Letter From the Chair

Gail Houston, Chair of the UNM English DepartmentWelcome to the UNM Department of English Literature and Language webpage. Our mission is to engage in language, writing, research, teaching, and public service that advance understanding of English literature and our expanding heritage of literatures in English.

I believe that the field of English literature and language remains significant both in times of economic hardship and wellbeing because literature and language, writing and critical thinking are crucial not only to identifying our society’s values but also to examining how and why all cultures have ethical, aesthetic, social, spiritual, emotional, and economic value systems. 

We need to read Chaucer, Leslie Silko, Jane Austen, Richard Wright, Salmon Rushdie, Mark Twain, Mary Prince, John Milton, Rudy Anaya, James Joyce, and Charlotte Brontë, Foucault, Kristeva, Derrida, Paolo Friere and Cheryl Glenn to help us understand our world.  As John Ruskin, a sage writer from the Victorian period, suggests, not only are words powerful and beautiful; even the individual letters that form words have their effects. That is why if one is trying to calm a baby, it would be better to use cooing sounds with the comforting letter “l” in them: it’s no wonder the word “lullaby” describes such words. Or if one is trying to arouse the troops, perhaps using words with the stimulating “s” or severe “k” would work best. Being precise in the way we communicate is central to the discipline of English literature and language. It is also important to remember that all the university disciplines are founded upon the precise use of language. As poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning remarks, “How often reason is indebted to poetic imagery.” The hard sciences and social sciences depend upon metaphor (the stuff of fiction and poetry, Shakespeare and Woolf) to describe abstract algorithms and theories. Lawyers must be very meticulous in the way they use grammar and punctuation: indeed, a recent court ruling was based entirely on the meaning of a sentence in a legal brief that was missing a comma. Our words matter—and the teaching, research, and writing done by our faculty and students show just how true is that statement.

Gail Houston
Chair, Department of English