Welcome back for the 2020-2021 academic year, which promises to be the most unusual we’ve experienced. I’ll miss seeing my colleagues at Catholic, in the DC area, and around the country. I’ll miss being in class with my students. I feel special sympathy for our undergraduate seniors, who will spend at least one semester of their capstone year on Zoom. This is my 31st year as a university professor, and like many of you, I am teaching online. I don’t like it, but am grateful for the option given the circumstances. And I am tremendously grateful to—and concerned for—those of you who are teaching or attending courses in person.
During the first meeting of the graduate seminar I’m teaching this semester, we discussed T.S. Eliot’s watershed poem, The Waste Land (1922). The poem is, among other things, a response to the crisis in culture World War I caused and a response to the personal crisis Eliot experienced with the disintegration of his marriage. It’s a reminder that literature and art are created by individuals reacting to larger social currents and to the dynamics of their personal lives—Eliot was no exception. Like him, we’re all impacted by a world largely beyond our control and by the contours of our individual lives. In The Waste Land Eliot famously pictured the world as a “heap of broken images” and asked, “What are the roots that clutch?” It would be a wild exaggeration to characterize our department as the former, but we are more scattered this semester, and it’s worth considering what helps bind us together. The answers are manifold, but I’ll start by addressing an overarching emphasis. For about twenty-five years, our department has focused on literary history and aesthetics; it’s what binds our curriculum on an undergraduate and graduate level; it shapes the way in which we hire, write, and situate ourselves within the academy; it’s what makes our department unique and what brought the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers to our campus. We study literature as a response to its time and place, and consider how innovative artistic developments in literature provide new vistas to explore what it means to be human. But what binds us on a more personal level is all of you—from freshmen entering our program, to our sophomores, juniors, seniors, graduate students, faculty, and staff. I know that many of you are finding ways to stay connected in formal and informal ways. I would urge you to keep it up and to initiate more venues to maintain personal connections. Study together over Zoom. Hold a happy hour, with or without booze. Get in touch with a few friends and read a poem or a passage from a novel together over Google Meet before you go to sleep. Create roots that clutch.
All the best,
David M. O'Connell Professor of English
Executive Director, Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers
Chair, Department of English