Report of the 2001 Visiting Committee
Department of English
University of Virginia

April 11, 2001

Provost Peter Low
Office of the Vice President and Provost
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Va. 22904-4308

Dear Provost Low:

      The Visiting Committee is pleased to present its report on the Department of English. We wish to express our gratitude to all of those in the University of Virginia community who gave us a cordial welcome and made our visit most enjoyable. In particular, we wish to thank you, Dean Melvyn Leffler, Chair Michael Levenson, and John Portmann for your valuable assistance and counsel.

      Every report such as this might appear to come at a "critical" time in a department's life; certainly, the most recent report of a Visiting Committee, written in 1991, appeared at a time when the university's financial fortunes were at a low ebb and the department consequently faced with a serious challenge in maintaining its historical profile as one the nation's finest. The present report comes at a time of apparent financial stability, even comparative richness, clouded only by the news, coinciding precisely with our visit, that the state might impose a new round of constraints on university spending. It remains to be seen how this will play out. We write this report as though university-wide budgetary contractions will not be a consideration. But it is nonetheless true that the present moment is one of real reckoning, both for the department and for the administration in its perspective upon the department. The coming departure from office of both the provost and the dean means, moreover, that our recommendations are written in part for an audience yet to be named. For that reason among others, we hope that this report will also be read by President Casteen.

      What has not changed since 1991 is that the Department of English at UVa is, by most measures, one of the nation's finest. There is no reason it should not continue to hold its preeminent position and no reason the university should not wish this to be the case. Among the questions we were asked to address, however, was a provocative one: "Could the department maintain its strength with ten fewer faculty lines?" No one we spoke to proposed that such a reduction actually be taken, but the question, as we heard it, was intended to highlight the unusual position of strength that the department has enjoyed, at least in recent history, within the university. Recognized as one of UVa's jewels, the department appears to have had more than its share of resources, in faculty lines and otherwise, and it is a legitimate question whether, or to what degree, this should continue to be the case. The question is also posed at a time when demographics bring the department a signal responsibility to think hard about its teaching and research mission. There are, in short, serious issues to be confronted, and how they are handled, by department and administration alike, holds the key to the department's continued greatness.

Faculty and Strategic Planning

      We heard a number of faculty speak about their sense that collegiality, after waning for years, had returned to the department; their confidence in the department's chair and others in leadership positions; their pleasure in the strength of the more junior members of the department at all ranks and what that bodes for the future; and their belief that the department, at a time of great upheaval in the study of literature in English, has struck the right balance in the department's teaching and research repertoire between traditional concerns with historical periods, genres, and major authors, and newer modalities of scholarship such as gender studies, postcolonial critique, and digital media. Individual by individual, we heard a good deal about the department's vision of the future and its plans for filling faculty positions with an eye to inventive ways of meeting the challenges of contemporary literary study.

      With the glaring exception of graduate students, a topic taken up below, department morale seemed good. Even though we have comments to make about the necessity of collective planning, we believe the observation in the 1991 report-that "no effective communal discussion of problems had been held or attempted for many years"-could not possibly be made today. We found instead a very congenial and mostly vibrant group of faculty. We detected little evidence of the sorts of ideological battles that have marked some literature departments in recent years, nor any special hostility toward particular critical perspectives. Even though we met far too few junior faculty to make any conclusive assessment, it appears that the department makes the requisite efforts to integrate young faculty into the life of the department and mentor them in their professional aspirations. If there was dissent or despondency among any group-by field, by rank, by minority status, or otherwise-we did not find it strongly expressed. (For the record, we note that our preferred way of meeting with department members was set aside by a request from the central administration that we have more one-on-one meetings-see the note at the conclusion of our report*-so it may be that important differences and deficiencies at the faculty level were thereby hidden from view. We have no reason to think so but cannot be sure.) Altogether, we were impressed that the department's faculty remains one of the best in the nation because they share a belief in the value of literature both in the academy and in public and private life; a devotion to high intellectual standards; and at least a preliminary view about where the department should be a generation hence.

      Although we do not question that most members of the department, at least its leaders, have this sense of purpose and could articulate it in the form of a strategic plan, we did not see such a plan. The Academic Plan with which we were presented struck us as routine, even perfunctory. It described a state of affairs but not a strategy for the future with regard to the acquisition and use of faculty resources. Component parts of the plan devoted to the Graduate Program, the Undergraduate Program, the Writing Program, and the Creative Writing Program were more detailed, at least so far as they described improvements that had been undertaken or were planned, and some of the issues raised by those parts of the Academic Plan will be addressed below.

      The department's continued renown rests primarily on preserving the excellence of its faculty in the coming decade, when there will be considerable volatility in the market. If demographic trends hold, there will be better news for new PhDs in the humanities, and there will be very strong competition for a select group of faculty now entering their more "senior" professional years-that is, faculty now generally in their 40s and early 50s-who will be sought after to replace retiring leaders and star researchers in the nation's best departments. Appointments and retentions at the mid-career to more senior level will be costly, and potentially fractious. The same pressures will exist across the campus, however, and it seems probable that the department will be challenged more pointedly than in the past to present a cogent account of its contribution to the university's educational mission and to justify the size and shape of its faculty. We were not certain that the department had yet come to terms with the need to undertake sustained and searching discussions about its place in the university and its leadership role in a profession that will rapidly transform itself into a global enterprise in coming years.

      The number of faculty in the department-57 tenured, 9 untenured, by our count-appears to have remained fairly constant in the past decade, despite the fact that the number of majors has dropped during that time from around 750 to under 500, and the number of graduate students decreased quite dramatically (and for good reasons). Some other numbers are worth notice. According to information we were given, the Student/Faculty ratio in 1998-99 was 13.45 in English, 16.85 in Other Humanities, and 16.02 in Arts and Sciences, with English going down, not up, since 1994-95. The Major/Faculty ratio in 1998-99 showed English at 12.39, Other Humanities at 10.32, and Arts and Sciences at 18.88; in this case, English carried a heavier load than Other Humanities, but its figures had again declined since 1994-95. According to Dean Leffler, several other departments in the College-Psychology, Government, Economics-currently have 25-35% more majors but only 50-60% the number of faculty lines that English has, figures that explain the higher Arts and Science ratios above. By the dean's calculation, English, when compared to the average number of faculty in the nation's top twenty departments, exceeds that average by some 35-40% (of course, many of those departments are in smaller private universities).

      By themselves these figures tell very little, but they suggest the context in which the university may be inclined to think about the replenishment of the department's faculty in coming years. Both for their key role in basic writing instruction and for their practice of judging student work on the basis of essays and exams requiring essay responses, English departments often claim, and usually with justification, that their labor-intensive pedagogical role justifies a lower student/faculty ratio. Although we doubt the claim is unique to English-some other disciplines have an equal obligation, whether it is met or not, to require excellence in student writing-we believe strongly that the claim is still valid. To the extent that it values such excellence in pedagogy and sets the provision of high-quality education to the state's undergraduates as a top priority, the university must respect the claim so long as it is borne out in the department's own practice and the achievements of its graduating students.

      At the same time, sheer size is not an especially useful criterion for measuring the acheivement of a department as a producer of published research or excellent recipients of degrees, especially the doctoral degree. At a moment when it is possible (and perhaps not unreasonable) for the university to contemplate a modest contraction in the size of the department faculty, the department should be preoccupied not with preserving lines for their own sake but rather with establishing exciting configurations of knowledge and methodology that will position the department as a leader on the national and international stage. The current department has impressive strength in traditional older historical areas of English literature (Medieval, Renaissance, Restoration and 18th-century British, Victorian, 19th-century American), and it might well choose to emphasize its strength in these as its distinctive profile. Especially as disciplinary boundaries become more fluid, however, faculty teaching roles and research agendas must become more supple and departments less fixed upon territorial claims. An impressive and nationally distinguished group in women's studies has been added to the department in the past decade, for example, and recent hires include strong young scholars in postcolonial and American popular culture, not to speak of the impressive strength that has been acquired in computer technology and the humanities. Such steps are a good start, but they must be integrated into a well-conceived strategic plan in order to ensure a coherent, forward-looking program a decade hence.

      The department has fourteen faculty over the age of 61. Like other leading departments, it is faced with the need to replenish its faculty while maintaining its international visibility for stellar research, preserving a healthy balance among ranks, and cultivating the future leadership of the department. In contemplating the replenishment of the faculty to be carried out as retirements continue to take place, the chair and others described a need to replace lost "stars" before returning to a strategy that concentrates on junior recruitment. Although we did not see a faculty hiring plan and therefore had to piece together from conversation what we think the department has in mind, we wish to comment on this issue from both disciplinary and demographic points of view.

      The majority of the committee believe that the department's status cannot be usefully preserved, let alone raised, simply by hiring a few "stars" to replace those who have departed or will soon depart. For one thing, such people may be less visible than in the past. Rather, the dispersion of interests in the profession and increasing contention over the boundaries and nature of literary study have made wide agreement as to which scholars constitute the profession's undisputed leaders less likely. Although these developments have been richly rewarding for the study of literature and culture, they have rendered common strategies of "filling" open positions-the Shakespeare position, the Victorian Poetry position, even the Theory position-questionable and perhaps counterproductive. To be sure, some boundaries and the objects within them have not gone away. Indeed, by contrast with some disciplines of the academy, notably in the sciences, the study of literature sometimes appears little changed in the past hundred years. But this may be mainly because the structures of departments of English, both in their internal definitions of fields and in their external interactions with the university's other disciplines, have yet to mirror recent trends in scholarship.

      As English departments strive to extend their range into new areas constituted by a global literature in English, incorporating as well the various modes of theory and culture studies that intersect with the study of literature in all periods, the committee's majority believe those departments will need increasingly to abandon a "replacement" mentality in replenishing the faculty. It appeared to us that the department continues to approach hiring according to fairly traditional definitions of period and genre (and to date to have relied rather heavily on an Ivy League "pipeline"). No doubt this has served the department well in the past, but a change in course consonant with new directions in literary study may require a more difficult discussion than has yet taken place. It may also bring into view more pronounced concern with interdisciplinary or at least interdepartmental activities, subjects about which we heard surprisingly little, despite the excellence of several other humanities departments at UVa and the apparently fertile program in media studies.

      No doubt some appointments of leading scholars who represent the best new directions in traditional fields will help keep the department at the professional frontier while it builds through the appointment of younger scholars and explores more innovative research agendas. If some hiring at the more senior level-full professors, even some of endowed chair stature-may be warranted, however, this should be a very selective strategy. Having increased in recent years from 66% to 72% of its members in tenured positions, the department must undertake its replenishment without increasing its risk of becoming frozen, both intellectually and tactically. The percentage of faculty with tenure should fall, not rise. We found that the young full professors are a very impressive group, and many of the department's future stars may well come from this group. Given that it is a generally a buyer's market for younger scholars, the university would be better off investing in such people, choosing them wisely and cultivating their talents assiduously. But, for this to work, the department will have to be severe about tenuring from within, and the university tenure and promotion committee, as well as the dean, will have to monitor the process with special attention.

      If the department is to recruit effectively, especially at the junior level, the university will also need to be attentive to faculty salaries. According to 1998-99 AAU figures, the department does well with its overall #7 ranking, but it is only at the median for new assistant professors. Even if cost of living in Charlottesville is in the department's favor, future competition is likely to require the university to be more aggressive if it wants the best new faculty. It is essential, too, that the department and university recognize those faculty whose contributions to scholarship and teaching take unconventional but innovative forms, and whose productivity, in terms of program development and pedagogy, is nonetheless remarkable. A prime example of this exists in the case of some faculty who have been instrumental in the success of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. Promotion and salary are no less fitting means to recognize such achievements than in the case of more conventional professorial practices. UVa should wish to be as much a leader in this as it is in digital work generally.

      The department enters the new century with a further challenge. As part of the Virginia 2020 strategic plan for coming decades, the university is considering major initiatives in the areas of International Activities, Science and Technology, Fine and Performing Arts, and Public Service and Outreach. (We looked at the executive summaries available on UVa's website but otherwise have not examined closely any of these proposals.) It is well beyond the scope of our report to comment intelligently on these initiatives, but we note that Dean Leffler, a most passionate and articulate spokesperson for the arts and sciences, was one among others who raised the serious question: What risk is posed to the university's historic and considerable strengths in humanities and social sciences if it chooses, in coming years, to invest what will certainly need to be hundreds of millions of dollars to capture even modest market position in some areas where it has historically been rather weak? (We note, for example, that the English department is ranked #4 in the last National Research Council report and #7 and #11 overall in the two most recent U.S. News rankings. In contrast, only one of UVa's basic science departments, Physiology, has a top-ten NRC ranking, while other basic science departments do not have a top twenty-five or even a top fifty NRC ranking, and are equally unrecognized by U.S. News.) The goal for the university must be to preserve its areas of unambiguous excellence, such as English, while investing wisely in those areas where it wishes to be more competitive and where external funding can play a greater role in its future fortunes, no doubt an increasing imperative for the university and the state.

      Assuming that these initiatives do go forward, however, there are several in which the department should and can play a major role. The department's superior Creative Writing program, one of the nation's leaders, should be central to any effort to build further excellence in the Fine and Performing Arts. The department's pathbreaking efforts in digital teaching and scholarship, most notably the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, should be central to efforts in both information technology, one focal point of the Science and Technology initiative, and International Activities, where a planned International Center for American Studies has the potential to make the university a world leader in the globalization of humanistic scholarship.

Graduate Program

      The 1991 report presented a depressing portrait of the lot of graduate students in the department, quoting one student to the effect that they are "burnt out even before they enter the profession" and remarking that few of them are placed in positions anywhere near what one would expect given the quality of the faculty. We judge that things have not much changed in ten years. Though the faculty of the department is distinguished, though the graduate program has a relatively high ranking nationally, and though the placement record has been somewhat better recently, the graduate program in English at UVa nevertheless has serious problems. The graduate students we met were good-humored and temperate in what they said, but a distressing picture emerged from their comments and from their observations in the printed reports we were sent. These are issues that urgently need addressing by the administration and faculty.

      Beyond any doubt, the graduate students are seriously under-funded. They frequently must take other jobs during the academic year and work all summer to keep body and soul together. It is surprising that so many relatively good students come and not surprising that it takes them an inordinate time to get the PhD. In the present practice, many students are unfunded in their first year, an anomaly in programs of UVa's stature. Even in those years when all students are eligible for funding through a combination of fellowships and scholarships, the total annual packages are some 30-50% lower than those at competitor institutions. (The fact that students in English, we were told, are generally better supported than others in the humanities at UVa makes the problem all the more shocking.)

      Poor funding has obvious consequences for graduate student quality and morale. The record of admissions in relation to acceptances is dismal. At most, two of the top ten admits choose to come, we were told. Applicants, not surprisingly, often choose to go to less good places where the funding is better. The result is that the overall quality of the students is by no means commensurate with that of the faculty. This in turn results, at least in some graduate students' perception, in condescension toward them. "We are viewed," one of them said, as "a lost cause." The faculty have "low expectations" of us, another student said. A third said, "they would never hire us." A further bad result is that graduate teachers do not have the experience of consistently teaching brilliant graduate students, something essential to keeping their own work of high quality and at the various frontiers of the disciplines encompassed by today's English departments in the United States and around the world.

      The funding situation is made even worse by the state regulations that prohibit out-of-state students from ever becoming residents, except in rare cases, and so qualifying for reduced tuition. There can be only one reason for this: to make money out of graduate student tuitions, but this is in direct contradiction to the stated goal of UVa to be a major research university. Achieving that goal means having well-funded graduate students from all over the United States and from the rest of the world.

      One final but pressing financial problem: graduate students, not unreasonably, are required to have medical insurance, but this is not part of the regular funding package. The result is that graduate students must pay back for medical insurance about $1,000 a year out of stipends that are already woefully inadequate. This seems unconscionable.

      The problems, however, are not just financial. It is without question commendable that the department has abandoned its previous practice of admitting up to one hundred students for an MA and then drastically pruning to create a manageable class of doctoral students. Reducing the number of PhD students accepted each year to about 20 seems right; in this regard, the atmosphere for PhD students is much improved. But serious issues remain to be confronted.

      The committee believes that the current terminal MA program (25-35 new students a year) exists principally (1) to generate tuition income for the university and (2) to make possible sizable enrollments in graduate classes that would otherwise be too small. These seem to us inadequate justifications, and the inability of the faculty to define persuasively the value of the degree seemed to us an admission of that fact. Having MA students to expand graduate class size is ironic, since the students we spoke with complained that many graduate classes are too large (15-20 students or even more). This allows little possibility for a true research seminar.

      A further unfortunate result of the terminal MA program is that two different kinds of graduate students, with quite different career goals, are mixed together in graduate classes. The presence of MA students in graduate courses clearly frustrates many of the PhD students and seriously diminishes the quality of their education. This may be compounded by the structure of requirements in the PhD program. Rather than testing historical coverage in a qualifying examination prior to the writing of the dissertation, students are required to take courses in six historical periods and are then tested in their fields of specialization in the qualifying examination. The rationale for this, the committee was told by faculty members in charge of the graduate program, is to make sure that graduate courses in the earlier periods have sufficient enrollment. In our view, that is not a good reason. Knowing the history of English and American literature is certainly desirable, but it could, perhaps, be better attained by testing it in a final examination and leaving the students a little freer to choose more true research seminars that would prepare them for doing publishable research, as well as teaching, when they get jobs. Students would then be free to choose "coverage" courses if they wish, or, alternatively, to prepare for the qualifying examination through their own reading. The presence of so many terminal MA students may skew the course offerings in the direction of graduate survey courses, as opposed to research seminars. Graduate students need to be able to apprentice themselves to a small group of graduate instructors in order to prepare to take their places in the profession. A new exam structure promises to address some of these limitations and to improve mentoring, time to degree, and the formation of dissertation committees (about all of which the graduate students had some alarming stories to tell).

      If the department is going to continue its MA program, then it should (1) provide a rationale for doing this, and (2) teach courses specifically designed for MA students that can meet that rationale. The model here is the MA in American Studies, which is quite carefully designed and taught. It has a superb record of placing its students. On the program's web-site the committee found a review whose conclusion is: "The review committee's broad observations are that the program is highly commendable; that it lives up to its promises; that student satisfaction is extraordinarily high; that, in terms of the quality of education it provides, the efficiency with which it does so, and the placement of its graduates, it appears to be the most successful MA program in the English department; that Alan Howard's work is heroic; and that the program should be continued-provided that certain conditions of support are met." None of these conditions of support have been met, we were told, but they should be. The Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities in general is of world-class quality, and graduate students who work in that area are fortunate to have at the UVa one of the best centers in the world for computer databases, web-sites, and the development of computer-based research in the humanities.

      The graduate language requirement looks reasonable, but the committee found some indications that it may not work as well as it should. This is always a problem for monolingual Americans, and it may be that no set of language requirements can substitute for actually using languages other than English in one's own research (and teaching). In this respect, the absence of a formal program in Comparative Literature at UVa is a disadvantage. Also, as the scope of English studies expands into cultural studies, postcolonial studies, world Anglophone studies, and multilingual American studies, the need for scholarly mastery of less commonly taught languages will need to be recognized: e.g., Asian languages, as well as Spanish, for American studies; Indian or African languages, or Arabic for certain forms of Anglophone or postcolonial studies. Such languages will not displace, but they will certainly supplement, needed expertise in traditional European languages as measured by the foreign language requirements of departments of English.

      This leads to a final comment about the graduate program. As noted above, the committee got the idea that, excepting recent changes in the structure of exams, there has been little long-range planning about the scope or foci of the graduate program. Such discussions are difficult. They tend to bring out deep latent disagreements among the faculty. Nevertheless, at a time when the disciplines within English and American studies are changing with unusual rapidity, such discussions are necessary. New hires might wisely be made in the light of a decision to have major strength in some finite set of "areas" and to plan courses, curricula and examinations to produce PhDs who are likely to get good jobs in today's job market in those areas. The big MA program interferes with achieving that goal, and serious consideration should be given to disbanding or refashioning it.

      The most urgent need, however, is to address the problems of funding and morale among graduate students. The answers to key survey questions given by graduate students indicated a general dissatisfaction, to put it mildly, not only about money but about programmatic issues as well. In recent years many graduate students in English have clearly lacked direction, have drifted, stayed at UVa too long, lost focus, and become demoralized. If the data sheet the graduate students gave us has reliable numbers (we have no way of knowing about this), the average class sizes in the courses taught by graduate students have increased markedly since 1994. For example, "ENGL instructors who used to see 20 or so students a week now see 40 or so." The committee was told repeatedly that the claim that the graduate teaching responsibilities can be fulfilled in ten hours a week is a cynical farce. The number is at least twenty hours per week, we were told, and the data sheet prepared by GESA purports to demonstrate that in detail. According to the GESA data, if writing courses are included, 64% of the undergraduate grades were assigned by graduate students in the fall 2000 semester. Even if writing courses are omitted, 54% of the undergraduates in the fall of 2000 received their grades from graduate students. Even though Virginia is a Right to Work state, hints of a possible job action were given. If the graduate students in English at UVa were allowed by state law to unionize, their conditions would be fertile ground for such activity. Although it is possible to have different legitimate views about the degree to which graduate students are "employees" rather than "apprentices," the university and the state must recognize that graduate students in English are given tremendous undergraduate teaching responsibilities and that they are not adequately recompensed for this service or given satisfactory work conditions no matter how they are categorized.

      If the university is truly concerned about the standing of its English department, it should recognize that it is producing far too many students who, despite their admiration for individual faculty members, remember their graduate experience with a lack of enthusiasm bordering on resentment and transfer this resentment to the profession as a whole. This is a strong formulation of the problem, but we believe it is accurate. The university is sending out into the world alumni/ae who not only have no loyalty to the institution but are more than likely spreading the word about the conditions under which they were forced to obtain their degrees. Regardless of the students' ability to organize, the conditions of study and work for graduate students at UVa could soon bring the university unhappy national publicity and further erode its ability to attract the best graduate students. This is not likely to improve the department's standing in the academy as a whole.

      The Committee's recommendations about the graduate program in English are three:

      (1) Improvement of graduate student funding and work conditions (i.e. class size and hours of work a week) is an urgent necessity.

      (2) Serious consideration should be given to abolishing the terminal MA program except in well-defined special programs with special courses and training like the MA in American Studies.

      (3) The PhD program needs to be thought through in the light of changes in the disciplines now taking place in English departments everywhere. Decisions need to be made about areas where the Department wants to be strong, that is, to have clusters of faculty that constitute critical masses in those areas that will genuine distinction in the graduate program. A large number of approaching retirements means a good many new appointments, even if there is a modest reduction in the size of the department. These new appointments need to be made in the context of a definite plan, however difficult it may be to get consensus about this.

      In brief, we do not believe, if its doctoral program is the measure, that the department deserves its current high regard in the profession, and we do not think, for the same reason, that such high regard will long be preserved unless the current funding and morale problems problems, now in at least their second decade, are addressed. The simple fact is that none of us would recommend that our top undergraduates consider undertaking doctoral education at UVa at the present time.

Undergraduate Program

      The Department is genuinely committed to mounting a serious and effective undergraduate major, and to providing non-majors with a wide range of courses in English and American (and some European) literature. The recent change of teaching load from two graduate / two undergraduate to one graduate / three undergraduate is a wise reaction to the inevitable contraction of graduate programs at a time of diminishing jobs. (It was suggested to us that this teaching load was effectively mandated by the legislature, but in any case it makes good sense.) In line with this change, and with some of the issues shortly to be discussed, we suggest that the department consider going further and requiring-or at least normally expecting-its members to teach one of their undergraduate courses at the introductory level, a practice followed by several peer institutions (e.g., Yale and Princeton).

      Generally the department's course offerings strike an effective balance between canonical texts and those now achieving canonicity. So, too, it provides an appropriate range of approaches, from traditional modes of literary analysis to what might be called cultural studies models. The only gap in its offerings and procedures that the department might wish to consider is in theory (an admittedly vague term). According to the survey with which we were provided, the undergraduates (like the graduate students) feel the need for courses in literary theory, in what used to be called the history of criticism, and in methodology. This semester, for instance, there seems to be only one course that could plausibly be described as theoretical: ENCR 371 "Reason, Criticism & Culture." Last semester there was also only course, ENCR 481 "Feminist Criticism and Theory." More important, it is clear from their responses that students are uneasily aware that the instruction they receive in their literature courses is often based upon quite specific theoretical and methodological commitments, but these commitments are never themselves made explicit within the course itself. Rather than simply offer more "theory" courses, the individual members of the department might consider devoting some of the classroom time, and perhaps some of the assigned reading, to questions of critical method. Clearly, there is a felt need for this kind of "transparency" among the undergraduates, and it could be satisfied with relatively minor changes in course design.

      The students with whom one of us met were a vivacious and apparently talented group. Most of them had had the advantage of working closely with faculty members (or at least instructors, since undergraduates are sometimes unable to distinguish between faculty and graduate instructors); most of them were satisfied with the number of small classes and the choice of topics available to them; and most were very upbeat about the quality of instruction they had encountered in classes at all levels. A number of these students were either in the Distinguished Majors program or were otherwise working, or anticipating to work, on some kind of independent project under the direction of a faculty member either in criticism or in creative writing. In short, the sample of students with which we met gave a very enticing picture of the major and of undergraduate instruction in English generally.

      To judge from other evidence, however, we deduce that this group was not entirely representative of the undergraduate experience in English at UVa. One of the primary sources of undergraduate concern is their sense of the inaccessibility of the regular faculty. In the survey we were given, only 55.7% indicated that they were satisfied with their "personal contact with faculty in [their] major field." This compares unfavorably with the 68.7% satisfaction rate of the other humanities departments. Moreover, this is an especially striking statistic when one considers that the faculty-major ratio in English is substantially lower than in many other departments of the College. When students are asked about advising, the results are even more disheartening: 36.1% are satisfied, compared to 57.6% in the other humanities departments.

      The reason for this disparity is not far to seek and is an aspect of a very serious weakness in the undergraduate major in English at the university: the excessive use of graduate students as undergraduate teachers. As noted above, according to figures supplied GESA, in a disturbingly high percentage of undergraduate English literature courses the final grade is assigned by a TA. Equally if not more dismaying is the fact that a large proportion of courses required for the major are taught entirely by graduate students. This semester, of the nine sections of the prerequisite for the major, ENLT 201M: "Introduction to Literary Studies," seven are taught by TAs and the other two by Peter Baker, the Anglo-Saxonist (assuming that is the Peter Baker listed). Last semester thirteen sections were offered, with only one being taught by a faculty member. Indeed, of the 31 200-level courses offered overall this term (courses restricted to 1st and 2nd-year students), only seven are taught by faculty, the other 24 by graduate students. And of those seven, two faculty members teach two sections each. In other words, the 31 200-level courses are taught by five faculty members and 24 graduate students. This seems an unfortunate way to introduce students to literary study at the university level.

      The department has recently introduced a three-term survey course (ENGL 381, 382, and 383) that is required of all majors. With the exception of 382, which seems somewhat ill-defined and too ambitious in its coverage, these courses appear to be working well. Less is usually more in surveys of this sort, and we suggest that perhaps more time might be spent on fewer works in these courses. Moreover, the instructors of these courses, recognizing the excessive burden placed on TAs by the recent (and in our opinion shameful) doubling of their workload in these courses (two sections of 22 students each), are forced to restrict the amount of written work required. This is yet another way in which the dismal situation of the graduate students degrades undergraduate education.

      Undergraduate students complained, sometimes bitterly, about the lack of comments they receive on the essays graded by TAs (which in a survey course, as in the large Shakespeare lecture, is every essay). They are, evidently, often presented with just a grade but with no guidance as to either the meaning of the grade or how to improve. In our experience, graduate students are almost universally conscientious in commenting on student work, often more so than faculty members. The problem here thus can only reflect a real emergency in the situation of graduate students at UVa. Given the amount of time they are required to teach, they have decided that the only way they can find sufficient time to work on their degree is to shortchange their students-a decision that they themselves gave every evidence of finding deeply distressing.

      The survey data and the comments appended to it reveal a general dismay at what is perceived to be the arbitrary power of TAs to set grades. This is no doubt in part the whining of low achievers. But it must be pointed out that the extremely low yield rate for graduate admissions, and the inability of the Department to attract more than a very few of its top twenty candidates, makes the excessive use of graduate students even more problematic in its effect on the undergraduate program. Despite our admiration for the graduate students whom we met, the figures lead us to believe that the department's reliance on graduate instructors leaves it unable to meet the legitimate expectations of UVa undergraduates.

      We have two suggestions about the requirements for the major. The comments made by the undergraduates indicated a widespread feeling that there are too many requirements. Five specific courses are required (one ENLT-M seminar, plus the three survey courses and a course in Shakespeare, usually the lecture). The other three requirements are distributional and can be fulfilled by a wide range of courses. Some members of the committee would suggest that the Shakespeare requirement seems arbitrary, not least insofar as the current search for a Shakespearean, as far as we could tell, is being driven primarily by the need to staff that course. Perhaps the Department might consider simply redefining the area requirements so that two (unspecified) courses prior to 1800 (or perhaps even 1700) are required. Second, undergraduate responses make it clear that there is a serious problem with enrollment in 400-level seminars. This was presented to the committee as essentially a computer problem, but we were puzzled why there seemed to be no restriction on enrollment in these courses so that English majors get first crack at them, and then others could fill in as enrollment warrants. As it is, many undergraduates end up taking a 400-level course that does not correspond to their interests.

      Finally, a few observations about the writing program, which exists in support of undergraduate education but whose function has obvious implications for the proper training of graduate students as well-equipped professionals in English and for the workload of TAs.

      (1) The Little Red Schoolhouse method (developed by Joe Williams and Greg Colomb at the University of Chicago) is very successful in training writing teachers quickly and in providing them with very specific templates for dealing with student papers. But it does have its critics, and it is-as the graduate students know-very restrictive in the kind of guidance it provides. But having chosen to go this way, the department should be pleased with a program that seems to function extremely well. On the other hand, the university should also realize that it pays its graduate students who work in the writing program $8,000 per semester for what is claimed to be twenty hours work per week, while the actual number of hours worked is probably 50-75% higher.

      (2) The Writing Center is very understaffed, largely because the pay is so low ($10.42 per hour, whereas it was suggested that a not derisory minimum would be $15.00). The result is that many undergraduates are unable to take advantage of the help that is provided: they know that when paper time comes around there will be no appointments available at the Center, and so they do not bother even to sign up on the waiting list (since it seems virtually no one on the waiting list gets an appointment). This problem is masked by figures showing that only about 80% of the appointments available are used: early in the term, no one comes; late in the term, everyone. To deal with this problem the Writing Center set up a pilot program last year for small group tutorials for students outside the English major taught by one TA. This was very successful and cost effective, but this year it was not funded by the provost.

      (3) There is only one person on campus-in the Anthropology Department-who teaches ESL, even though the writing program staff estimate that 20% of their clients are foreign language speakers. As UVa strives to become a more international university and attract more international students, and as its domestic undergraduate pool includes, as well it might, an increasing number of undergraduates for whom English is not a native or at least primary language, the need for appropriate ESL instruction will become more pressing.

      (4) One possible amelioration of the poor working conditions for graduate student TAs, and a protection against the very unattractive option of increasing the number of graduate students just to get the teaching done, would be to have a cohort of full-time lecturers trained in the field to supplement the teaching of writing by graduate student TAs. This need not entail the "adjunctification" of the professoriate or the creation of a two-tier faculty. Professionals working in writing instruction are just that; if employed full time (or, for those who desire it, less than full time), they provide higher quality instruction overall and, taking into account costs of tuition and turnover training, are usually as cost-effective as using graduate students to teach the university's writing courses. Given the paradox created by reducing the number of graduate students and possibly the number of faculty, while at the same time expecting that the department teach a large, if somewhat diminished, number of majors and other students in high-quality, writing-intensive instruction, it seems to us imperative that some such approach to writing instruction be entertained.

Creative Writing

      The creative writing faculty, which consists of three fiction writers and five poets, exhibited a highly focused sense of the program's mission and goals, a focus due in part to the program's limiting itself to instruction only in fiction writing and poetry writing and to the faculty's sense that they have been carrying out their mission in an exceptionally successful manner (witness the program's high rank among creative writing programs: #4 in U.S. News as of 1997). All the faculty teach undergraduates. Two of the fiction writers (Casey and Eisenberg) and three of the poets (Dove, Orr, and Wright) also teach graduate students in the two-year MFA program. The faculty reported that undergraduate workshops were filled (approximately 550 students taught in any given academic year) and that student demand was such that if the program were able to offer double the number of workshops they would all still be filled. The program presently offers undergraduates a concentration in poetry, and Professor Casey said that although he was considering whether such a concentration should be offered in fiction, he tended to feel that a broad exposure to all types of writing was perhaps preferable for undergraduates.

      It is noteworthy that the top two priorities in terms of funding which the faculty discussed with the present committee members are the same as the top two problems noted by the committee in its 1991 report-funding for graduate fellowships and for lectureships. The increasing inadequacy of the funds available in the Hoyns Fellowship account was noted by the faculty as a reason the MFA program is often unable to attract its strongest candidates. The MFA program presently admits five poets and five to seven fiction writers a year and thus has a total of twenty-five graduate students at any one time. Professor Casey said he was contemplating raising the number of fiction writers admitted in any year to eight or ten. The program is presently carrying out a search for another senior fiction writer and hopes to make the appointment soon. Whereas in the 1991 report the program's concerns were about the year-to-year budgetary vulnerability of full-time lectureships, the concerns expressed by the present administrator of the program had to do with the increasing inadequacy of the Hoyns lectureship funds (which five years ago had permitted the program to bring in four visiting writers a year but now permits them to bring in only two) and with the Rea Visiting Writer funds for one-week residencies each year by a poet and a fiction writer.

      Increased funding for both graduate fellowships (especially for the first year in the program) and for a steady stream of visiting writers is crucial to maintaining the Creative Writing program's high national ranking. (Indeed, one of the factors used by U.S. News is the amount of fellowship support not tied to teaching assistantships each program provides.)

      Because funds are always easier to raise and are put to the best use in building to one's strengths, the committee recommends therefore that both of these be given a high priority in the president's commitment of new funds to the initiative in Fine and Performing Arts. The committee recommends as well a fund-raising effort to support the department's literary journal Meridian. Such a journal is a necessary part of a top creative writing program, and its excellence is perhaps one of the best advertisements of a program's high standards.

      As to the other central problem noted in the 1991 report (the feeling on the part of the creative writing faculty that they did not have enough input on departmental matters such as "fellowship money and graduate teaching appointments" and that they were not a "full partner in relevant operations"), the creative writing faculty members we interviewed expressed their enthusiastic approval of the present department chair and his predecessor in working with the creative writing program.

      With respect to the creative writing program's long-term goal of transforming the MFA from a two-year to a three-year degree, the committee recommends that until the issue of more adequate graduate funding is solved the prospect of a third year without proper support would only increase the difficulty of the program in getting its top choices among applicants and compound the morale problem that exists among graduate students generally in the department (even though it may be less pronounced among the MFA students than the PhD students). The rationale for the added year-the notion that it will allow graduate students both to acquire added teaching experience and to complete their theses under a less stressful timetable-while humanly commendable is perhaps administratively naive.

      In sum, the creative writing program at UVa is one of the gems of the university, and the committee recommends that the university treasure and sustain it.

Summary Remarks

      The committee, let it be stated again, found itself visiting one of the nation's finest departments and came away convinced that there was every reason for that excellence to be cherished and preserved. The department's renown in many fields of scholarship, its highly acclaimed creative writers, its trend-setting work in the application of information technology to the humanities-in all of these ways, in particular, the department continues to stand at the forefront of American higher education. With appropriate planning and consultation, and on the basis of the sometimes challenging self-examination that allows hard choices to be made for the common good, the department should seek and should receive the resources needed to maintain its international distinction. It would be a gross mistake for the university to allow that distinction to be diminished while it searched, perhaps vainly, for distinction in areas where it is unlikely to be achieved.

      We have tried to underscore the department's strengths while also making recommendations about future faculty hiring and curricular planning that we feel are in tune with the most promising new directions of the profession. For the most part, the department is well aware of the issues at hand, even if it has not yet-or at least not consciously and clearly enough for it to be visible to us-articulated a plan to address the demographic, disciplinary, and methodological challenges of the next generation.

      Questions of faculty hiring, however, pale in comparison to those that plague the department's doctoral program, which in turn has serious implications for undergraduate education at UVa. Any workable strategic plan will have to strike important, and certainly not easy or obvious, compromises between faculty and graduate program size, on the one hand, and the instructional needs of both graduate and undergraduate students, on the other. But if the department and the university do not address the needs of doctoral students in English, no success in faculty hiring, no stellar research, nor excellence in its undergraduates will be able to cover over this continuing and harmful failure. We would be pleased to have every other word of our report ignored if only the university would set about seriously to give the Department of English the graduate program it deserves.


John Irwin
J. Hillis Miller Lee Patterson
Eric Sundquist, chair
[submitted electronically by the chair on behalf of the committee]