What follows is a letter I wrote to the administrators currently debating the fate of the English Department at UMass-Amherst. The new building, proposed to take the place of the crumbling old Bartlett Hall, traditional home to the department, is designed to house almost exclusively large lecture halls. This is anathema to we humanities sorts. To my fellow UMass alums, if you’re willing to join your voice to this fight, please do it quickly. Public hearings on the plan options are slated for next week. Leave a comment if you need contact information for the powers that be.
Dear Dean Hayes, Associate Dean Bartolomeo, and Associate Provost Harvey,
I was an English major at UMass Amherst. The decision to become one remains one of the best I have ever made. Our ranks may be dwindling, and the clamor for more STEM graduates seems, at first glance, to further threaten us, to elbow us from the table, but I have always felt confident in UMass’ continued commitment to the English course of study, for what it gives its graduates, and for what they, in turn, give to society.
When I arrived at UMass, I feared I would be subsumed by it, swallowed up. Anxious and diffident, I didn’t make friends easily, and on a massive campus thronged by more than 20,000 students, it was hard to keep track of anyone anyway. A person could melt into the crowds there and not be seen for days. The exception, for me, was Bartlett Hall. Crumbling, musty, but beloved to me in its dingy decrepitude, it became the center of my life my four years at UMass. I was never the sort of student to swagger into a professor’s office to chat, or discuss a reading, not because I didn’t want to, but because I was terrified. The only thing that saved me from slinking through my entire course of study without speaking to much of anyone outside of classes was that building. I sold coffee and donuts in the lobby on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to raise money for the English Society’s small literary magazine. Most everyone–faculty, undergrad, bleary-eyed grad students–stopped by our stand for the sludgy brew from our vat-like percolator one time or another, and we’d talk. I ran into professors and poets and students as I tramped up and down the stairs posting flyers about Open Mic mights, book signings, and one giddy March, the impending visit of Seamus Heaney. I spent my free afternoons reading in our closet-like English Society office, taken up mostly by bookshelves. With the door standing open, anyone might stop by, or no one might, but the simple, companionable feeling of occupying a common space started me feeling like I had a home there.
Now, that home’s continued existence is in jeopardy. I won’t mourn the physical building of Bartlett itself, but the building set to replace it, the SCAF, concerns me greatly. As currently planned, the SCAF will offer almost none of the sort of classroom space English majors require. Our needs are modest: a small room with desks ranged round in a circle, so that we might be facing each other and within speaking range. We read, we speak, and we listen. We are hamstrung by large lecture halls with their chairs bolted to the floor.
Since I graduated from UMass with my B.A., I went on to become a veterinarian and now teach biology and animal sciences at a local community college. If my college brought forward a plan eliminating all laboratory space, I would join all my colleagues in righteous outrage. Laboratory space is fundamental to science education. Microscopes, bench-tops, dissection space, Bunsen burners, the litany of things we need to teach science–if our administration bustled in, bagged it all up and told us to figure out some other way, I’d follow them right out the door and off campus to find another job. English majors need their basic supplies too. The technology is simple, and the list modest: something to read, a group of other readers, and a room small enough to hear themselves think.
The request before you is modest in the extreme: reserve at least 6,125 square feet in the proposed SCAF building for that sort of small room. We are a low-tech people, with simple needs. I hope that the school I love and to which I owe so much will deem our small but fervent ranks worthy of this small consideration. Without it, I fear for our survival, and the world needs its English majors.
Sarah (Fahey) Courchesne, DVM
Class of 2002