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Local View: UNL teaches English -- and much more

Local View: UNL teaches English -- and much more

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Three state senators recently penned five questions for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in their Local View ("UNL's treatment of conservatives is troubling," Nov. 2).

I cannot respond to questions 2, 3, and 4, as they fall outside my expertise, but as a professor in the university’s Department of English, I’d like to reply to question 5: “Does anyone teach English anymore at UNL?”

The answer is yes.

But the question itself seems, at best, ill-informed. Disparaging our department’s groundbreaking mission statement — publicly available on our website — Sens. Halloran, Erdman and Brewer observe, “Strangely missing from these core values are traditional English department words such as ‘classic literature studies,’ ‘writing,’ ‘poetry,’ ‘fiction,’ ‘grammar’ and ‘novel.’”

Rather, they note, “The English department has proudly condemned President Trump’s executive order to suspend immigrant travel and it has recently reiterated its support for the LGBTQA community” (positions I share, as I favor living in a modern world based on the principle of justice for all).

“Most disturbing, though,” they argue, “is the fact that the English department’s webpage is missing anything which even remotely resembles a traditional English education.”

Were this true, I would be as concerned as the senators are. But, in fact, if they had simply clicked on the readily available link “Course Schedules” and then “Undergraduate Catalog," they’d have seen dozens of our English courses listed, such as: “Writing and Inquiry,” “Introduction to Literature,” “Introduction to Poetry,” “Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton,” “The Novel 1700-1900,” “American Authors to 1900,” “Writing for Film” and “Literary History.”

Like other world-class research institutions, we teach these traditional courses all the time, in addition to more contemporary subjects and methodologies. The website doesn’t foreground them because everyone takes it entirely for granted that we teach such things.

We choose to foreground our mission statement precisely because it is unique. As a department, we composed it together and take pride in its ambitious goals: “Central to the core mission … is imaginative reasoning: the ability to think hypothetically about the world in all its diversity — the past, present and future; the local and the global — in order to engage critically with social and political phenomena, envision what is possible, and dream up audacious solutions to seemingly insoluble problems.”

Our department’s innovative boldness, along with many great things about the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, keeps my colleagues and me here when other opportunities arise.

In English, we teach not only close reading and careful writing but also research — how to find information — and rhetoric: how to argue a position in a fair-minded fashion supported by clear, incontrovertible evidence. It’s surprising that three senators were unable to find the links to our courses, or — and I hope I’m wrong here — that they were willing to deliberately misrepresent what they found.

I want to believe the senators had Nebraskans' best interests at heart. So my assumption is that, as busy people, they weren’t able to search properly, rather than that they wished to alarm Nebraskans, raising doubts about the value and quality of our university in order to lay the groundwork for the kind of gutting of public higher-education funding that states like Wisconsin and Louisiana have recently experienced.

Funding cuts mean higher tuition bills for families and serious damage to our workforce. A state without excellent public education at all levels, from pre-K to graduate school, automatically restricts knowledge and opportunity to its wealthy elites. That’s not what Nebraskans want.

I invite any of the senators to take courses with my colleagues and me, because my answer to their “Question No. 1: Are professors at UNL hostile toward conservative students?” is a resounding no.

Rather, I take great joy in welcoming and teaching my students, whatever their political views, and learning from them. With compassion, respect and a spirit of open-minded inquiry, we can facilitate rich, lively conversations with people of all backgrounds about even the most controversial texts, affirming those texts’ historical importance while making their insights relevant to today’s future professionals.

It’s what I’ve spent my life on, and I love it. My treasured colleagues are equally devoted, equally open-minded, equally respectful, and equally rigorous.

Unlike Sens. Halloran, Erdman and Brewer, respectively, I am not a restaurateur, a real estate agent or a former member of the U.S. Army, so I would not question the senators’ professional acumen in those fields.

Rather than spending their taxpayer-funded time questioning ours, perhaps the senators could turn their attention to “dream[ing] up audacious solutions” to the “seemingly insoluble problems” that face us all.

Joy Castro has been a professor of English at UNL since 2007 and is the author of five books.


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