Our History: RPI to VCU
E. Allan Brown, first VCU English chair (more)
The Department of English has its origins in the Richmond Professional Institute, which in 1968 was merged with the Medical College of Virginia to form Virginia Commonwealth University. When RPI separated from William and Mary six years earlier, in 1962, the department was able to begin to develop degrees. The Bachelor of Science program in English Education graduated its first four students in June 1965. The following month, a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in English was approved. The first class graduated six students.
In the 1970s, a Master of Arts in English was initiated as a degree program with roots in a joint MA/MEd program. A new bachelor’s degree in comparative and general literature was initiated, sponsored jointly by the departments of English and Foreign Languages. In conjunction with the Department of History, the English department also introduced an interdisciplinary American Studies minor. In addition, the department began its involvement with the Capital Writing Project, one of the 160 sites of the National Writing Project.
In 1983, the Creative Writing Program became a full-fledged MFA program. Five students were enrolled in the first year. Also in the 1980s, the department’s Masters degree program was separated from the School of Education. Organized into two tracks, one in literature and the other in rhetoric and composition, the new Master of Arts in English attracted a diverse range of students—some recent college graduates, some professional educators, some non-traditional or returning students, some international students.
By 1989, the enrollment in the undergraduate major had increased to 300 students, including ninety in the extended five-year program for teachers; enrollment in the two graduate programs reached eighty.
By the 1990s, the department enrolled more than 400 majors, making it the fourth largest undergraduate department in the university, teaching almost 5,000 students each semester in 200 sections of more than seventy different courses. Having grown to almost fifty students, the MA program concentrated on enhancing its curriculum. With a limit of thirty students, the MFA program became very selective, drawing applicants nationally and internationally. Faculty member Paule Marshall received a MacArthur Fellowship, the only VCU faculty member ever to receive this prestigious honor.
The 1990s also saw us become an international department. In 1994, in collaboration with VCU’s School of the Arts and the Glasgow, Scotland, School of Art, we began our first sustained study abroad program, the Glasgow Artists & Writers Workshop in tandem with VCU’s School of the Arts. The summer of 2010 marked the sixteenth year of the program. In 1998, again working with VCU’s School of the Arts, we began teaching English composition and general education literature at the Shaqab College of Design Arts (renamed VCU School of the Arts) in Doha, Qatar. During the 1990s, the department also entered into a unique partnership with the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation to honor and encourage emerging African American writers.
For the department’s MFA program, the 1990s was a period of significant development. The decade saw the initiation of the Moveable Feast, our graduate student reading series launched in collaboration with the School of the Arts and the nonprofit 1708 Gallery in downtown Richmond. Moveable Feast was an extension and enhancement of the reading series that had preceded it for more than ten years. These years also marked the beginning of the program’s Visiting Writers Series in which six to eight distinguished authors are brought to campus for readings and exchanges with students. At the end of the decade, the department initiated the annual Levis Reading Prize to honor its late faculty member, poet Larry Levis.
During the 2000s, the department has continued to expand and develop. In 2002 the national First Novelist competition began, awarding the best first novel published each year. Also in 2002, we launched our multimedia journal Blackbird: an online journal of literature and the arts. In a 2009 article about the evolution of electronic journals, Poets & Writers magazine praised Blackbird as a “leader” among online journals. In the spring of 2008, Cabell Associates of the University Libraries became a co-sponsor, and this competition was renamed the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award.
In 2006, we introduced a southern counterpart to our program in Glasgow when we again teamed up with faculty of the School of the Arts to offer a program of study in Peru that took writers and visual artists to Lima and Cuzco and the sacred city of Machu Picchu.
The first of a two-part major reconfiguration of our department began in the fall of 2006 when we initiated the interdisciplinary PhD in Media, Art, and Text (MATX). This innovative program builds on strengths in our department, VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture, and VCU’s School of the Arts. With over 30 students enrolled, national and international interest continues to grow. It is designed to break down disciplinary walls in order to expand the research possibilities available to students, allowing them to fashion new intellectual arenas for the creation and dissemination of knowledge. Although focused on new media, the program retains a strong historical and theoretical dimension.
In the fall of 2007, a new component of the MFA program was launched, the Distinguished Writers Series, in which highly acclaimed writers conduct masters classes with advanced graduate students in a for-credit short course each year. Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Claudia Emerson (2006) was the first writer in this series; the second was creative nonfiction writer Robin Hemley. Rosellen Brown and Ron Carlson followed in the two subsequent years.
The fall of 2009 saw the completion of the overhaul of the MA program, which now has curricula for both an MA in Literature or in Writing & Rhetoric and an MA/Research in either Literature or Writing & Rhetoric, the latter MA emphasizing research, criticism and methodology suitable for students preparing to pursue a PhD. The revised program went into effect in 2010.
The second part of the major reconfiguration of our department during the 2000s began in the fall of 2007 when our English 101 was moved to a newly created unit in the university, University College, and became a two-semester sequence, Focused Inquiry 111 and 112. Three years later, in the fall of 2010, our English 200 was also moved to University College and became UNIV 200. At the time, the reconfiguration of the department was complete.
During the 2010–11 year, we undertook a complete revision of our undergraduate major. In all, 86 new, deleted, or revised course proposals were approved by the faculty. The new curriculum will be implemented in the fall of 2012.
From the beginning of our history as a department, our faculty have engaged in a series of programs aimed at highlighting their various research and teaching activities. The Symposium operated during the 1990s into 2000. February 2007 saw the resumption of this tradition with the inception of First Friday, a new series of monthly exchanges. A history of these 40-year series is elsewhere on our department’s website.
The department’s faculty continue to publish to national and international acclaim and continue to be honored with regional, national, and international awards. The department has hosted academic conferences as varied as the Victorians Institute, the Southeastern Renaissance Society, and the African Literature Association. Our faculty is known for serving as editors for a number of prominent publications as diverse as Stand Magazine, Victorians Institute Journal, Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, The Comparatist, and Broad Street.
Perhaps most important of all, the department’s students and alumni continue to excel, whether in academics (attending some of the country’s finest PhD programs), in teaching (in Richmond, across the state and the country, and even abroad), in creative writing (department alumni have topped the New York Times bestseller list), or in whatever they choose to do.