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Department of English History

History: The First Professor

By Karen Heinbach

John Forsyth

The founding of the English Department at Rutgers College coincided with the beginning of a revolutionary era in the development of the discipline itself. Although Rutgers was founded in 1766 (as Queen's College), nearly a century was to pass before the study of English language and literature was to gain recognition and legitimacy in the academic world. Still, despite its gradual beginnings, the formal program of English at Rutgers was one of the first to be established in American universities.

Up until the late nineteenth century, most academic activity related to what we now know as English was centered largely on rhetoric rather than the study of literature. Learning classical languages and practicing public speaking were the main goals of humanistic education, reflecting rhetoric's link to institutional religion. Students were trained to debate, make speeches, and give sermons as part of their ecclesiastical preparation.

At Rutgers, this close tie between the study of rhetoric and the church was embodied by the Reverend John Forsyth, the first faculty member appointed to the "Professorship of English Language and Literature" created in 1860. Forsyth, a Rutgers alumnus from the class of 1829, had studied theology in Edinburgh, and been a professor of Latin at Princeton University. He also taught Hebrew, archaeology, and church history at a seminary in Newburgh, New York, where he had been a pastor and remained on the board of education. Like many early English professors, his professional training and academic interests were wide-ranging, but not focused on interpreting literature. For the most part, his students received thorough instruction in composition and declamation. Assigned readings included Parker's Aid to English Composition for freshmen, Blair's famous Lectures in Rhetoric and Belle Lettres for sophomores, Day's Rhetoric for juniors, and finally, for seniors, English literature. Great literature, however, was to be a model for speaking and writing, not an object of study in itself.

Forsyth's teaching methods were orthodox for his time: learning through memorization and recitation. Each Wednesday, after the required daily religious services, his students would remain in the chapel for several more hours, listening to speeches given by two seniors, two juniors, three sophomores, and three freshmen. Upperclassmen gave original speeches (scrutinized beforehand by Forsyth), while the freshmen and sophomores simply recited approved selections. Forsyth's pedagogical approach was standard, but his class schedule was not - the Rutgers College faculty board made an official request in December of 1862 that he hold formal classes every day, give regular lectures himself in addition to the students' speeches, and be present on campus more than three days a week. Forsyth accordingly resigned, claiming that his responsibilities in Newburgh were too important, and that "a man of advanced age in winter" could not handle the commute from New York to New Brunswick.

Even though Forsyth's approach emphasized rhetoric over literature, the creation of an English Language and Literature course at Rutgers had preceded most other leading British and American universities by over a decade. Harvard's first English professor began teaching in 1876, and Oxford did not establish the Merton Professorships of English Language and Literature until 1885. However, despite its early adoption at Rutgers, the English Department foundered after Forsyth's resignation. In 1864, the Reverend Theodore Stanford Doolittle was appointed professor of Rhetoric, Logic, and Mental Philosophy to fill the curricular gap. A small portion of his time went towards the study of literary texts, but his primary academic emphasis was on what would later become the fields of psychology and philosophy. Students interested in studying English literature in depth would have to wait until the rebirth of the Department, in 1880.

 


Works consulted: Bacon, Alan. The Nineteenth-Century History of English Studies. Brookfield: Ashgate Publishing, 1998. Demarest, William H.S., A History of Rutgers College, 1766-1924. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers College, 1924. Gneuss, Helmut. English Language Scholarship: A Survey and Bibliography From the Beginning to End of the Nineteenth Century. Binghamton, NY: Medieval & Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996. McCormick, Richard P. Rutgers: A Bicentennial History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1966. Shumway, David R., and Craig Dionne. Disciplining English: Alternative Histories, Critical Perspectives. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002.

Many thanks to the staff at the Rutgers University Archives for their help in researching this article. The Archives hold the papers of John Forsyth, the records of the Philoclean Society, course catalogues, and many other documents from the history of Rutgers.