Department of English History
Because of the student population boom, the New Brunswick campus found itself overcrowded. To gain extra space, Rutgers University merged with colleges in Newark and Camden, creating new campuses. In spite of the expansions, the University was still congested. However, the returning veterans seemed to set the tone for the University’s academic pace and social circuit through their maturity and enthusiasm. Despite the overcrowding, campus life flourished.
Every department at Rutgers had to account for changes brought about by the end of the war and the flood of incoming students. Within the English Department, the new Chair J. Milton French, who had arrived in 1940, took a proactive approach to these new challenges. French was an archival scholar from Queens College in New York and had recently published Milton in Chancery, an exhaustively researched analysis of lawsuits affecting the life of poet John Milton.
The expanded enrollment called for many adjustments, including hiring more teachers. The number of English full-time faculty members jumped from ten in 1945 to thirty-five in 1947. French was expected to keep harmony in a Department where newcomers outnumbered old hands. One innovation was the creation of the “English Section,” a loose confederation of the autonomous English Departments at Rutgers College, the New Jersey College for Women (later Douglass College), and University College (which had begun granting degrees in 1934 and had established a small but separate faculty in 1940). Although the sporadic meetings of the Section were more social than administrative, they helped in connecting the different English Departments as part of one University, setting the stage for their eventual unification in 1981.
French also pushed for refinements to the curriculum and added many new courses to the Rutgers English roster, including the first literature courses designed for non-majors, and interdisciplinary courses with other departments such as Art and History. The Freshman Writing requirement began to grow stricter under his guidance due to faculty complaints that many of the new students were weak writers. To rectify the situation, French established an intensive program of composition courses, including a six-week remedial course that would have to be retaken by students until they could pass a grammar and writing exam.
French’s work on the English curriculum was influenced by his other important role: as the Chair of the powerful Council Committee on Educational Policies for the University. Under his leadership from 1940 to 1950, this committee reshaped the educational philosophy of the whole University. The war had shaken the public’s faith in human nature, and educational institutions tended to respond with a renewed interest in the liberal arts as a way to transmit moral and social values. Accordingly, French’s committee proposed degree requirements that included year-long courses in the humanities, social sciences, and math and science. When the plan was enacted in 1945, students at Rutgers College had to take six courses total (two in each category, but from different departments), insuring a well-rounded foundation. The College for Women soon adopted similar guidelines. Interest in the humanities, already increasing as students pressured into “practical” majors during the war returned to their natural inclinations, grew even faster.
An anecdote from this period suggests both French’s modesty and generosity. In 1942, when Rutgers President Richard C. Clothier asked for recommendations for new committee members, French wrote: “Not that I should not be happy to continue, but you ought not to have to feel under the slightest obligation to be tied to the present batting order if you can find a DiMaggio elsewhere. If you will just break the news to me gently, I will step aside with surprising grace.” Clothier’s answer was brief: “I don’t know of any better Joe DiMaggio.”
Within the Department, French was a heavy-hitter in his support for both students and colleagues. He believed that great education began with great teachers, and worked to recruit and retain the best professors. He was a particularly strong advocate for faculty research. After the war, the University began to require research excellence as a condition for promotion more so than before. French argued that humanities scholarship was different from scientific research and required time off from the demands of teaching. He encouraged his faculty to publish, but he also fought with the administration for the resources to allow them the time to pursue their scholarly projects. Under his guidance, Rutgers English grew into the research leader that it is today, as he and his colleagues published 40 books, over 300 articles, and 200 creative works during his twenty years as Chair.
This emphasis on scholarly achievement had one significant byproduct: by 1947, the Department qualified to offer a Ph.D. in English along with the already-offered Masters. In 1950, Robert E. Butler earned the first Rutgers English doctoral degree, with a dissertation called “William Dean Howells as Editor of The Atlantic Monthly.” Butler went on to become a professor at Douglass College.
By 1949, the school’s peak enrollment numbers were already dropping again, and both Rutgers and the English Department were suffering from having expanded, then contracted, so rapidly. The energy of those post-war years had changed the premises and expectations of higher education, democratizing it into the institution we know today. But the 1950s would bring a whole new set of challenges for Rutgers and for French as Chair of Rutgers English.
Research for this article relied on Richard P. McCormick’s book Rutgers: A Bicentennial History (1966), and on materials in the Rutgers University Archives. The Archives preserve course catalogues, faculty correspondence, administrative records, yearbooks, and many other documents from the history of Rutgers. Photo credits: Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Archives.
Many thanks to the staff of the Archives for their help in researching this series, with special thanks to Bonita Grant, Erika Gorder, and Thomas Frusciano.