About Naming: Some thoughts on the English departments [Archives:2008/1217/Education]

December 18 2008

Dr. Lingaraja Gandhi
[email protected]
Associate professor of English
University of Ibb

I deem it apt to begin my views on the issue on a personal note: I arrived in Yemen a few months ago to teach in the Department of English, Ibb University. Having taught and engaged in research for a little more than two decades in one of India's oldest (fifth oldest, established in 1916) and illustrious universities)University of Mysore) I was a bit surprised about the use of nomenclature 'English Department' or 'Department of English' in Yemeni Universities . Although it doesn't look a serious fault at the outset, it certainly calls for the attention of the academia and intelligentsia of Yemen. But elsewhere in the world the move to rename the English Departments as Departments of Studies in English or Departments of Literature (and housing within it Translation Studies, Gender Studies, Culture Studies) started long ago. In some Universities they are named Department of Comparative Literature. It is not the simple matter of name- changing exercise but an issue of academic, political and cultural import which I propose to dwell upon.

Should the name bother? Does it matter or does it matter really if it is English Department or Department of Studies in English? Isn't it the content which matters)the courses we offer? Is the issue worth the dispute? “What's in a name?” is an old saying. It is the substance, the matter which matters not so much the form- the name. This is one side of the argument, and there is another side to it, perhaps the right side)the side I want to argue for, which says: No, there is everything in the name. Name matters as much as the content.

Revamping of the curriculum and restructuring of the Courses began long ago in the Departments of English especially in the Universities in India and Africa as part of seeking identity and place for the literatures and cultures of our own. Renaming of the English Departments as Departments of Studies of Literatures in English (and, in some cases as the Departments of Comparative or New Literatures ) is indicative of the shift in focus from English Literature or Studies to Literatures or Studies in English. The fact that the English has moved out from the empire to the former colonies, and the literary scene is now dominated by the 'empire writing back' compelled the academia to rethink about renaming. Hence it is no mere accident or a trend to redesign the departments.

Part of the ideology behind such moves is to decolonize, to free ourselves from the hegemony of English language and literature that reined the English departments everywhere ever since the colonization, and even after political decolonization. And, most important programme is (and should be) to focus on our own language and literatures thus bringing value to our own. It doesn't mean to do away with English! English can't be wished away. It's there whether one likes it or not, and it should be there. The point is to study it comparatively and together with our own.

Moreover, the twentieth century – now twenty first – is dominated by English writings from countries other than England and America. Perhaps ever since the Nobel Prize crossed the Mediterranean Sea and was awarded to an Asian (Indian) Rabindranath Tagore for his English Gitanjali in 1913 the literary centre started moving from its assumed location in the west to the rest of the world. Since then the world has witnessed some of the most significant writings emerging from countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. And, it is very important that the younger generation of students in the University get familiar with our own writing and thinking.

An important Kenyan writer living in exile in America, Ngugi wa Thiong'o offers valuable insights into the importance of preserving and promoting indigenous culture against the backdrop of western cultural onslaught in his books, Decolonizing the Mind (1986) and Moving the Centre(1990). He argues that although the political centre shifted from its location in the empire to the colony, Europe is still looked up to as the 'fountain head of universal civilization'. Moving of the centre implies many shifts. It is to shift the literary centre from English literature and language to other languages especially of literatures and languages of Africa, Asia and Latin America. Ngugi speaks of the urgent need to move, more importantly, the centre of perception from the single centre to the multiplicity of centres which are there in non-European languages and literatures. And also moving the centre from west to the rest; from privileged to the marginalized not only between the nations but within the nations.

Ngugi, when he was Head of the Department of English ( 1976)in the Kenyatta university, Nairobi, Kenya moved a resolution to abolish the English department, and to rename it as Department of Literature and succeeded in it. The debate concerning the abolition of English Department drew the attention of the academia world wide, and it is known now as 'Nairobi debate.' He gave up writing in English (altogether) as part of his anti-colonialist, imperialist stance. He had earlier abandoned his Christian name, “James”on a similar commitment. Name is both symbolic and realistic.

However, it should be noted that the moving of the centre) the efforts to know visions from the non-European part of the world started long ago in England itself in Leeds University in the 1960s under the tutelage of Norman Jeffers and Ravens Croft who started courses in Commonwealth literature and introduced in the curriculum writers from India, Africa and West Indies. However today the term 'Commonwealth' is resented as it still denotes the colonial legacy and it is being replaced with Postcolonial studies.

The seminal work to provide a theoretical premise for the postcolonial studies in the world is Orientalism (1978) by late Edward Said, a Palestinian exile in America. Since its publication there has been a shift in focus from narratives of the empire to the colonies. The debates initiated by Said with regard to the west's construct of the orient)the East, especially the Middle East) continue to generate conflict of ideas in the academia in the department of studies here or elsewhere. The need to deconstruct the myth about the orient perpetuated in the narratives of the empire; the need to re-present (represent ), rewrite our own narratives from our own centres of perceptions and to advocate them, is more and more urgent, especially in the context of the return of colonialism in the ugly form of globalization.

Well, it is in this context the name of the department)the indicator of our existence, of content, of purpose)together with the change in the content matters. Yes, name matters, after all the world is about naming system!