By Melissa Arkin
Many alumni remember the days when Douglass English was separate from Rutgers College. The faculty of Douglass, Rutgers, and Livingston College all became one Department, Rutgers English in New Brunswick, in 1981. Before then, Douglass English had a rich and distinct history of its own.
As Rutgers College worked to become a modern university, a very important addition was being planned: a women’s college. Coeducation had become the general rule at newer universities in the West, and several separate women’s colleges had been founded in the Northeast. However, the state of New Jersey still offered little opportunity for women who were seeking higher education.
Mrs. Mabel Smith Douglass, President of the College Club of Jersey City, worked fervently for years advocating an institution of higher education for women in New Jersey. Finally, in April 1918, the New Jersey College for Women (known as N.J.C.) was established as a department of Rutgers College. As the first Dean of N.J.C., Douglass demonstrated extra-ordinary dedication: overworked, she slept in her office for the entire first year. From the start, she advocated for N.J.C.’s administrative autonomy, and her efforts allowed the new school to grow so quickly that by 1928 she could point out that her graduating class was larger than Rutgers College’s. To honor her numerous achievements, N.J.C. was renamed Douglass College in 1955.
The initial intention of N.J.C. was vocational, to prepare young women to become secretaries, court stenographers, teachers, and social workers. However, Dean Douglass believed the ideal women’s education would include an enriching liberal arts program. English courses were first offered as requirements and electives for degrees in teaching, home economics, and liberal arts. When the school opened in 1918, there were only three English courses listed: Shakespeare, English Drama, and the History of English Literature. All were taught by Rutgers College English faculty, who mostly volunteered their time for the first few years.
English became a separate major in 1923, and the Department quickly grew to become the largest at N.J.C. As the number and range of classes broadened, it became too overwhelming for Charles Huntington Whitman, Chair of the Rutgers College Department, to keep dividing his time. Dean Douglass also argued the need for a separate faculty, and began to hire professors just for the women’s college, with the intention of creating independent departments.
Dr. Oral Sumner Coad, a specialist in American Drama, left Columbia University to teach at N.J.C. in 1923. In 1928, he became Chair of Douglass English. A man of eclectic interests, Coad enjoyed building bookshelves, refinishing antique furniture, and studying European cathedrals. He was a very organized person, described as being “as neat as an asterisk on a foot note.” In his academic pursuits, Coad was a prolific writer, publishing on Walt Whitman and American theater. He recruited talented English professors for N.J.C., who added scholarly distinction to the already popular Department.
Coad’s curricular ideals for N.J.C. resembled educational trends across the nation. As the country experienced peace and wealth, patriotic courses in American Studies were introduced. In 1928, a course in “post-war American literature” was added. By autumn of 1929, N.J.C. was at its peak enrollment of 1,157 students, and despite the beginning of the Great Depression, “American Literature” and “Post-War Literature” remained among the most popular courses. With his expertise in theater, Coad brought Contemporary Drama, Play Producing, and Dramatic Composition into the curriculum, forming the basis for what would become an independent and renowned department at N.J.C. in Speech and Dramatic Arts.
The women’s college bid a sentimental farewell to their first Dean in 1933, when Mabel Smith Douglass resigned due to poor health. (Soon after, she disappeared and was mourned by the N.J.C. community; decades later, her body was found in Lake Placid, an apparent suicide.) Margaret Trumbull Corwin, who had been Executive Secretary of the Graduate School of Yale, was appointed as Dean. Corwin’s first impression of N.J.C. as “a campus devoted to plain living and high thinking” became her guiding principle, and she focused her efforts on improving quality of education. Although financial troubles in the mid-thirties brought N.J.C. under greater control by the Rutgers University President and Trustees, Corwin fought to maintain the College for Women’s academic autonomy. Declining enrollments, decreasing state support, and a period of slowness after tremendous initial growth combined to make her job more difficult.
In this context, Coad did his best to introduce popular innovations while maintaining the English Department’s high standards. For example, although several Eastern colleges had dropped first-year English requirements, Coad still believed an introductory composition course would help students succeed. To encourage student engagement, Coad made Harper’s Magazine, one of the best-respected journals of criticism and opinion at the time, the required text, using contemporary subject matter as class material for thinking and writing.
Coad was instrumental in building a successful English Department at N.J.C. He had worked diligently to make sure that this separate English Department was every bit as good and offered just as much opportunity to students as the Rutgers College Department. By 1940 the English curriculum, which had initially offered a small handful of general classes, was similar to Rutgers College’s and was taught by a comparably distinguished faculty. Coad would continue to lead the Department through the next decade, as World War II brought great changes to N.J.C., Rutgers, and higher education throughout the nation.
Sources Consulted: Rutgers College Course Catalogs, 1918-1940; Douglass College Course Catalogs, 1918-1940; Documents from the Office of the President, 1915-1955; Documents from the Office of the Dean, Douglass College, 1918-1950; William H. S. Demarest, A History of Rutgers College, 1766-1924; Richard P. McCormick, Rutgers: A Bicentennial History; George P. Schmidt, Douglass College: A History; David R. Shumway and Craig Dionne, Disciplining English: Alternative Histories, Critical Perspectives; Mary Trachsel, Institutionalizing Literacy.
Many thanks to the staff members of the Rutgers University Archives for their help in researching this series, with special thanks to Thomas Frusciano and Erika Gorder. The Archives preserve course catalogues, administrative records, yearbooks, and many other documents from the history of Rutgers. Photo credits: Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Archives.
A History of Rutgers College English, part 4
Rutgers University Archives
Rutgers Through the Years, a brief history of Rutgers University illustrated with pictures from the Archives