What’s the use of an English degree? Here’s an even better question: how many times have you been asked this question? What was your response? Did you have one?
This course will provide you with both the tools and the space to construct your own response to this question. To that end, our semester will take a somewhat eclectic itinerary through several different conceptual sites. The first part of the semester (Unit I) will be devoted to exploring the relatively short history of English as a discipline and as a department/program on most (if not all) university campuses in the US. The purpose of this historical overview is to give you a sense of the history of your discipline, but also to help you identify the skills and capacities that the study of literary texts, language, writing, and culture have instilled in you.
The next three weeks (Unit II) will rely on the insights we glean from this historical, institutional, and conceptual overview of English studies to help you develop a practical and strategic response to our semester’s guiding question—what am I going to do with this degree? This unit is also devoted to learning some basics of resume-building and career preparation; we will have several visitors and guest speakers in Unit II, including from IU Kokomo’s Office of Career Services and the non-profit career building organization Ascend Indiana.
After studying the institutional foundations and historical roots of modern English departments, you will build on what you’ve learned in courses like Critical Practices and Literary Interpretation by examining the conceptual and theoretical underpinnings of much contemporary scholarship in English studies (Unit III). In Critical Practices, you may have explored psychoanalysis, feminist theory, or some other critical literary theory in significant detail—in this unit of the seminar, we will review and expand your understanding of these conceptual sites by taking a “zoomed-out” view of the discourse known as critical theory. This perspective will allow us to see how the intellectual tools of critical theory have fueled important work in literary theory, cultural studies, writing studies, linguistics, and beyond.
Finally, working closely with me and a faculty advisor from the ELS department, the semester will culminate in your own creative or scholarly project (Unit IV). Did I mention we’re also going to spend a weekend in the woods in mid-October with some colleagues from IU Northwest? Yes, there is much to do. Let’s get started!
In this course, you will
- Learn about the institutional and social history of English studies in the US and discuss intelligently how cultural and societal forces have shaped what we now think of as the study of English in higher education;
- Critically reflect on your own undergraduate training and education in such a way that will make you more marketable and career-savvy, as well as better able to effectively articulate the skills and capacities you offer to prospective employers, organizations, graduate programs, etc.;
- Plan, develop, and execute a large-scale creative/research project that showcases your skills and what you’ve learned in your English degree;
- Further hone your ability to read, comprehend, and use scholarly articles to make arguments;
- Explore the conceptual and intellectual foundations of contemporary English studies, language, and literary studies; and
- Participate in some of the practical and professional activities of English studies, including completing a semester-long research project and participating in a Writers’ Retreat at IU’s Bradford Woods.
Reflection and Revision Statement (2018 – 2019)
I taught ENG-L 495: Senior Seminar in English for four years, from the fall of 2016 to the fall of 2019. The following reflection will focus on the iterations of the course that I taught in the fall of 2018 and 2019, however, since that is the purview of my promotion to Professor of English. In 2016, I taught the course to a combined group of English and Communication Arts majors; in 2017, I revised the course for English majors only.
In the fall of 2018, spurred by my experiences the past two years and bolstered in my confidence, I decided to overhaul the course yet again, this time dividing it into the four interconnected units I describe in the course description above. I wanted students to learn four key things:
- how academic disciplines and the knowledges, practices, and identities they produce are not “natural” or accidental, but constructed via complex processes of specialization, professionalization, socialization, and what scholars call “boundary work.” One of my primary research interests dating back to my grad school days has to do with the way modern academic disciplines work to produce knowledge via complex processes of boundary-setting and differentiation—a series of moves and techniques closely related to the circulation of disciplinary power, as has been discussed extensively in the work of Michel Foucault, Stephen Mailloux, Thomas Gieryn, David Russell, and others. However, too often undergraduate students are not exposed to these kinds of “inner workings” of the academy. This revision sought to change that.
- how the kinds of multi-faceted skills that students learn as English majors are also transferable skills that can be practiced, honed, and deployed in a wide range of situations, whether in the academy, on the job, or in one’s political or social life.
- how to develop a large-scale project over time, seek feedback from peers and instructors, and incorporate that feedback to produce a finished product worthy of showcasing to friends, family, colleagues, and prospective employers.
- how to develop career and job readiness skills, such as developing a resume, interviewing with an employer, and demonstrating the highly-employable skills that English majors possess: the ability to write for diverse audiences, communicate complex ideas effectively, and research to provide potential solutions to large-scale problems.
If the course evaluations are any indications, I achieved these learning outcomes. One student wrote that the most valuable thing s/he learned in this course was “that an English degree is something that is transferable in almost any field,” while another wrote that the most valuable lesson learned was “how to manage a semester-long project.” Other students in the fall of 2018 version of the course cited time management, resume building, and “how to work independently” as their biggest take-aways. Another student opined that “[Dr. Cook] cares about our learning and it shows.”
One major addition in the fall of 2018 was that I partnered with the non-profit organization Ascend Indiana to offer students one-on-one career coaching services and job skills preparation provided by professionals–a course component that I continued in the fall of 2019 with an even deeper level of engagement. In fact, after a positive experience with the full implementation of Ascend’s services in fall 2019, I partnered with Sally Reasoner and Hannah Slover of Ascend Indiana and Tracy Springer of IU Kokomo’s Career Services to present on our successes in ENG-L 495 at the HIPs in the States Conference/Assessment Institute held virtually in October 2020. (HIPs is an acronym for “high-impact practices.”)
The other component of ENG-L 495 that I feel is well worth mentioning in this brief reflection–and one that proved to be an enduring success with students–were the Writers’ Retreats that we held each fall as a required component of the course. Using funds from IU Kokomo’s highly successful and innovative KEY initiative (Kokomo Experience and You), each fall I took the entire class to IU’s Bradford Woods Retreat and Conference Center to experience nature, engage in bonding activities, and work together on major projects. The Writers’ Retreats featured both group writing and revision exercises as well as time for individual writing and research in an ideal, forested setting.
Course Syllabi, Course Evaluations, and Other Materials
Course Evaluations in Fall 2019 are unavailable because the reporting threshold for the course was not met.