News from the Chair (Nov 2004)

Mara Faulkner, OSB

As some of you may know, I am serving as chair of the English Department while Mike Opitz is on sabbatical.  Although not all the tasks that come with being chair are pleasant or interesting, many of them are.  One of the most interesting has been working with Cindy Malone and the rest of the Department on program review.  The very words program review, assessment, and self-study can make eyes glaze over and minds turn to mush, but we've discovered that the process itself makes us ask once again the important questions: Why are we doing what we're doing in our English classes and curriculum?  How effectively are we doing it?  Should we change directions?  Ask new questions?  By now many of you should have received and, I hope, returned a survey asking for your ideas on these and several other issues.  We promise to take your experiences and opinions very seriously as we consider the future shape of the English major.

I'm certain that your responses will help us answer one of our most pressing questions: What are we preparing our students for?  That question points towards jobs and careers, of course; more importantly, it points towards the lives you live and the world we all inhabit.  I recently came upon two newspaper articles that put a new, ominous spin on this question.  The first describes marketing efforts that target younger and younger children.  Two-year-olds now recognize and demand from their beleaguered parents the snacks and clothes peddled by Big Bird and their favorite Teletubby.  Sociologist Juliet B. Schor has examined this downward trend in Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (Scribner 2004).  She argues that little kids consume materialistic values along with their Dragon Tales Fruit Snacks.

The second article describes what marketers call branding agreements and what critics call fictomercials.  Corporations pay writers to display product names prominently in their novels.  I would have expected romance novelists to cooperate in this marketing ploy.  I would not have expected it of Fay Weldon, a British writer whose short stories I admire and sometimes teach in my literature classes.  The Bulgari jewelry company has paid Weldon an undisclosed amount to advertise its products by name.  It's no surprise that her novel is called The Bulgari Connection and that she invokes her patron's name thirty-four times.  If you type Bulgari Connection into Google, you'll get a host of reviews and, right alongside, a list of places where you can "buy Bulgari."

Several of the articles in this edition of The English Web describe and interrogate our world-its politics, its media representations, its attitudes towards language and literature, and this aggressive and pervasive selling of everything that can be sold.  Read them and tell us what you think.  Is it enough for the English Department to teach reading and writing, theory and cultural studies and linguistics, critical thinking and vigorous questioning?  Could we and should we do more?