Traditional Strengths and New Approaches
The study of English literature at Cornell began with the encouragement of the university’’s first president, Andrew Dickson White--former Professor of History and English Literature at the University of Michigan (one of the first such positions); major American historian; major book collector; founder of Cornell University Press in 1869 (the first university press in the nation); and, as co-founder of Cornell (1868), dedicated to educating all students regardless of race and gender. Although in the nineteenth century, ancient classical authors were the primary focus of academic study, White’s own literary fascinations were up to date. Recalling his childhood, he wrote, “I reveled in [Walter] Scott’s novels . . . I also read and reread Bunyan’s A Pilgrim’s Progress, and with pleasure even more intense, the earlier works of Dickens which were then appearing …”
Today, the Cornell English Department retains the pluralistic ideals of the university’s founders, and continues to respond to and embody a constantly evolving discipline. Within the Department, ongoing debates about the role of critical theory or cultural studies, the status of popular culture, the relevance of film studies and Hip Hop, or the definition of the words “English” and “literature” themselves have led to new understandings of the discipline, as well as a range of textual productivity, from producing critical editions to writing poetry. Outside the Department, the growth of interdisciplinary work has led to a range of connections across the humanities at Cornell, from Comparative Literature to Medieval Studies; from Asian-American Studies to Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies--in all of which numbers of English faculty maintain affiliations. Along with teaching (by professorial faculty as well as doctoral students and lecturers) over a third of the Freshman Writing Seminars offered by Cornell’s Knight Institute of Writing in the Disciplines, the English Department’s nourishing of this wide range of scholarly and creative writing has maintained the Department’s central importance in the humanities at Cornell and world-wide.