In the early days of my career, the English ‘English’ department I was working in took as its remit British literature written in English. In other words, the ‘English’ remit was defined neither by language — by  the extent of literatures written in English — nor by the geographical boundaries of England. This has been an uncomfortable fudge for many in the discipline, and increasingly so as questions both of nationhood and of inclusivity have become more urgent.[1]

Relatively recently, however, a more decisive turn has been emerging. We have just received the news that a department vote at Cornell University came out strongly in favour of changing the name of the English Department to ‘Department of Literatures in English’. A blog post in Brittle Paper (an online literary magazine for readers of African Literature) reflects on this as part of a move to increase representation of and visibility of non-British English literatures in the department.[2] There’s no getting away from the fact that the breadth of English literatures represented under this new heading is one that in many ways maps colonial structures, and that language has been a vehicle of colonial power.  Yet this move toward greater inclusivity is, crucially, a move toward undoing some of the power-relationships that still determine the reception and value of culture.

The proposed change in title at Cornell reflects a shift in thinking that we are seeing in many English departments in the US and UK: a move which should, over time, welcome in a rich and valuable diversity of scholars, voices and worldviews. It is an important and exciting shift that has the potential to genuinely refresh the discipline. Such moves see ‘English’ departments identifying their remit as one based in language rather than geography. Yet, what are we going to do with that other question, the one about Englishness that is bounded by geography, which is ultimately perhaps a question of place, a series of networked spaces, and the ways in which they interact with inhabitants and literary production to form, transform, and deform ideas of Englishness? It is a question that has become particularly important in light of Brexit, calls for Scottish independence, the potential dissolution of the United Kingdom, and the increased visibility of far-right forms of English nationalism. Many are now calling for alternative, fresh, inclusive articulations of English nationhood. Might there be an opportunity to contribute more systematically, as a discipline, to this debate? It’s a genuine question.

Many individual literary scholars have, of course, written brilliantly about the formation of ‘Englishnesses’ through literature and culture, although arguably this challenge has often been taken on more directly within other disciplines, with scholars such as Krishan Kumar (a sociologist), for example, in 2003, identifying the dangers of suppressing English nationalism because of a concern about its association with imperialism, and calling for a reworking: ‘English nationalism, that enigmatic and elusive thing, so long conspicuous by its absence, might, new-born, show what a truly civic nationalism can look like’. He is interesting on the idea of a ‘civic’ nationalism, for example, as distinct from ‘ethnic’, and ‘imperial’ nationalisms – and such distinctions, although contentious, are still crucial to opening up spaces for broader debate about the idea of Englishness.  The question is do ‘English’ departments (particularly those located within England) have a particular opportunity to contribute, collectively, distinctive resources and expertise to this debate, in tandem with expanding the range of literatures in English that are studied?

One might well think that the literature of England has for so long been the primary object of study of English departments that more focus on this area is not what’s most needed. Much more important to ensure that literature in English from other areas (be that Scotland or the Caribbean) is given equal attention. Yet, perhaps this is a false opposition: we can give much more space to other literatures in English while also, potentially, contributing more systematically, as a discipline, to public questions of English cultural identities. Indeed, perhaps these are two sides to the same coin. There are risks in acknowledging a connection between our discipline and formulations of English nationhood, but simply turning away from the idea of Englishness is not going to help: at a time when the union threatens to break, we need new ideas of what it means to be English — ideas that we can inhabit and share, and which supplement our other identity categories (which will always be many and varied, and which should be able to intersect with Englishness in rich and meaningful ways).  And we need this not only because the union might soon fragment (where will we be if we can no longer appeal to Britishness?), but also because refreshed cultural identities might help promote harmony between the nations of the union.

So, might our discipline both extend the net of what we value and represent when we look at ‘literatures in English’, and also embrace within English universities a more visible role (one among many) in relation to  public debate about Englishness? After all, the discipline’s strong contribution to public debate about regional identities does not have to be at odds with this. Indeed, thinking about Englishnesses in the plural brings forward multiple senses of belonging that supplement and exceed regional sub-categories. Whether or not we want to contribute to society in this way (and I’m not yet sure how I would answer that question), reflecting on these issues might be a useful prompt as part of our continuous reassessment of the role and relevance of our discipline in the contemporary world.

Marion Thain (King’s College London)


[1] As Gerald Graff commented in 1987, discipline structures and identities are often slow to change in relation to shifting contexts (Professing Literature: An Institutional History [University of Chicago Press, 1989]).

[2], ‘Decolonizing the English Department’, by Carole Boyce Davies and Mukoma Wa Ngugi (October 05, 2020).