Much have I traveled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne,
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken….
--John Keats, from “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816)
While members of the Merrimack English faculty pursue a wide range of teaching and research interests, we are all firmly committed to student learning and student expression. The English department is a literature-based department dedicated to opening up new worlds for our students through literary study. In the same way that Keats equates literary study with geographical mobility, the English Department faculty believes that, in a global community, the exploration of new worlds through literary studies is as relevant as ever. Just as Chapman’s English translation of Homer’s verse introduced nineteenth-century British poet John Keats, then only 21 years old, to a universe of previously unimagined wonders, Beowulf, Gulliver’s Travels, In Memoriam, King Lear, “Roger Malvin’s Burial,” Wide Sargasso Sea, “The Weary Blues,” and the many other texts that we teach introduce new worlds to our students. Our approach hopes to capture some of the excitement Keats describes, as he discovers wonderment in the “wide expanse” of literature. We are confident that our core values—paying attention to what students say and bringing our informed passion for reading and scholarship into the classroom—encourage students to encounter their own “realms of gold.”
The English curriculum challenges students to consider the prospect that literature, though serving as a reflection of historical conditions, also has the capacity to enact social change, to rewrite dominant versions of history, to reconfigure important cultural myths, to shape evolving concepts of national identity, and to gesture toward lived experience that cannot be expressed fully. Our students learn, as we have, to follow performance “road maps” in every dramatic text, to look beyond the normal range of a poem’s language to find meaning in sound, and to identify the ways in which a book’s layout, size and use of illustrations shape a reader’s interpretation.
In the process of completing the English major, our students become familiar with a range of traditional, non-traditional, and emerging literary works from different historical periods. They learn to read and analyze these complex texts, to write with clarity and critical insight, to conduct research, to examine various historical and cultural experiences through the lens of English studies. They also learn to work with a variety of interpretive methodologies, including formalist, psychological, historical, feminist, reader response, and post-colonial approaches and to reflect on their positions as readers and writers. The skills our English majors develop—cogent expression, careful analysis, clear communication, attention to detail, and drawing conclusions from evidence—prepare them to find rewarding work in a variety of fields, including publishing, marketing, finance, journalism, teaching, free-lance writing, library science, public relations, fund-raising, grant-writing, and more. Our majors pursue graduate work in English, Education, and journalism, as well as in law, library science, and business. An annual English alumni “career night” connects current English majors and minors with graduates who can advise and help them with career options.
Our small course sizes promote close contact between students and professors and permit us to read carefully and respond thoughtfully to what our students have written. We dedicate ourselves to fostering conversation about literature and writing in and out of the classroom; we learn quickly and remember our students’ names; we devote individual attention to those who seek it. We value all forms of writing, whether formal or informal, creative or academic, because we have found that writing triggers discovery, cultivates the formation of dialogue between readers and books, and closes the distance between readers.
Though we embrace new developments in pedagogy and subject matter, such as the advantages of structured on-line discussion, the impact of film on literature, and the emergence of the graphic novel as a rich literary form, for example, we have built our program on a traditional base, grounding our mission in literary study. Dynamic and self-conscious interpretation of literature illuminates, we believe, and will continue to illuminate for our students long into the future, rich new vistas, fresh perspectives, and intriguing possibilities.
In addition to educating English majors and minors, our department serves students from all over the College, honing their abilities to write cogently and teaching them to respond perceptively to what they read. We are particularly proud of the contributions we make to the intellectual growth of English-Education majors, 90% of whom pass the state of Massachusetts teacher licensure exams. We like to think that, as was the case for John Keats upon discovering Chapman, students leave our courses and our programs better able to identify the limits and wonders of their current worlds and open to the possibilities promised by those on the horizon.