Accents on English: Spring-Summer 2015

A History of English at ASU: The Early Years

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Some Department of English faculty members, likely in the 1950s, from an ASU yearbook photo
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History is always more than a collection of facts; it’s a record of people, their actions and their consequences, intended or otherwise. When Katharine C. Turner (American Literature faculty member from 1946-1961) compiled the first type-written record of ASU’s Department of English in 1977, she chose to organize it by “its various leaders.” Wilfred A. Ferrell (Department Chair from 1971-1977) contributed to the document, and Nicholas A. Salerno (Chair 1983-1988) oversaw its translation to “disk” in 1988, but the original 270-page manuscript is all in Turner’s eloquent, colorful voice, a narrative of people and events that covers the Department’s “Pre-Departmental” years through Ferrell’s appointment in 1972. At that point, Turner intones, “The English Department had truly come of age.”

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Turner begins her story with the foundational role of English in the original Arizona Territorial Normal School that opened in February 1886. It was really more of a high school—the thirty-three entering students had to be at least 16 years old and capable of “reading intelligently”—but it was the highest education going on within hundreds of miles. Turner notes that everyone traveled to and from campus by horseback back then and that “the first one-story $6,500 building was primitive—an olla by the door for drinking water; the lavatory, one tin basin.”

A picture of Study hall In 1898, all classes were held in what is now called “Old Main” and the Original Building housed the Training School.
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Under Principal Bradford Farmer (so that’s where the Farmer Building’s name comes from), English coursework focused on recitations and “rhetoricals” or debates; upon its opening, the library had one book—a dictionary. The first syllabus (1890-91) expanded the English offerings to include reading, rhetoric, grammar, English and American literature, orthography (spelling), and “word analysis.” In 1898, all classes were held in what is now called “Old Main” and the Original Building housed the Training School.

In 1900, the Matthews Center was built and was the first department of English.
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It wasn’t until 1899 that the school hired its first dedicated English faculty member, Katherine Adams, at a starting salary of $1,000. The next year the first “department” of English was created, under Principal A. J. Matthews (okay—that explains Matthews Center. And no wonder: Matthews headed the school for thirty years!). As a department, English courses grew to include composition, elocution (oral recitations), and English criticism. Adams was replaced by Elise Reed Averill, then Kathryn Daly came along in 1901—all the English faculty were women and most stayed only a year before moving on to be married or returning to “civilization”—despite the $100 raise they might have received!

Here is a picture of the first senior from 1905
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Despite their short tenure, these women each left a mark on the fledgling department. In addition to English literature, Daly taught elocution and helped establish the first Tempe Normal / University of Arizona rivalry: a debate held every year after 1902. The first year’s topic was: “The nation’s welfare depends more upon legislation than education.” Normal chose to support the resolve and won, and Dr. Benjamin Baker Moeur, M.D. (aha!—the Moeur Building) awarded the group of three students a gold medal. Then from 1904 to 1908, Bessie Hutchison oversaw the English program. She and her students decorated the “literature room” with photogravures of famous places, a portrait of Oliver Wendell Holmes, and a bust of Shakespeare.

When the Department of English moved into its new home located in Science Hall
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During the last year of Hutchison’s service, the Department moved into its new home in Science Hall—we know it today as the University Club—and in 1910 James Lee Felton was appointed the first faculty member of the newly renamed “Department of English and Rhetoric.” This notoriously “energetic” man would remain in charge of the Department for the next two decades, and in addition to teaching six, forty-five minute classes in English Literature, American Literature, and grammar each day, he consolidated the English Department’s course offerings, implemented the first English course numbering system, and developed the curriculum for a first-year Rhetoric and Composition course structured much like our First-Year Composition courses today. In 1921 he added Public Address, or “extemporaneous speaking and reading,” to his teaching repertoire, and the “newest thing,” modern drama, in 1926.

You know that blocky, white bench carved with the word “Philomathian” that hulks against the bougainvillea at the northeast corner of our current building? This was the name of a literary society formed first by Principal Matthews in 1900 for junior and senior students and resurrected in 1921 as an all-female society devoted to the study of modern drama. A second English faculty member, Blanche Pilcher, served as the group’s “monitor” and guided the twenty-five young women in their discussions of the works of “Ibsen, Shaw, Barrie, Balasco, MacKaye, Maeterinck, Lady Gregory, and others.” The society donated the bench in 1929.

In 1925 the Arizona Normal School officially became Tempe State Teachers College with Felton named “Dean” of English studies in 1926. But in 1929 Ralph W. Swetman became the school’s new president, and as part of his “ruthless program to raise standards,” he forced the “ABD” Felton to step down “in favor of a twenty-eight year old with a Ph.D.” Although Professor Felton continued his teaching as an Associate Professor until 1930, the “Felton Era” had come to an end.

This powerhouse of a man had helped organize the first YMCA and YWCAs in the newly formed state, advised student clubs and societies and newspapers, and staged numerous contests, plays, and musical events. He organized the university’s first tennis team. And he even served as the mayor of Tempe for a time. We know this from the remarks President Emeritus Matthews made in 1932 at Felton’s memorial service on the campus lawn. Felton, only 58 and recently retired, had collapsed and died of a sudden heart attack.

Up Next: The Department Weathers Depression and Wars

Jan Kelly

Image 1: Some Department of English faculty members, likely in the 1950s, from an ASU yearbook photo. Katharine C. Turner is seated on the far left. Back row, left to right are C.E. Southern, J.E. Zimmerman, and Fred C. Osenburg. Front row, left to right are Turner, Dana B. Burke, Mary V. Morris, and Collice Portnoff.

Image 2: Opening Day of Tempe Normal School, February 8, 1886. Professor H. B. Farmer and students. Photo from University Archives. UP UPC ASUG O63 #13.

Image 3: Study hall in Old Main, 1898. Photo from University Archives. UP UPC ASUB O42 #3

Image 4: When Old Main opened in 1898, what was known as the Original Building became the Training School for student teachers. In this 1901 photo, President A.J. Matthews poses with students in what is "one of the few images of the school showing the windmill" (University Archives). UP UPC ASUB N623 #26

Image 5: The 1905 senior class of Tempe Normal School poses outside Old Main. Photo from ASU General Catalog, 1905-1906.

Image 6: English faculty member James Lee Felton and students pose in front of Science Hall (now the University Club). Photo from University Archives. UP UPC ASUP Felton, James Lee.

Image 7: The Philomathian Society gathered on the steps of Old Main, around 1913. Photo from University Archives. UP UPC ASUD P45 #1.

Image 8: This 1934 photo shows the stone bench that was donated to campus by the Philomathian Society (Alpha Delta Pi) with assistance from the Alumni Association, in 1929. The bench currently sits near the Language and Literature Building. Photo from University Archives. Photographer: Close. UP UPC ASUB P44 #2

Image 9: This photograph taken in the 1930s shows what was then the shaded drive to Old Main, where parking was permitted. Photo from University Archives. UPC 235:17

Header background image from 1968 or 1969: a demonstration at the ASU Administration office. UP UPC ASUG S886 1960s #1