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Our Rich History: The growth of the Thomas More English Department, blessed with good teachers

By Tom Ward 
Thomas More University  

Part 56 of Our Series: “Retrospect and Vista II: Thomas More College/University, 1971-2021”  

English was, of course, standard in any college curriculum at the time that Villa Madonna College began in 1921. It was normally comprised of two related, yet distinct components—grammar/composition and literature. Although the way in which grammar was taught and the styles of literature studied would change over the decades, English would remain a mainstay among the academic disciplines. The English faculty of Villa Madonna and later Thomas More College was blessed not only with good teachers, but with many who were themselves writers and poets possessing the desire and skills to mentor their students who pursued the same path.

Sr. Teresita Casey, OSB. (TMU Archives)

In keeping with the original purpose of Villa Madonna College to prepare Benedictine Sisters to be teachers certified by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the English department primarily reflected “the practical aims of meeting State requirements and of furnishing content most likely to benefit the student teacher in her own classroom” (Department of English Report, ca. 1956, TMU Archives). Sr. Mary Teresita Casey, OSB, was the professor of English who taught courses in rhetoric and composition in the earliest years of VMC when it was under the charge of the Benedictines. Over the years, she taught both English and Education at VMC, and served as head librarian from 1955 until her death in 1968.

When Bishop of Covington Francis W. Howard made Villa Madonna a diocesan college in 1929, with the addition of the Sisters of Notre Dame and the Sisters of Divine Providence to the faculty and administration, the responsibility for the various academic departments was divided between them. At the opening of the fall 1929 semester, English was under the direction of the Sisters of Divine Providence, with Sr. Mary of the Incarnation Byrne, CDP, MA, appointed as the first chair, though she would not actually assume that role at that time (Sr. Irmina Saelinger, OSB, Retrospect and Vista, 1971, p. 11).

Sr. Mary of the Incarnation Byrne, CDP. (TMU Archives)

The college’s accreditation at the time came from the University of Kentucky. Because UK required that at least eight department chairs have a PhD before a school could be granted senior college status, Sr. Mary of the Incarnation and others were tasked with completing a doctorate; in her absence, Sr. Mary Herbert Richardson, CDP, MA, taught English during that first academic year, 1929-1930, and Sr. Mary Camillus, CDP, began teaching the following year (Retrospect and Vista, pp. 11-13).

Sr. Mary of the Incarnation attained a PhD at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and began her duties as chair of the English department in 1932. She was known to be a “truly cultured personality” who introduced new courses “with an emphasis on the cultural aspects of literature.” One example was a course in literary criticism introduced in the fall of 1937. As the department grew, it began holding Saturday classes in 1930 and summer classes in 1938. Speech (Public Speaking) was added to the curriculum in 1947, taught initially by Sr. Ernestine Ott, CDP. Sr. Ernestine was also a talented artist (Department of English Report, ca. 1956, TMU Archives).
When Sr. Mary of the Incarnation died in 1949, another Sister of Divine Providence who would become a stalwart of the department, Sr. Agnes Margaret Humbert, replaced her as chair. Sr. Agnes came to the department in 1945 after completing an MA and a PhD at the Catholic University of America (Department of English Report, ca. 1956, TMU Archives). During Sr. Agnes Margaret’s lengthy tenure (1949–1968) as chair, several innovations were introduced, including the Junior Reading List (of both English and American authors) and the Senior Seminar for English majors. The English department branched out into Journalism beginning in the 1952-1953 academic year, with Mr. Charles Diener as the first professor. Two priests of the Diocese of Covington were added to the English faculty, Fr. Harry Welp and later Fr. Elmer Moore, who taught a popular Shakespeare course and helped to direct plays performed by the University Players (Department of English Report, ca. 1956, TMU Archives).

Sr. Agnes Margaret Humbert, CDP. (TMU Archives)

In a telling report written in the mid-1950s, Sr. Agnes Margaret decried what she regarded as the “general lack of cultural interest and pre-college preparation in the language arts …” that the English department at VMC was trying to remedy. One such effort was a two-semester World Literature course that was “taught sectionally by members of the Classical Language, Modern Language, and English Departments.” An attempt was made to overcome the shortcomings in the skills of entering students by beginning a Remedial English course in 1951. Perhaps the most ambitious project was a “High School-College Cooperative Program” in which a committee was formed, with Sr. Agnes Margaret as head, to work with high school English teachers to “establish definite goals for the teaching of English in each of the four years of high school, to outline minimum essentials for each area of the language arts, and to work toward the development of a complete syllabus for the teaching of English in the high school.” (Department of English Report, ca. 1956, TMU Archives).
Sisters of Divine Providence continued to supply teachers to the English faculty. Sr. Agnes Regina Martin joined the English faculty in the fall of 1954. Sr. Loretto Marie Driscoll came to TMC in 1950 and served as library director as well as an English instructor. She took a leave of absence in 1958 to complete her PhD in English at Fordham University (Villa Madonna Newsletter, Oct. 1958, p. 3, TMU Archives). She completed her doctorate in 1959. Sr. John Joseph Dohman joined VMC in the early 1960s (Thomas Hanna, “History and Status of Villa Madonna College, 1921-1961,” dissertation, 1962, pp. 238-239).
Over time, sisters of other congregations would join the department. Notre Dame Sister Colleen Dillion graduated from Villa Madonna College in 1949. In 1958 she was awarded a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship with which she pursued her postgraduate studies in English at Fordham University, attaining a master’s degree there in 1960. She began her teaching career at VMC the following year. During the years 1970-1974, Sr. Colleen attended Cornell University to complete both a MA and PhD in Linguistics, with which she was able to add Linguistics to the curriculum when she returned to TMC (Curriculum Vitae for Sr. Colleen Dillion, 1989, TMU Archives).

Sr. Loretto Marie Driscoll, CDP, department chair, 1974. (TMU Archives)

The Benedictine Sisters contributed Sr. Judith Hock, who joined the English faculty of TMC in 1968 and taught until her retirement in 1982, though she served an earlier stint at VMC as an English professor and assistant registrar, 1959–1961. She was another VMC alum, having graduated in 1937, after which she attained an MA from the University of Notre Dame. She furthered her higher education in various fields, including attending Oxford University in England and the University of Dublin, though she did not complete a PhD (Sr. Judith Hock, OSB, Biographical Sketch and Profile, TMU Archives).

The English department also embraced Drama in the late 1950s. Ronald Mielech, a 1957 VMC graduate, pursued graduate studies and achieved a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Yale Drama School. Beginning in fall 1960, he taught English and Speech at his alma mater, though he was best known for directing plays, beginning with the Drama Fraternity and later for the Villa Players. He also wrote some plays (Department of English Report, ca. 1961, TMU Archives). It was Dr. Mielech who succeeded Sr. Agnes Margaret as acting chair when she stepped down in 1968 (Villa Madonna News, June 1968, p. 5, TMU Archives). Drama and Speech became a separate department in the mid-1960s. For more on Dr. Mielech, see: This NKyTribune Our History columm.
Lay professors became more commonplace as the 1960s advanced. VMC graduate (1960) Dr. Sandra Cuni began at VMC in 1965 and helped start the student literary journals Jesture and Words. Dr. Cuni was herself a published poet. After attaining a MA at St. John University in 1961, Mr. Joseph Connelly taught at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa until he was hired for the VMC English department in 1966 (Connelly Faculty Biographical Sketch, 1966, TMU Archives). Mr. Connelly was an army veteran and a devout Catholic who became a popular teacher, serving as chair from 1977 to 1980. He was also an accomplished poet who had many poems published in journals over the years. For more on Dr. Cuni, see Part 22 of this series: https://www.nkytribune.com/2021/11/our-rich-history-dr-sandra-lee-cuni-innovative-dedicated-teacher-poet-award-is-given-in-her-honor/

The 1960s witnessed many changes in higher education in the country. The Civil Rights Movement and other liberation movements brought a greater awareness of the lack of attention paid to the interests and accomplishments of African Americans, minorities, and women in traditional curriculums, particularly in history and literature; both subjects had concentrated almost exclusively on what was amusingly, but derisively, termed “dead white males” in the canon of works studied by college students. Although the English department had experimented with World Literature at times, overall, the authors studied in literature courses tended to be white and male.

The English course offerings at TMC began to reflect these changes in the 1970s. There was more diversity, as well as new attention focusing on authors of other countries, especially Russia, as well as black and women writers, Kentucky and Urban literature, and other non-traditional areas of interest (TMC Catalogs of the 1970s, TMU Archives). There were even unusual courses that would never have been considered ten years earlier, such as “Rock Poetry,” featuring song lyrics by John Lennon, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan (TMC Catalog, 1974–1976, p. 69, TMU Archives).

Sr. Judith Hock, OSB, Sr. Colleen Dillon, SND, and Mr. Joseph Connelly, 1978. (TMU Archives)

Change was apparent too in the purposes enunciated for the English department. Unlike earlier rationales that focused on preparing teachers, the new focus was on preparing the individual students for life through a widespread cultural and scholarly experience.  A 1968 self-study (with no author attributed but probably Sr. Agnes Margaret) succinctly summed up these purposes: while maintaining its role in teacher preparation, the department now stressed that students would not only become competent writers and speakers but would more generally gain the “ability to read for information and pleasure with an awareness of relevant values, especially literary values, adequate to the demands of humanely civilized living” (English Department Self-Study, 1968, p. 1, TMU Archives). This seemed an appropriate goal expressed in terms compatible with the liberal arts tradition. 

The number of English majors increased from thirty-one in 1957 to eighty-nine in 1967 (English Department Self-Study, 1968, p. 8, TMU Archives). During the 1960s they could choose from a wider variety of courses to fit their chosen areas of expertise, and most would conclude by taking a senior seminar. All English majors, however, were expected to pass a comprehensive exam at the end of their senior year, and without passing it, they could not graduate. The failure of English majors to pass the exam after a second attempt was attributed to “the college’s entrance requirements, lack of Departmental control over transfer students, and our own relaxing of a former policy requiring majors to have a B average in English at the end of the Sophomore year” (English Department Self-Study, 1968, p. 2, TMU Archives). The report also opined that “In general we think that today’s majors are less industrious but somewhat more intelligent than those of five or ten years ago. They seem to lack the enthusiasm and drive of former students. This we ascribe largely to the uncertainty and malaise of our times.” (English Department Self-Study, 1968, p. 9, TMU Archives) 
Dr. John Pratt became chair of the English department in August 1969. After attaining a BA and MA from Cambridge University in England, he finished his doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania in his home state. He came to TMC after first teaching at Ball State (Faculty Newsletter, Sept. 24, 1969, p. 2, TMU Archives). It seems that Dr. Pratt was not a good fit with the department (Connelly letter in support of Sr. Loretto, Oct. 13, 1976, TMU Archives) and his time at TMC was brief.

Sr. Agnes Margaret Humbert left TMC following the 1971–1972 academic year. She would continue teaching, though, by becoming one of the resident Sisters of Divine Providence at the Seminary of St. Pius X, the Diocese of Covington’s seminary in Erlanger. She taught English for the benefit of seminarians until the end of the 1982 spring semester when the seminary discontinued having in-house classes. Sr. Agnes Margaret later returned to TMC as an adjunct professor in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For the story of the seminary’s connection with TMC, see Parts 18 and 19 of this series: https://www.nkytribune.com/2021/10/our-rich-history-thomas-more-college-and-the-seminary-of-st-pius-x-at-marydale-in-erlanger/ and https://www.nkytribune.com/2021/11/our-rich-history-the-seminary-of-st-pius-x-moves-to-the-thomas-more-campus/

In the early 1970s, the department had to adapt its curriculum—as did all departments—to meet the requirements of the Venture Program that officially started in the 1972–1973 academic year. In some ways, English seemed more amenable to Venture than did many other departments; the department’s new focus away from chronological periods and onto “genres, movements, themes, great writers …”, etc., and introduction of “student-initiated independent courses” (Status of the Department of English, Sr. Loretto Driscoll, May 1973, p. 1, TMU Archives) fit in well with Venture’s clusters concept. Sr. Loretto Driscoll, who began as chair of the English Department in 1972, was very supportive of Venture and became personally involved by teaching a freshmen Skills of Inquiry course. The popularity of new English courses was dramatized by the large number of students fitting them into the clusters they devised (Departmental Report, 1973–1974, probably by Connelly, TMU Archives).  For more on the Venture Program, see: https://www.nkytribune.com/2021/08/our-rich-history-committee-one-long-range-planning-the-ill-fated-venture-program-1970-1973/

Mr. James Schuttemeyer (TMU Archives)

After only a few years, though, Venture was abandoned by TMC. There were many reasons, including the expense of the program, though overall, it seemed that one of the main problems was that the program had unrealistic expectations for students who were supposed to make too many decisions early in their college careers.

As Venture was being phased out, Connelly became chair of the department, and Sr. Loretto took a leave of absence (Department of English, 1976–1977, p. 1, TMU Archives). At this time, the faculty dropped to only three full-time professors, which they declared would prohibit them from teaching night classes in the Division of Continuing Education. The department had added some standard writing and grammar courses, and overall, test results were higher than the previous year. (Department of English, 1977–1978, by Mr. Connelly, pp. 1-2, TMU Archives).

The academic year 1978–1979 saw one of the smallest numbers of English graduates ever, only four. A new English curriculum was soon initiated in the fall of 1979 (Report: Department of English, 1978–1979, by Connelly, p. 1, TMU Archives). Part of the new curriculum of 1979 was a “writing-about-literature course.” In this course, students would “write analytical papers and grade them with emphasis on writing mechanics and content” and the course “seemed to have accomplished the purposes”; some students claimed that it was the first time “such a process and evaluation have been done with their writing.” To help reduce the burden of the full-time faculty, James Schuttemeyer was added to the roster that fall. He was described as a “youthful and positive force in the department” (English Department Report, 1979–1980, by Connelly, pp. 1-2, TMU Archives). Although not as youthful as in 1979, Schuttemeyer is still a positive force among the English faculty in 2022.

The stated purpose of the new curriculum showed how far the department had come since the days of Venture; in fact, it seemed a sort of a retreat to the past—“the department aims at directing and training its students to write precisely and clearly and at developing an understanding of man’s written expression since the beginning of the English language …” so they may “understand man by examining the history and techniques of his written and imaginative expression” (Self-study Questionnaire English, ca. Jan. 1982, p. 1, TMU Archives).

The English department also sponsored Writing Labs throughout the 1970s, which were not to be confused with Freshman English Courses (Cuni to Faculty, ca. 1972, TMU Archives). There were Freshmen Composition requirements for all students, and the department also encouraged other departments to require more writing from their students—Sr. Loretto asked other faculty that “we work together to improve the quality of our students’ writing from freshman to senior years” (Driscoll to Faculty, Sept. 2, 1975, TMU Archives).

In fact, writing would become a primary emphasis of the English department—and TMC in general—as they discerned the needs of the 1980s and 1990s. One glaring weakness in both incoming students and the populace at large was “the need for better communication skills,” which led to the department’s determination “to become more engaged in strengthening our writing program.” (Department Report, 1982–1983, TMU Archives).

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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