The English Department’s Inaugural ENGL 101 Plenary Lecture Series

By Louisa Brady

This year, the English Department changed its gateway course from the old “Literary Interpretation” to the new “Introduction to the Study of Literature” or ENGL 101. Prof. Jini Kim Watson, who helped revamp the course as Director of Undergraduate Studies, described ENGL 101 as “a kind of ‘boot camp’ and intro to the English major/minor.” The new course is designed to give instructors freedom in selecting their texts and structuring their syllabi but also to ensure that students “come away with roughly comparable training and preparation for their studies in English.” In order to help standardize the training across sections, the department has created a series of plenary lectures that bring together all ENGL 101 students regularly throughout the semester.

Prof. Cyrus Patell delivering a Plenary Lecture for “Introduction to the Study of Literature”

The eight plenary lectures over the course of this academic year were delivered on a volunteer basis by various English Department faculty members. Each lecture is given twice in order to give students flexibility as to when they attend. “The plenaries have a few functions,” Prof. Watson said, “they bring together a number of common texts across all sections of 101—which unifies the course and brings dialogue across the sections—and also constitute a common experience for all students across the course (about 100 in any semester), creating more of a sense of community.”

In describing what they look for in a volunteer plenary lecturer, Prof. Watson joked, “Mostly willingness!” She added, “We don’t have a checklist of approaches to cover, but we might get (for example) plenaries that showcase book history methods, world literature, poetry and poetics, postcolonialism, medieval literature, and so on.” Prof. Elizabeth McHenry, the Plenary Coordinator, stressed, “One of the things that we hope the plenaries will do is expose students to people and subjects and approaches to literature they might study as they move through the major.”

Last fall, Prof. Patricia Crain and Prof. Lisa Gitelman kicked off the series with a joint lecture on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter” (1844) from a book-history perspective. Students then attended a lecture by Prof. Una Chaudhuri on Suzan-Lori Parks’s The Death of the Last Black Man in the Entire World (1990) before seeing the play at the Signature Theater and having an opportunity to visit with the playwright. Prof. Cyrus Patell, who currently teaches at NYU-Abu Dhabi, spoke on Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih and the concept of a “global text” that moves “beyond its local origins to become something like ‘global cultural heritage.’” Finally, Prof. Mclane, who is both a scholar and poet, used selections from her book My Poets to discuss poetry and the process of thinking about literature in writing.

In the spring semester, Prof. Carolyn Dinshaw’s lecture addressed The Book of Margery Kempe, a medieval text considered to be the first autobiography of a woman. Prof. Patrick Deer’s lecture looked at three short stories by Shiobhan Fallon and Phil Klay, both established contemporary writers of war literature, to offer students a context for reading these stories as part of an ongoing war culture. Prof. Watson spoke on Shailja Patel’s Migritude, a book of poetry that blends poems, prose pieces, history, autobiography, letters, and timelines to establish the experience of migration in today’s global world. Finally, Prof. Jess Row, a visiting professor and fiction writer, presented several pieces of his own writing in order to engage students in a conversation about literature and the craft of writing.

The plenary lecture series is an exciting addition to the English major experience. “I would eventually like to see all our colleagues give a plenary at one point or another,” Prof. Watson said. “We are a large department and have wonderful strengths in a number of fields. We often find that students only discover their passion for a particular subfield late in their major: the plenaries would allow them to discover these subfields earlier.”