By Richard E. Miller
A funny thing happened as the semester was coming to a close this Spring: my inbox began to fill with email from former students, colleagues, and alumni wondering if I had had a chance to read “Devoid of Content,” Stanley Fish’s editorial in The New York Times. For a brief moment, the issue of how best to teach writing at the undergraduate level took up a (small) corner of the national stage. I have enjoyed the discussions this editorial set in motion, which have generated memories of and recollections of lessons learned over the years in the classrooms and corridors of Murray Hall – discussions which have confirmed for me that what the best teachers share in common is not a single teaching practice, but rather a commitment to modeling for their students the habits of an engaged mind at work on a problem. For Fish, that problem is figuring out how to get students to attend to language’s formal characteristics; for other teachers the problem is defined rather differently. What matters most, I would say, is not that students learn Fish’s model or some other teacher’s model, but that they have sustained contact with teachers and materials that command their full attention.
This year Rutgers English has had to say goodbye to two of our most engaged and engaging teachers. Alicia Ostriker retired at the end of the fall term, after nearly thirty years with Rutgers English. A conference, organized by Harriet Davidson, is being planned for spring of ’06, so that Alicia’s contributions to feminist thought and her accomplishments as a poet and a teacher can be celebrated by all who have had the good fortune to work with her. Wesley Brown retired at the end of this spring: in May, he provided a public reading from his work in progress, In the Land of Ooh Blah Dee, and then, once classes were over, a group of faculty members and graduate students performed a reading of Wesley’s play, Murderess, to a packed house. Of course, Alicia and Wesley aren’t really retiring: they will both be devoting all their energies to their writing, to the problems and the possibilities that have driven their intellectual interests all along.
Change is definitely in the air at Rutgers. This summer the report of the Undergraduate Task Force is to be released and a year-long discussion of the Task Force’s recommendations will be launched. And this fall, an architectural competition will be announced, with entrants submitting plans to re-imagine the look and the layout of the College Avenue Campus. By embarking upon these projects, the University community is pouring its energies into making certain that Rutgers remains a thriving center for education and research in the twenty-first century. On the local level, I am happy to report that, as this newsletter completes its second full year in production, more alumni and more faculty are offering their direct support to the Department, both in gratitude for the past and out of a commitment to helping us prepare for the future.
Like any living organism, the Department is constantly changing in subtle ways. Some of the more profound changes are not easy to report as news. This past year, for example, we restructured the Honors Program so that it better suits the needs of our students; we redesigned the Rutgers English website so that it better represents all the work being done in the Department; we expanded the Plangere Writing Center so that we can provide free tutoring to even more students. And, as the following pages show, there’s more – there’s always more in a community as creative and as engaged as Rutgers English.
Stay in touch,
Richard E. Miller
Stanley Fish’s editorial, “Devoid of Content,” in The New York Times
A new vision for College Avenue
The new Honors Program
The Plangere Writing Center