance to students and to include the tests as part of the ENG 405 “Senior Seminar.” The department tried to address the disparity of course and test contents by making ENG 305 “Directed Readings” more focused “on literary theory, literary research tools and methods,” while also introducing students “to the content of GRE field tests” (English Department Programmatic Review, 1999, pp. 27, 36, TMU Archives).

One long-term goal of the department was finally met when a bona fide literature course was added to the core for the 2002–2003 academic year. Along with a First Year Seminar, the new requirement was ENG 150 “Literature, Writing and Research” that was billed as a “reading and writing intensive course” that would invite students “to explore literature as a meaningful and complex expression of human experience.”

At the same time, the department introduced a Creative Writing concentration in its curriculum. Some students had expressed interest in having different tracks, such as Creative Writing, in the major (English Department Programmatic Review 1999, p. 39, TMU Archives). It later added a Literary Studies concentration.

In subsequent years, the English Department added new faculty, including Rex Easley, Steven Thomas, Sarah Blackwell, as well as adjuncts who helped fill the needs of the English curriculum. Dr. Julie Daoud became chair in 2018.

During Dr. Daoud’s time as chair, the department revised the curriculum, the first substantive update since 2003. This update did more than merely add some new courses and eliminate others. The department now stressed as its purpose that it would enable majors to live “lives of creativity, purpose and professional preparedness” (Interview with Dr. Daoud, June 21, 2022). The principal change was the introduction of the “English and Creative Writing” major. This joined the two concentrations of Literary Studies and Creative Writing into a single major, while also reducing the number of required credit hours from 40 to 36.

The focus of course content also changed. Literature courses would emphasize “emerging/marginalized writers.” Creativity would expand through “writing in contemporary genres,” such as “instapoetry”, and “writing for a range of digital platforms/new media”; overall, the updated curriculum would include “more training for ‘career readiness’ ” (TMU English Department website, 2022). To this end, students would “gain experience in multimodal writing” and produce “ePortfolios” that would showcase their diverse writing talents for prospective employers (Interview with Dr. Daoud, June 21, 2022).

Another innovation was to emphasize themes rather than the more conventional mode of teaching literature according to various time “periods.” This practice could highlight lesser-known authors that were usually overlooked during the study of the famous “canonical” writers of distinct periods usually designated by centuries or pivotal figures (such as “Victorian” Literature). This would fit well with the contemporary recognition of the “importance of inclusivity” and offer a broader understanding of the multiplicity of human experiences (Interview with Dr. Daoud, June 21, 2022).

The combination in one major of the related, yet distinct, fields of writing and literature seems finally to realize what Sr. Colleen and others over the years had longed to achieve. This contemporary approach to English adopted by the department also offers a balance of the traditional liberal arts emphasis with the practical aspects of readying students for real life and work. In the past, the latter was perhaps assumed to occur as English majors absorbed the traditional academic curriculum. However, making those aspects more explicit would have been acceptable to the earlier faculty who always hoped to make the study of English—both writing and literature—not only enlightening but relevant for its time.

Tom Ward is the Archivist of Thomas More University. He holds an MA in History from Xavier University, Cincinnati. He can be contacted at wardt@thomasmore.edu.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Gender Studies at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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