When Ryan Wilson came to Catholic University for a visit to learn more about the doctoral program in the Department of English, a flyer for a class caught his eye.
“The class was called Milton,” Wilson recalls. “It didn’t have a colon or a subtitle; it was just ‘Milton.’ The description of the class was, ‘Read all of the poems of John Milton.’ That kind of a class I think is unusual at many universities, where there will be a particular lens or angle through which professors want to look at a given author. For me, as someone who identifies as a poet, I always want to begin with the poems themselves rather than approaching poems with a given ideology.”
That approach — teaching students to study literature on its own, rather than through a particular theory — is partly what attracted Wilson to Catholic University. He is now a doctoral candidate in the department, which is home to approximately 60 undergraduate students and 45 graduate students. Undergraduate courses for English majors average 15 students.
Senior Antoinette Cea says the small size of the department means that she’s gotten to know her classmates and professors well.
“You’ll walk down the hall and Dr. [Christopher] Wheatley has his door open, blasting the Rolling Stones,” she says. “Or you walk past Dr. [Taryn] Okuma and she’s willing to have a cup of tea with you. The English department has a lot of different personalities and they’re all very unique.”
In January, the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers (ALSWC) moved its headquarters from Boston University to the department, a testament to the University’s approach to teaching literature. The University hosted the association’s annual conference in late October (see sidebar). Catholic University Professor Ernest Suarez will be named president of the association at that meeting.
"We have worked to establish our reputation as a department that focuses on literary history and aesthetics, and we are well known and respected for this,” says Glen Johnson, chair of the English department.
“The English department attracts undergraduate and graduate students who seek to read and discuss literature as literature and cultivate an understanding of literary studies that isn't bound by transitory academic fashions,” Johnson said. “The movement of the Association of Literary Critics, Scholars, and Writers to Catholic University, and its annual conference on campus this month, are recognition that our approach to research and teaching corresponds with the ALSCW's mission to ‘revitalize the study of literature.’”
The arrival of the ALSCW and the conference provide unique opportunities for students to interact with the association’s members. All six students in Suarez’s senior seminar course attended the four-day conference at the professor’s invitation.
Senior Brian Mulcahy says the opportunity to attend such a conference was “one of the things that you come to college for.”
“Our senior seminar focuses on Robert Penn Warren, and his daughter, Rosanna Warren, [was] present at this conference,” Mulcahy says. “I think it’s really cool that Catholic University is able to host such an opportunity.”