An Interview with Mr. Blain: The Philosophy and Future of the English Department

Spencer Dearborn ’18

I approached Mr. Blain several weeks ago intent on pressing some specific questions regarding Woodberry’s English 500 courses. Why do we hardly read any canonical American literature (Hemingway, Faulkner, etc.)? Why had I taken a full year of “American Literature,” and not read, for example, The Great Gatsby? This inquisition rose from my own experience in the English 500 Rotation; by the end of the course–which, as junior English has been for decades, was divided by a poetry trimester, a drama trimester, and a prose trimester–we had finished two books: Cold Mountain and Invisible Man, the former of which we read during the “drama” trimester.

Blain’s response to my experience revealed two important and worth-sharing facts about our English department. First, they espouse a very intentional pedagogy regarding “canonical literature.” Such literature, Blain believes, is often too complex for high school students, so we therefore would not fully appreciate the art. Secondly, the English department aims primarily to prepare its students for any career, so the ultimate goal is to teach students to write well, rather than analyze a book like Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter aptly. I genuinely appreciate this approach to English. Non-conformity to a superficial idea of what it means to be “educated in literature” is, in my opinion, ultimately respectable.

But, the fact that the schedule was so restrictive of the reading list suggests coming changes to the English 500 three-trimester-rotation structure. Of junior English, Blain said “we eventually expect to move to year-long courses.” However, he also said that, given the way junior English is currently set up, the “tidy” solution of ditching the rotation immediately might not be “ideal.” The decades-old rotation system was implemented before Blain had even arrived at Woodberry, and was designed to give Juniors more options for college recommendation letters. But, aside from poetry growing very dry after a whole trimester, the structure was much more compatible with the old schedule, which had much more time built in for homework. Now, without time to compensate for just a single trimester of prose with homework, it is highly possible that the English department will “eventually” step away from the rotation system. 

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