Steve and the English Student Twitter Account


The What:

You may be aware that the JCCC English Department has a publicity committee. The committee’s charge is to find new ways to advocate for the Department and all we have to offer, and in pursuit of that charge we have, among other endeavors, created a Twitter account (@JCCCEnglish). I have been given the honor of administering that account, and I am asking for your help.

At its most basic, the account imparts important department and college news, recognizes literature and literary figures (or things related to literature), and advocates for the discipline in particular and for the Arts and Humanities in general. Below, I will get into why I think this is vital, but for now, here’s a few sample tweets from the past couple months

• #JCCC has released spring catalog! Find your English classes here: 

• Banned books are to libraries as dancing is to Footloose. Get your groove back with a book: so much depends / upon // 6 hours of comp / credit // glazed with rhet/oric // in MLA / format. Happy #JCCC Engl b-day, Wm Carlos Williams!

• Banned books are to libraries as dancing is to Footloose. Get your groove back with a book: so much depends / upon // 6 hours of comp / credit // glazed with rhet/oric // in MLA / format. Happy #JCCC Engl b-day, Wm Carlos Williams! Everything in higher ed is measurable if you value only what can be measured.

•”Words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean” Theodore Dreiser, American writer. Learn to sew words to meaning at #JCCC English!

• Literature draws on 2500 years of tradition–it’s what stays. Join us this semester at #JCCC 

The thing is, we need followers, particularly students. Since we set up the account in mid-spring, we’ve attracted roughly three dozen followers, mostly through word of mouth (tweet of screen?). My hope here is two-fold: 1) you all sign up to follow the department twitter account (to do so, you need an account yourself–here are the instructions: (it’s super-easy–D2L will hang its head in shame–and you do NOT have to tweet in order to receive tweets). 2) you encourage your students to sign up. Our hope is that if we can get students to sign up, we can get students to elect to take more of our classes.


A Bit o’ Honey for the Pot:

I know we all don’t have time for wit, wisdom, and timely announcements, so in order to make the account more useful for everyday classroom matters, I would be willing to make the occasional announcement for cancelled classes, special events, that kind of thing. We are limited to 140 characters, so they have to be short (“Werkmeister’s Comp I 10 & 11 cancelled today. See D2L for more info”), and unless you can talk Keith into giving me three-hours release time, I won’t be making daily announcements (“don’t forget your journal!”). If you want to advertise what’s going on in your class (“This week in Drama: Ibsen’s Doll House–don’t be sulky squirrels!”) or an important event happening on campus in or the area, we can do that, too. My hope is to make the account reflect who we are as a department: fun and smart and practical and idealistic (in 140 characters).

The Why:

And here I am very emphatically speaking for myself. As a department, as a discipline, and as an approach to life, we are under siege. As you can tell from the fourth bullet listed above, I feel like there’s an existential threat to English departments (literature first, but non-professional writing soon–i.e., writing that’s not business- or tech-oriented). The threat is coming from all directions–some of you have heard me rage against the assessment machine (based on cost-benefit analysis popular in business), and the new Program Review regime (with its emphasis on SMART goals–specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, time-bound) is just tying us closer to methods developed to increase productivity and profitability in the corporate world. On campus, we have fliers and posters the explicitly assess the worth of education by the wealth of job opportunities, and we have an ideology that says if a class doesn’t “count” towards graduation, it’s “wasted” credits. We have allowed to seep into higher education the idea that if something isn’t immediately practicable (“how am I going to use this in the ‘real world’?”) or can’t be used as currency in the credits-for-diploma marketplace, it’s literally without value. It’s a waste.

Some disciplines teach how lives are saved, some teach the materials of life, some teach how to make more money in the course of one’s life. We, and I would include here others in the Arts and Humanities, teach why life’s worth living. We are the inheritors of 2500 years of some of the greatest minds who have ever lived and wrote; through literature, we help our students hear the dead speak, and through creative writing, we teach them how to speak to the yet unliving. We approach our discipline with the memory of those who taught us and the faith that we’ll have the same effect on at least a few of our students. We scatter seeds in the field, knowing some will fall on rocky ground and hoping others will take root. However, in a paradigm of corporate values, where the only things that count are those that are SMART (defined corporately), in a time where SMART has displaced wisdom, we lose. Under a model where students are consumers and we are judged without time for reflection and in the rush of the semester’s end, as if Shakespeare or Austen or Lahiri were a plate of tacos and professors merely waiters, course evaluations little blue cards customers fill out at the end of a meal, we lose. I didn’t realize the impact of reading Gloria Anzaldua until months after the class had ended; it wasn’t until something pulled me back to Dostoevsky–middle age, perhaps, or an unusually cold autumn–that I got Brothers Karamazov, years after I first read it for a class. A year after an Intro to Fiction class here, I got an email from a student who had transferred and decided to declare an English major; she said the class stuck with her so much nothing else seemed worth studying. What we do might be hope or it might be magic or it might be faith, but when we do what we do, and we do it well, whatever it is, it’s not measurable.

However, we live in an era of tables, of credits and debits, of the hard belief in the numerology of accounting. We are facing falling enrollments, partly because of things outside our control (from what I understand, KU has made some decisions that undermined our lit courses) and partly because we’ve been out-marketed. We’ve allowed politicians and administrators to argue that knowledge which can’t be spun into career gold doesn’t “count.” We’re losing sections, losing job lines, losing students. The hope of the publicity committee is to find ways to take our argument to the students, to remind them that there is a difference between education and job-training, that there are values other than monetary, that the seeds we plant this semester may sprout in their hearts and minds for the rest of their lives.

One last quick observation: as an undergrad and a graduate student, I took a lot of classes in the Classics department. One thing that struck me was that for centuries, the Classics were central to college education; even a hundred years ago, there was an expectation that a college student would at least be familiar with Latin and Greek. My guess is that many of the professors felt their discipline would always be central and essential to the mission of higher education. By the time I was taking classes, the Classics department at UNL consisted of about a half-dozen professors huddled in a hive of offices at the end of the hall in the English department’s building. They were an after-thought, a quaint reminder that at one time people could actually read the inscriptions on some of the buildings and diplomas. The way the tide is coming, in the ongoing rush of to make colleges more like corporations, within a generation or two, I can see us becoming the Classics department.

The Twitter account and the English student blog might be quixotic, they may be baby steps, but so long as the college and society continues to measure education by financial spreadsheets and workplace utility, we’re not going to get any help from the outside. If we want to stay relevant, we have to make that argument ourselves; we have to help our students see our relevance.  Please do us the favor of announcing the account to your students, of signing up for it yourselves, of sharing with us (you could email Keith or me) any ideas you might have to make sure we’re visible to students.