English department discusses new minor, sparks controversy among faculty and students

Thursday, March 21, 2019 - 4:34pm

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Design by Michelle Fan and Roseanne Chao

The University of Michigan’s English Department voted Wednesday to support the creation of a new minor focused on narrative arts and creative nonfiction. The minor was originally proposed as a journalism minor, though the final iteration includes a broader curriculum.

After this initial voice of support by the English Department, the draft proposal will continue to be updated and refined, leading to an eventual viewing and consideration made by the LSA Curriculum Committee.

The minor, which originated with student interest in taking more journalism and creative non-fiction courses, has caused internal debate within the English department, specifically on its disclusion of the term “journalism.”

English lecturer Will Potter has been working with the University’s Office of Academic Innovation, where he is a fellow in digital storytelling, to implement a program in journalism at the University. The Narrative Arts minor grew out of Potter and other professors’ journalism minor proposal. After working with the English Department and the Office of Academic Innovation to develop stronger journalism-related educational path at the University, Potter said he and his colleagues were shocked to hear their idea had been transformed by the department into a proposed minor in “Narrative Arts,” an ambiguous title excluding the word “journalism.”

“The new minor, as presented by leadership in the English department, is explicitly rejecting even the term ‘journalism,’” Potter said. “We have all been very surprised at this change in direction … even the English Department faculty who have joined me in this conversation from the start. Journalism is not a dirty word, period.”

English Department Chair David Porter made it clear the potential new minor would not be a journalism program, even though the descriptions of the potential minor provided to The Daily include such terminology. According to Porter, efforts have not been made to rejuvenate the journalism program that closed nearly 90 years ago.

“Michigan used to have a journalism program that closed decades ago and there really hasn’t been any effort to replace that,” Porter said. “What we’re talking about is not intended to, by any means, replicate or duplicate or replace something like a traditional journalism program … in fact, we’ve largely avoided the use of the term ‘journalism’ and sought to think about the program more capaciously.”

Instead of being explicitly about journalism, Porter wrote that the Narrative Arts minor, if conceived, is intended to be interdepartmental, echoing the structural goals of the Social Class and Inequality Studies minor as well as the Digital Studies minor.

“(The minor is) designed to provide students interested in careers involving journalism (and story-making more broadly) structured opportunities to study the history, theory and craft of a variety of nonfiction narrative forms, including long-form/literary journalism, travel writing, memoir and ethnography,” Porter wrote in an email interview with The Daily.

The University’s relationship with journalism education and a curriculum surrounding the profession is long and complex. The Communication Studies Department began as “English Language and Literature” in 1869, and after multiple name changes, became “Rhetoric and Journalism” in 1921. Eight years later, the department was referred to as simply “Journalism,” but dropped the word “journalism” from its name in 1932 and has not re-adopted it since. The Communication Studies Department, as it is currently named, formed in 1995.

There have been recent efforts in the English Department to enhance the journalism courses and opportunities available to students. The English Department added a new page to their website announcing their new summer internship program in journalism. According to the website, the department will offer funding for at least five applicants to complete a summer internship at a media outlet in the Detroit or Ann Arbor area. While this announcement implies support for journalism education from the English Department, Porter said including the word “journalism” in the new minor would isolate stakeholders in the department, resulting in a rejection of the initial proposal.

“A department like ours has many different constituencies and many different stakeholders, and trying to do something new requires (using rhetorical strategies) that everyone can get on board with and that try to avoid significantly antagonizing one group or another,” Porter said. “Had this proposal been pitched as primarily a journalistic undertaking, it would have deeply antagonized a significant subset of the department and the powerful subset of the department.”

Discussion about the minor began when students asked their professors if more classes were available in the realms of journalism and creative nonfiction writing. According to Porter, the potential minor is geared towards students aspiring to careers in storytelling, documentary-making, podcasting and other forms of journalism. However, the interdisciplinary aspect of the proposed minor aims to attract students from other academic realms who are seeking a complementary minor to their major studies.

English professor Anne Curzan, associate dean for humanities in LSA, mentioned the importance of interdisciplinary studies within LSA, as well as the idea for a student-driven program pioneered by those interested in journalism and nonfiction writing.

“We know that a good number of students are interested in journalistic writing and creative nonfiction,” Curzan wrote in an email interview with The Daily. “In LSA, we can effectively ground this kind of writing in questions that are foundational to the liberal arts. Interdisciplinarity is one of the great strengths of LSA, and we always think about how best to coordinate proposed new minors across departments, when relevant.”

Courses such as English 425, and English 345 highlight conventions of nonfiction writing and their intersection with media. These classes were designed to meet the student need for creative and journalistic course work, and are some of the efforts made in recent years to include diverse journalistic classes in the English department. English lecturer Jeremiah Chamberlin recognized students’ desire to learn more about nonfiction writing, while also echoing Curzan’s emphasis on interdisciplinarity.

“Many of us began to hear from more and more of our students who wanted to continue working in the genre, but who felt like they didn’t have many options … the course offerings for nonfiction were limited,” Chamberlin wrote in an email interview with The Daily. “As more and more of our nonfiction students go on to work in such fields as journalism, media or publishing, for example, the more they report back that they wish they’d had a more interdisciplinary approach to their education; the work they’re doing draws more across disciplines than they might have imagined.”

University alum Yoshiko Iwai, currently in graduate school at Columbia University, was a dual-major in neuroscience and dance. Iwai, who worked for The Daily while at the University, utilized some courses in the English department, especially through Chamberlin, to further explore her interest in narrative medicine and creative nonfiction, which she currently studies as a graduate student.

Iwai echoed Chamberlin’s point regarding the limited amount of journalism and narrative-related courses available at the University. She explained that attaining some pitching and reporting skills to add to her repertoire while an undergraduate would have better prepared her for a post-graduate career in the field. A curriculum centered on the skills and lessons needed to succeed in journalism would allow students to explore their passion without being bound to a more general degree, Iwai said.

“There’s the demand to get that skill set and to get that professional toolbox in undergrad, without having to ‘settle’ with the English major that has too many other components to it that you might not necessarily be interested in fulfilling,” Iwai said.

The lack of journalism-centric curricula through LSA drive some students to seek journalistic experience through extracurriculars. For Iwai, she cited her time writing for The Daily as a means of garnering journalism experience during her undergraduate education.

Similarly, LSA sophomore Lauren Guido supplements her Film, Television and Media and International Studies majors by participating in WOLV-TV, where she serves as a news director and executive producer.

Guido spoke about the minimal course offerings regarding journalism in LSA and explained her journalism experience thus far can be attributed to her campus involvement and summer internships.

“When I was applying to colleges, I was specifically looking for something that I would graduate with a journalism degree … and Michigan was the only school that didn’t have that,” Guido said. “But I think that having a liberal arts background and being well-rounded and having many different skill sets … is really beneficial for journalism and media content creation in general.”

Porter addressed the student demand for more storytelling-focused coursework and explained the English Department took on the proposal of the project given the resources it currently has, which include a strong faculty and wide departmental breadth.

“The English department (has) a very strong focus on the study of stories and literature, but also the teaching of writing,” Porter said. “We have a very robust writing curriculum and a large number of instructors, many of whom have not only that experience, but also journalism experience ... (We are) calling upon the forces we already have in the department for the teaching of writing.”

Though Porter said many instructors within the English Department have journalism experience, he noted the English Department is not equipped to provide students with this type of education due to a lack of resources available at this time.

“We do not have a critical mass of professional journalists on the faculty, so we simply don’t have the training or the resources, the professional experience as a group to do a journalism program within English in a responsible way,” Porter said. “The primary reason is we simply don’t have the people to do it.”

However, Potter also noted the University has been a vital institution in the world of journalism. He referenced the history of the University’s placement at the forefront of journalism and evolutions of the field, citing Ronan Farrow and Ken Auletta’s recent visit to campus this week. The University continues to be well-connected to the journalism world by bringing in high-profile journalists to speak on campus and providing year-long fellowships to career journalists through Wallace House. According to Potter, these opportunities grant the University leadership in the journalism field, even if there is pushback from University faculty in forming a journalism degree.

“We at the University of Michigan have led in this area for decades, and then lost sight of that, unfortunately,” Potter said. “We, among all of higher education, are really suited to make an impact in this space, we did it from the start.”

Potter remained hopeful and confident in the work he is doing to make journalistic resources and education more accessible to all U-M students. Even if the possible minor in Narrative Arts comes to fruition, Potter and his colleagues will continue pushing the University to write journalism into the structure of LSA and its liberal arts mission. This bump in the road, Potter said, will not hinder him from fighting for journalism on campus.

“Somewhere along the way … the department’s leadership determined that talking about (journalism) ... doesn’t belong in the English Department.” Potter said. “This need for Michigan, for the region, for the world, has not changed. The support from the Office of Academic Innovation and many other players has not changed … I’m really excited about all the potential to do something bold and new … (but) we need University of Michigan leadership.”