Faculty, like Bennett Hall, in need of extensive repairs Penn English professors talk of imagery, symbolism and personification all the time. But the examples they cite are usually found in books -- not their own surroundings. Yet perhaps there is no better metaphor for the Penn English Department than its home, Bennett Hall. Both are in desperate need of repair. A quick stroll through Bennett Hall reveals the wear-and-tear of the building's history. The hallways creek with every step, the white-washed classroom walls are chipped away and the heating system works so well that if the professors don't put students to sleep, the sheer temperature does. Within the classrooms, the situation is much the same. Although Penn's department has long been considered one of the best in the nation, recently English professors have peeled away like the paint on Bennett Hall's walls. Over the past 10 years, the number of professors has dropped from 42 faculty members in the early 1990s to just 36 today. And enrollment continues to put stress on one of the College of Arts and Sciences most popular departments. With over 500 undergraduate English majors, class sizes have increased while the number and variety of courses continue to shrink. "Penn has a strong English department, but we are limping along at the moment," said English professor Wendy Steiner, the former department chairwoman. Realism Certainly, resurrecting Penn's largest humanities department is no simple task. But according to most English professors, the repairs are necessary. "The English Department is to some extent depleted," Interim English Department Chairman John Richetti said. "Some faculty moved out, most have either retired, one or two died and a few didn't get tenure and moved on." Last year's loss of three senior faculty members -- who were all respected as top-notch scholars -- was particularly devastating. American Literature Professor Elisa New left Penn to teach at Harvard University. And in a much-hyped "raid" of Penn's English Department, Duke University recruited African-American Literature scholar Houston Baker and Renaissance literature expert Maureen Quilligan away from the department. The effects have trickled down to the classroom level, where undergraduates have noticed that more English courses are being taught by part-time faculty and there are fewer classes overall from which to choose. "I am considering graduate school in English and would like to take some classes on Spencer and Milton, but they aren't there," said College junior Katie Alex, an English major concentrating in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. College junior David Perelli, who is also an English major, said that he has experienced similar problems. "This year has been kind of crappy in terms of course offerings and many professors aren't there," he complained, noting that Penn's course offerings were more limited than those his friends are taking at peer institutions. In the fall of 1995, the Penn English Department offered 68 courses while this semester it offers 62. The Duke English Department, in contrast, has the same number of faculty, but offers around 80 courses to just 250 undergraduate majors -- about half as many as Penn. According to Richetti, the current shortage of Penn English professors is due to the large number of faculty who are on sabbatical, coupled with the recent losses. "We are still short-handed," he explained. "It's partly because our numbers are low but partly because of the number of faculty who are away doing research." The Reformation The current shortage is a problem that will likely be solved when those faculty return next fall. But the long-term health of the department ultimately requires hiring new faculty. This leaves School of Arts and Sciences Dean Samuel Preston and Richetti with one big repair job on their hands. The SAS strategic plan -- released last April -- called for increasing the number of faculty in several departments, with English near the top of the list. Other departments singled out as needing more faculty and financial support were Biology, Chemistry, Economics, History, Political Science and Psychology. At a time when most humanities departments get starved of resources, Preston has authorized the English Department to hire four standing faculty members -- including at least one senior professor -- to help fill the void left by faculty departures. And a separate search for a senior Film Studies professor is being conducted by English in conjunction with several other departments. "We are doing very well," Richetti said, noting that the English Department is on track with the plan, having made offers for three assistant professors and one senior faculty member. Richetti also said the department could make offers this year to two additional professors, one junior and one senior. But while it is likely that the junior professors will accept Penn's offer, College Dean Richard Beeman is less confident that the department will fill all of its senior faculty slots by next fall, pointing out that "fewer than half of [senior searches] succeed in a given year." The Restoration While officials struggle to fix the faculty situation, they are also working to repair the department's long-standing home. Both faculty and administrators said the building is not on par with facilities at its Ivy League peers and is barely acceptable for teaching. And like the need to increase faculty, improving the English Department's facilities is also at the top of the SAS strategic plan. "Commitment is manifested in our classrooms and what they do to facilitate learning," Beeman said. "Plainly, Bennett Hall is in need of renovation." Despite persistent rumors about renovations to the building, no tangible steps have been taken. In fact, it was not until late last month that the English Department formed a committee to discuss improving Bennett Hall. "We plan to figure out what we want to do and how to pay for it," said English Professor Rebecca Bushnell, who is chairing the committee. "We really want to do this." But the reality of fixing and financing a building like Bennett Hall most likely means that construction will not take place for quite a while. According to Vice President for Facilities Services Omar Blaik, before the project can even enter the design stage, the University must first hire an architect to do a feasibility study and then get the approval of the Capital Council and the Board of Trustees. In addition, the department must find "swing space" that will house its offices and classes while Bennett Hall is being renovated -- hardly an easy task with the amount of construction taking place around campus. And the University also needs to secure donors to provide the financial backing for such a project. Although officials say there are a few prospective candidates in the pipeline, they acknowledge that most contributions flow in when actual plans are in place. "We have identified likely candidates and are having some preliminary discussions," SAS External Affairs Vice Dean Jean-Marie Kneeley said. The Renaissance Despite current challenges, SAS administrators are quick to point out that the English Department is not in complete disarray and most remain optimistic about its future. English remains SAS's largest department in the humanities and, with a top-10 national ranking, it is one of Penn's most respected disciplines. "This is a flourishing department that is improving itself more and more," Graduate Department Chairman Christopher Looby said. And students are quick to point out that most of the department faculty -- both standing and part-time professors -- are gifted and accessible teachers. "You get to work with some of the nation's top scholars as a freshman," Perelli said. But according to Bushnell, the department must acknowledge its current weaknesses and work with its strengths. "This is a department with a strong national reputation but also strong internal relationships," she said. "We want to build this department. It's the key part of our strategic plan."Comments powered by Disqus
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