I hope everyone enjoyed the summer. In 2021-2022 the university and our department plan to move towards a more familiar type of academic year, one that balances concern for people’s health and safety with the benefits of in person instruction and events. We have ambitious plans. Our department’s homepage boldly declares, with all letters capitalized, “FOR THE LOVE OF LITERATURE.” This is what binds us as a department; it’s the impetus behind our emphasis on literary history and aesthetics, and it’s what gives us a distinct identity. It’s also what I hope will let us play a significant role shaping undergraduate education across the country.

This is a bold statement, but stick with me.

I’ll start by discussing an effort to expand the role of literature and the humanities in Catholic University’s undergraduate curriculum. People who study literature realize the importance of the humanities, the study of what it means to be human, but as university education has moved towards more specialized training, many undergraduates in the sciences and professional schools only get a small, and sometimes relatively random, sense of the humanities’ richness and value. This has been happening in higher education for many years—Catholic University is better off than most schools in this regard—and at a cost to society. Last spring Catholic University was awarded a Teagle Foundation-National Endowment of the Humanities Cornerstone grant to plan two “gateway” courses that would lead towards a more humanities centered education for all undergraduates. I was (and am) the co-principal investigator on the grant, and Professors Tobias Gregory and Megan Murton serve on the committee—so the English department is well represented. We’re applying for a larger grant this year. I hope that more of you—faculty, graduate students (as TFs), and undergraduates—will become involved this year and in years to come.

The “Rationale” section of our proposal provides a sense of initiative’s larger design.
The humanities are more necessary than ever in our complex, often stratified, and increasingly specialized world. For this reason, The Catholic University of America proposes to design a series of integrated pathways through our university’s existing liberal arts curriculum. These pathways would revolve around common readings; emphasize the humanities as a way of considering and pursuing meaning and purpose in life; and stress various dimensions of good citizenship, especially American citizenship, and the nature of democracy. We envision humanities-centered courses based on readings from a wide array of times and cultures that explicitly and implicitly engage these topics, and that branch out to incorporate local and global realities and imperatives of citizenship. Today, American citizenship faces significant challenges, beset by hardening divisions and an increasing absence of well-understood and shared first principles. Our distinctive mission as the national university of the Catholic Church allows us to draw deeply on our location in the nation’s capital and its immense resources for reflection on American citizenship, while at the same time connecting to concrete networks of Catholic and other communities around the world committed to a larger, more encompassing citizenship. Further, our distinctive mission means that we are institutionally committed to key first principles, such as the dignity of all persons and the pursuit of the common good in politics, which firmly ground the development of a reflective, renewed sense of citizenship.
In the spring we’ll offer several sections of our first gateway course. We’re still tweaking the syllabi, but both gateway courses, across all sections, will emphasize common readings—“Anchor Texts”—as well as recommended readings (instructors will pick one book from each unit).


Transformative Texts 1: Citizenship and Belonging (Gateway Course 1)

Course description and goals: “Transformative Texts 1: Citizenship and Belonging” is the first of two gateway courses leading to a series of integrated pathways through our university’s existing liberal arts curriculum. The gateway courses and the pathways feature common readings; show the humanities as a source of considering and pursuing meaning and purpose in life; and invite students to think about democracy, especially American democracy, from various perspectives.

“Transformative Texts 1” considers the foundations for citizenship in education, in family and friendship, and in community. Among the questions the course considers are
  • What is education and what purpose does it serve?
  • What does it mean to belong to a family?
  • What is friendship?
  • What does it mean to be a citizen?
  • What demands does citizenship place upon the individual?
  • What is the role of exclusion in defining a community?
  • What happens when community members fail or disappoint?
  • How are the needs of the individual balanced against those of the community?
  • What happens when communities fragment?
  • Can citizens love imperfect, unjust communities?
  • Education
    • Anchor texts:
      • W.E.B. Bu Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
      • Odyssey
    • Recommended readings:
      • Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance”
      • Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
      • Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness
      • Henry Adams, from The Education of Henry Adams
      • James Joyce, The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Family and Friendship
    • Anchor texts:
      • Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
      • Jane Austen, Emma
    • Recommended Readings:
      • Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
      • Plato, Symposium
      • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude
      • Richard Rodriguez, Hunger of Memory
      • Andre Dubus, from Dancing After Hours
  • Citizenship and Community
    • Anchor texts:
      • Sophocles, Antigone
      • Alexis de Tocqueville, from Democracy in America
    • Recommended Readings:
      • Willa Cather, My Ántonia
      • Robert Penn Warren, The Legacy of the Civil War
      • Luis Rafael Sanchez, The Passion According to Antigona Perez
      • Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition
      • George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier
      • Jacques Maritain, The Person and the Common Good
The sample syllabus is just a start—a draft of a start, in fact—but we’re excited about where the initiative is headed. The planning committee and the Dean of Arts and Sciences, Tom Smith, have been in conversation with the deans of other schools and with the provost. There’s lots of work to do—and a bigger grant to reel in—but we’re heartened by the widespread support we’ve received so far.

A hint at the bigger picture:

I think it’s evident that American universities need a stronger and more unified emphasis on literature and the humanities. Our department and Catholic University can be leaders in this regard. A handful of colleges and universities already are involved in the Teagle-NEH Cornerstone program, and more are joining, but we’re in a unique position because of the presence of the ALSCW in our department. The President of the Teagle Foundation, the great literary scholar Andrew Delbanco, and most of the Cornerstone Advisory Council are active ALSCW members. I’ve participated in several Teagle Foundation-NEH workshops, and David Bromwich and I are putting together a virtual ALSCW program this October that speaks to related matters:

"General Education and the Idea of a Common Culture." Are the institutions of high culture, e.g. colleges and universities, learned societies and literary journals, effective today in maintaining the sense of a common culture? What tendencies of American society militate against such an ideal?

The program will feature Teagle Foundation President Andy Delabanco, Jackson Lears, Diana Senechal, Yusef Komunyakaa, Clare Cavanagh, and Edward Hirsch. It’s an all-star cast of devoted ALSCW members, and everyone is volunteering his or her time. The ALSCW and the Teagle Foundation will hold related programs throughout the year.

It’s my great hope that our department, our university, the Teagle Foundation, the NEH, and the ALSCW will play significant roles creating models for humanistic education. The challenges are manifold and there’s an enormous need—but we have tremendous talent and motivation assembled to address that need. You’ll hear more about all of this as the year unfolds, and I look forward to working with many of you.

All the best,

Ernest Suarez
David M. O'Connell Professor of English
Executive Director, Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers
Chair, Department of English