A Usable Past 

When I entered graduate school, almost 37 years ago, the most prominent feature of advanced studies was the immediate encounter with and the need to negotiate “high theory.” The rise of theory was underwritten by the influential work of Ferdinand de Saussure’s structural linguistics, a systems approach that established language as a stable foundation composed of discrete, yet interconnected, units. This mode of thinking not only undergirded language study, but the very structure of English departments themselves.

Today's Department of English at ASU reflects those times, with its "discrete, yet interconnected" sub-units of concentration, which include creative writing, English education, film and media, linguistics and applied linguistics/TESOL, literature, and rhetoric and composition. Since those bygone days when theories rolled across English departments like waves on the shores of knowledge, the “death of theory” was announced, celebrated, derided, and ignored. But theory's death as a singular discipline only cloaks the degree to which it has become entangled in our scholarship and teaching alike. As the stories recounted here suggest, while the basic knowledge structure has not changed, the fluidity with which ideas and people move between its boundaries has.

English's areas of specialty and concentration now include a substantial amount of cross-discipline pollination, which helps us grow and nurture projects like: an exchange partnership with the U.S. State Department and the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict; an initiative with the Institute for Humanities Research in the medical humanities linking literature and social values; a new degree concentration in Writing, Rhetorics and Literacies that empowers students to advocacy; and an emphasis on "alt-ac" professionalization enabling our graduates to compete in a global society.

A mix of practical considerations and ideological vision informs the current pedagogical practices within our department. May they serve as paths of knowledge for us as well as for our students, while we begin the process of innovating new structures for the future.

Mark Lussier

Photo of Mark Lussier by Andy DeLisle