NeMLA 2019 Panel: The Origins of Literary Studies at American Universities

deadline for submissions: 
September 30, 2018
full name / name of organization: 
Joseph Navitsky, West Chester Univ. / Northeast Modern Language Association Convention / Washington, DC / March 21-24, 2019
contact email: 

The Origins of Literary Studies at American Universities 

No recent phenomenon, debates over the place of literary studies in the university curriculum have an impressive pedigree dating to the late nineteenth century when American universities first began to establish departments of English. This session seeks to examine the earliest contours—and consequences—of these debates within their historical and institutional, rather than strictly pedagogical, contexts. Since this early chapter in the academic history of literary studies has been largely forgotten, the primary objectives of the session are to recover conversations that surrounded the creation of English departments in this period and analyze the specific role literary studies played in these conversations. A related objective is to gauge the impact of this original dialogue, and of the work of the teacher-scholars who sustained it, on contemporary attitudes toward the study of American, British, and world literatures. What arguments helped convince university presidents, alumni, and the public at large to support the study of literature in the vernacular? What considerations affected the development and evolution of the first programs in English? And what effect did the increasing importance of the Ph.D. and the resulting professionalization of literary scholarship have on early curricula in literary studies? Engaging such questions promises to shed light on one of the foundational moments in the study of the humanities at American universities and reinvigorate current discussions concerning the cultural and civic value of the Literature degree.

The panel will be part of NeMLA 2019, the 50th Annual Convention of the Northeast Modern Language Association, to be held March 21-24, 2019 in Washington, DC, at the Gaylord National Resort Center. For conference details, see

Submit abstract proposals of no more than 250 words by September 30, 2018, through the NeMLA website at New members will be asked to create a user account. 

For further questions, feel free to email the panel chair, Joseph Navitsky (