As chair of the English department in 1957-58, James E. Savage was committed to all students. Although he successfully launched a doctoral program in 1957, he was determined to not leave undergraduates behind.
“The instruction of prospective doctors of philosophy should not weaken the instruction given to the undergraduate,” Savage wrote in his 1957-58 annual report.
This concern reflected the dedication of the 13 male faculty members to their students. For example, Professor Emeritus Charles Noyes, who was on the faculty then, was known for extensive interaction with students.
“I got to know my students,” Noyes said. “Students knew that they weren’t just being lectured at, but were part of a shared learning experience.”
“The program was small enough for the faculty members to work closely with the students,” said former English Professor and Provost Gerald Walton, who was a graduate student at UM at the time. “There was a conscious effort to keep it intimate enough that people got to know each other.”
“I remember walking up and down the hall, seeing professors and just being able to go in and chat,” Walton said. “We had really excellent teachers. I felt I was sitting at the feet of real scholars and I enjoyed working with them.”
The Department of English has grown in the last half-century. Still headquartered in Bondurant Hall (then called the Graduate School), the department boasts a larger and more diverse faculty, with 10 women, two African Americans and one African among its 27 faculty. The number of students also has grown; today there are 304 undergraduate majors and 110 graduate students.
Programs have expanded, as well. In addition to the MFA in creative writing, the department offers a graduate emphasis and an interdisciplinary undergraduate minor in Renaissance and early modern studies, which would surely have delighted Savage, himself a Renaissance scholar.
Even with this growth, there is still a sense of community among faculty and students. Jillian Lang, a senior from Jackson, for example, has ample opportunities to work closely with her professors.
“I love that I have gotten to know my professors,” said Lang. “I learned how to write well, and my professors offer a lot of guidance about my future career in English. All of them are very open and very available.”
Today’s faculty members are open to working with students even though more is expected of faculty in research and creative endeavors than in the 1950s. Back then, not all professors held doctoral degrees. “Probably the biggest change in the department has been the necessary emphasis on hiring people who will research and publish,” said Walton. “To attract the best and brightest students, the faculty must be well-respected and producing themselves.”
Among new faculty is Patrick Quinn, who has chaired the department since August 2006. Educated mostly in Canada and Great Britain, Quinn has spent the vast majority of his academic career teaching English overseas, often in countries where English isn’t the first language — Greece, Germany and even Iraq. It provides him with a unique perspective on teaching English.
“Teaching is different from culture to culture,” he said. “Having that range of experience enables me to adapt to a wide variety of learning styles and teaching situations.”
Faculty expertise has expanded beyond American (particularly Southern) and British literature to include world and post-colonial literature. The faculty’s productivity clearly outpaces that of the department in the 1950s. Since 2000, they have produced 18 books and too many articles to count. Faculty members further raise the national prominence of the department through their work with conferences held on campus, most notably the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference, the Blues Today Conference and the Oxford Conference for the Book.
Faculty expertise is deepened by the presence of writers in residence. The two permanent writers in residence are Pulitzer Prize-nominated Barry Hannah and Tom Franklin. The John and Renée Grisham Emerging Southern Writer-in-Residence program, funded by the Grishams, brings in talented writers each year. This year the department is host to Jack Pendarvis, who was awarded the 2006 Pushcart Prize for fiction. Also, Paula Bohince came to campus as the first poet in residence last summer.
“The department is clearly and honestly one of the better programs in the country,” Quinn said.
Looking to the future, the department will continue to be at the national forefront in Southern fiction and poetry. There is also a desire to increase offerings in several other areas including 19th-century American literature, environmental literature, creative nonfiction and screenplay writing.
Quinn also seeks to build on the writing and composition facets of collegiate English — facets he believes have been deteriorating nationally for years.
“My goal is to strengthen the writing program by ensuring we have a strong coherent approach to it,” Quinn said.
With the support of alumni and friends, the department can continue to build on its success. For example, Dorothy “Dot” Halliday (BA 56) recently donated $22,000.
“We want to make sure we have the financial resources to attract and retain outstanding students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels,” Quinn said. “Mrs. Halliday’s gift — and others like it — help make that possible.”