The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears.  Things are not only what they are.  They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be."... ...Hubert H. Humphrey.

Commentary of the Day - November 24, 2004:  What's in a Name?  Guest Commentary by Carolyn Segal.

Let me introduce myself: I have taught at ___________ College for eight years and am a member of the English--?

Allow me to dangle over this precipice of uncertainty (a condition I've become acclimated to), while I take you back to the moments just before I stood up in front of my colleagues and did a fair impersonation of Rip Van Winkle at the point when he wakes to discover that "everything's changed, and I've changed, and I can't tell what's my name or who I am!"

This year the acting provost added a new item to the agenda for faculty meetings: each month, members of selected departments would stand up and introduce themselves.  This exercise in show and tell is really quite clever, as it takes up large blocks of time that otherwise might be spent discussing such matters as a mysterious shortfall in the budget or the wording of the class cancellation policy.  Perhaps the provost, who had risen from the ranks of the English faculty, trusted that her former colleagues would carry off this surprising development with a mix of aplomb and skillful improvisation.  Or perhaps she was being sadistic.  At any rate, the chair of the Humanities was called upon to go first, and she in turn, called upon each of the Humanities faculty (note how smoothly that last phrase rolled out from the sentence -- but I have had weeks now to perfect my line).  On that day, I stated my name and rank, and then blundered into a prepositional phrase that had no clear object.

For this year, we have a Humanities Department, and within that department -- as I was told shortly after my stammering speech -- we have programs, such as "the English program."  Last year, English was a "division" inside the Humanities department.  Two years ago, Humanities was the division, and English one of its departments.  And the year before that, Humanities was a cluster.  The term cluster was dropped when the members of the Humanities cluster pointed out that there were no longer any other clusters -- only departments.  Some wondered why we Humanities folk couldn't be happier; after all, we had succeeded in convincing the administration to recognize us as "the Humanities" -- our first cluster title was EPIC.

EPIC was an anagram for English, Philosophy, International Languages, and Communications.  And all right, I will take partial responsibility.  It was a joke, a throwaway line at the faculty lunch table.  When clustering became inevitable, conversations centered on that last defense: naming.  Toward the end of one lengthy discussion, I presented my off-the-cuff proposal: "Imagine," I said, "the possibilities -- think of the letterhead.  Think of those recruitment phone calls: We are the EPIC department."  And so, when the president asked the chairperson what we would call ourselves, our chair -- who would go on to become the acting provost -- said "EPIC."  This was the same meeting at which the president actually referred to our cluster/division/department as "the slough of despond," and so any other title clearly seemed preferable at that moment.

For what it's worth, the former provost, who had previously served as the college's lawyer for a number of years, would visit the Humanities faculty every few weeks and ask, "What are you anyway?"  She also liked to ask, "What are the liberal arts" -- and once, "What are the humanities?"  She also tried to suggest that when we were down to one foreign language - -Spanish -- we might still use the phrase "International Languages," because "You can include English, right?"  I've often wondered if she would have eventually reached the point of asking us what English was.

Or maybe we are at that point.  Right now it's the word "program" that makes me despondent, for "program" usually refers to minors and concentrations.  And in that curiously passive way colleges have of allowing the word to determine the reality, our English major will disappear. We will become a service department -- or a service division.  And then the word "humanities" will fall away as well.  In fact, it's already begun its slow fade.  At my college, formerly known as a liberal arts institution, administrators talk about the science majors and the non-science majors.  This terminology has already trickled down into the students' language about themselves and each other.  When some of us non-science faculty members objected to this means of (non)distinction, the director of admissions resorted to using "science majors" and "others."

Next year, when it's time for faculty members to stand up and be counted, I may discover that I've been marginalized to the extent that I'm standing in the hallway, outside the meeting.  If called upon by the chair/director of my program/department/ division, however, I'll know just what to say: "I'm a non-science faculty member in a department formerly known as English, somewhere in the realm of despair.

©2004 Carolyn Segal
Carolyn Segal teaches English at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, PA.

The IP comments:  The IP can sympathize with Carolyn.  Here at Krispy Kreme U. at least half a dozen departments, programs, divisions, schools or colleges change their name every year.  It's hard to tell the players apart without a scorecard.  At least Cedar Crest seems to have kept its name intact over the years.  Krispy Kreme U. has evolved from Orange County State College (1957) to Orange State College (1962) -- even though our campus is in the city of Fullerton, not the city of Orange -- to California State College at Fullerton (1964), to California State College, Fullerton (1968) -- one wonders how many meetings of the Trustees were required to change the "at" to a comma -- then most recently to California State University, Fullerton (1972).

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.