Rethinking the Limits

of Intellectual Community

Washington University in St. Louis

Department of English

The Experience in English at Washington University

Robust intellectual communities have to find their center of gravity in the world of research. Intellectual exchanges among students, between different departments and programs, and students and faculty have long established channels in the Department of English at Washington University. We participate, for example, in the Early Modern Dissertation Group, an interdisciplinary forum in which students and faculty from various disciplines gather to discuss chapters of student theses. The department also maintains student colloquia in which students give oral presentations of their work to a mixed audience of faculty and students. We have a faculty colloquium where faculty members present their research to their peers--colleagues and students. Our department is aligned with programs that offer special certificates for graduate students (currently in teaching writing, Women and Gender Studies, and American Cultural Studies). There are summer seminars for advanced graduate students in the early modern and the modern periods, with stipends financed by the Mellon Foundation. The Hurst Endowment allows us to bring in a significant number of distinguished visitors--and so on.

Numerous opportunities for experiencing intellectual community in our department already exist. But as we have been thinking about expanding these opportunities, several questions have come to haunt us: it is easy enough to increase the number of venues and opportunities for intellectual exchange, but how do we increase the intensity of the engagement with texts and ideas? It is easy enough to get people in a room to talk about their work to others, but how can we more deliberately foster intellectual identities and scholarly personae? Is doing more of the same going to produce a leap in quality? Our department does not pretend to have answers to these questions, but there are a few things that we have been doing and are starting to do that strike us as important in reaching beyond intellectual communities as usual.

Americanist Colloquium

The department's external review identified American literary studies as central to our intellectual life and identity, but saw the need for some rebuilding and refashioning. We were able to search for new faculty in two consecutive years, 2003-4 and 2004-5. In the latter case we ran alongside the search a faculty and graduate colloquium called American Literary Studies: the Possible Futures. The colloquium met most weeks on Friday afternoons and was organized by the junior American faculty and postdocs. Faculty and graduates led discussions on the interdisciplinary interfaces at Washington University between American literature and other programs (American Culture Studies, African and African American, Women's and Gender Studies, Comparative Literature, Religious studies) and on current intellectual issues in the field. These discussions informed the hiring process: job visits became venues for the active engagement of the entire community. The colloquium was extended to the whole year because of the momentum created, and will be the model for future colloquia in this and other fields. Though most of the energy came from our own community, the colloquium process benefited enormously from carefully integrated visits by Wai Chee Dimock (Yale), Werner Sollers (Harvard) and Paul Giles (Oxford).

Medieval Dissertation Seminar

The medieval dissertation seminar meets weekly for credit each spring semester, and is attended by the medievalist faculty (David Lawton; Jessica Rosenfeld from 2005-6), the eight Ph.D. candidates who have declared the field and others interested in doing so. Its agenda is created by the group itself. In the two years it has operated, this has entailed deepening skills and reading (for example, in codicology and Old French); an overview by faculty of their perception of the field, current scholarship and future scholarly directions; graduate presentations on their research topics; writing reviews and conference presentations; commenting on each other's drafts; and other shared projects felt likely to benefit everyone. Graduate response has been extremely positive, with most finding it more valuable than conventional text- or topic-based courses.

Intro to Graduate Studies II: Writing in the Field

Taught in the spring of the first year of the graduate program, this course is obligatory for all incoming graduate students. It focuses on the intellectual challenges that arise from sophisticated critical writing and the identity of the various fields within which research is conducted in English. The class is visited by members of the faculty who make drafts of their current work available and discuss writing and research problems with the students. These faculty members introduce students into their fields of concentration, their history and their current state. The course workshops the graduates' own writing, and attempts to set up lasting habits of exchange. Our aim is to establish a departmental culture in which we are all writers, teaching writing at various levels, and to make real connections between graduates' own practice and their teaching of writing (which begins in their second year). We will be offering this course for the first time this spring.

Collaborative Teaching

The department is increasingly conscious that the graduate experience of intellectual community should extend beyond the strict parameters of research into the classroom. All graduate students in our program--after they served a year as writing instructors--are encouraged to collaborate with a faculty member on the designing and teaching of a class. This strikes us not only as an important stepping stone between the otherwise isolated territories of teaching writing and self-designed literature classes, but also as a critical factor in the creation of an expanded sense of intellectual community. The opportunity genuinely to cooperate with a faculty member in the designing and teaching of a class contributes vitally to the development of a scholarly persona.


These are some of the practical responses our department has found in trying to expand intellectual community. Yet the most pressing questions still need answers: what is an intellectual identity? What is a scholarly persona? Only with a more developed sense of what the answers might be can we begin to think more deliberately about intellectual community.

Contacts: David Lawton, Chair (; Wolfram Schmidgen, Director of Graduate Studies (; Katie Parker, Graduate Representative (

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